Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dispatches from the Blue Ridge: Part VI

Looking back on our recent trip to North Carolina, I want to supplement some of the things I already wrote about it.

In my January 6th post, I casually mentioned that downtown West Jefferson “serves up good views of Mount Jefferson and Paddy Mountain” -- and left it at that. I have since learned that sheltered spaces on Mount Jefferson’s rocky upper reaches are believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, that series of secret hide-outs used by escaped slaves fleeing to the North in the 1800’s. Though the mountain’s connection to that part of American history can not be proved definitively, it certainly should be mentioned.

And since I just brought up West Jefferson, I want to say that the town is home to a well-regarded cheese factory that has a shop on East Main Street. We did not visit the factory or the shop during our visit, but will put it in on our to-do list for next time. We will also return to the place below, which I already wrote about:

I feel compelled to rebut some of the criticisms I read on tripadvisor about Hawksnest, the place we went snow tubing on January 7th. Most of the comments suggested that Hawksnest is unsafe or that its employees are inattentive, but based on my experiences, I think it’s safe to say those criticisms probably come from the kind of people who complain about everything.

Regarding danger, a certain amount of it is inherent to tubing. Regarding employees, Hawksnest has very attentive personnel stationed at the top and bottom of their hills. I saw them shepherd youngsters away from the hill-bottom “danger zones,” and I saw them counsel people on when and how to brake, and I heard them give useful advice about the hardest-to-access lanes.

It’s not like I am a national expert on tubing, but I have done it in Tahoe as well as here, and I have also skied, so I think my opinion is well-founded when I tell you that I felt safer at Hawksnest than I have at any other place where you pay to engage in wintry pursuits. And by the way, here is a picture we purchased the day we were there, of Sarah and me on one of their hills:

Because my January 7th post mentioned our visit to The Banner Elk Winery but said very little about their wine, I want to revisit the topic. Being a bit of a wine lover, I think it’s important to let it be known that Banner Elk, unlike many Southern vintners, does not churn out insipid crap made from easily grown muscadine grapes. Instead, they use traditional French grapes along with some French-American hybrids.

Banner Elk’s Chardonnay has an especially buttery taste and their Cabernet Sauvignon is extremely well-balanced, subordinating its tannins to its fruit flavors without sacrificing that full-bodied feel that is essential to a Cab. Meanwhile, the blends I mentioned in my earlier post are easy-drinkers that, simply by being blends, are reminiscent of the Old World’s winemaking styles. Here we are in Banner Elk’s tasting room:

I spent the entire fourth post in this series raving about Doc’s Rocks in Blowing Rock. I said that our mining turned up a garnet and sapphire which we were having cut, and that I would post before-and-after photos after we received the finished product. Here they are, though unfortunately, the colors are nowhere near as vivid in the photos as they are in real life:

I want to let you know that in addition to running his storefront business, Doc offers field trips on which he takes you to some of his favorite spots in the mountains and shows you how to search for gems in the wild. And if you find rose quartz at his establishment and pay him to facet and set it, he donates the revenue to various breast cancer causes. This is one merchant who absolutely earns his money.

Lastly, a correction. On January 6th I described the New River as emptying into the Monongahela. Let this be a lesson to not assume that your memories of something you read one time in middle school are accurate a quarter-century later. It turns out that the New River converges with the Gauley to create the Kanawha River, which then empties directly into the Ohio, not the Monongahela. But either way, water that flows through the New River in North Carolina winds up coursing some 2,000 counter-clockwise miles and flowing into the Gulf of Mexico through Louisiana. And that is friggin’ cool.

I will end this series with a collage of Sarah enjoying what she called her "snow restaurant" -- which in reality was a bowl of fresh snow with fruit on top.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Dispatches from the Blue Ridge: Part V

When I began my series of posts about our trip to North Carolina, I wrote that the house we rented was so good I would eventually devote a post specifically to it. Well, here it is.

When you go on vacation, you almost always get a better deal renting a house than staying in a hotel. There are the obvious benefits of having much more space, much more privacy, etc. As I have written previously, with a washer and dryer at your disposal you can pack fewer clothes, and with a kitchen at your disposal you can buy groceries and prepare some of your own meals, which is more economical than eating every meal out. And the rental rates tend to be stunningly competitive (more on that later).

