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I have a game at 8:30PM tonight in Cary – or else you can bet I’d still be here tasting, exploring, and even getting to hike through this great area!  Today’s goal was originally to hit less breweries and instead conquer some food and tourist places, but it of course ended up being…DO THEM ALL.

I woke up quite early and headed back into downtown Asheville.  The parking meters were outrageously high (in my opinion), especially when I parked and realized that my FourSquare resource was incorrect about when breakfast was opening where I wanted to go!  I sort of paused for a moment on the quiet streets – dead for even a Saturday morning – and walked around a bit to photograph a few things.  Finally, I hopped in the car and decided to drive early to the Biltmore Estate.  I bought outrageously priced tickets because I was told it’s worth it…and I made my way to the entrance over an hour before my tour time.

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I was told I could get in by maybe 8:30am, but I literally pulled up to the ticket booth as the properties opened.  I followed the cars on a long and windy road to a parking lot where I got out and took the first shuttle of the morning to the Estate.  It’s only a five to eight minute walk, but I decided to save the time and walk once I got there.  The driver reminded us that we had to wait for our tour time.  When we arrived to the front of the country’s largest privately owned mansion, I immediately got out, turned left, and started wandering through every Italian, Walled, Azalea, whatever — garden that I could find.  There was a gardener out blowing some kind of machine all around the entire time I wandered.  Finally, I was nearing my tour time.  I climbed the hillside overlooking the house and took a shot of the Venus statue before speed-walking back to the front of the mansion.

I entered along with a large swarm of people.  The line snaked forever through the building.  Most people had paid extra for an audio guide, but I saw no reason to.  I grabbed a free pamphlet, pocketed my phone (you can’t use phones or take photos inside), and began exploring the Christmas-decked rooms.  I started on the first floor and passed through several rooms demonstrating the height of vaulted ceilings, the antiquity of the clothing worn when the rooms were active, and the restoration processes used in refurbishing the details.  One dining room in particular had a tree that had to have been a good thirty feet high and decorated with actual boxes as present ornaments.  The whole time, I kept imagining that people were at my house for a party and that the little fake platters of food on silver dishes were actually the hors d’oeuvres being set out by my butlers and house keepers…

There was a photographer set out to take shots of people in front of one of the foyers – as if it really were a Disney attraction.  I ducked by and instead found myself lost in another Victorian room, amazed by how each room had at least a small – if not enormous – Christmas tree decorated completely in the theme of the room.  A lady’s chamber in baby blue and lace, a hunting prize room with pheasant feathers,… I passed through a corridor from an enormous, antique library with a rolling step-ladder and finally made it up to the second floor and found myself lost in the never-ending guest rooms.  Each room was as elaborate as the last and often accompanied by clothing set out to demonstrate the era.  I took every opportunity I could to look out the window at the fantastic mountains on the horizon – much like my view from my own home.

The next floor up was closed and I was instead directed towards the basement.  I thought, basement?  What could be down here?  I saw servant’s bedrooms and a cute, old-fashioned kitchen…but what more?  My basement is also a garage, loading station, laundry room, and entertainment area… and sure enough, I passed some showers on the way to a bowling alley with two lanes.  Turning so many corners, I became thankful for the ropes that forced you to follow a certain direction.  I was also touring the way I drive in traffic – just looking for the faster way out.  When I can’t take pictures, I find myself taking things in very quickly and, quite honestly, it was all the same.  But it was still great.  Especially when I reached the indoor pool, which explained the numerous showers and changing rooms full with 120-year-old outfits.  Yes, this was an antique, indoor, domestic pool.  Wow.

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When I finally made it upstairs and back out of the building, I was told that the free wine tour in Antler Village wouldn’t open for over an hour.  Given my tight schedule, this was a little tricky.  I had to pass Antler Village on the way out after taking the shuttle to my car, but it was still way too early and I preferred seeing more restaurants than tasting the wine – even if it was included in my ticket.  Let them make money on it, I figured.  I’ll just come back another time – or maybe later if I have the time.  But, of course I didn’t.  And I’m okay with that.  There’s always next time.

I made my way back to Asheville’s downtown area and found several streets shut off.  I found a lot that takes cards and paid for an all-day $5 pass.  I wandered quickly up the streets to where I was this morning and found people lining the sidewalks, presumably for a parade of some kind.  I raced to the Early Girl Eatery on Wall Street, only to be put on a waiting list of 30 to 45 minutes.  Drats!, I thought.  But I kept wandering, taking photos, and then eventually stumbled on another place where I wanted to eat.  Dare I try?  I walked in and, to my luck, was sat immediately at the counter.  Traveling alone pays off!

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Here I was at the Tupelo Honey Cafe, sitting at the counter under Edison bulb lights on cords and watching the waiters anxiously grab plates off of the shelves beside me.  I checked FourSquare and the speed of the cooks (I had about 30 minutes to get out!) before deciding on the famous pancake and a side of salsa verde black-eyed peas.  Of course, the food came with an amazing hot biscuit, Tupelo honey, and delicious blueberry jam – as if they knew, because I don’t like jam but I love blueberries and it was sooo good!  I pressured them to move quickly and they were like lightning, delivering my food and my check with perfect timing.  I ended up boxing most of my pancake, but I still made it to my next destination with two minutes to spare!

