Asheville, NC and North Georgias Mountains

Back in August my mom and I decided to take advantage of the long weekend this October and head down to Atlanta where my older sister lives to visit. I pushed to extend our trip a little and drive up to Asheville, NC. We made that our main base for a few days while we explored Western North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Asheville, North Carolina

Like I said, we used Asheville as our home base while exploring the mountains of western North Carolina. Asheville was not really what I was expecting. Which ironically, I’m not too sure of what I was expecting. First of all, we did not visit the Biltmore. We opted out of the states number one tourist attraction because I really would love to see it decorated for Christmas one day, and I don’t think you need to visit it twice. That being said, we also have the Vanderbuilt summer homes just two hours from us and I’ve gone twice in the past year to visit those and who needs to see another mansion.

When I think of Asheville, I think food, art and culture. I do have to say, the food was amazing, and the art on point. We were visiting mid-week so I was a little disappointed in the lack of live music in the different restaurants and bars, but it may have just been the time of week we were visiting. From the amount of street musicians that we saw, I can only imagine how many live music performances they have.

The first night we were in Asheville, we decided to do a little food tour. We started at Cucina 24, an Italian restaurant on Wall St., where we split an escarole prosciutto potato pizza, which apparently is a super popular pizza in Tuscany. Wow! Just as I realized our food was taking a little longer than I expected, I looked toward the open kitchen and they were slicing the prosciutto fresh onto the pizza. The server must have realized the time also because he came out and gave us a dish of buffalo mozzarella served with sweet pepper relish and a dish of warmed, rosemary olives and I basically died right there on the table.

Our meal at Cucina 24 was so good, my mom tried to get us to go there again the next night.

The next day, after driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, we stopped in Biltmore Village to do a little shopping and grab dinner. Here we ate at Village Wayside, a much different vibe than the upscale Italian restaurant the night before. Wayside sits right along the train tracks and it super casual. My mom started with the French Onion Soup and while she was eating her own, she ordered me one because “I needed to have one.” For dinner I had the fish and chips which was awesome and a White Zombie White Ale from Catawba Brewing Company.

We spent the evening walking around town looking at all the street art. Downtown Asheville is super walkable and we actually walked from the hotel we stayed at. We were given a ton of other restaurant and dessert suggestions from locals, but there just wasn’t enough time to try everything. I put together a list of restaurants below that I really wanted to try.

  • Double D’s Coffee & Desserts – a cute little coffee shop inside a little double decker bus straight out of London. Super instagramable, but opens at 10am (not prime coffee time). Cash only if you’re going here!
  • Old Europe Pastries – local coffee
  • French Broad Chocolate Lounge – locally made chocolate and coffees. They even have a tour you can take of their factory.
  • Sunny Point Café – In west Asheville, one of the more popular brunch spots, but get a reservation. We couldn’t even find parking let alone get in.
  • Biscuit Head – I don’t think they do reservations, it’s a little more casual with counter service, but be prepared to wait. We were starving so we had to head out also

Blue Ridge Parkway – North Carolina

Now you may remember from my cross-country road trip two years ago that we did part of the Blue Ridge while driving threw Virginia. This time we started in Asheville and headed north to Lineville, NC. From mile marker 384, north to 316. You may think 68 miles isn’t that far, but when you’re driving an average of 35 miles per hour and stopping for pictures every couple of miles, those 68 miles took us five hours.

The Blue Ridge is stunning. You have views of the Blue Ridge Mountains on either side of your drive, and in the distance, you can see the Great Smokey Mountains. We made a stop for lunch in Little Switzerland, a small town about three hours north of Asheville with a cute little café, book store and coffee shop, and a popular Inn with amazing views from their gardens.

Pro Tip: We also stopped in little Switzerland because it was the first stop, we found gas since leaving Asheville. Something we didn’t really pay attention to when we were leaving town. Make sure you take a peak at your gas gage before hitting the road.

While Little Switzerland Inn had a restaurant, which came highly recommended from a few locals we ran into, I would recommend packing a lunch and eating somewhere along your drive. There are plenty of picnic areas along the way and stopping for a quick bite keeps you out in nature, and the food will probably be a little better.

