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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)

That time we went to Asheville and ATE ALL OF THE FOOD

Girls Gone Wild in Asheville, NC

Sometimes, you want to travel to exotic locales like Santorini and sip Vinsanto as the sun sets over the Aegean Sea. Sometimes you want to travel to rugged Montana and hike over mountains and glaciers while munching on a bag of granola and watching for an errant moose. Sometimes you want to do nothing more than spend sun drenched days beside the turquoise waters of the Caribbean with a Pina Colada in hand.

Other days, you just want sparkly shoes, 6 jumbo sized bags of potato chips, 4 girlfriends, and a lot of cake.

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The guys planned a spring fishing trip to the Bahamas, so the girls decided, “What better to do than go away for a weekend where we can spend all their money on shoes?”

Girls trips are the best. There are so many reasons why.

1. You can be a slob.

You don’t have to shower or wear make-up. You can leave your hair in a tangled bun and spend the entire morning in that pair of too-big sweat pants with the holes in the butt and the worn out elastic waist that your husband hates. You don’t have to shave your legs and no one will care.

2. There is no judgment.

Ready for a second bottle of wine? Who cares if it’s only 10:00 a.m. Go for it. Want to sit in the middle of the living room and eat an entire cake in your bathrobe or drink champagne out of the bottle while crying in the bathtub? Go ahead. We’ve all done it. Want to watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians? Secretly EVERYONE wants to see it.

3. You can relax.

I typically get about 10 minutes to myself on a Saturday morning before my husband comes blazing in like the Tasmanian Devil demanding that I fix breakfast, wash his favorite shirt, run 4 miles with him, and help him wash the car simultaneously. And I’m supposed to look sexy and awesome while I do it. A Saturday morning with the girls means 4 hours in your pajamas while doing nothing more strenuous than eating a doughnut while reading trashy gossip magazines. Not to mention the rest of the day will likely include piles of comfort food, some sort of spa treatment, and a champagne lunch somewhere with chandeliers.

4. Talk, talk, talk.

Has your husband every shushed you while you were talking because you are interrupting the T.V.? Yeah. Don’t act like you don't know what I’m talking about. The best thing about a weekend with the girls is that we all talk. All the time. Forever. And no one minds. We actually get uncomfortable with silence.

5. Eat, drink, and be merry.

It’s no secret that I can eat a lot for a small person. In my “real life,” I try to rein it in and not give in to my inner piglet. Being married to Matt-the-Superhuman-RoboMan doesn’t help. He has -3% body fat. I remember attending a birthday party for a friend’s husband a few years ago and, as I picked up the fork to start on my 3rd piece of cake, I looked across the table and saw the look of horror on Matt’s face. “I’m sort of grossed out by you right now,” he said. Not with my girlfriends. I can order triple carbs, dessert, 6 glasses of wine, and if I start laughing while I’m chewing and accidentally spit a glob of gooey tortilla chip onto the table, everyone thinks its funny.

5. Girl Just Wanna Have Fun.

Cyndi Lauper was right. We all love our husbands and our lives, but sometimes, you just need “girl fun.” We all know there is a different kind of fun to be had when it’s just us girls. It’s like 8th grade never ended and we are sitting on the bed eating a bowl of M&Ms and wondering who will wake up with a zit. Only with your girlfriends can you laugh so hard that you wet your pants on a downtown sidewalk (sadly, this is a true story).

Hello Girls Weekend in Asheville, NC!

We all showed up with 4 suitcases for 2 days, because, when packing for a girls weekend away, well…..you just never know what you might need. Little black dress? Sure, throw it in there. Flats? Yes. Heels? Yes. Lots of sweatpants to wear in the morning when you are bloated and hung over? Yes, yes. And you may as well throw that old prom dress and the sequined boa in there. You just never know.

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We arrived in Asheville on a Friday afternoon in late April. The weather was absurdly perfect and we found ourselves in what might literally be the most adorable neighborhood in the universe.

We had rented a house in Historic Montford, just a mile or so from downtown Asheville where we planned to spend 2 days eating, drinking, shopping, eating, walking, eating, shopping, drinking, and eating.

We had chosen the house because of its proximity to downtown, but were overjoyed when we saw the insanely cute neighborhood in which it was located. I felt like, at any moment, a unicorn was going to pop out of the bushes or a happy gnome with a bag of gold was going to hop across the street. Seriously.

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Feeling like we had just wandered into some sort of Hansel and Gretel dimension, we found our own adorable cottage and jumped up and down like 13 year old girls exclaiming over the ivy strewn patio, the outdoor firepit, the cozy front porch, and the warm interior.