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I felt kind of crazy, eating back-to-back meals – but I later thanked myself for boxed food while driving on the road to Cary.  When I got to the Early Girl Eatery, the parade was just starting and I had a window seat.  I anxiously ordered a coffee – then went on a limb with my non-vegetarian weekend streak and ordered the trout with stone-ground grits, beets, and a biscuit.  I saved the biscuit for later and ate trout for the first time in as long as I could remember.  The bones were tricky to deal with, but I waved it off as my amateur fish-eating skills.  The joint itself was incredible: it supported local foods and even the shirts said “Put your money where your mouth is” – how true can you get??  I bought a shirt before I left.  Yes, I spent almost $50 at this place – but I think it was a worthwhile investment.  The chalkboard on the way out even listed its fellow locavore endeavors.  What screams “I’m in it for the cause!” more than something like that?

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After I left the Eatery, I wandered past the giant iron on Wall Street and ventured into a Himalaya shop on the corner.  I bought some earrings from a kind foreign lady and took a picture for two girls hanging on the iron before passing a five-person street band that could easily be the next Mumford & Sons.  These warm, friendly, down-to-earth sentiments only grew as I continued back onto the parade street and found people dressed up to support their groups marching.  I dodged a drinking crowd (before noon!) by slipping into Jack of the Wood for a quick sip of something local – the Green Man Porter.  It was a friend’s recommendation to check it out, and I admired the vines and wooden branches decorating the bar beside the woods-painted back walls.IMG_1031 IMG_1062

I crossed the street quickly after having my drink and wandered downhill a bit to the Asheville Brewing Company.  This was a favorite of some friends, so I bravely took a seat beside a man and a woman at the bar and ordered the Fire House IPA – a jalapeño beer. Boy, do I like jalapeño beers.  I sipped for a long time on my choice until, as it wound down to the bottom, the girl beside me left her seat for a moment and the guy addressed me.  Before I knew it, I became Facebook friends with the girl beside me.  These two moved to Greenville, South Carolina from not far in my part of Pennsylvania. Amanda and Anthony offered for me to come to a Steelers game later in the season after long talks about the world and what each of us do.  You never know what you’ll find when you throw yourself out there and just start talking.  I wanted to keep touring with them, but I had a mission to finish and they were drinking to walk – not drive.  We parted ways and I headed towards my next stop in the River Arts District of town.  On the way out, I flagged down some people arriving from Tennessee and gave them my parking slip for the rest of the day.  I mean, it was only $5, but why not?

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Wedge Brewing was harder to find than I was expecting.  It was in an old warehouse near a bridge on the river, and I kept walking into galleries instead of the actual bar.  It took me walking through a leafless garden staircase decorated with metal art before I could find a door.  On the inside, I asked for a sampler but was told all of the boards were out.  Instead, I tasted the Community Porter, Iron Rail IPA, and Scottish Ale.  I wanted to keep going down the list, but I felt like the bartender was disapproving.  Instead, I settled on the Scottish Ale – her recommendation – for a half glass.  I sat out on the windy, cool river front, shelling free peanuts from a bowl into a bucket and listening to a boom box strapped to the back of some cyclists.  There were so many people out in the cold air drinking, shelling, and some even playing cornhole.  I was expecting something fancy but it was such a simple, comfortable place that I was pleasantly surprised.

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Everyone had been pressuring me to make a nearby stop, so I decided to close my tab early and wander up the street to the White Duck Taco Shop.  I was willing to go for a Bangkok Shrimp, but the menu didn’t offer it.  Instead, I settled for what I would normally pick: Banh Mi Tofu.  I contemplated getting the Black Bean or even the Duck Mole, but I was too full – and as a vegetarian, not only ordering duck would have felt weird, but I was staring at a giant duck painting and decided there was no way I could as for the Duck Mole taco.  I took my food to go and impressed the kitchen that I could walk away with just one.  Little did they know it was only 3PM and I had already had three meals and a few beers!

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The time wasn’t appropriate for me to make warm-ups before my hockey game in Cary and to also swing by Antler Village for a hefty wine tasting.  Instead, I treated myself to one last stop: the Green Man Brewery.  I settled for a glass of the House ESB, having just downed my taco.  I stood in the peculiar garage atmosphere, surrounded by bumper stickers, brewing vats, and shady side doors.  When my brew was done and I felt ready to leave, I got up from my…standing seat…and wandered out the door.  Sadly, I climbed into my car and made my way out of Asheville.  On I-40, I drove east towards Raleigh and, ultimately, Cary, sadly leaving behind my mountains and my list of other places to explore.  But, I have to say,…what a great town!  Okay, “hipster”, yes, but I’m pretty sure that’s why I’m in love with it.  Out of all of the “cities” there are out there, Asheville is one that feels the most like home!

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