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An Impromptu Fall Road Trip

Sometimes you just need to pack up and go. No plans, no reservations, just pure spontaneity.

Nothing can make this happen faster than having plans to go somewhere else that fall through at the last minute.

That's what happened to us in October. We had planned a trip down to Abaco to soak in the last of the sun's rays before the chill season set in. Unfortunately, the day before our trip, we realized the weather down there was going to be crap. Rain, storms, rain, more storms, and then some rain.

After being stuck inside for 3 days thanks to Tropical Storm Arthur in July....I said "no thank you" to this repeat possibility.

Sure, we could have just cancelled and gone to work instead. But why the hell would we do that????? We had a few days off. I had to go somewhere.

It was a little past peak color season, but we decided to pack up the pooches and head to the mountains of NC. It's quick, it's easy, and I scored an amazing last minute deal on an absolute PALACE of a house.

First order of business is to introduce you to the newest member of the family. In order to do that, we must say goodbye to my absolute sweetheart, the best dog in the whole wide world, my favorite travel buddy Zoey who we lost in September.

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When we found out she was sick, we worried about Bella, so we got her a friend to help her transition. Best. Decision. Ever. This little bundle of sunshine saved us all. Say "hello" to Rooby:

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She's Shihtzu and Yorkie. I call that a shittie.

So, with no plans at all, we packed up Bella and her puppy. We were off to the mountains!!!!

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On the way, we stopped at the best hole-in-the-wall pizza place I have discovered to date. Hidden in the middle-of-nowhere, Smoky Mountain Bakers makes some of the most amazing artisanal pizzas and breads in their wood fired oven. And they do it all in what is a glorified garden shed.

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Bellies full of dough and cheese, we headed up winding mountain roads to find our home for the weekend. And what a home it was. This place was AMAZING. HUGE. GORGEOUS.

I wanted to live here forever.

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Two living rooms. A study. A huge deck with amazing views to forever.

Trying to choose from the FIVE gorgeous bedrooms was nearly impossible. I was tempted to sleep in a different room every night. I wanted to sleep in them all.

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We settled on the upstairs master. Not only because it was beautiful, but because it was the only bedroom on the main level. Little Rooby had not yet mastered the art of stairs. She was only 6 inches tall, after all.

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We got settled in and made sure we had the essentials. Yep. Booze and candy. We were set.

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The house was on a golf course and, despite the fact that it was a beautiful day, no one was playing, so we let the dogs run loose. Bella quickly let us know that she loves golf course grass and wants us to move.

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Rooby agreed.

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When you are surrounded by this much pure dog joy, how can you not feel happy?

All that golf course dashing worked off our pizza, so it was time to search out some dinner. In the 24 hours that I had to actually put this trip together, I had discovered that the Switzerland Inn, a cozy old fashioned mountain motel not far from where we were staying, had a Friday night seafood buffet with all you can eat crab legs.

All you can eat crab legs is the only thing Matt loves more than 50 cent Happy Hour Oysters.

The drive down was on the winding Blue Ridge Parkway. The peak color was past, but there was still some beautiful color left.

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When we found the Switzerland Inn, it took me back to my childhood. It was exactly the kind of place we would have stayed on a road trip with my parents, right after we had lunch at the Waffle House and stopped 7 times along the interstate so that my parents could threaten my brothers and I with severe bodily harm if we didn't stop fighting in the backseat.

It was quaint and homey and had a view that stretched across the mountains. The dining room was set up with a variety of stations that had large peel-and-eat gulf shrimp, several fish specialties, a prime rib carving station, various salads....but the belle of this ball was definitely the crab leg station.

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No one went to bed hungry that night.

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We woke up the next day to beautiful weather and decided to do nothing more than drive a scenic portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway, taking in the Linville Viaduct and Moses Cone Park along the way.

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Then it was on to a boozy lunch at Bistro Roca in Blowing Rock. It had become a favorite stop of ours on previous trips. Lunch cocktails were followed by mussels and a spicy habi burger. Delish!

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The only proper way to follow a boozy lunch is to do some shopping. The quaint shops of Blowing Rock provided the perfect place to do just that.

I was grossly disappointed that no one told me it was costume day, though. A Wonder Woman costume would have rounded out the day nicely.

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We spent the afternoon relaxing by the fire at the house, letting Bella bounce on the golf course turf, and catching naps. It was a wonderfully lazy day.

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Dinner that night was at another of our favorite places in the area, Artisanal Restaurant in Banner Elk. The restaurant is not only beautiful, but the food is heavenly.

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We started things off with a couple of their house cocktails and a cast iron pan of deliciously buttery rolls.

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For a small plate I had the house made gnocchi.

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Next up for me was the quail. I love quail, but I hate the presentation of it. It just looks too much like....well....like a LITTLE BITTY BIRD. ON A PLATE.

But that didn't stop me from sucking the bones clean.

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Of course we had to have dessert.

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The next morning, we found ourselves faced with another beautiful day with absolutely no agenda.

We drove.

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We ended up at the Daniel Boone Inn. The huge line coming out the door and wrapping around the building told us the food inside must be good. We had nothing else to do, so we got in line.

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After about 45 minutes, we were ushered inside the old farmhouse and seated at a table. Bowls of food were brought out and covered the table. Fried chicken, biscuits with country ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, banana pudding, fried apples.....I now knew what that whole line thing had been about. We set about the business of stuffing our faces with country goodness.

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We waddled out of the Daniel Boone Inn fat and happy and full of mashed potatoes.

And we drove some more.

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When we found this pumpkin patch, I just had to get out for a photo.