Once we hit Lineville, we stopped at Lineville Falls Winery. You all know I’m a sucker for a good winery so I needed to try what North Carolina had to offer. They seem to do their fruit forward wines pretty well, so their whites were super popular but I always lean toward a good red so their Barrell Aged Cabernet Saviounge was my favorite.

Dillsboro, North Carolina

Just outside of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park is a cute little town of Dillsboro. After driving for a few hours from Atlanta airport, I pulled to the side on a whim solely because I needed to stretch my legs, and we ended up staying for an hour.

This cute little mountain town is a stop along the Great Smokey Mountain Railroad, a sightseeing train ride that you can pick up in Bryson City, NC.

In Dillsboro we wandered their local shops, picked up some jewelry, taste tested in the olive oil shop and ate some of the fresh fudge at the chocolate shop.

Helen, Georgia

I’ve heard of Helen, GA before but never thought I’d end up in this north Georgia mountain town that full of cute Bavarian-style buildings, making you feel like you’re right in Germany. The most similar that I’ve experienced is Solvang, CA, a cute little Dutch down I used to visit while living on the west coast. We were visiting the second weekend in October so they were celebrating their Oktoberfest and the town was wild. There were people everywhere and restaurants had an hour to hour and a half wait.

Helen has a ton of outdoor activities that you could spend a whole weekend exploring the little town. During the summer you can go tubing down the Chattahoochee River, and you can even go alpine sledding down the Georgia Mountain Coaster. This was super nostalgic for me since my family used to go alpine sledding every summer in Vermont growing up.

Just outside of town are a ton of trails you can hike through the Chattahoochee National Forest. We did the super simple Anna Ruby Falls hike which is less than a mile round trip and paved all the way to the falls. It was absolutely stunning, but pretty packed so I would recommend getting their pretty early if you could.

Saratoga Springs

Growing up in Connecticut, we did a lot of exploring. We spent summers on the cape, did day trips into New York City and Boston, even would go up to Maine’s islands for the weekend. One place I never really explored was upstate New York. Saratoga Springs is known for a lot of things. Most popularly, the oldest horse track in the country, some of the only natural mineral springs east of the Rockies, and it’s strong culture of performing arts.

Back in August a group of us went up to Saratoga to celebrate a friend’s bachelorette. (I know, I know, this has been the majority of my travels recently.) We had a weekend completely packed of seeing all things Saratoga and we tried to fit in as much as we could. But there is a lot to do in the horse racing capital, so one weekend just wouldn’t be enough.

What we did – Rack Track Tips

For the main day of our trip, we decided to immerse ourselves in the Saratoga lifestyle and head to the race tracks. We were there for one of the most popular race days of the year: the Whitney. No matter what your opinion is on horse racing, the truth is it is a huge culture in Saratoga and what most of the town is focused on. There are statues of horses and jockeys through out parks around town, and lining Broadway. So, although many of us had a lot of our own opinions about the sport, we decided to jump in head first and live like the locals.

One thing we noticed is there are a lot of ways to do race day. There are a few tour options, which we didn’t take part of, but I would be super interested in learning more about the track and the history of horse racing since so much history has happened right in Saratoga. As far as seating goes, there is reserved seating, and tickets sell out pretty fast according to their website. We sat in an area that was essentially a small sports bar inside the betting area. I wouldn’t really suggest it. From there we watched the races on TV screens and because that weekend was so busy, the service was pretty slow.

I would recommend buying a General Admission ticket for $7 and getting there SUPER early to stake out a picnic table. From there you can have a home base and bring in small coolers with sandwiches and drinks (including alcohol). If you don’t want to bring food in, there are plenty of vendors and food trucks you can purchase from. Most of the areas are open to the public, except for the reserved seats, so you really are not missing out on anything by grabbing a picnic table.

Where we ate

We started our weekend at the Saratoga Winery. Us Northeasterners have a little secret. About three and a half hours west of Saratoga Springs is the Finger Lakes. This area is arguably the best wine region in the country and home to the oldest vines in the US. Saratoga Winery stayed true to their New York routes and many of their wines come from the grapes grown in that region. They also are famous for their seasonal Moonshine drinks. A few of us tried the Strawberry Jam Moonshine which was out of this world. The pizza was pretty good and they had a ton of options which was perfect for our big group.