Simply put, renting a house gets you a better place to stay and saves money in the process. However, the place we just rented takes it to a whole other level. Dubbed Appalachian Retreat by its owners, Dennis and Debbie O’Neal, it was completed less than two years ago and is immaculate in every way. Though I previously called it “a ridgeline cabin,” I am dropping the word “cabin” because it implies a lack of creature comforts that you just won’t find here.

Appalachian Retreat is a three-level home with every level having its own bedroom, bathroom, and sitting area. The first and second levels each have a gas fireplace and outside deck. The sitting area on the first level includes a foosball table; the one on the second would be considered the home’s great room; and the one on the third is a loft with a tasteful game table. Here is a view looking down from that loft:

The second-level fireplace is two-sided, so you can view its flames from out on the deck as well as from inside. And I know its flames are not merely cosmetic, because we felt its warmth standing outside even when the temperature was in the teens. Here I am reposing on the deck one morning:

I can not begin to tell you how wonderfully appointed the house is. The furniture and appliances are all top-of-the-line and full of character, from the kitchen’s granite counter tops to the lower level’s hardwood floors, which are fashioned from wood salvaged from an old tobacco barn. In a major plus for me, there are none of the cheesy decorations that often afflict vacation rentals (you know what I mean, the kind of decorations which assume that because a house is in the mountains, every square foot must be festooned with images of bears).

And speaking of those stunningly competitive prices I mentioned earlier, as of the day I am writing this, the nightly rate for this entire house is $130, while the nightly rates for a lone room at the nearest LaQuinta Inn range from $79 to $129.

More impressively, the weekly rate for Appalachian Retreat is only $775, and if you go with friends and split the cost like we did, you will start salivating over how much you get for your dollar. If you and another family go for a week and divide it in half, you will pay less than $56 per night. If you and two other families go and divide the price evenly, you will pay less than $37 per night and each family will have a whole floor. (Keep in mind that all of these rates are for non-holidays.)

If you read my previous posts about our vacation, I shouldn’t need to sell you on Appalachian Retreat’s location. It is on a ridgeline in one of the most beautiful parts of the country, close to many handsome towns, and we saw deer in the yard almost every day. However, because my posts were all about winter activities, I feel compelled to mention how wonderful the Blue Ridge Mountains are during other seasons.

Fall foliage brings a riot of fiery colors from mid-October to mid-November, and because most of the trees surrounding the house are hardwoods, I am sure the view from its deck will be postcard worthy if you come at that time.

When the days turn warm in spring and summer, wildflowers bring their own changing hues and the streams and waterfalls run full. Whitewater rafting is exciting on the Watauga and Nolichucky Rivers, and the summit of Grandfather Mountain -- highest in all the Blue Ridge, featuring this mile-high swinging bridge -- is reliably accessible.

You can not go wrong renting from the O'Neals. They are nice, and easy to work with, and their house is splendid. Go here to visit their web site, where you can check current rates and inquire about reservations.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dispatches from the Blue Ridge: Part IV

For as long as I can remember, I have scoffed at people who spend any of their vacation time (and money) at roadside "gem mines." While I still can't shake the feeling that many of those places are tourist trap ripoffs, over the last few days I learned that at least one of them is an authentic mining and educational experience.

During our trip to North Carolina we stopped at Doc's Rocks, which is located beside Highway 321 in Blowing Rock. We thought we would be there for about 30 minutes, but instead we were there for two hours and were fascinated the whole time. I didn't catch Doc's name, but I did learn that he is a former military M.D. who has been "a rock head" since the age of six. Eventually he decided to turn his passion into his profession, and he has owned Doc's Rocks for three years now.

For $10 per shovelful, you get ore that has been taken from a handful of mines throughout the state, then you go to a flume and use a garden trowel to scoop it into one of those mining baskets you might remember prospectors using in old Western movies. The ore looks like ordinary black dirt, but when you shake the basket in the flume, the dirt sifts away and leaves you with rocks from which to choose.