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I had made late dinner reservations for us at the Admiral, but, because we like to drink before going out drinking, we popped open a couple of bottles of wine.

I had a feeling that my “check liver” light might come on before the weekend was over.

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We called the Blue Bird Taxi, because we already knew that NOBODY would be driving that night. Within minutes, a little Prius driven by Calvin the Best Taxi Driver Of All Time showed up.

When Calvin took a shortcut through a mall parking lot and headed for an unlit street, the girls were suspicious that he was taking us to kill us. When he pulled up to a random looking cinder block building between the BJ Food Mart and an empty lot with a rusty barbed wire fence, they were sure.

No. That was just The Admiral.

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The Admiral doesn’t advertise. They never have. You have to find it. And when you do, you feel like you’ve been let in on a secret. The Admiral is unassuming. From the outside, you’d never guess it is one of the best dining experiences in the city.

The interior is dark, with a low ceiling, lots of mismatched vintage furniture and touches of warm lighting. There's an old Budweiser sign with neon strategically blacked out so it appears to spell "Dive." Imagine if Waffle House turned down the lights, played some vinyl records, and decorated with your Uncle Fred’s garage sale leftovers. It’s hip in tawdry sort of way.

However, you don’t go to the Admiral for the decor. You go for the food.

And the food is divine.

It was at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, April 25th that the Asheville Food Insanity began. I am not really sure what got into us. Maybe it was stress relief from several weeks of issues we had all been dealing with. Maybe it was the lack of disapproving stares from our husbands as we polished off piles of chocolates and bags of chips. Maybe it was just the joy of being in a beautiful city on a beautiful weekend with beautiful friends.

We were like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Except that instead of blood, we were incited by the smell of vanilla poppyseed cake and bread with real butter.

We started off with drinks. I also ordered up a warm and crusty baguette with olive oil and house cultured butter. The bread was crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and the butter was obscenely salty and delicious.

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I followed that with a bowl of PEI mussels. I know what you are thinking. PEI mussels in North Carolina? Crazy.

Let me tell you. I have slurped Prince Edward Island mussels on Prince Edward Island, so fresh they were still quivering with salt water. The mussels at the Admiral were some of the tastiest I have ever had. The mussels were drowning in San Marzano tomato broth with just a dash of PBR (hey, it is the South, after all) and chunks of smoky bacon and topped with savory chimichurri. The dish was truly inspirational. After devouring the mussels, I mopped up the amazing broth with the baguette and salty butter.

Yes. I ate an entire baguette in addition to the baguette that was on the mussels. Don't judge.

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I followed that (you didn’t think I was done, did you?) with the pasta carbonara. Thick house made fettuccini was topped with delicate chunks of sweet lobster, bread crumbs, pecorino cheese, and egg foam.

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I sampled the others’ dishes: creamy avocado soup; angus flat iron steak with homemade tater tots, mustard greens, pimento cheese, topped with a fried egg and an amazing curry ketchup; shrimp ceviche tostadas; and pork belly with burnt miso aioli and finely shredded cucumbers and carrots with daikon, kimchi bulgogi, and cilantro.

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Because I was eating like I just escaped from a Turkish prison, I had to get dessert. Of course I did. I had the “Chocolate Milk & Cereal.” A glass of white and dark chocolate ganache sat beside the chocolate gelato topped with house made chocolate cereal puffs.

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Having been to the Admiral before, I knew what came next. The others didn’t. I watched their faces when, at 10:00 p.m., the wait staff pushed all the tables aside to make room for the dance party. A DJ started spinning retro tunes as every variety of hipster started pouring into the place and swing dancing where the guy next to us had just been eating his duck leg.

You just can’t beat the Admiral for amazing food and awesome weirdness.

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We danced badly to everything from Ella Fitzgerald to the Beasty Boys before calling Calvin (now that we were convinced he wasn’t trying to kill us) and calling it a night.

Oh what a night.

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Saturday morning was as beautiful as Friday. The weather was warm and the sky was clear and blue. We felt amazing, despite the amount of salt, fat, carbohydrates, sugar and alcohol we had consumed the night before.

It was time for shopping!

Or eating.

Whichever came first.

We headed downtown to peruse the funky, cool shops that are so abundant in Asheville. We made it about 10 feet from the car when….

FRENCH BROAD CHOCOLATE LOUNGE!!!!!

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Apparently, eating would be first.

For four women with calories to consume and money to burn, the French Broad Chocolate Lounge was an oasis of happiness filled with sunshine, hand-crafted artisan chocolates, and most importantly: CAKE.