After the race on Saturday we headed to a local spot that was suggested to us by our girlfriend who lives in town, the Horseshoe Inn Bar & Grill. It was packed! We asked for a table because we knew we needed to eat but if we were waiting to just get in to have drinks, we would have waited in that line a lot longer. They have a live band and it seemed like a lot of fun, but we were focused on the food. They had simple bar food, nothing too crazy. I had fish tacos and a bite of their Mozz Bombs which were amazing. A few of the vegetarians said their veggie quesadilla was the best they have had.

When we first pulled into town on Friday morning, I noticed a cute little Victorian house on the corner of South Broadway and Lincoln Ave called the Thirsty Owl and said we needed to go there. It was super cute, very quaint and just looked like somewhere I’d like. So, Sunday before we headed out, we stopped there for lunch and it was amazing we were the first ones there and the staff offered us a wine tasting in their bar while our lunch was being prepared. Three of us had a five-tasting flight with wines from their vineyard in the Finger Lakes. They just kept getting better and better. And what I liked even more was the staff was super attentive and knowledgeable about their wines.

As good as their wines were, the food was even better. We started with their soup of the day, a seafood bisque, and bacon wrapped scallop appetizer with crispy spinach. Insane! For lunch I had a salmon special which was just what I needed after indulging the day before at the race track.

There were a few other restaurants we checked out but weren’t able to fit in time to stop at. Here they are:

  • Salt & Char at the Adelphi hotel
  • Druthers Brewing Company (we had their beer and it was awesome, but their food looked great too)
  • The Wine Bar
  • The Mercantile Kitchen & Bar
  • Gaffney’s

Things I Tell my Customers, But Don’t Always Do Myself

As a travel agent, my job is to have off the beaten path sights to see, know what to do in unforeseen situations, and stop as many unanticipated situations as possible. I can give all the advice in the world, but it doesn’t mean I always follow my text book advise myself. Each time I’ve traveled in the past few months I’ve been thinking more and more about what I would tell my clients rather that what I was doing and I thought I’d throw together a little what I tell clients vs what I do post.

Show up to the airport two hours before your flight, three hours if it’s international.
I once showed up to a flight a half hour before the flight took off, got my luggage and myself on the plane, and had a drink before take off. I wouldn’t recommend it and it was pretty stressful, but usually, you don’t need to arrive at the airport super early. Know your airport and when you’re traveling. That was at a small airport just outside of Los Angeles, I would have never done that at LAX or any of the airports here in New York City, or if my flight was first thing in the morning as that is the busiest time at an airport.  But an evening flight out of Vegas, you bet ya. I’ll see ya an hour before my flight TSA.

One Quart-sized bag of liquids.
I have literally one time in my life put my toiletries in a plastic bag, and it was a gallon, not a quart. I don’t know if that is something TSA is actually looking for but I feel like they talk about the 3-3-1 rule so much I may just keep getting lucky. One thing I won’t budge on in the 3.4 ounce rule. I once forgot I had hairspray in my carry on and I was stopped at every airport for the next week and a half of traveling. Not worth it.

Book directly with the airline or hotel.
Usually this is going to be your best bet. You’ll 90% of the time get the best price right on the hotel or airline’s website, and the fare will be a little more flexible. But there has been a time or two where I’ll check Expedia or Orbitz and if the price is hundreds of dollars in savings… I’m booking there. Truthfully those third party websites tend to have super strict fares that are nonrefundable, and their customer service is generally below par. As a travel agent we won’t even look on those sites.

Like I said earlier, there are some tips that I definitely don’t lie about and usually it’s because I’ve learned the hard way. Here are a few things that I am sure to be before or during each trip.

Weigh my suitcase.
I’m not here to pay over weight fees to the airlines. I already have to pay to bring my suitcase most of the time. I have a luggage scale that I use it before every flight that I am checking a bag. You can get one pretty cheep on Amazon that works just great. Don’t think that they’ll give you leeway for a pound or two. It depends on who you get at the counter, but I’ve had to move around my luggage too many times.

