You have all the time in the world in North Carolina
Slow and simple America – it's a movement that has been taken to heart in these laid-back Appalachian mountain towns, discovers Robert Nurden
Sunday 13 April 2008
At the Tupelo Honey café in Asheville they were actually playing the Van Morrison track of the same name. It went so well with the laid-back mood of the place that we asked if we could hear it again. Sharon, the proprietor of this traditional southern eaterie, obliged and re-ran the CD.
It seemed that she, like everyone in these parts, had all the time in the world, which is not something you associate with the way America behaves at 9.30am. We downed our third mug of coffee, and demolished our plate of grit cakes and sweet potato pancakes before stepping outside for a tour of this North Carolina mountain city.
Tiny Asheville, which was once sanatorium central for thousands of tuberculosis sufferers, has been given a new lease of life. It's in the vanguard of a movement that is drawing growing numbers of the urban masses towards these blue misty hills in the quest for the simple life. Some call it multi-generational travel, in which children, parents and grandparents pile into the 4x4 on a Thursday evening for a back-to-nature weekend.
"They walk and they talk, hike, go whitewater rafting, visit farms to learn how fruit and vegetables grow, and eat home-produced food," said Angela Norris of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A flamboyant form of Art Deco architecture provides a colourful backdrop to Asheville, where music and antique shops abound and locals shop at farmers' markets. Above the city lies the Grove Park Inn, whose dark façade looks down forbiddingly. Inside, photographs line the walls, testimony to the celebrities – F Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Edison, Bela Bartok, Franklin D Roosevelt, and Dwight D Eisenhower – who have wound down within its palatial walls. It's more a case of who hasn't stayed there.
But it was time to use our hire car and head for the country. First stop, Chimney Rock, one of the most filmed locations in the US, where a lift whisked us 315ft up through a pinnacle of granite to the viewpoint on top. Lake Lure sparkled in the weak sun, with the rocky outcrops of the Appalachians all around.
More music wafted towards us, not that of Van Morrison this time but a live performance on the hammered dulcimer by one John A Mason. "I toured your ol' country nigh on three times," he said in a North Carolina drawl that dragged out the vowels. "I played bluegrass in the clubs of York-shiaarr, but I always come back to the dulcimer."
We moved on to Biltmore House. With its 250 rooms (35 bedrooms and 65 fireplaces) this is the largest private residence in the country. It was built in 1889 in magnificent Loire château-style by George Vanderbilt, the railroad magnate, so that his ailing mother could benefit from the invigorating climate. After a tour of the house and winery, we checked into the opulent Inn at Biltmore and dined on Carolina crab bisque and filet mignon.
But the Biltmore is not what this region – once one of the poorest in the US – is about. The next day, feeling slightly ashamed of our overindulgence, we drove up on to the Blue Ridge Parkway, the 469-mile scenic road that clings to the top of the Appalachian range. With its meandering route and 45mph speed limit, it was the ultimate in relaxed driving.
We stopped the car and followed in Bill Bryson's footsteps along the Appalachian Trail, said to be the world's longest continuous hiking path, at 2,174 miles. We were both thrilled and petrified by the thought of meeting a black bear, of which apparently there are many.
Our own slow American adventure was proceeding well: we'd hopped on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and looked down into the gorge as the Nantahala River rushed past. We'd gone watery-eyed as we listened to haunting bluegrass ballads in a backstreet bar. We'd enjoyed marvellous comfort at country B&Bs, which are leading the way in slow food, all pumpkins and green tomatoes.
But it was too good to be true. Our last evening, hungry and lost, we found a restaurant called Ryan's. For $8.95 we could eat as much as we wanted. Those already inside, judging by their girths, had taken this literally. Here was America at the food trough. This was what the slow and simple America movement was up against.
Our mood lifted in the most unlikely of settings: Charlotte airport. A pianist had been hired to soothe the jangled nerves of travellers. And passengers were sitting on a long row of rocking chairs. We found two spare places, took out our books, and rocked back and forward: very slowly, of course.
How to get there
Robert Nurden travelled with Trailfinders (0845 058 5858; www.trailfinders.com), which offers fares from £430 from Gatwick to Charlotte, including car hire.
Where to stay
The Inn at Biltmore (001 828 225 1660; www.biltmore.com; doubles from $259 (£130).
North Carolina tourism (020-7367 0921; www.northcarolinatravel.co.uk).
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