Thursday, October 31, 2013

Playing tourists in Asheville: Part I

October 22, 2013
Asheville, North Carolina
Lake Powhatan Campground


We were looking forward to coming to this area for some time, but had never researched the campground options. Fortunately, I was able to find a National Forest campground with full hook-ups only 15 miles from downtown Asheville. Our back-up plan was to stay at Bear Creek Campground, but we were hoping to go for the less expensive option after our major Jeep repairs in Niagara.  Lake Powhatan Campground operated by the Cradle of Forestry in America Campground Division (CFAIA)was closed during the gov’t. shutdown. When they re-opened they went down to one host and no longer took reservations for the rest of the month they would be open.  I was able, however, to call ahead and find out there were plenty of sites. We were delighted to stay here for the senior pass daily rate of $20. No hook-ups would have saved even more at $11 per night, but the full hook-up sites were paved and much roomier. In addition to the savings, we were excited to get out on some of the trails in this national forest.

As soon as we arrived and got settled, we drove into Asheville to get the lay of the land. I usually research new towns on Trip Advisor to discover the top attractions in the area. We already knew the Biltmore Estate was the top attraction and decided we would dish out the $$$ to see the largest private home in the United States, but that would have to wait until we had a full day to devote to it. I also knew about another museum that I wanted to see last time I was here (in my 20s!).  Asheville is the childhood home of North Carolina author, Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938). The setting of his most well-known novel, his mother’s boarding house, has been preserved as a memorial to him. I read Wolfe’s fictional autobiography, Look Homeward Angel, as an undergraduate and knew his importance as one of the 20th century’s finest American authors. Critics have said, had he lived past his 37 years (he died just shy of three weeks before his 38th birthday), he would have been likely to be ranked as the greatest of his time which is saying a lot since his contemporaries were Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald.

Vic knew of Tom Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff, but not Thomas Wolfe. He likes to learn anything about American history, so I sold the idea of seeing Wolfe’s home as an historical tour. The $5 entry fee was also a selling point.

We first watched a film about Wolfe’s life in the Visitor Center. The film was really helpful in setting the context of the tour of the boarding house and explaining Wolfe’s influence on the town of Asheville. From here we walked over to Old Kentucky Home, the 1895 Victorian style boarding house his mother ran and where Wolfe spent part of his youth. The home is remarkably preserved in spite of a large arson fire that occurred in 1997. Almost all of the furnishings were original making the home quite a relic to the past even if you had never heard of Wolfe himself.

Perhaps the most poignant part of the tour was standing in the room where his brother  Benjamin died. His brother’s death had a profound impact on his life and is a famous scene in Look Homeward Angel.

Wolfe’s novel was not well-received in his home town of Asheville because of its brutally honest portrayal of its thinly disguised characters. The book was even banned in the public library, As a result, Wolfe no longer felt welcome in his hometown—leading him to pen his most famous line: “You can’t go home again.”

In case you are curious about his prose, here is a little taste of his writing style: “The mountains were his masters. They rimmed in life. They were the cup of reality, beyond growth, beyond struggle and death. They were his absolute unity in the midst of eternal change.”--Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel. 

I really enjoyed visiting his home and I think Vic was pleased to learn about this lesser known, but important writer.

wolfe collage

After the Wolfe home, we enjoyed walking around downtown and discovered the Mast General Store. I think I had heard of it before, but what a great place it turned out to be. In addition to all kinds of penny candy, toys, kitchen ware, and mountain food items, the store’s largest inventory was outdoor gear. We enjoyed perusing all the shelves but mostly refrained from any big purchases. 