I look insane here.

I blame in on all the mashed potatoes. I was high on carbohydrates.

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We kept driving.

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Before we knew it, we found ourselves at the Banner Elk Winery. Okay, it was no accident. We were in need a wine down afternoon. We grabbed a couple of bottles and sat outside in the glorious sunshine.

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After that, we all lapsed into a mashed potato and wine induced coma and napped the afternoon away.

We woke up in time for dinner. Yay!

We had reservations at the Gamekeeper Restaurant and were not sure where to find it. After driving an eternity into the pitch black darkness of nowhere, NC and winding forever and ever and ever up a lonely mountain road, we were certain the GPS was WRONG. Instead, we found ourselves at the coziest restaurant imaginable.

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The atmosphere was rustic and warm and the food was delicious. They specialize in game, so the boys were able to eat all the wild beasty things they wanted. They ordered a mixed game grill. Then they had some emu, bison, elk chops and god knows what else. I went tame with the cornmeal crusted rainbow trout with polenta and a caper salsa.

You know how sometimes things look a lot better in person than in a photo? Sometimes a food photo just doesn't work out. Blame it on the lighting, the four glasses of wine you had before trying to take a picture in the dark by lighting it up with your cell phone, what have you, but sometimes it's simply a FAIL. Despite the appearance of these photos, I did not, in fact, eat a plate of vomit, a bloody pile of grits and a tapeworm salad.

FOOD PHOTO FAIL

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It was time to head home, so we took the very scenic route home.

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Because this was a fantastically uneventful trip, but you, dear reader, have persevered through my blog nonetheless, I will reward you with the delightfulness of puppies running through leaves and baby cows, because really, what's better than that?

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Posted by vicki_h 12:33 Archived in USA Tagged fall autumn boone blue_ridge_parkway north_carolina banner_elk blowing_rock linville banner_elk_winery Comments (0)

Third Time’s the Charm

One More Trip to Banner Elk Winery

We spent a wonderful spring birthday weekend and a beautiful fall weekend at the Banner Elk Winery & Villa a couple of years ago, so when I got an email that they were having a “reserve one night, get one free” sale, I jumped on it.

I reserved the Alacante Barrel Suite, the biggest room in the house, for our anniversary weekend. I had always wanted to stay in that room, but had thus far been too cheap to pay the price tag. This was my chance! Besides, Matt would appreciate a weekend away much more than matching “I Love You” t-shirts or a singing fish to hang on the wall.

Nothing says “I Love You” like a weekend full of wine and fireplaces.

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TEN BEST THINGS ABOUT OUR WEEKEND AWAY:

1. The Alacante Barrel Suite.

The Alacante Barrel Suite was bigger than my first apartment. And it didn’t come with a creepy neighbor that wandered the hallway in his boxer shorts and smoked cigarettes by my door. As an added bonus, it had actual working heat, unlike my first apartment. It was also gorgeous. Unlike my first apartment.

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2. The Wine.

The best part of staying at a winery is that there is really no time of day that it’s not appropriate to drink wine. Except for breakfast. But that’s what mimosas are for.

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3. Getting Outdoors.

The highlands of Western North Carolina are filled with opportunities to get outside. For the less adventurous (or those who don’t want to mess up their pedicure with something like hiking boots), there are countless drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway or any number of winding country roads.

Nearby mountains and parks like Grandfather Mountain, Roan Mountain, or Cherokee National Forest have an abundance of hiking opportunities. There is also white water rafting, trout fishing, kayaking, and mountain biking.

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We chose to do a hike on Roan Mountain. The hike takes you 5 miles across a ridge that connects 3 balds: Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald. An Appalachian bald is a mountain summit that is not a peak covered with dense forest, but rather a large grassy area.

As I walked, I was not really thinking about how many miles I had hiked, I was thinking about how many glasses of wine I had earned.

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4. Hidden Surprises.

I love finding out of the way, off the beaten path, little known surprises. In many cases, this has taken Matt and I on wild goose chases where we drive for an hour through winding country roads looking for “this place I read about” only to find an abandoned building with a paper sign taped to the window that says, “Closed Forever.”

I convinced Matt to follow some obscure signs in the tiny community of Roan Mountain that promised Pizza. He was dubious, but it was that or eat lunch at the gas station with the 3 day old hot dogs spinning in their own fat by the microwave burritos. We found ourselves at what appeared to be a garden shed.

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He looked at me and said, “Are you sure?”

Am I EVER not sure when it comes to eating?

We went inside and were greeted by the smell of freshly baked bread, garlic, and wood smoke. Fresh loaves of crusty sourdough bread were stacked in brown paper and a wood fired pizza oven glowed in the back of the kitchen.

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Smoky Mountain Bakery is where Tim and Crystal Decker have been crafting artisan breads and pizzas for about 5 years. The cinder-block and wood shed that houses the bakery only had a couple of tables, so we claimed one and ordered the Friday special: a 3 topping pizza, 2 salads, and 2 sodas for $15.

The pizza was ready in about 10 minutes with a perfectly charred crust topped with savory sauce, gooey cheese, pesto, roasted garlic, and pepperoni. It was PERFECTION.

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We also saw this strawberry cheesecake in the dessert counter. It was so good we couldn’t even wait to cut a slice. We ate it right out of the box. Classy.

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5. Rest. Relax. Rejuvenate.