Some of the gems (emeralds, for example) are obvious right away, while others look like the kind of everyday rocks you walk past all the time. After selecting whichever ones you think might be more than just rocks, an employee sorts through the remainder to make sure you're not discarding anything valuable. When your mining is done, you sit down with Doc and your education commences.

He goes through your selections and pulls out the worthless ones, putting them in a bag so you can use them for aquarium decorations or give them to your kids or whatever. Then he puts the ones that are worth money onto a sheet of paper that identifies various types of gems, and he proceeds to tell you all about them.

Every bit of information Doc shared with us was intriguing. I learned that diamonds and clear quartz look so alike that most jewelers can't tell them apart. And I learned that amethyst is quartz that gets a purplish hue from its high iron content. And I learned that North Carolina has two volcanoes that are still considered active. The only downside to our experience is that the information was so plentiful I am having a hard time remembering more than a few bits of it.

In any event, after the education is complete Doc will cut any of the stones for you, at prices ranging from $20 to $35 depending on the stone. Then you can choose how to use the finished product. The odds of striking it rich with $10 of ore are long, but the odds of getting more than you paid for are high. We had something that to my untrained eye appeared to be nothing more than a somewhat smooth rock, yet it proved to be a star ruby that cut to 14 carats and appraised at more than $600. Not long ago, a child customer at Doc's Rocks wound up with something that he sold for $113,000.

We went there on Friday and got 49 "worth something" stones from a single shovelful. We chose to have three of them cut (the star ruby, plus an emerald and a tourmaline) and when we returned to pick up the cut stones on Saturday, we mined two more shovelfuls and ended up with an additional 57 "worth something" stones.

From that second batch, we chose to have one garnet and one sapphire cut. Those are being shipped to us and I will post before-and-after photos when they arrive, but in the meantime, below is a picture of the cut tourmaline from our first visit. Erika will probably use it as a setting for a necklace.

With five "worth something" stones cut, we put the other 101 into a bin. They may not be worth much, but they are worth something, and already our two visits to Doc's Rocks have more than paid for themselves. Maybe we will have him cut some of the other 101 at a later date, but whether we do or not, we are sure to visit Doc's Rocks the next time we are in the area. You should do the same.

One final thing I want to mention is that the flume has heated water and is located inside. That won't matter if you visit in June, but it will if you visit in the winter and the temperature is what my car's on-board temperature gauge said it was when we parked there on Friday:

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dispatches from the Blue Ridge: Part III

Today's theme was slidin' and imbibin', with more of the former than the latter.

After breakfast we headed to Hawksnest Resort and logged a couple hours of snow tubing. With 20 lanes ranging from 400 to 1,000 feet long, Hawksnest is the East's largest tubing park -- and at $22 per person you can't complain about their price, especially when you compare it to the price of a ski resort lift ticket. If you haven't been tubing before, you should give it a try. You basically sit in an inner tube and slide down a groomed lane of snow, with no talent required.

Then we headed to Banner Elk, the only one of "The Three B's" towns we had not yet visited on this trip. We drove through town and made our way to The Banner Elk Winery, where for $15 each we got to taste eight of their wines and keep the glasses. We found all of Banner Elk's wines to be good, but especially the Banner Elk White and Banner Elk Red, each of which is a simple table wine made from a blend of grapes.

Located at 4,200 feet elevation, Banner Elk is the highest winery in Eastern America -- and one of its vineyards is located at 4,900 feet, making it the highest vineyard in Eastern America. If wine is your thing, you will be interested to know that an eight-room bed and breakfast is located on site. Here is a picture I took from the winery's front porch:

It didn't snow during the day, but flakes started falling as I was unloading the car after we returned to the cabin. Right now it is 26 degrees and they are continuing to fall.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dispatches from the Blue Ridge: Part II

Yesterday we were back in Blowing Rock and Boone, enjoying appetizers and beer at The Six Pence Pub and Macado's. The former's atmosphere is more refined and the latter's more relaxed. The quality is good at both places and neither is over-priced; however, because their prices match their atmospheres, Macado's packs more bang for your buck.