Put your boarding pass on your phone.
There are some airlines that I always have their app downloaded on my phone (hey JetBlue, I’m talking about you) but if I am flying an airline I don’t usually use, I make sure to download the app while I’m traveling. Once I check in, on the app I screen shot my boarding pass, or add it to my wallet. That way, its always available while I’m at the airport. When I have a paper boarding pass, I tend to throw it into the bottomless abyss that is my purse making it so hard to find when going through security or when actually boarding.

Buy necessities once you get there.
There is ALWAYS that one thing you forgot. If you know you’ll have a little bit of time once you get wherever you’re going, leave your shampoo and conditioner at home and stock up once you get there. If you can get by with just a carry on, checking your bag because you have to bring your shampoo isn’t worth it.

Use TSA Pre Check domestically and Mobile Pass for international.
This year I finally hopped on the TSA Pre Check bandwagon and let me tell you… heaven! Living so close to New York City, I usually am dealing with pretty big airports with a TON of people. Skipping any line is always a dream. Mobile Pass is also awesome if you’re coming back into the country. Double check if it’s taken at your home airport and if it is, sign up! I not only got to skip the customs line at JFK but I also cut in front of the people who had Global Entry.

What to do in Banff for the Non-Hikers

The Canadian Rockies are known for a few things. Gorgeous blue lakes, stunning mountain peaks, and thousands of hiking trails, but there’s a lot more to do in Banff besides just hike… up the mountains… to the blue lakes. Last fall I took a trip up to Canada where we spent a week in Banff. Here you can read more about our trip to Calgary, Banff, Lake Louise and how we got there.

As a travel agent a lot of people come in all the time not knowing where to travel. They’ve done a lot of our US National Parks and don’t know where to go from there and when I suggest the Canadian Rockies, the response I get most is… “we’re not really the outdoorsy type.” Well good news… you don’t have to be. Here are 8 things to do in the Canadian Rockies for the non-hiker.

1. Canoe on Lake Louise
Ok, so this isn’t the least strenuous activity on the list but it sure is one of my favorites. During our 45-minute canoe ride we rowed to the furthest part of the lake and on our way pack, a piece of ice from the glacier above came crashing down. Like what!? A real life avalanche?!!! One of my number one bucketlist actives for Banff National Park and it got even better than I could imagine!

2. Hot Springs
There are a ton of options for hot springs throughout the Rockies. Some of the most popular are right in town at the Banff Upper Hot Springs right near the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel. But locals told us to steer clear, there are better springs not too far away. We didn’t get to take the drive, but Radium Hot Springs is apparently well worth the hour and 45-minute drive south.

3. Shop
Between Banff Ave and bear St. there are hundreds of local shops to support. You can find anything from art galleries, souvenir shops, sports stores, and casual shopping. Some of my favorite stores we stopped in were Branches Marketplace, Rocky Mountain Flannel Company and the Rocky Mountain Soap Company. We even stopped into Banff Doghouse to bring home some treats for our furry friends.

4. Glacier Skywalk
I’m a pretty big scaredy cat when it comes to heights but this glass walkway in the middle of the Icefields Parkway was well worth concurring my fears. Suck it up and get out there! You end up right in the middle of a canyon and it’s only of the best places to see some wildlife. Plus, you get to hear a lot of good history on the drive out there.

5. Heli-Tour
Ok we did do it but there are dozens of places to take a helicopter tour of the amazing Rockies. I don’t usually like to leave a place without doing some of my top bucketlist experiences but I also am glad I have someone to bring me back. Seeing the Rockies from above is apparently breathtaking.

6. Spa
Like any 5 star hotel, the Fairmont Banff Springs and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise both have amazing Spas that would relax anyone needing a little get away from reality. Manicures, pedicures and full body massages. There is so much to choose from at both locations.

7. Eat
The food options in Banff are out of this world. It was like we were eating in New York City restaurants. My two favorites, hands down, were Block Kitchen + Bar and the Grizzly House. Your definitely need a reservation at the Grizzly House, and be prepared to wait at Block but both are worth the wait!

 

8. Moraine Lake Lookout
They say it’s a hike but really, it’s a pretty simple walk. If you can walk on uneven pavement or cobblestone, this .25 mile “hike” will be cake for you and the views will knock your socks off. A lot of the times the best views are from above but sometimes straight on is just a beautiful.

