I’ve just returned from a four-day road trip through the Blue Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina, including the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. My first impression: awed. The landscapes were incredible. The Appalachian delicacies a delight. The music, a dreamy wonder.
The purpose of this trip was to get to Nashville. But rather than fly, a friend of mine suggested a drive may be fun – especially, to explore a region of the United States that I had never seen before. Fortunately, this friend was very route savvy – so I relied on her instinct to guide us. I owe her a lot.
VIRGINIA: THE BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS
We started our trip dining on a modern taste of Appalachia with a five-course tasting menu at the cozy, sleek restaurant called The Shack in Staunton, Virginia. The chefs of The Shack create modern and gourmet dishes using fresh ingredients “from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains,” as stated on the website. Some dishes we enjoyed included grits with corn and truffle, rye spaetzle with eggplant and spice kraut, and guinea hen with green beans, potato and pecans. All the dishes were presented impeccably with a flavor that merited the attention The Shack is getting from foodies around the country.
Later that evening, we drove towards Roanoke and spotted the Roanoke Star shining brightly on top of a mountain. Determined to see the beacon, we drove towards it, our car climbing the roads up to the overlook, where a view of the city of Roanoke can be see from high above – the shining star standing tall behind us. The Roanoke Star (also known as the Mill Mountain Star) is the world’s largest freestanding illuminated man-made star. Constructed in 1949, the over 80-foot-tall beacon was commissioned by the Roanoke Merchants Association to promote the holiday shopping season. Over time, the star became a popular landmark leading the city of Roanoke to turn it on every night and remains one of the most popular roadside landmarks in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The next morning, we set off towards our next destination: Asheville, North Carolina. We took the Blue Ridge Parkway – a slow-paced, recreational road located on top of the Blue Ridge Mountains, offering scenic views from Shenandoah National Park, Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina. The views from up here were absolutely breath taking. I encourage you all to put this road on your bucket list.
Along this route, we stopped at a small town in Virginia called Floyd. Someone had mentioned they knew friends that would go to Floyd every year but, didn’t know much more than that. So, we were curious and decided to check it out – and we were glad we did. We started by exploring the outdoor market and strolled the streets until lunch time. We popped into what we thought was a small country store but, it turned out to be a cute sandwich spot with seating and a stage in back taken by a five-person band performing bluegrass to the diners. That was how we discovered The Floyd Country Store – which apparently turns out to be a renowned place for Appalachian music, and one of the most popular stops along, what we later learned was, the Crooked Road Music Trail.
The Crooked Road Music Trail is a music heritage route that travels through almost 300 miles along Southwest Virginia, crossing 19 counties, taking travelers along the history of music of the region, including bluegrass, gospel, and mountain music. It was a wonderful stumble-upon that I would never have know about had I not taken this road trip.
NORTH CAROLINA: THE BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS
After lunch, we continued along our route, eventually taking us off the scenic parkway and crossed into North Carolina. And speaking of stumble-upons, this one was called Mount Airy, North Carolina. What drew us here was the sighting on the GPS map that indicated an Andy Griffith museum. Curiosity made my friend decide to make this our break stop. As we drove in, we spotted old-timey police squad car driving around town – just like in the TV series. We followed one and noticed we were stopped in front of Andy Griffith’s home. Soon, we realize that the car was a tour, and that we were in the actual hometown of Andy Griffith, and that Mount Airy was the inspiration for Mayberry, the town in which the Mayberry R.F.D. TV series took place. This stop was one of those unexpected and interesting experiences one discovers when exploring.
We continued our route and eventually made it to our destination: Asheville, North Carolina. We drove around Asheville and spotted many interesting eateries, buildings and neighborhoods Asheville had to offer. We had dinner plans in downtown, but before then, we decided to grab a drink with a dash of posh. We drive away from downtown, through a tree-lined road that wound up to Sunset Mountain to the secluded grand retreat know as the Grove Park Inn.
Built in 1913, The Grove Park Inn Resort has hosted many prominent names throughout history, including Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, ten U.S. Presidents, and my favorite author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who would stay while visiting his wife Zelda when she was a patient at a nearby sanitarium. With its granite stone sidings and red clay roof tops, this stately resort sits atop Sunset Mountain. Its rear grand terrace offers views of Asheville and the Blue Ridge Mountains that actually give the illusion of glowing blue during the magical sunset. Later, we went back into the grand lobby and enjoyed a pre-dinner cocktail while listening to a live piano player. I know I’ve used this word too many times to describe it but, this resort was truly magical.
Later that evening, we enjoyed a delicious dinner at Rhubarb in Asheville. Rhubarb offers farm-to-table contemporary Appalachian cuisine using local ingredients. We dined on cannelloni with goat cheese and braised beef, followed by the apple brandy flat iron steak. We finished our meal with a cornbread and grilled pear cobbler topped with rosemary ice cream.