I once surprised Matt with an in-room massage on a weekend getaway. When the massage therapists showed up, there was a male and a female. I prefer not to be massaged by a dude. I’m sorry, but it’s just weird. Matt and I quietly conferred and we agreed that he would be as uncomfortable watching me get rubbed down by a dude as I would be getting rubbed down by a dude, so he sacrificed himself and let me have the female massage therapist.

Apparently, being massaged by a guy wasn’t the worst part of the experience for Matt. It was being massaged by a guy with REALLY BAD BODY ODOR.

Poor Matt.

So this time, I booked us massages at the upscale Chetola Resort in nearby Blowing Rock.

And I specified no dudes. And no B.O.

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6. Shopping.

I love the quaint little shops in Banner Elk and Blowing Rock. I can waste an entire day wandering around looking at adorably displayed nonsense that I don’t really need.

Especially if the shop has FREE CUPCAKES.

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7. Food…..Yum.

We were disappointed that our favorite restaurant in the area, Artisanal, was not yet open for the season. Another restaurant I really wanted to try, The Gamekeeper, was also still closed. No matter. We had some phenomenal meals.

The Winery & Villa provided us a great breakfast each morning.

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We also had an incredible dinner at Vidalia in downtown Boone, NC. I never met a french fry I didn’t like, especially parmesan truffle fries with a creole dipping sauce. Matt opted for a Caesar salad and white wine steamed mussels. For dinner, I had the crispy pork served with Cheerwine BBQ sauce, stoneground grits, and smoky collard greens. Matt ordered the oat crusted NC trout with applewood bacon jam, green apple slaw, and fingerling potatoes.

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Lunch at Bistro Roca in Blowing Rock started off with a drink called the Sparkle Pony. Yes, I only ordered it because it said it had edible glitter, but I was not disappointed.

Edible glitter is tasty.

Especially when served with tequila.

We shared the lobster mac n’ cheese and the chicken tamales.

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There was also a fantastic dinner at the Painted Fish in Banner Elk. When we arrived, I thought we had made a mistake. It was in a strip mall and it reminded me of a Shoney’s. Not that there is anything wrong with Shoney’s.

Unless you are under the age of 68.

However, the food was FANTASTIC. And I ate enough of it to be sure. We started off with the tuna nachos and French Onion Soup. I followed that with a bacon and cheddar burger. I don’t remember what Matt had because I was buried in a crispy pile of herbed tater tots. TATER TOTS!

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8. Crispy Crème Doughnut Cheesecake.

Sure, this could come under food, but it was so good, it deserves it’s own category. The Painted Fish in Banner Elk a cheesecake that had a doughnut crust and chunks of Crispy Crème glazed doughnuts inside. Someone decided that wasn’t decadent enough and topped it with a carmel bacon sauce.

Oh Dear Sweet Gooey Doughnut Heaven.

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9. Horses and Rainbows.

Really. What’s better than horses and rainbows? Nothing. Except maybe kittens.

Or free wine.

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10. Time. Together. Away.

Because that's really what it's all about, isn't it?

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Posted by vicki_h 08:45 Archived in USA Tagged wine winery boone north_carolina banner_elk blowing_rock roan_mountain Comments (0)

Some Things Are Worth Waiting For

A return to the Banner Elk Winery for a weekend where wine flows like water and bacon grows on trees.

When we stumbled upon the Banner Elk Winery and Villa last May, we felt like we had discovered some incredible secret. Who knew that such amazing mountain bliss was hidden so close to home? While we were there watching spring breathe life into the mountain air, we couldn't help but wonder what this mountain oasis must look like in the fall.

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I love Fall. When the mornings start to turn crisp and cool and the smell of burning leaves and overripe pears is bursting heavy on the air and the leaves start to dazzle against the brilliant blue sky, I launch into some kind of major cozy nesting mode.

For me autumn ushers in a delicious time filled with perfect orange pumpkins and bright purple mums. I buy decorating magazines and bring stems of yellow leaves inside and watch them curl at the edges as I whip up hot cocoa and roast marshmallows for s’mores by the outdoor fireplace. I bake pies, I string orange slices with cranberries and cinnamon sticks, I make spiced pear rum. My inner Martha Stewart takes over for about two months.

Except that, unlike Martha, I am much nicer and I see nothing wrong with using a microwave or eating cold pizza out of a delivery box.

That's why, only days after returning home last spring, we knew we had to return in fall. I could only imagine what such a cozy and satisfying retreat would become under the early frosty fingertips of autumn. So, on June 1st, we booked a weekend in October.

We have been eagerly awaiting it ever since.

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While Western North Carolina isn't exactly known internationally for its wines, it is known for the beauty of its mountains, especially in the fall.

It was the absolute peak of leaf season when we made the winding drive back up to Banner Elk, jaws dropping as every turn of the road carried us higher into more brilliant color. We were back and it couldn’t have been more beautiful.

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When we drove past this field of pumpkins, I had to jump out and touch one. Having grown up in the city, I am still smitten with glee whenever I see an untended pumpkin patch. In my mind, pumpkins are birthed at the grocery store, just before I pick them up and put them in my buggy. (It's very similar to my belief that the meat I eat has never actually been a part of a living thing, but is somehow produced in that styrofoam tray, complete with the plastic wrap and price sticker. To think otherwise would probably result in my never eating meat again.)

Undomesticated pumpkins. Who knew?

Okay, other than farmers and people who live near farmers.

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Having worked up an appetite romping through the pumpkin patch, we headed to the Mast Farm Inn in Valle Crucis. There we found Simplicity, the inn's intimate, award winning restaurant.

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Simplicity strives to create a slower, more authentic dining experience, using local ingredients or farm fresh items from their very own garden whenever possible.