We headed back to our secluded campground around dusk with plans to head out the next morning to the Biltmore Estate. I had heard that you should allow a whole day to explore the home, the gardens, and the ancillary attractions such as the winery.  Since I have not kept up with our travels too well, I need to do the Biltmore as a separate post--Asheville: Part II. Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A friendly oasis in the middle of the Blue Ridge Parkway

October 19-22, 2013
Galax, Virginia
Deer Creek Motorcoach Resort

Almost two years ago, we met a couple who owned an RV lot in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  We always knew this was an area we wanted to see and they made the area even more attractive to us by talking about how much they loved their place at Deer Creek.  They gave us a brochure and a coupon for three free nights to check it out.  As this was early in our full-timing experience, I had never seen a park so pretty with outdoor kitchens, little cabins, and what they described as a strong sense of community. Checking this place out rose high on my list.  Last year we had intended to come this way but when we were in Knoxville, Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast and dumped plenty of snow in the Smokies and Blue Ridge Mts.  We headed south to Florida a few weeks early and put off the trip to this area.
Fast forward another year and we finally made a plan to come this way. The distance from the Finger Lakes region of New York to Galax, Virginia is about 550 miles miles so we planned an overnight stop at a Walmart in Harrisonburg, Va—over halfway.  (Not much to report about our Walmart stay.)
We called ahead to make reservations at Deer Creek explaining our association with Gordy, a previous owner, and the coupon.  (We actually have several of these coupons as they gave them out at the Tampa RV Show as well—plus they are available on their website.)  I talked on the phone to the owner and developer, Barry, who was incredibly welcoming, so we set up our three-day stay a few days in advance.

Deer Creek opened about five years ago as an owner only property exclusively for Class A and Class C motorcoaches, bus conversions, and vintage buses. Sounds a little exclusive but everyone in the park we met seemed quite down to earth and friendly.

The day we arrived was football Saturday and there were several campground tailgates going on with lots of rooting for Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia college teams. It also happened to be Barry’s wife Laura’s birthday and someone in the park was hosting a big party which Barry encouraged us to attend.  How fun!There were probably about thirty people there with a big spread of southern style food: pulled pork, mac ‘n cheese, baked beans, biscuits, and a potpourri of desserts. For a while, the owner of the lot, John, disappeared to grieve Georgia’s loss to Vanderbilt. Poor guy.
It’s not always easy to feel right at home with such a large group of strangers but this was an exception. The folks here really made an effort to get to know us and engage us in conversation. I hardly even saw Vic the whole evening. As we were leaving, Laura, the birthday girl whispered in my ear that we should join them for after dinner birthday drinks by the fire at another lot near where we were staying.  We did and it was quite pleasant. This owner had a double outdoor gas fireplace so everyone had a place around the fire to stay warm on this clear and chilly night (40s) with a full moon rising. (Did I think to bring a camera or cell phone to take photos?)
We learned more about the resort—there are seventy lots with seven remaining to be sold. Most folks spend May-October there as the elevation is 3000 ft. so it stays relatively cool here all summer. The park is only one mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway near mile marker 213. This development was Barry’s first RV park but he has another one, Bear Creek Motorcoach Resort, about thirty minutes away and is in the process of building a third motorcoach resort near Punta Gorda, Florida which is scheduled to be open in the fall of 2014.  Owners may rent out their lots on their own but not many do as they tend to be here during prime time. In terms of amenities, there is a lovely cabin-style clubhouse with an exercise room, miniature golf, fishing pond, and nine-hole par three golf course.  Socializing seems to be the main activity if our first evening here is any kind of clue.

Day two took us on our first drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had the dogs with us as I learned that they allow them on the trails—unusual for a national park.  Our first stop was at the Blue Ridge Music Center where we were lucky to find live music. The setting just seemed to call for the sound of a fiddle and banjo. This group was part of the center’s Fall Heritage Series: free Sunday afternoon concerts celebrating the music of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

It was cool enough outside to leave the dogs in the Jeep while we checked things out.  First we sat and listened to the music for awhile, then toured the free visitor center and museum display.  What a lovely introduction to the Blue Ridge and its notable musical history.


From here we took a hike with the dogs on one of the trails near the Music Center.  We had hoped for a little more fall color in the leaves, but the setting was still beautiful and the crisp autumn air invigorating. I love the sound of leaves rustling under my feet.

