Travel Stories from Compass & Quill
January 3rd marks the four-year anniversary of my “great escape” from New Jersey. I remember it being about zero degrees outside when I finished stuffing the last of my things into my car. All I could think was, “I won’t have to deal with these painfully cold winters again.” That turned out to be true...for the most part. After four years of living in South Carolina, I’ve had the pleasure of going to the beach nine months out of the year, and rarely had to wear heavy winter jackets. The lack of frigid winter months is nice, but I always feel a pang of sadness every year around this time.
Pleasant temperatures during the holiday season just didn't feel right.
Christmas is one of my favorite holidays. There’s just something about the scent of fir trees and being surrounded by twinkling lights that gives me a sense of peace. Maybe it’s because this is the time for family gatherings or maybe it’s a reminder that I survived the year unscathed and I should treat myself.
For more than twenty years, Christmas was spent at home (in New Jersey), and it’s what I consider a perfect representation of how it should be. I should be able to see my breath when I walk outside. I shouldn’t need to crank on the air conditioning. There should be a purpose for scarves, jackets, and hot chocolate. And, hopefully, there should be a legitimate belief that the thick, gray clouds will produce snow.
Unfortunately, the South doesn’t allow for these types of things, and a bright, cheery, 70-degree day for Christmas can be surprisingly depressing. It just seems so...average. As if the holiday season isn’t different from any other time of the year.
Since going back home wasn’t feasible this Christmas, I decided to make my way up to the mountains. Asheville in North Carolina seemed like the perfect place for a quick trip and I hoped the cold, crisp air would bubble up some nostalgia.
Where To Stay
Upon arrival, I booked a room at the Aloft in downtown, and I found that this location made it effortless to walk to the many cute shops and restaurants. The first thing I noticed during my initial exploration was that Asheville had a sense of personality, referring to both the businesses and the people. The diverse personalities ranged from edgy, hipster, artistic, Southern belle, sporty, and so on. My friend said to me, “Anything goes here. It makes it easier for people to find their individuality.” I appreciated that aspect of Asheville and saw how the openness to uniqueness had benefited the area.
The second thing I noticed about this area was how pet-friendly the stores were. I didn’t realize how happy I’d feel about it until I walked into a craft store and saw a dog snoozing with a little Santa strapped to its back. Somehow, seeing a lounging dog made it feel a little more “homey”.
Where To Drink
I learned that Asheville is also known for its craft beers and breweries. Although I’m not the heaviest of beer drinkers, I was delightfully impressed. The most notable beer I tried was found in the old industrial section of downtown. Had I not been with a friend who was a local, I probably wouldn't have found this hidden place in the sea of abandoned buildings.
Burial Beer Co. is a small brewery, but the setup made it feel like you were hanging at a friend’s house. There were enough people there to create a good atmosphere without being so crowded to the point of being annoying.
As far as beers go, I typically gravitate toward porters and stouts. It was no contest when I looked at their list and I saw a beer named the “Skillet Donut Stout”. I figured it was going to be a robust beer with strong coffee flavors and a bit of sweetness. I didn’t realize that the “donut” was literally going to be a donut hole served along with the beer. This little treat really made the beer's flavor pop and generally made it a memorable experience.
Where To Eat
When it comes to food, Asheville has an array of options from Cajun Southern, Thai, Cuban, Italian, and more. Atmospheres also range from high-class/chic, small and quaint, and divey and music-friendly.
Unfortunately, my tight schedule didn’t afford me enough time to experience more of these places, but one restaurant really made an impact. I may be biased because I’ve been missing the amazing Italian food of the Northeast, but Strada’s chicken piccata helped fill that void. The white wine and lemon sauce mixed with tomatoes, capers, and perfectly cooked risotto had me nearly licking the dish. Despite how full I was, I cleared the plate.
What To Do
Food and beer aside, Asheville also has several places which are known for their Christmas attractions. On Sunday, I stopped by the Gingerbread House competition at Grove Park Inn. The detail put into these houses was insane, and I was surprised to learn that some of the winners were actually very talented high school students.
However, it wasn’t the gingerbread houses that made the visit to the Grove Park Inn worth it, but the outside views. The stonework, landscaping, and light placement made the property feel whimsical. Although it was raining the day I went, I could easily tell the location would be an exceptional vantage point to observe the Blue Ridge.
Another place I visited before heading home was the Biltmore Estate. Since moving to the South, I’ve heard a lot about this historic site, so I decided to find out what the hype was all about. Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to describing it other than the house itself is colossal. Each room had its own style, rich with expert craftsmanship and woodwork. The panoramic view of the mountains will surely take anyone’s breath away.
I suggest taking the walking tour. Learning the backstory of each room satisfied the history nerd in me, and it was fascinating to see some of the history preserved throughout each area. My favorite room was the library (naturally), which was filled with two stories worth of books and boasted a painted ceiling that reminded me of something you’d see in an Italian cathedral. If you’re visiting during the warmer months, I heard the garden tours are also breathtaking. However, remember to wear comfortable shoes because the property itself could certainly be larger than my hometown in New Jersey—it’s that big.
My favorite part of this whole tour was the fact that everything was decked out for Christmas. If you're looking for a bit of Christmas cheer, stopping in during the holiday season will surely give you what you need.
And, of course I couldn’t leave the Biltmore without paying a visit to their winery. If you’re a wine lover like me, I’m confident that you’ll enjoy the tasting room. Without trying to make myself sound like a complete lush (guilty), I attempted to taste majority of their available wines only to conclude that they’re all good. Even though I’ve been more of a red wine gal these last couple years, their Chardonnay Sur Lies was my favorite of the whites. The hints of apple and butter made the wine crisp without being too dry or sweet. As far as reds go, it was a toss-up between the Cardinal’s Nest and the Tempranillo (I love spicy wines). These wines were so good that I didn’t hesitate buying a bottle of each.
Even if you don’t go to Asheville during the holiday season, it still has plenty to do year-round, with hiking being one of the major attractions. A couple of years back, I took a spontaneous trip there and explored the Craggy Gardens. Living in beach towns my whole life, it was nice to actually see a change in landscape and elevation.
Overall, Asheville was a nice weekend trip, and I’d definitely go back. It’s laid-back and not fussy, which is perfect if you’re looking for a break from the chaos of everyday life.
About Compass & Quill: Travel inspires many of my stories, opening me up to a world of new possibilities and perspectives. So, I'm sharing my travel stories here.
Travel is an opportunity to think bigger and find our place in the world. This blog is meant to inspire you to look beyond beautiful photos that make your heart race and consider what your story will be once you arrive. Let's explore. Follow me on Instagram to get a behind-the-scenes look at all my adventures!