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I love what the restaurant has to say about itself, "We want to make the home made food your Grandmother used to make if you lived on a farm in North Carolina when you were 6 years old, and when she won all the blue ribbons at state fairs, and every day you got to sample the new things. Once in twenty times she may have dropped the ball. But 19 times it was somewhere between “very good” and “Heavenly Choirs at Mull Of Kintyre” because it was a simple expression of respect, caring and culinary craftsmanship also known in these parts as 'real good cookin.'"

Simplicity was very much like dining at my grandmothers, except that my grandmother favored Jim Beam and Wild Turkey. Apparently, Simplicity's grandmother favors moonshine.

Yes, in addition to all that wholesome down home real good cookin', there was moonshine.

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Now, we aren't talking your backwoods moonshine made by a toothless Uncle Innis with his overalls and dirty hands, unconcerned about the occasional squirrel falling into the mix. Legal moonshine is becoming quite chic in the south and you can drink it with no fear of ingesting manure, embalming fluid, bleach, rubbing alcohol or paint thinner and you have little to no chance of going blind or passing out and waking up to find yourself naked (or as they say in these parts, nekkid) in a tree.

Although to some people, that would describe a successful Saturday night.

I decided to try the Carriage House strawberry infusion. It came out all sophisticated and lovely, with a little 'shine soaked strawberry delicately draped across the top. Girl, this was sissy moonshine. Fancy pants stuff. Nothing like the clear liquid that I’d previously had poured out of a jar that came from the trunk of a car in Newport, TN. In my mind this was going to taste a lot like strawberry jam, maybe with a little oomph.

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Pretty it may have been, but it went down exactly like moonshine. You can dress up a pig, but you still can't take it to a tea party. No matter how gussied up it was, it tasted like strawberry infused lighter fluid. I felt like I had just swallowed a mason jar full of bees and gasoline and they were both now stinging their way down my esophagus. I am also about 99% certain that a flame blew out of my nose.

Oh my dear sweet lord, I can't even imagine what this stuff would taste like with a little embalming fluid and squirrel crap added into the mix to give it an extra “kick.”

I tried to cool the fire that was now burning in my belly by immediately consuming large quantities of Simplicity's crab, artichoke, and brie gratin. It came with crispy shredded kale and crispy slices of a fresh baguette. That did the trick quite nicely.

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That was followed with the PBLT, the Mast Farm Inn cured pork belly, fried green tomato, peanut collard slaw, smoked Gouda cheese, and an over-easy organic egg served on a sourdough baguette with farm fries and mustard seed aioli. It came with a side of fingerling potatoes.

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We took some time to wander around Valle Crucis before heading back up the mountain to the winery.

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When we arrived at the Banner Elk Winery, she was decked out in all her autumn finery. We made our way through the pumpkins and fall flowers to do our complimentary tasting at the winery and snag a bottle to take back to our room.

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Our room was AH-Mazing with a capital Ahhhhhhhh.

We went for a fireplace suite this time and we were not disappointed. The room was huge, with two sitting areas, the world's most comfortable bed, a super cozy fireplace, and a stellar view of the mountains as they put on their finest display of color. The Villa was just as spectacular as we remembered it, with amazing attention to detail and lavish room appointments. We had a separate entrance that took us to a small porch outside, but we could also walk out our room door and were located just off the warm common rooms and the kitchen.

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The Villa at the winery does not have an "inn" or "hotel" feel to it to me. When I am there, and I step out of my room to walk to the kitchen in my socks and sweats to grab a cup of coffee, I feel more like I am at a really good friend's house. A really rich, good friend who has lots of wine and great taste in decorating.

The atmosphere at the Villa is comfortable and inviting and spending time there is absolutely delightful.

Because this weekend was pretty much about good food and wine (with the occasional shot of moonshine), we had made reservations at Artisanal Restaurant. It blew us away the last time and we wanted to see if it could do it again.

Artisanal is small and only has an open season that is a few months long, so you are required to make a reservation using your credit card and you will be charged $35 per person for canceling without at least 48 hours notice. So imagine the quandary that was created when we found a handwritten note from Chef Jackie in our room saying that the owners of the inn wanted to give us a free private dinner in our room that night.

The only thing I love more than food is free food.

But it's not exactly free if you have to pay $70 to cancel a reservation.

What to do? What to do?

There wasn't even anyone around to talk to, as the inn isn't always staffed with an innkeeper. There was no phone number on the note, so we had no way to contact Chef Jackie.

I wandered out into the common area and got lucky. I saw Jackie coming out of the kitchen. Whew! Turns out that she had a conflict that night and preferred that we do the dinner the next night anyway, so we were able to salvage our originally planned evening and still take advantage of the dinner she was going to make for us. She was able to go home and have dinner with her boyfriend for his birthday.

Everyone was happy!

Well…almost everyone. But more on that later.

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Artisanal was just as warm and beautiful as we remembered...and we were thrilled to see that they still served the cute little mini cornbread while we were waiting, although this time it also came with some little scones.

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I started off with a small plate that had fresh milk mozzarella, tomato, prosciutto, and a small arugula salad. Matt decided to try their highly acclaimed flash fried calamari with a sweet soy glaze and Asian slaw. The owner of Artisanal has said that "people eat with their eyes first," and each plate at Artisanal is a work of art.

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When I saw the words "Lobster Bolognese" on the menu, I needed to look no further. I love lobster. I love pasta bolognese. I couldn't wait to see how they combined the two. It was incredible. Light on the noodles and heavy on the huge chunks of tender, sweet lobster. Matt had the grouper, which looked almost good enough to convince me to let him have a bite of my lobster, but not quite. I don't give up lobster that easily.