In between the two towns we drove up to the lodge at Appalachian Ski Mountain (pictured below) where it was 11 degrees and howling winds were blowing snow all over the place. At Sarah's request I took her to the bathroom, where AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds" was playing on the speakers. After bopping her head to the beat for a few seconds, she told me: "They should sing a song about frostbite."

The cabin in which we're staying is just on the Ashe County side of the line dividing Ashe and Watauga counties, and today we opted to stay in Ashe. The northwesternmost county in North Carolina, it is bordered by Virginia to the north and Tennessee to the west, and is home to more than 700 family-owned Christmas tree farms. It is an impressive fact that Christmas trees from Ashe County have been placed in the White House seven times in the last 25 years. Here is Sarah at Smith's Choose & Cut Farm:

We spent much of the afternoon in downtown West Jefferson. Though it is not as picturesque as the downtowns of Boone and Blowing Rock, its shops and eateries are comparable and it serves up good views of Mount Jefferson and Paddy Mountain. You would be using your tourist dollars well to spend them here.

We were especially pleased with Bohemia Coffee Shop. I thought their sugar free vanilla coffee was superb, Erika raved about their mocha latte, and Sarah almost finished an entire cup of hot chocolate for the first time ever. Bohemia offers free tastings of wines made by local vintners, and the the amount they pour is considerable. I liked the New River Fiddler Red so much I purchased a bottle to take home.

Speaking of New River, it is far more than the name of this winery. The New River is a long waterway that, despite its name, is said to be the oldest in North America. It starts in North Carolina and flows northward to West Virginia, where it tumbles through a steep gorge and empties into the Monongahela River (which flows on to Pennsylvania and is one of the "three rivers" made famous by Pittsburgh). Both the North Fork and South Fork of the New River can be found in Ashe County, where their surprisingly calm waters make for excellent canoeing. Here is a picture of the South Fork just a few miles from the cabin:

It stopped snowing this afternoon but is supposed to start again sometime tomorrow, and the temperatures are in the teens as I type this. Soon enough, I will write some more.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Dispatches from the Blue Ridge: Part I

We are in northwestern North Carolina, close to the mountain towns I have always called "The Three B's": Boone, Blowing Rock, and Banner Elk. We are staying in a ridgeline cabin that is so good I will devote a post specifically to it once our trip is done.

There has been snow on the ground in these parts for more than two weeks, and in the three days since we arrived temperatures have not made it above freezing. Such conditions may not sound appealing to Northerners, but they do to Floridian children...and even if the parents of those children aren't cold-lovers like me, they will find the wintry landscape beautiful and enjoy playing in the white stuff with their kids.

Boone, home to Appalachian State University, is the U.S.A.'s highest town east of the Mississippi River with a population of more than 10,000. Yesterday we poked around a number of shops in its town center, including Mast General Store (which is the ultimate general store) and Footsloggers (which has high quality outdoor gear). Then we dined at a sandwich restaurant called Our Daily Bread, where I enjoyed the Gouda Heavens and every person in our party raved about the food. The kids kept wanting to stray from the sidewalks to step in the snow.

Today we drove to Blowing Rock, which is about 7 miles on the other side of Boone and has an even more immaculate downtown. Snow started falling on the drive over and was soon showering down, although the flakes were small and weren't always visible in pictures. I photographed a downtown park that looked peaceful but felt piercingly cold when the wind swept across. Needless to say, the hot chocolate across the street at Kilwin's hit the spot!

By the time we made it back to Boone for a 5:00 dinner at the Dan'l Boone Inn, the snowflakes were big and they were falling fast and often horizontal. We watched them come down while eating at a round table by a window, and snowplows were on the roads before we left.

The Dan'l Boone features family style eating that Erika aptly described as "a buffet but they bring it to you." It is not cheap in the way McDonald's is cheap -- but it is not expensive, and they charge different prices for kids and adults, and you will definitely get more than your money's worth. It is down-home-like-grandma-cooked-it and the mashed potatoes will make you drool thinking about them. Here is one of the Dan'l Boone's window boxes:

We've been back at the cabin for hours. It is 15 degrees right now and continuing to snow. I just came in from the back deck, where the porch lights illuminated white flakes falling through the clouds of my breath. I can not wait to play with Sarah tomorrow.