When we returned to the resort, we visited a little more with Barry and Laura and a few others while walking the dogs around the park.  We learned about the New River Trail State Park which you can access in Galax. The park is the longest state park in Virginia with a 57-mile bike trail that follows an old railroad right of way with four different tent camping areas along the way. We made a plan to bike about ten miles of it the following day.

We have not been biking in way too long but this was a perfect way to experience the beauty of the trail.  The day was cool and sunny—the only drawback was the headwind we faced on the return part of the trip.  Here is a little photo sampling of our afternoon on the trail.




Our three days here sped by.  There was much more to explore but forecasts for colder weather keep pulling us southward. We are grateful to our hosts, Barry and Laura, for their genuine hospitality. We actually expected a sales pitch, but if we were in the market for this kind of place, it would honestly sell itself.  Next up: Asheville, North Carolina.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tooling around the Finger Lakes Region

October 16-18
Geneva and Watkins Glen, New York
Harvest Hosts overnight stays

I had visited the Finger Lakes Region of New York many years ago in my early twenties and it always stood out as a breath of fresh air for what I pictured New York to be like. (At the time, I had been living in Montana.)  When we studied the map for our route to Niagara, I noticed that the Finger Lakes area was close enough to include in the itinerary. I had also recently learned that this area is becoming well-known for it numerous wineries along the lake—making it an even more attractive destination.  Before agreeing to go a little further east in our travels, we made sure the weather looked decent.  The forecast was for daytime highs in the 60s or low 70s with nighttime lows in the 40s—but sunny. We were also happy to be traveling close to peak color time for the autumn show, so off we went.


After spending mucho money in Niagara Falls on our Jeep repairs, a campground, and tours, we were excited to find at good potential overnight sites at Harvest Hosts wineries. If you look at a map of this area, most of the wineries, orchards, and farms you can visit are located on the two largest Finger Lakes: Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake.  We decided to focus our time on Seneca at two different Harvest Host wineries on either side of the lake. (For more information about playing tourist in this area check out the 34 wineries of  the Seneca Lake Wine Trail and 12 artisan cheese makers along the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail.)

We pulled into our first Harvest Hosts site, Seneca Shores Winery, about 2:00 p.m. with the intention of wine tasting at our host’s place and a couple other wineries after setting up the motorhome in their parking lot.  It turned out they had had a few days of rain before we arrived and the manager at Seneca Shores advised against parking in their typical Harvest Host site, a grass field with a view of the lake—no argument there!  We parked in a large gravel parking lot near this freshly mowed field. The winery is the blue building in the background and the lake is just to the east.Everyone was quite friendly—even though they were busy with harvesting and the crush.  Too bad I didn’t get any photos of the crush.

The Seneca wines were very affordable, but most were way too sweet for our liking.  We bought a couple bottles of their red blend which were more to our liking than their other offerings. This area is better known for its white grapes so we expected to be a little disappointed in the their red wines.

There were at least ten wineries within five miles from our location. Our first stop was a lovely winery called Anthony Road.  We learned their winemaker was from Germany and that the region is best known for its German style wines: Gewurztraminer and Riesling as the climate is quite similar to Germany. I could tell this winemaker really knew what he was doing as the white wines were only subtly sweet and sophisticated tasting. They also had rose wines and reds, but not much was to our liking as they were either very dry or slightly sweet.  We also ended up liking their inexpensive red table wine called Devonian Red the best.
We especially loved these two Alaska Weeping Cedar trees that adorn the entrance to the Anthony Road tasting room.

anthony roads

Next up was our favorite winery in terms of a fun host and lively atmosphere: Fox Run.  Their seemed to know what they were doing with their red wines. This time we branched out and bought a Cab Franc Lemberger blend.

I forgot to take a photo; this one is from their website. The tasting room and wine making facility was converted from a dairy barn in 1993.

From here we decided to drive into the charming town of Geneva on the northwest side of Seneca Lake.  We did a little grocery shopping at Wegman’s—a store reminiscent of Safeway in the NW or Publix in Florida.  I don’t know the history of the name Geneva but the town did remind me of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. (I have not been to original Geneva in Switzerland.) There were large gracious summer homes along the lake shore and the town is home to a well-known private college: Hobart and William Smith.  By this time we were needing a bite to eat so we asked around and discovered the delightful Uncle Joe’s Italian Eatery housed in a turn of the century home. It was a great way to end our night and begin our introduction to this special area of the country.