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Everything had been delicious and beautifully presented, so of course we had to go for dessert. One of the things I love about Artisanal are the portion sizes. They are substantial enough to leave you satisfied, but not so large that you can’t sample several courses.

Matt had a pear tart with caramel and vanilla bean ice cream.

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I ordered the house donuts with powdered sugar and chocolate sauce....and while it was yummy to my tummy.....it looked a little…….. odd.

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If people eat with their eyes first, my eyes just got violated. This dessert gave a whole new meaning to "food porn."

What was the pastry chef thinking? Seriously....where was he going with all that chocolate sauce and all those balls and that.....that......that trajectory of cream. Lord love a duck.

It was just wrong.

Of course I ate it anyway, but the deliciousness of it in no way made up for the wrongness of it.

The Banner Elk Winery and Villa is one place where you literally can't wait to go to bed. Even if you haven't just eaten a plate of balls and shooting cream. The beds are crazy comfortable. The mattress, the sheets, the down comforter, the plush pillows....all of it is perfectly engineered to create a white cloud of bliss for guests to sleep in.

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It was hard to pull ourselves out of that cozy cloud the next day, but we could smell breakfast wafting in and no one can resist the smell of bacon forever.

It was over an outstanding breakfast of cinnamon rolls, fried potatoes, an endless bowl of bacon, and eggs inside a buttery slice of toasted french bread that Chef Jackie told us what happened the night before.

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Apparently there was a mix-up. Our free dinner was supposed to be a gift card to the delicious local Italian restaurant, Sorrento’s. The private in-room dinner was intended for a couple in another room for their anniversary. Someone had gotten the names mixed up.

Yes. I had inadvertently cancelled their anniversary dinner and sent their chef home.

Jackie felt bad. I felt bad. The couple that was now on their way home without their dinner no doubt felt bad.

I consoled myself by eating more bacon.

The day was cool and we had a warm fire, so we spent the entire morning lounging inside.

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Remember the birthday picnic in May? It was so perfect, that Matt insisted we do a repeat, despite the fact that it was a good 20 degrees cooler and the wind was blowing hard enough that the birds were going backwards.

We bundled up and headed to the upper vineyard.

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There had been a wedding and the ground was littered with rose petals. There were delicate wreaths of dried flowers on the rustic arbor. The view stretched forever and mother nature put on her best show with a blue sky dotted with white puffy clouds and hills draped in every shade of red, orange, and burning gold that the eye could register. We had sandwiches and wine and a cozy blanket.

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As we pulled up and parked, I envisioned us curled up on a blanket dotted with rose petals, sipping red wine and feeding each other strawberries as we marveled at the majesty of the sunshine and the beauty of the leaves.

Instead, I stepped out of the car and blew about 2 feet to the left. Undaunted and refusing to give up on my romantic outing, I set up our picnic the best I could. I thought about tying myself to the arbor so that I didn’t blow away with the napkins. We poured the wine and I am pretty sure it was white capping inside my wine glass.

And it was cold.

You know how…. when you have plans or an idea and it doesn’t quite go like you wanted….. it takes a long time for you to admit that it’s a bust and throw in the towel? I’m not sure how long Matt and I sat up there in the windy cold, trying to eat, each of us pretending it was magical, when it was just plain awful.

My hair kept blowing in my mouth and as I sat trying to pick out some chewed up bread that got mixed in with it, Matt looked at me and said, “Have we had enough?”

You can pack a pretty picnic, but you can’t control the weather.

We practically raced back to the car.

It was pretty easy because we had a good tailwind.

One of the things I like best about staying at the Banner Elk Winery and Villa – it’s not only okay to sit around mid-day and drink a bottle of wine, it’s practically expected.

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After some wine and warming up by the fire, we decided to get out for a bit. We made the scenic drive to Linville, home of the Old Hampton Store. The Old Hampton Store was built in 1921 as a stopping place on the old Eastern Tennessee Western North Carolina railroad. Mountain folk from the area came to the general store to buy their food, clothing, farm tools, hardware, and general necessities. Today, it retains its quaint, old fashioned charm and is a good place to stock up on grits and flour ground in their grist mill, if you need any.

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We bought some honey, candy-by-the-pound, and sweet potato butter. I have plenty of grits.

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Because we now had a Sorrento’s gift card, we decided to pay the cozy Italian eatery a visit. When we stepped inside, it was warm and lit with the soft glow of candles. The kitchen was open and as we sipped cocktails at the bar while waiting for our table, we were able to watch the pizza chef toss the dough as he made one of their house made pies. I knew right then that we’d be having a pizza.

In Vicki’s World, there is absolutely nothing wrong with pizza as an appetizer.

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We followed the pizza with pasta.

Matt had the spaghettini with meatballs and I opted for the rigatoni Bolognese. I told you I love Bolognese.

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We followed the pizza and pasta with a healthy slice of NY Cheesecake. In Vicki-Speak, that was a Trifecta of Italian Dinner Perfection.

With a belly full of carbohydrates and cheese, I could not have gone to bed happier.

I love a place that doesn’t scrimp on the bacon, and when we awoke the second morning to the delightful smell of frying bacon AGAIN, I was ecstatic. Everything is better with bacon. The only thing that could make bacon better is if you topped it with bacon.

Chef Jackie made us pancakes and eggs with cinnamon rolls, potatoes, and more BACON.

I dig the pig.

