Lone motorcylist amid the Appalachian scenery of the Blue Ridge Parkway
North Carolina, USA, March 6, 2016:
The Blue Ridge Parkway – what a fabulous name for a road. It sounds like somewhere you want to go even before you know where it is.
In fact it winds for 470 miles across the roof of America from Rockfish Gap, Virginia, to Ocanaluftee, North Carolina. Or to put it another way, from the Shenandoah National Park in the north to the Great Smoky Mountains in the south. Yes, all the names sound wonderful around here.
Built in the 1930s as part of President FD Roosevelt’s New Deal to lift the USA out of the Great Depression, the Parkway can still lift your spirits today as you drive up and up into the North Carolina hills to reach it, marvelling at the stamina of the cyclists you will pass by the dozen.
Emerging on to a stretch of two-lane blacktop that curves gracefully to the horizon in both directions, we drove across one of its higher reaches through the romantically named Transylvania County, pausing to admire views over Looking Glass Rock, an outcrop called the Devil’s Courthouse and endless green vistas of Appalachian loveliness. blueridgeparkway.org
Our base was in the sweet little town of Brevard in the valley below. It’s the only place of any size in Transylvania County, which has no known connection with Romania or vampires, by the way. Given Count Dracula’s problems with running water, he’d surely run a mile from a place called the Land of Waterfalls.
On our way up to the Parkway via Highway 276 then down again on Highway 215 we stopped to admire a few of the county’s 250 cascades.
Brian and Flo at Bird Rock Falls, near Brevard in Transylvania County
At Sliding Rock Falls the water whooshes down a smooth slope into a deep pool. It’s an impressive natural water slide beloved of both locals and visitors. A guide from the tourist board encouraged us to give it a shot despite a distinct lack of swimsuits, but we were too chicken.
Next came Mill Shoals and French Broad Falls, which sit almost side by side close to the highway.
“Reminds me of Italy,” I told my Parisienne girlfriend Flo, pointing at the second waterfall.
“Why?” she asked, puzzled.
“Well, first I took you to Florence. Now here you are at French Broad Falls.”
A Gallic theme recurred that night at Marco’s Trattoria in Brevard. We wanted to congratulate owner Marc Dambax on his top-notch pasta and delicious Italian main courses. But he was on holiday in his home town. Of Bergerac in, er, France. marcotrattoria.com
For lunch we’d visited Rocky’s Grill & Soda Shop. If you like those retro American diners that line Britain’s A-roads then you’ll love Rocky’s, which is the real thing. A local landmark since 1942, it has a soda fountain, jumbo hot dogs, burgers with pimento cheese and milk shakes with a triple-scoop of ice cream. Triple yum. ddbullwinkels.com/rockys
We were staying at a fabulous B&B called the Red House, where a few stray vowel-sounds in our host Daniel Trusler’s southern drawl told me that he didn’t grow up around these parts. In fact Dan is from Cornwall and he ended up in Brevard after meeting local girl Tracie, now his wife, at university. brevardbedandbreakfast.com
Our next port of call was 30 miles north
. The charming town of Asheville sits right on the Parkway and at the smart Hotel Indigo my first name reminded the chatty clerk that one of their previous English guests was the musician Brian Eno, who lost his passport there. ihg.com/hotelindigo
My namesake went to Asheville to star at an electronic music event called Moogfest. We went to see the 7,000-acre Biltmore Estate, which attracts more than a million visitors a year. From the gatehouse on the edge of town it’s a three-mile drive through manicured parkland before you arrive at Biltmore House, the largest privately-owned dwelling in America.
Built in the style of a French chateau, it was the country home of transport heir George Washington Vanderbilt and was ready just in time for him to welcome guests to a lavish house party on Christmas Eve 1895.
Biltmore House is the largest privately owned dwelling in America
You can see most of its 250 rooms on a well-planned walking route that gives a good insight into the upstairs-downstairs world of an era known as the Gilded Age. Even more impressive are the seemingly endless landscaped gardens, laid out by the man who designed Central Park in New York. We visited on a sunny afternoon in early May when azaleas of every possible colour were in dazzling bloom and we ran out of time trying to follow all the picturesque trails. biltmore.com
The Biltmore Esate was a location for films including Forrest Gump, Being There and The Last of the Mohicans, while other scenic forests and waterfalls around Asheville were the setting for the first Hunger Games film starring Jennifer Lawrence.
Asheville itself is the ideal size for an American city. Big enough to have lots to see and do but not so big that everything is too scattered. There’s the elegant glass-roofed Grove Arcade, the quirky clutter of LOFT (Lost Objects, Found Treasures) plus an art trail of more than 30 galleries, including ZaPow! (devoted to illustration and pop culture). exploreasheville.com
At Wicked Weed Brewing we tried the local delicacy of hot boiled peanuts before a burger lunch much enlivened by a tasting board of six (or was it eight?) local craft beers. The name was inspired by our own Henry VIII, who in 1519 pronounced: “Hops are a wicked and pernicious weed.” wickedweedbrewing.com
We dined at King Daddy’s Chicken & Waffles, which does what it says on the tin and much more. Southern-style delicacies here include the Cracklin’ Waffle. That’s a waffle with pork crackling stuffed into the batter. Perhaps you pull a face at the very thought. Me, I licked my lips and enjoyed every bite. ashevillekingdaddy.com
Finally, on local advice we went to a live music bar called Jack of the Wood and had a foot-stompin’ time to a dazzlingly talented bluegrass band called Asheville New Grass. jackofthewood.com
That marked the end of our flying visit to Blue Ridge Parkway country, which came as a detour before we went to a friend’s wedding near the larger city of Winston-Salem.
We also squeezed in a visit to historic Old Salem, the well-preserved original town founded in the 18th century by members of the Moravian church.
But there’s so much we didn’t have time to see in North Carolina, particular the wild Atlantic coastline in an area called the Outer Banks.
So many places, so little time…
What to buy: Hand-blown glass items created at Lexington Glassworks in Asheville. lexingtonglassworks.com
Star power: Brevard is home to movie star Steve Martin, who plays banjo with local bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Getting there: American Airlines fly dily from direct from Heathrow to Charlotte and Raleigh. aa.com
Book it: America As You Like It offers an 11-night break from £1,445pp based on two travelling with flights departing in May from Heathrow, car hire and stays in Charlotte, Lake Lure, Asheville, Little Switzerland, Glendale Springs and Winston Salem. americaasyoulikeit.com 020 8742 8299
More info: uk.visitnc.com – charlottesgotalot.com 020 8460 3582
An edited version of this article was published in the Sunday Mirror on March 6, 2016