 

Weekend in Charleston, SC

Yes way FROZE! Last month a big group of us headed down to Charleston to soak up some sunshine, sip on froze and celebrate one of our best friends for her bachelorette weekend. A group of us bridesmaids have been planning this trip for almost a year and for it to have finally come and gone, all I can say is TAKE ME BACK!

There was a lot to think abut when planning this trip. First of all, there were thirteen of us. Yes you heard that right… 13 girls! Second of all, none of us had ever spent too much time in Charleston, or that area of South Carolina, so we were planning a lot of the trip blindly.

Where We Stayed: the islands vs. Charleston
Having never been, we used Google Maps to our advantage. We opted for a beach house on the Isle of Palms, an island about a half hour outside of the city. According to the locals, IOP is mostly full of vacation homes locals rent out for most of the year.

I personally really enjoyed staying on IOP. There was a little bit of everything you may need. A grocery store, a decent amount of restaurants options, a golf course and a marina for boaters. But my favorite part was the beach. Charleston itself doesn’t have beaches to lay out on. For a proper beach day, you need to head out to the islands, and IOP’s sandy beaches and warm water was perfect for our trip.

One thing to know is that if you’re looking for nightlife, you may want to stay closer into town. We wanted a nice quiet weekend by the water and that was what was perfect for us. We had a general store down by the marina that we were able to walk down to in the mornings for coffee and breakfast, and for nightlife there was really only one bar to hang out at: The Windjammer.

Pro-tip: We didn’t rent a car, and there were a lot of us so we needed a few Uber’s when heading into town or areas of the island we couldn’t walk to. But calling a rideshare wasn’t the easiest during this time of year. (We went in early April.) I’m not sure if as the season picks up this is easier but just give yourself time if you need to call a ride.

Sullivan’s Island is the next island south of IOP and is connected by a small ridge. This island has a much more local feel with a bunch of restaurants and bars along Middle St., right by the town hall. The famous writer, Edgar Allan Poe, had spent sometime on Sullivan’s Island and you’ll see a lot of acclimates to him, including restaurants, and street names.

The other two popular islands are Folly Beach and Kiawah Island, both of which are south of Charleston and neither of which we went to. According to a few shop owners and Uber drivers, Folly Beach has a pretty bad reputation for being a big party area. Something our 22-year-old selves would have loved, but at 32 we were happy we didn’t pick that island for our weekend home. Kiawah, while popular for boating and fishing, is most well known for the beautiful golf courses they have.

What We Did:
We spent our first day in Charleston exploring King St. King St. is the main drag through Charleston and has storefront after storefront of amazing restaurants, shops, cafes, and ice cream stores. Super cute but go here during the week because it gets packed! Friday when we were walking around it was pretty busy, but Saturday it was insane. A few of us went into town to do some quick shopping and it was a mad house walking up and down the street.

Friday night we went back into Charleston to be as basic as we could get and go candle making. Candlefish not only sells hand crafted candles with over 100 scents to choose from, but they also offer DIY candle making workshops where you can be your own Chandler (candlemaker). What I loved was there were a lot of us that night and we each have our own fragrances we prefer and lean towards. I gravitate toward musky, woodsy smells, while some of my girlfriends go for the  florals or vanillas.  We had so many options to pick from and could really choose what we each liked.

Everyone made two candles, they set overnight and we were able to pick them up the next day or get them shipped (which we opted for). One of the best parts of the whole experience…. BYOB. We brought a few bottles of wine and while I’m sure wrangling 12 tipsy girls in their 30s was not what our Chandler wanted to do on her Friday night, Sarah was amazing with us.

Saturday, we spent the day on the water with Aqua Safaris. We chartered a sail boat, the Serena, to pick us up in Isle of Palm. Captain John took us out onto Copahee Sound and into the Atlantic Ocean. Our three hours on the water was the perfect amount of fun in the sun to completely drain us for the rest of the day.

We were able to bring our own food and drinks onto the boat, so we stopped at the Marina Market right near the dock to grab lunch for the sail. Captain John and his first mate did an amazing job of bringing us around the area and telling us about the nearby islands. They made sure we had an amazing time.