I couldn’t decide. A thick brownie with coconut? A sipping cup of hot liquid chocolate truffle? A fat slice of maple cake with smoked salt? Dark chocolate honey salted caramels?

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French Broad doesn’t make chocolates. They make magic. And happiness. Magical chocolate happiness.

I settled on the vanilla cake with poppyseed buttercream, lemon curd filling, and a drizzle of lemon sauce. It was indeed a little slice of sunshine.

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We spent the next couple of hours wandering the streets of Asheville with its eclectic shops, historic buildings, and sidewalk buskers with cute puppies.

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We found ourselves at the Grove Arcade, home to one of my favorite places in the entire world: The Battery Park Book Exchange.

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Why?

Because I love old books.

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And because I love champagne.

Battery Park has both.

DE-lightful.

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We polished off a bottle of champagne and realized we were about to be late for our lunch reservation at Curate.

Dear Lord! Missing a meal was out of the question. Run, ladies, RUN!

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Curate, a tapas bar, is regularly rated as the #1 restaurant in Asheville.

(by people who have obviously never been to the Admiral where you can eat the most amazing meal of your life while watching a guy with a handlebar mustache and a banana tattoo dancing to a Buck Owens song while munching on a ramp waffle downed with a PBR in a can)

The restaurant is cozy and warm and everything on the extensive menu is carefully and artistically prepared. “Curate” means “cure yourself,” and we were suffering from needmorefooditis.

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Let the healing begin!

As she prepared our red wine sangria tableside, the waitress suggested we order 3 dishes each. We took her at her word and ordered 12, yes TWELVE, dishes of food. Everyone chose 3, but the plan was to share them all.

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First up were the artichoke chips with yogurt dipping sauce, so delicate they melted in your mouth.

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Next we had spicy chorizo wrapped in potato chips. In the South, this is called a “pig in a blanket,” although this was much better than the Vienna sausage and crescent roll version that we used to make in my trailer park youth.

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That was followed by grilled pequillo peppers stuffed with Spanish goat cheese.

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After that came the kumato tomato salad with preserved Spanish bonito tuna and black olives drizzled with olive oil and sherry vinegar.

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But wait! There’s more! We had warm octopus flavored with sea salt, olive oil, and paprika with a puree of Yukon gold potatoes. Okay, maybe not my favorite dish (I am more of a pig-in-a-blanket kind of girl), but we were here to try new things, so…when in Rome….eat the octopus.

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We felt the need for something green to quiet the voice of our mothers in our heads that were trying to tell us to eat something with vitamins, so we ordered a spring salad with baby artichokes, radishes, sunchoke chips, baby greens, yogurt, and a lemon vinaigrette.

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We stuffed mom back in the closet and moved on to the meatballs with cured iberico de bellota ham in a robust tomato sauce.

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Then, it was on to the grilled iberico pork skirt steak with fresh rosemary and thyme.

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This was followed by lamb skewers marinated in Moorish spices served with house made pickles.

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The patatas bravas were to die for. Leave it to the pig-in-the-blanket girl to also love the dish that looked like home fries slathered in mustard and ketchup. In reality, the crispy potato chunks are topped with a spicy tomato brava sauce and a savory aioli.

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Next up was sautéed spinach with raisins, apples, and toasted pine nuts. (You're welcome, Mom.)

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For our twelfth and final dish, we had a sandwich made from catalan sausage, peppers, and caramelized onions on a crusty baguette.

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Yeah.

We ate all of that.

After lunch, we had a pretty good sangria buzz going on. What better to do with a sangria buzz than go shoe shopping?

If you recall, the impetus for this trip had been the fact that we had been unceremoniously dumped by our men who were no doubt partying it up with frozen drinks on the sunny beaches of Abaco while pretending to fish.

That’s why I decided Matt would buy me an expensive pair of shoes.

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The sangria might have also had something to do with it.

We finished our shopping day strong and headed back to the house for some downtime (and wine) to prepare ourselves for dinner.

Yes. We planned to eat dinner.

After all of that.

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But first – we headed to the rooftop Sky Bar to watch the sunset in style. We called Calvin the Taxi Driver and he showed up promptly in his shiny little Prius.

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I had read about Sky Bar and was dying to check it out. Hidden at the top of the historic Flatiron Building, it is all marble floors and dim lighting with a classy 1920’s vibe. It is magical. Hidden. The kind of place you find by accident and where you can ride a noisy old elevator to a cool fire escape where hand crafted cocktails and amazing sunset views are waiting for you.