The next morning, we started with delicious fluffy donuts at Vortex Doughnuts in Asheville – yum. Then, took the road west to Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains. Our next stop was for some fun and culture at Dollywood! That’s right, the Smoky Mountains sweetheart Dolly Parton has her own amusement park, and we marked that sight on our map with a bold circle as a definite must-do experience. And it was totally worth every moment.
TENNESSEE: THE GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS
Back in the mid-80s, Dolly Parton expressed her interest in opening her own theme park in her hometown near Pigeon Forge – as her effort to contribute to creating jobs in the area. In 1986, the Herschend brothers – owners of the former Silver Dollar City theme park in Pigeon Forge – partnered with Parton and renamed, updated, and expanded their park to a new attraction known as Dollywood. With Dolly’s name and sparkling personality, the new park almost immediately doubled in attendance and is still one of the most popular attractions in the Smoky Mountains.
The park still remains an homage to the culture and history of the Smoky Mountain region. Buildings and attractions designed to look like an old mining town and includes one of the few coal-powered steam engine trains left in the country. Although, there is a lot of Dolly Parton merchandise, her name and face are not overtaking the park nor overshadowing the old town theme. Dollywood is also known for its rollercoasters – enthusiasts flock to them like fireflies. I, on the other hand, headed straight towards Dollywood’s Grist Mill bakery for its famous warm cinnamon bread. I read about this bread – freshly baked loaves of fluffy, pull-apart deliciousness served with a side of icing (or apple butter or both). I was not going to leave the park without a taste. And yes, it lives up to the hype. Worth every calorie.
Our day at the park also included a ride on that steam engine train, a lesson on birds of prey at the American Eagle Foundation (located within the park), and a walk through a replica of Dolly’s tiny family house in which she was raised. We ended our visit to Dollywood with some souvenir shopping, then continued with more Dolly Parton tourism with a stop in Sevierville – where Dolly first performed, and where a statue to the legend is placed in front of city hall. Then, we popped over to Knoxville and found a Dolly Parton mural.
The Great Smoky Mountains and Dollywood were quite a treat. And a delightful conclusion to my first visit to the Blue Ridge Mountain region of Appalachia. This trip had me awed by landscapes, food, music, and culture. A pleasant reminder of how vast and beautiful this country really is. I encourage anyone to go out and see it. Finally, we continued west towards Nashville – our final stop on this road trip, and where I would catch my flight back home.
On our way to Nashville, we stopped for gas at the famous roadside stop Buck-ee’s. This place was a Walmart-sized rest stop including housewares, t-shirts, and Buck-ee merchandise. The stop also included snacks galore including freshly made brisket. Every time a newly cooked brisket was placed on the board and about to be cut, the attendant would call out “Brisket on the board!” and the coworkers would repeat it. We grabbed a fresh brisket taco and grabbed a bag of Buck-ee’s Beaver Nuggets – a crunchy corn nugget with a brown sugar caramel coating. We then refueled our car and continued west.
I want to preface, that I didn’t leave much time for me to really experience what Nashville has to offer. I only had an afternoon and evening before flying out early the next morning. So, not much to say about Nashville but the little I did get to do or see. Also, it should be stated that I’m not one for spicy foods nor loud music, so I tried to stay away from both. With that said, I do want to go back to Nashville and really take the city in.
As we approached Nashville, we first stopped at the world-famous Grand Ole Opry –home of country music and the stage for legends, superstars, and rising talent. We didn’t get an inside look but, had some time to see the exterior of it, read about some of the history, and checked out the gift shop. It was cool to be at the sight where big country legends perform. Although, I’m not an avid fan of country music, I am familiar with big names and do occasionally listen to some. So, I was able to appreciate the meaning of being there. I can just imagine what I real county fan or rising musician must feel at the sight of it.
When we entered Nashville, we drove around some of the different neighborhoods: Downtown, The District, Music Row, The Gulch, Green Hills, and even made a trip to East Nashville – which ended up being my preferred neighborhood. We lunched on Nashville’s famous hot chicken. We went with the medium level, just above mild, and below three other levels of H.O.T. We opted for country fried chicken style, which offered a layer of country gravy to help ease any of the hot spice. I’m not one for spicy foods, so that helped a lot.
Upon sight of Broadway and the music bars, my slight-claustrophobia made me cringe. So, I determined that the area was just not for me. I personally stay away from loud, crazy bar life. But, for all the party-goers out there – Broadway is the place to go. Instead, my search for quality craft cocktails drew us to East Nashville – where I found it to be, thankfully, more on the tame side. I really can’t recommend any place to eat or drink yet as I didn’t really get to explore what Nashville has to offer. So, when I return to the city – at another time – I will come back with a good write up of the city and recommended places to go.
I hope you enjoyed this long read. I was planning to break it up into different posts, but then thought it best to package it all in one. I’m opening this article up for comments. Please leave a comment and I will try my best to respond.