Since we lucked out with such amazing weather for our sail, we decided to keep it going with a full beach day on Sunday. A few of us went exploring and we headed over to Sullivan’s Island to check out the Lighthouse and Fort Moultrie which are both part of the National Park Service.

We spent our last day in Charleston exploring the city itself. We started down by Washington Square and headed over to Rainbow Row before cutting over to Waterfront Park. Wow, wow, wow. Every turn was more stunning that the last. We spent a lot of time at Waterfront Park, soaking up the time by the water and avoiding the crowded, city streets filled from the cruise ship that was in port.

Pro Tip: Charleston is a super walkable city. Looking at a map before we got there, it seemed like everything was pretty spread out. I assumed we would need to Uber or get taxis to get around, but once you are in the city you can really walk anywhere.

On our way out of Waterfront Park, we did a little shopping on Vendue Range before climbing to the highest floor of the Vendue hotel for a cocktail at their rooftop lounge. The 360 views of the city were stunning during the day. From our seats you could see over to Mt. Pleasant across the Cooper River and even to the Ravenel Bridge, which is a must for all Bravo fans.

Another must see spot in town is the Historic Charleston City Market where you can pick up souvenirs from local artisans. Homemade soaps, artwork, sculptures, clothes and spices lined Market St. for nearly four blocks.

Where We Ate
After a long travel morning, the first day we dropped our luggage off and headed straight to the Daily, a coffee shop on King St. to fuel up. Their cold brew was exactly what I needed. The Daily had lots of quick bites, dips, grape leaves, couscous and noddle salads. Perfect options for a quick lunch or even to pick something up and bring to have lunch at Waterfront Park.

For lunch we headed south on King St. and stumbled into the Rarebit, a small restaurant with a 60s vibe and retro feel. Their Bloody Mary’s brought us all back to life but definitely ask for it spicy. It was insane. Most of us had salads and sandwiches but since it was national grilled cheese day I had to indulge. Their grilled cheese and tomato soup were amazing and hit the spot.

We wandered down King St. to the Skinny Dip, a cute boutique on the first floor with an even cuter second floor cafe to get their super instagramable frozes on the rooftop patio. We spent our first night in Charleston living up the rooftop life at one of their most popular lounges, Eleve. We started outside with their truffle fries and flatbread and a few bottles of champagne. But when the live music began, we headed inside for a sit down dinner. The truffle fries were so good we had to get a second round. I also got their lobster and crab bisque and fried oysters. Heaven.

For brunch one morning we went to the Barbados Room at the Mill House, a Wyndham Grand Hotel. Charleston has a thing for their crab soup and this did not disappoint. Their oysters were pretty amazing too, and that’s just what we started with. At this point I was in desperate need for some greens so I was more than happy with my shrimp Caesar salad.

Charleston had so many amazing eateries we had heard about we obviously couldn’t make it to them all so here is a list of some places I’d want to try next time I’m in town:

Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits
The Ordinary
The Rise Coffee Bar
Magnolia’s
82 Queen
Leon’s Oyster Shop
Poe’s Tavern
Stars Rooftop
Charleston Crab Shack

Because we had a pretty fully packed weekend, we decided to spend out last night in an hire a private chef to come to us. Chef Jen Solazzo came to us and prepped a three-course family style meal of amazing Southern food. We started with buttermilk biscuits with brie and fig, deviled eggs with bacon, pimento cheese with a huge platter for dipping and of course a huge salad. And that was our cocktail hour. Jen then served us our dinner of homemade shrimp and grits which were probably the best grits I’ve ever had. We ended with a homemade cheesecake for dessert.

I honestly couldn’t recommend her more! She did it all from the shopping for groceries, bringing the serving plates and dishes, plating and serving the meal and even the cleanup. I’m pretty sure that kitchen looked way better after she left then when she got there. Jen does private parties of all sizes and occasions, cocktail parties and even food styling and recipe development. If you’re getting a house, a private chef is the perfect way to unwind, all you need is to bring the wine and relax as you live like luxury.

Have you guys ever been to Charleston? What were your favorite places to grab a bite to eat or drink??