I am not sure what made me think we could show up 10 minutes before sunset and simply waltz out onto one of the most awesome, and space limited, places in Asheville.

When we arrived, we did not glide across the marble floors. We were not ushered onto the ancient elevator. We were not whisked away to a rooftop paradise.

No. We were shown into a little bar on the lobby floor of the building where there was a T.V. showing the amazing sunset that smart people, who actually showed up at a reasonable hour rather than dashing in at the 11th hour because they spent too much time putting on their mascara, were watching above us.

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I consoled myself by trying the house infused pineapple-strawberry tequila and looking at my new sparkly shoes.

However, I had barely had time to say, “Dios Mio!” before the elevator buzzed and we were motioned forward.

The elevator didn’t look like it had changed much in the last 90 years. The cage was pulled closed and we were on our way up.

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And we hadn’t missed the sunset. The view was magnificent.

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From the on-site infused liquors to the hand crafted specialty cocktails, the Sky Bar had a drink menu that was as exceptional as the sunset views over downtown Asheville.

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We stayed until the fiery sunset had cooled to a soft sky over the twinkling lights of downtown.

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It was time to eat again!

We walked to Limones, a Mexican Fusion restaurant in downtown Asheville.

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The dark wood floor, soft lights, and happy faces let us know we were in for a great meal.

When I saw the Caipirinha on the drink menu, I had to try it. After spending 10 days in Brazil, I have had my fair share of Caipirinhas and have yet to find one stateside that is made correctly. A proper caipirinha has 3 ingredients: Cachaca, limes, sugar. For some unfathomable reason, American bartenders insist on adding soda or some other watery, sugary substance to the drink.

Limones got it right. It was just like being back on the sandy beaches of Ilha Grande with a bowl of salty olives and a stray dog running around my feet.

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The four of us shared 3 appetizers, because we simply couldn’t settle on anything less. We started things off with the ceviche sampler. The included the ceviche del Mercado, which was made with the fish of the day marinated in lime juice and served with guacamole & red onions. There was also the ceviche verde which had papaya, avocado, and lemon. Finally, there was the spicy ceviche with jicama, cucumbers, avocado, and cilantro. All were accompanied by warm tortilla chips.

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We followed the ceviche with the slow braised short rib nachos with smoked chile crema, guacamole, and salsa verde and the lobster nachos with crema, guacamole and serrano.

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For dinner, I dove into the chorizo burger. The beef was mixed with spicy ground chorizo and the burger was topped with poblano peppers, cilantro aioli, caramelized onions, and cheddar cheese.

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Because we couldn’t end a meal without consuming at least 3 dishes each, we ordered 2 desserts to share: the tres leches cake with peaches, pecans, and mango chile sauce and crispy hot cinnamon brown sugar churros with caramel sauce and Mexican hot chocolate.

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We were the last ones in the restaurant because we literally stayed until there was no food left in the kitchen. I'm sure when we left, the kitchen staff applauded.

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I then went and lay prostrate on the sidewalk praying for Calvin to come pick us up before my stomach started to hemorrhage.

Calvin! Our hero!

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Sunday morning meant one thing: Early Girl Eatery.

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I’m not sure why we were still hungry. I’m not sure we WERE still hungry, or if, at this point, we were simply being driven by some primeval instinct to just try to eat anything that didn’t run away first.

There is always a wait at Early Girl, but there is a reason. It is just that good. We stood out on the sidewalk and literally drooled over the menu, like we hadn’t eaten in weeks.

It was pathetic.

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This was my breakfast. Mine. Alone:

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That’s a giant buttermilk biscuit topped with Benton’s bacon smoky gravy, a fried green tomato napoleon atop buttery grits, and a porky bowl (aptly named) which consisted of home fries, BBQ pork, and scrambled eggs smothered in gravy and farmstead cheese. I’m pretty sure I also ate some of Valerie’s banana bread.

I’d like to say those dishes were split, but they weren’t. They were just mine. And I ate them.

I am so ashamed.

Okay, I’m not really. I’m just saying that so you won’t judge me.

What a weekend! We laughed until we cried. We shopped until we ran out of money.

And we ate until Asheville ran out of food.

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Next up: What happens when 6 people spend 7 days on a 46 foot boat in the Exumas? Madness. Mayhem. And a helluva lot of fun. Find out who cries, who gets diarrhea, and who ends up with the black eye this time. Coming soon to a blog near you!

Posted by vicki_h 15:22 Archived in USA Tagged north_carolina asheville girls_weekend girls_getaway 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)

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