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We didn’t want to leave the cozy fall oasis of the winery, so we stayed until check-out before saying our final good-byes.

On our previous trip, one of the guest chefs had told us about a restaurant he was sure we would love. It was called “Knife and Fork” and was a short drive from Banner Elk in nearby Spruce Pine. We decided we’d have lunch there before heading home. This gave us a chance to drive a portion of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and check out nearby Grandfather Mountain before leaving.

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The drive was perfect. It was a weekday, so there was no traffic along the Parkway and the leaves were at their best. It was literally an explosion of color and blue sky, and tiny leaves fell along the road as we cruised like golden rain.

How many of you are old enough to remember Legend, that really bad 1985 fantasy movie starring Tom Cruise as a half naked hero trying to save the last unicorn in a world full of goblins and fairies? Yes, I am on a tangent here, but there is a point. Hang with me. We’ll get there.

If you have not seen it, go out and get it right now. Yes, it was an epic movie fail in serious Dune fashion, but no one’s life is complete without seeing Tom Cruise battle the Lord of Darkness in a pair of hot pants and chainmail.

Anyway, there is a scene in the movie where they see the unicorns and the light is golden and illuminated bits are dancing about in the air and everything has a soft, quiet glow that seems magical and perfect. That’s how the drive was.

Wow. It sure took me a long time to get there, didn’t it?

I really just wanted to talk about Tom Cruise in hot pants.

Now back to the leaves. They put on quite the show.

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We could have driven that way forever, or at least until the parkway ended and we found ourselves in someplace like Oconaluftee buying a pair of moccasins.

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Instead we pulled into the quaint little town of Spruce Pine, NC and wandered into the Knife and Fork. Knife and Fork takes pride in the fact that it sources nearly all of its ingredients and products from local suppliers. The menu changes frequently so that they can make use of the freshest ingredients and always have seasonal offerings.

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Numerous scientific studies (way too numerous to mention here) conducted by major ivy-league universities, as well as other highly respected scientific research institutions and generally smart people, have demonstrated that wine is good for your health in many ways.

So I had the wine.

I also had the butternut squash soup with an arugula side salad and their version of grilled cheese. This sandwich put the Sunbeam bread and pasteurized processed cheese food slices of my childhood to shame. To call that grilled cheese is inadequate. It was a warm, chewy, crispy, buttery, cheesy party for my tastebuds.

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Matt had the K+F burger, and while it looked pretty amazing, the show stopper were those crispy potatoes. I am not even sure what they had done to them, but they were crazy crispy and maddeningly good.

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We couldn’t end the trip without dessert, so we decided to share a piece of pumpkin pie with ice cream.

I thought about all those little pumpkins in the field the other day and wondered if I had just made someone an orphan.

Alas, our weekend of leafy bliss was over and it was time to head back to the world where we get up at 6:00 a.m. , where bacon doesn’t show up like magic every morning, and where a glass of wine at lunch on a weekday is a good way to get an Employee Assistance Program brochure.

Sigh.

Until next time….

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Posted by vicki_h 17:47 Archived in USA Tagged vineyard winery blue_ridge_parkway north_carolina banner_elk blowing_rock spruce_pine knife_and_fork artisanal grandfather_mountain Comments (4)

Beating the Heat in North Carolina's High Country

Imagine how excited I was when I was asked by Highcountry365.com to do a guest blog for their website! We made a trip to Blowing Rock, NC in September and had a great time. Read that 4 part blog post here:

http://www.highcountry365.com/blog/beating-the-heat-in-north-carolinas-high-country-part-one/

http://www.highcountry365.com/blog/beating-the-heat-in-north-carolinas-high-country-part-two/

http://www.highcountry365.com/uncategorized/beating-the-heat-in-north-carolinas-high-country-part-three/

http://www.highcountry365.com/uncategorized/beating-the-heat-in-north-carolinas-high-country-part-four/

Posted by vicki_h 09:29 Archived in USA Tagged mountains boone blue_ridge_parkway north_carolina banner_elk blowing_rock Comments (0)

Banner Elk Winery and Villa

A recipe for a perfect weekend getaway.

It started by accident. For many years, Matt’s birthday fell adjacent to the weekend of Memorial Day. Back when I earned only 10 vacation days a year, I had to maximize every one of those 80 hours and always planned our trips to coincide with a holiday.

Thus was born the annual tradition of a trip on Matt’s birthday.

It’s a tradition that stuck.

Because his birthday is in May, we always spent that birthday in the Caribbean. Matt has spent many birthdays with sand crusted on his feet, eating a birthday cake beside some sunny beach. It was time for a change.

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I actually stumbled onto the Banner Elk Winery & Villa when I was looking for a romantic place for our anniversary dinner. I saw that they had a Farm to Table dinner planned the weekend of Matt’s birthday and made the decision: forget the anniversary… this would be Matt’s birthday trip. Let’s do something new.

