Quick Stop in Asheville

According to Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss, Asheville, North Carolina, is the happiest city in the U.S. Coincidentally, just after reading his book, I read Serena, a fictional tale of a timber empire in the mountains of North Carolina, near Asheville. So, on our recent trip through North Carolina, it seemed logical to stop in Asheville. No matter how brief.

The rain and winter evening skies prevented us from seeing what must be beautiful views of the Great Smoky Mountains on our drive from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Asheville. As we drove, I read about the Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s 8,000-acre estate and tourist attraction located just south of Asheville. With its size and opulence, the Biltmore sounds like a southern version of one of the East Coast’s Newport mansions or the West Coast’s Hearst Castle.

We arrived late in the evening, in time to sleep at a nondescript hotel before catching a glimpse of Asheville on our way out of town the next morning. It was Sunday, our hotel did not provide breakfast, and we were hungry. My son and I checked out Yelp. We chose the restaurant with the highest ratings, the earliest opening, and a few gluten-free options. We were not disappointed.

Sunny Point Cafe is located in West Asheville, just a few miles from downtown. Although we arrived when it opened, at 8:30 a.m., there was already a line out the door. We waited our turn on the protected and heated outdoor patio (it was 20 degrees outside), before being seated at the last inside table. Within minutes, even the tables on the patio were full, and the line stretched around the building outside. This place must be good.

Sunny Point Cafe

Healthy yet trendy with a southern flair, Sunny Point’s menu includes grits and biscuits alongside its tofu or local bacon options. We pondered our choices. Steak and potato hash. Creamy chipotle cheese grits or biscuits.

I chose the breakfast salad, leaves of arugula tossed with honey hemp vinaigrette provided the bed for maple black pepper bacon, a poached egg, warm herb tossed potatoes, and tomatoes.

Breakfast Salad

Other choices included oatmeal or cornmeal hot cakes, huevos rancheros, or omelets. The gluten-free diner? She was happy with her Mighty Good Breakfast (MGB): two free range eggs, local nitrate free sausage, potatoes, and the chipotle grits.

MGB

We all shared a side of the gluten-free organic cornmeal hot cakes.

Corn Hot Cake

Our tummies full, we drove through Asheville slowly, noticing the mountain feel, the lack of chain stores, the small but inviting downtown with plenty of shops to peruse. We read about the seasonal outdoor pursuits, including zip lining and hiking and kayaking, and the Asheville’s proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Appalachian Trail. Asheville looks like our kind of place. We’ll have to make it a destination. And next time, we’ll allow plenty of time to tour the Biltmore.

Ribs, Hushpuppies, and Fried Okra

On our trip down south, we ate a lot of barbecue. After all, that’s what the south is known for, right? We tried the local spot, Smokey’s BBQ, in Madison, Alabama, and the chain restaurant, Sticky Fingers, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Pulled pork, roasted chicken, country style ribs, cole slaw, baked beans, and corn bread. Smoky, sweet, vinegar, and mustardy sauces. Our party tried them all. And except for the corn bread, everything was gluten free.

Sticky Fingers BBQ

Combo Plate: Sticky Fingers Carolina Sweet

But while everyone else ate the ribs and pulled pork, I tried the Brunswick Stew. At Smokey’s, sweet strings of pulled pork competed with potato and peppers in the warm and mildly spicy broth. The stew was not thick but chunky. The meat distinct from the potatoes.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jlai321/3165704954/

Brunswick Stew

I ordered fried okra. Dipped in a batter and deep fried, cooked okra has an unusual texture, somewhat slimy between the crispy fried outer later. Definitely not for all. Because we were there at closing time, our party was served the restaurant’s leftover peach cobbler and corn bread. Both yummy.

I ordered Brunswick Stew again when we dined at Sticky Fingers in Chattanooga. Though the ingredients were similar, the Brunswick stew was thicker, its meat strewn throughout the stew, its pieces less distinct from the other ingredients. We liked the sauces so much at Sticky Fingers, we bought a sampling of their barbecue sauces (the Memphis Original sauce is particularly good). Both restaurants offer stuffed potatoes: a baked potato filled with pulled pork. Huge and satisfying.

Though it’s atmosphere was unassuming (looking more like the inside of the fast food place it is), the food at Smokey’s relies less on its sauces than Sticky Fingers. The pulled pork and the ribs, were flavorful on their own. But don’t get me wrong. I’ll go back to Sticky Fingers next time I’m in town or to one of its other locations (there are Sticky Fingers in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida).

If you’re hankering for hushpuppies or catfish with your barbecue, you might want to check out the Old Greenbriar Restaurant located in Madison, between Decatur and Huntsville, Alabama. Unlike Smokey’s and Sticky Fingers, the Greenbriar Restaurant is rustic and full of local atmosphere.

Trip taken December 2013.

Road Trip with a Dog

Trip after trip and year after year we’ve left one of our family members behind. Her eyes droop and her tail sags when we tell her, “We’ll be back,” as we close the door behind us.

Dog For 8 1/2 years, we’ve left her in someone else’s care when we’ve traveled all over the U.S., to Europe, and to Africa. But last week, she came with us. She never liked the car. As a puppy, we coaxed and pleaded before finally lifting her into the back. Often, she would tremble as we started to drive. So, except for short excursions across town, we left her at home. Then this fall, after turning 8 1/2, she changed. Now she would rather go with me in the car, even when no walk is involved, rather than being left behind. This Christmas, instead of flying to Alabama, we decided to drive, just so we could bring her with us.

The trip was an ambitious one, even for the human passengers, 1100 miles one way; two long days and one overnight. With a box on top of the car and bags tucked around our feet, we found a space for her bed in the back and drove from Boston to Alabama. She never whined or fussed. Here’s how we did it:

Food – we packed food in a plastic container and doled it out each morning and evening, using her water dish as a food dish on the road.

Water – we used a dog water bottle to give her water each time we stopped.

Bathroom – when we had to go, we made sure she did too. Each one of us took turns taking her to the “trees”  to do “her business.” We brought plastic bags to use when necessary.

Canine Rest Area

Overnight – we used a few websites to determine where we could sleep: bringfido.com and tripswithpets.com. We discovered that several hotels are now willing to host pets, as long as their owners are willing to pay. You can pay $10 or $100 extra for Fido’s stay, depending on the type of hotel and the size of your pet. We stayed at three hotels during our 2500 mile trip and never paid more than $10 to legally bring our 65 pound dog into our hotel room.

In the hotel. IMG_1691 Would we do it again? Absolutely. It turns out, our dog is a great traveler in her middle age. There were no accidents. She never whined or cried, and she was excited at each new place we arrived. Should you bring your dog on a long road trip? Only you can decide if it’s the right, smart, or convenient thing to do. Next time, why don’t you ask her?

IMG_2008Trip taken December 2013.