Day two in the Finger Lakes, we traveled less than one hour to reach our new destination on the southeast side of Seneca Lake and Chateau Lafayette Reneau winery.  Actually, on our way to our next destination we found a place to park the motorhome and Jeep in tow in the town of Watkins Glen. Our intention was to hike to the falls at  Watkins Glen State Park, but discovered they did not allow dogs.  Our second choice was to do our own urban trail and discover the town and lakeshore with  the dogs on our own. Spending a few hours walking around a town really gives you a flavor of the local color and this experience was no exception.

One of our first discoveries was that Watkins Glen is famous for car racing. They have a track that is now on the Nascar circuit, but the area has a colorful history of being the location of the first Grand Prix in 1948. Consequently, the town has numerous references to this aspect of its fame with murals, souvenir stores, and even actual race cars on display



The north end of town at the south end of the lake turned out to be the best part of our adventure. We walked with the dogs out on a pier and just sat on a bench there for quite a while enjoying a gorgeous fall day and a peaceful view of the lake.

watkings glen marina

watkins glen marina2

After visiting this lovely town, we headed back to the motorhome and drove about 20 minutes to our next Harvest Host site at Chateau Lafayette Reneau. Their parking situation was great and the winery quite lovely with a deck overlooking the lake that had great potential for sunset viewing.  After setting up here, we made a half hour trip into the largest city on the Finger Lakes: Ithaca, also home of Cornell University.  I wanted Vic to see the town, plus, slightly more importantly, I wanted to take my broken Nikon PS510 to Best Buy as it was not working correctly since the Niagara Falls moisture dampened its inner workings.  I bought an extended contract on the camera, something I rarely do, because I use it on the kayak all the time and it covers water damage.  They decided it had to be sent off for possible repair, but fortunately they were willing to send it to Florida when it is ready in a few weeks.

We drove around the hill where Cornell University is located and had a tasty lunch in a local deli taking in a little bit of the college scene before heading back to do a little more wine tasting on the way. But wait! I saw large signs that seduced us into pulling into the Finger Lakes Distillery.  I didn’t expect to see a distillery in the area although they are getting more popular even in places like Napa. This distillery is probably best known for its vodka made from grapes, but more importantly they also made award winning gin and three types of whiskey: rye, Irish, and bourbon. Let’s just say it was our favorite tasting in the area.

By now we were getting a little weary but I wanted to check out a winery right next to where we were staying that was highly rated by Wine Spectator and other critics: Atwater Estate Vineyards. This tasting room was also an old barn converted into a tasting room. We enjoyed the wine, the knowledgeable staff, and the charming ambiance here. Their reds were the best we tasted in the region, especially their Cab Franc and Syrah.


Chateau Lafayette Reneau, our Harvest Hosts site, was just next door to Atwater’s—good thing after that distillery stop.  We managed to get to their tasting room with just enough time to sample a few and call it a day. Their place is lovely with an amazing view, but their wines seemed to pale in comparison to the previous stop.  Fortunately, Vic liked their Pinot Gris and their Christmas special, a Wassail blend.  Even though the Harvest Hosts dry camping is advertised as “free,” we always make an effort to show our appreciation by making a purchase of something from our hosts.

Sunset looked to be promising, but as dusk arrived the sun disappeared completely behind the cloud cover. We still enjoyed this expansive view of the lake and the pastoral autumn setting.

chateau benoit winery parking space

Our stay on Seneca Lake offered a good two day respite after our trek across the whole country. With the weather forecasts calling for chillier temperatures all along the East Coast, we are feeling pressed to be moving south. If we were here a few weeks earlier, this would be a place we could easily hang out  for a couple weeks. Next destination: Galax, Virginia near the North Carolina border and the Blue Ridge Parkway.