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Known by most as the closest place to East TN to actually ski in the winter, Banner Elk is just across the Tennessee state line in the northwest corner of North Carolina. I associated it with winter and with skis, because my only memory of Banner Elk was the time that Matt took me skiing for the very first time about a month after we met. I was only 24 and had never even seen a pair of skis up close, much less put them on my feet. I knew NOTHING about skiing, ski wear, or ski slopes. I was severely out of my zone. The only person I knew who had ski clothing was a 62 year old woman that I worked with. She offered to loan me a ski suit. I agreed, not realizing that the last time she had skied had been in 1983 and the outfit I just borrowed looked like something from Hot Tub Time Machine. Not only did my outfit scream THIS GIRL SHOULD NOT BE ON SKIS but I was trying far too hard to impress Matt to be practical and gear myself appropriately. We had only been dating a month, remember? Rather than wear a hat, as would have been prudent given that the NC mountains don't quite get enough real snow for skiing, but instead, have giant snow blowers that pump massive amounts of very icy fake snow onto the slopes as you ski by, I skipped the hat and left my long hair loose. I imagined how smitten Matt would be when he saw my long hair flowing in the breeze as I swooshed gracefully down the hill. I skied by approximately 14 giant snow blowers that day, each one showering a fresh layer of ice onto my already wet and frozen hair. By the end of the day, my hair was literally an ice wig, frozen into weird corkscrews all over my head. The only upside to this was that it took attention away from my 1983 puffy neon ski suit and the fact that I couldn't actually ski, but instead, slid slowly down the hill at an awkward angle with my skis pointed inward trying desperately not to let them cross and send me plowing onto my face.

Back to the present. Imagine my surprise when I realized that …(duh)…the mountains did not cease to exist once the ski season was over and what was a ski resort by winter became a lush green oasis in the summer.

Banner Elk Winery and Villa looked positively lovely so I booked it immediately, claiming 2 seats at the Farm to Table dinner that would only accept a maximum of 15 people. As I looked longingly at the website images, they simply screamed LUXURY! ROMANCE! RELAXATION!

Okay, they also screamed WINE! ….but let’s not quibble over minutiae.

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It’s only a 3 hour drive from Knoxville to Banner Elk, but we opted to fly to Elizabethton and grab a rental car. We were there in an hour. You just can’t beat that. As we flew into the Blue Ridge Mountains, the landscape changed from soft rolling hills to rich green mountains and deep valleys. Banner Elk is a quaint village tucked in the North Carolina highlands near Grandfather Mountain. As we drove the winding mountain road, we marveled at the beauty of the place.

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We arrived at the Villa just in time for the dinner. The small group of guests were enjoying a glass of wine as we were quickly shown to our room downstairs. Within minutes, we each had a glass of wine in hand and were sitting in front of the villa’s large fireplace feeling the stress of the work week immediately fall away.

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The Farm to Table dinner was intended for the outdoors, but a freak cold snap that took Banner Elk to lows in the 40s in June forced the dinner to be moved indoors. This was actually quite wonderful because the tables were set beautifully near the large fireplace. After enduring temperatures in the 80s since April, the cool weather was a welcome respite from the oncoming wrath of summer.

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Jars of wildflowers adorned the tables and wine flowed like music as the guests were able to look into the beautiful kitchen and watch as the guest chef, Travis Sparks, put the final touches on the meal. He told us that most of the food we were about to eat came from his own farm, and that the food that didn’t came from farms within a 20 mile radius.

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The meal had four decadent courses and each was paired with one of Banner Elk Winery’s own wines. It was served family style and we were literally given more than we could eat. We tried to eat it all. We really did, because it was simply phenomenal, but we all failed miserably.

The first course was a large platter of baby field greens. With that were small bowls filled with young spring onions, radishes, herbs, and a lemon herb vinaigrette.

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For the second course, Travis brought out two absolutely beautiful mountain trout that had been caught that day. They were served with an incredibly delicious bowl of sautéed kale (my new favorite green) served with a green tomato relish. We were given so much fish that it should have been the entrée. I couldn’t get over how fresh and light the fish tasted. I guess I am used to fish that has been frozen, then shipped, then refrozen, then displayed, then refrozen, then cooked and by the time I eat it, it’s pretty much a tasteless piece of rubber. This was no tasteless piece of rubber. It was mountain trout heaven.

And I don’t even like fish.

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The main course was a platter of roasted chicken with herbs, a bowl of new potatoes, and the most decadent sugar snap peas that have ever been placed in a bowl for human consumption. The peas were lush and green, incredibly crisp, and slathered in butter. The potatoes and chicken were equally delicious, but you have no idea how much I love sugar snaps.

After Travis told us about catching the fish that day, I was tempted to ask about the chicken, but I didn’t really want to know.

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As though we hadn’t already been stuffed to the point of misery, we were served a strawberry cobbler with fresh cream and mint.

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I think we were on our fifth glass of wine at that point, but that didn’t stop Michelle, the owner, from grabbing us a bottle to take down to our room.

Heaven, I tell you.

We thought the dinner was tops, but then we went to our room. The room was beautifully decorated and had large glass doors to a patio that overlooked the vineyards and the pond below. The bed had a plush top and crisp, soft white linens. I love a place that uses white bedding because you can see it is fresh and clean. The bath had an abundance of fluffy towels and was loaded with Fresh skincare products including the most adorable Fresh Sugar lip balm.

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With no dogs snuffling around under our bed trying to figure out how to get on top, no alarm clock to set for work, an impossibly comfortable bed, and a serious wine fog settling over us….we slept as soon as our heads touched the crisp white pillows.

When we woke the next morning, I tiptoed quietly upstairs to the common area in hopes of coffee. There were two fresh brewed pots in the large, warm kitchen along with oversized mugs and an assortment of flavored syrups and cream. Instead of the typical “lace doily breakfast with uncomfortable conversations with strangers interrupted by awkward silences” breakfast that is so common at a B&B, the breakfast at the Villa was a comfortable, casual affair.

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A chef was in the kitchen cooking our breakfast as we stood around and chatted over mugs of coffee. The food was “serve yourself” and was set on a large wood and copper island in the center of the kitchen.

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The morning was cool, like fall, and so we took a walk after breakfast. The grounds are really beautiful, with a lush green lawn rolling down to a catch and release pond.

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The winery was set down near the pond and “up the road a piece” was a rustic little barn. As we wandered up toward the barn, someone told us they were setting up for a wedding and asked if we wanted to see inside.

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I did. I love weddings. I love wedding dresses. I love wedding cakes. And now, I especially love old barns decorated for a wedding.

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How perfect is that? I immediately asked Matt if we could get divorced because I wanted to get remarried IN THAT BARN.

We had nothing to do before lunch, so we weighed our options. Drink more wine? No, too early. Go to Grandfather Mountain for a hike? No, too much like exercise. Relax with a good book? No, the day was too beautiful for that.

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We decided to make the short, but scenic, 15 minute drive to Valle Crucis, a small town nearby that housed the original Mast General Store, still in the original building that it was opened in some 130 years ago.

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We decided to head back when it was getting close to noon. The night before, Michelle, one of the owners, had pulled me aside when she realized we were celebrating Matt’s birthday. She recommending we do a lunch picnic in the upper vineyard. All she needed to know was whether or not we liked pasta. I told her we ate anything that didn’t run away first, and she said, “Be at the winery at noon and we’ll take care of the rest.”

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So, at noon, we showed up at the winery, having no idea what to expect. I don’t really expect much from these things, which is why I don’t usually do them. But, I had been in a serious wine haze when she asked. You know the kind…where you feel completely at peace with the entire universe and everything sounds like a great idea. I probably would have agreed to give her my right kidney if she had asked for it.

And who doesn’t like a nice picnic? I expected a basket of sandwiches, and maybe a cookie or two if we were lucky, out in the sunshine and that sounded nice.

We were shown where to go and we headed up a twisty, curvy, winding road that led to the upper vineyard.

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When we arrived at the top, we were blown away. We found ourselves on a high knoll where the views stretched in every direction and were simply spectacular.

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Tall grasses waved in the breeze, like green gold water flowing down the hillside. There was a rustic arbor with a blanket set underneath.

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This was no kindergarten picnic. There was no juice box and ham sandwich. This was serious business. We had a bottle of wine, garden salads with marinated olives, a fried artichoke appetizer in a buttery sauce, and tortellini with prosciutto and fresh basil in a light tomato cream sauce.

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And real plates. Coming from a family that jokes that our "family china" is made by Solo, that was a nice touch.

The piece de resistance, however, were the two giant slabs of NY cheesecake sitting on top of an old wine barrel.

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The beautiful setting, the quietness of the afternoon, the delicious food, and the sunshine on our faces simply made it one of our favorite experiences of all time. We stuffed ourselves silly and then simply lay back on our blanket to drink in the simple beauty of it all.

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Best picnic of all time.

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We had in-room massages at 2:00, so we headed back to the villa. By the time the massages were over, we were simply a waste of human space, full of good food and wine, relaxed beyond words, and starting to feel downright spoiled.

We spent the afternoon on the patio with glasses of wine, watching the goings-on for the wedding that was going to be in the barn that evening. It was a flurry of activity as tents were set up on the lawn, flowers were arranged, and little girls in beautiful dresses chased each other as they laughed on the lawn.

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We were tempted to crash the wedding, because it was so beautiful, but we had reservations at Artisanal Restaurant, and we had high expectations.

Like the Winery & Villa, Artisanal exceeded our expectations.

When we arrived, we were greeted warmly and, as our car was taken by the valet, the large wooden doors were opened for us and we were gently ushered inside.

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The restaurant is extremely beautiful, in a very elegant rustic way. You almost feel like you have entered the most beautiful barn in the world. We were greeted by warm plank walls, tall ceilings with rustic chandeliers and my favorite, a giant horse made out of wood. The interior reminded me a great deal of the Barn Restaurant at Blackberry Farm, but the differences were that we were actually treated warmly at Artisanal (unlike the stiff treatment we received at Blackberry Farm), and we weren’t required to give them our credit card and leave without ever seeing a bill (which, at Blackberry Farm, turned out to be $500 for a meal that left us hungry). Despite its incredibly elegant and upscale atmosphere, Artisanal remained unpretentious and comfortable.

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The cocktails were very unique and we sampled a spiced pear mojito and a blood orange martini of some sort.

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They also brought out the world’s cutest mini-cornbread while we waited.

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We started with two small plates, that turned out to be as large as our entrees. Matt loved the seafood bouillabaisse and I loved my soft shelled crab.

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For dinner, Matt had the Maine Diver Scallops and I had the Pasta Bolognese, something I can never resist if I see it on a menu.

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Although everything was delicious and artfully presented, my favorite had to be the Trio of Chocolate Cupcakes. Being cute along with being delicious is always a plus.

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After dinner, we were encouraged to stay and enjoy the cozy lounge area or sit out back by the fire pit, which overlooked a rushing stream. We were tempted but the long day full of food, wine, and relaxation had left us ready to do nothing but crawl between the soft white sheets at Banner Elk Villa and fall deeply into sweet sleep.

Because of prior commitments, we had to be up and out so early the next morning that we missed breakfast, which made me very, very sad, but the truth was that I was so full I probably didn’t need to eat for about 3 days. As we drove back down the winding mountain road, I reflected on what a perfect weekend it had been. Banner Elk Winery had exceeded my expectations.

So much so that the first thing I did upon my return home was book another weekend visit.

I can only imagine what this place will look like in the Fall.

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Posted by vicki_h 09:02 Archived in USA Tagged vineyard winery north_carolina banner_elk Comments (4)

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