ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA - It’s still 20 minutes before 11 (a.m.) when we hop in our VW Bug rental car and make a bee line for this city’s eclectic River Arts District, where Asheville’s landmark 12 Bones Smokehouse restaurant is located.
We’re told 12 Bones is the best barbeque restaurant in town — maybe the state — and it’s where U.S. President Barack Obama eats when he visits Asheville (he’s been here twice; his latest visit was in the spring of 2010).
“If you don’t get there before 11 when 12 Bones opens, you could be waiting in line a long time,” we’re told by a local trolley driver.
So we race down the steep roller coaster streets that connect the upper and lower parts of this picturesque town nestled in the lush valleys of the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains in an attempt to beat the crowds.
Along the way we pass reminders of Asheville’s industrial-age past — abandoned factories now converted into artist lofts where potters, painters, glassblowers and sculptors, all enjoying the bohemian spirit this city provides such creative people, work.
We reach the bottom of Haywood St., cross some railway tracks and pull up in front of a dingy-looking establishment with a sign identifying it as 12 Bones.
We’ve arrived five minutes ahead of the scheduled opening. We’ve beaten the clock, but not the crowds. Our hearts sag as we see at least 50 people waiting in line to gain entrance to the small eatery. And more people are piling out of several taxis that suddenly appear on the scene.
Downcast, we join the others in line on a hot, humid summer’s day and hear someone ask: “Do you think they made Obama stand in line?”
Surprisingly, the line moves quickly and soon we are being asked to place our order by a petit woman standing under a 12 Bones ball cap.
We scan the menu hanging above her head, the one offering mouth-watering pulled pork, baby back ribs, beef brisket and pulled chicken that, according to the sign, have been “smoked long and slow.”
Above: The Vanderbilt estate is Asheville’s pride and joy.
We order exactly what the president reportedly ordered — 12 ribs (six with 12 Bones’ famous chipotle-blueberry BBQ sauce and six with a brown sugar rub), along with side orders of macaroni and cheese, corn bread and coleslaw; with corn pudding for dessert.
As we wait for our food to arrive, we ask the young woman if she really made the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, wait in line.
“Darn right I did,” snaps 12 Bones’ owner Sabra Keller in a southern accent as sweet as the barbeque sauce that covers her award-winning ribs.
“Hell, I even make my mama wait in line and she’s a lot more powerful than Mr. Obama.”
(We later discover that because of security reasons and presidential privilege, Obama was actually ushered inside the restaurant — but he did have to wait his turn in line and enjoyed “jawing” with the restaurant’s other patrons, according to Keller.)
The experience at 12 Bones is so exceptional, we wonder what else the U.S. President did when he and First Lady Michelle visited this charming town (April 23-25, 2010) where the air is spiced with the aromatic scents emanating from the lush pine rainforest that surrounds it.
The people at the Asheville Tourism Office have, thanks to so many requests, compiled a list of the things the President and his wife did during their three-day stay here.
“People like following in the President’s footsteps,” Dodie Stephens, the tourist office’s congenial media officer tells us. “Mr. Obama really turned a spotlight on Asheville and we’ve seen a spike in visitors ever since.”
So, armed with a copy of the Obamas’ Asheville itinerary, we set out on our own three-day tour to explore this peaceful town where the rich and powerful have been coming for decades to soak up the cool mountain air and dine on the sweet natural eye candy that surrounds it.
Above: Enjoying a nice afternoon in Asheville.
The Obamas, after eating at 12 Bones and taking a brief tour of the River Arts District — located along the gently-flowing French Broad River — check into the historic Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa which sits perched overlooking Sunset Mountain and the handsome Asheville skyline.
We do the same.
The Inn that legendary E.W. Grove built in 1913 on the profits he made from his Tasteless Chill Tonic — it actually outsold Coca-Cola at one time — is an Asheville landmark, and its amazing spa is now rated the best facility in America. The Inn is more castle-like in its appearance; built with huge boulders cut out of the Sunset Mountain it looks out on and it’s topped with a red thatched roof that can be seen from far off distances. It looks very presidential and 10 U.S. presidents — Obama being the latest — have stayed here, along with a host of luminaries from the entertainment and literary world.
The 14-foot-high fireplaces with the elevators embedded in the back, along with the breathtaking views afforded guests of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountain magic from the Inn’s Sunset Terrace, is what we find most impressive.
After checking in, the Obamas take an hour-long hike along the Mountains-to-Sea portion of the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, which was celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2010.
We elect to take an hour-long drive — hoping to see more of this 620-kilometre ribbon of beauty that connects Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park with North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The scenic byway, constructed during the Great Depression features wonders like Chimney Rock, Blowing Rock, natural bridges, waterfalls, stalagmite caverns and communities that exude a mountain spirit.
The itinerary indicates the Obamas enjoyed a romantic dinner on the Grove Park Inn’s Sunset Terrace as the sun disappeared behind Sunset Mountain.
We decide we’ll wait until Day II — my partner’s birthday — to enjoy the Sunset Terrace experience, and opt instead to take a tour of downtown Asheville our first night.
The sound of music draws us to a small diamond-shaped park off Patton Ave., not far from the Grove Arcade, an historic building that has been converted into a chic shopping arcade.
The park is packed with people, all enjoying the upbeat sounds provided by musicians decked out in colourful clothing. Others sit at tables playing checkers and dancers try to draft us into their little troupe. The festive atmosphere is electric but the aromas coming from the Tupelo Honey Café lure us across the street and into a restaurant noted for dishing up cuisine made with locally-grown organic ingredients.
In nearby Pack Square, the city’s historic gathering spot which is bordered by some of Asheville’s famed Art Deco buildings, we find an obelisk dedicated to war veterans, some more trendy restaurants, and a bronze-fountain centerpiece. From a bench we see the sky turn a brilliant orange and bid farewell to our first day in Asheville.
Again influenced by the Obamas’ hectic itinerary, we see the President started Day II with a round of golf while the First Lady immersed herself in The Spa at the Grove Park.
So, just like Barack, off I go to play a round on the legendary Donald Ross-designed Grove Park course while my partner signs up for a Grove Park Classic massage treatment at the Inn’s outstanding grotto-like spa facility which features lots of treatment rooms, an army of excellent therapists, waterfall pools, steam rooms and a lap pool with piped-in underwater music.
The spa was music to my partner’s ears and she’s so impressed she decides to book another treatment for the following morning.
I’m also impressed with what the legendary Ross built at the Grove Park — he also designed Pinehurst No. 2, where the U.S. Open has been played twice — so I book another round for the following day, as well. The rolling 6,700-yard, par 70 gem is smaller than most of Ross’s championship layouts. But the conditions here are always top notch and the fact you never lose sight of the dramatic Inn and mountains during a round just adds to the excitement of playing a course where Bobby Jones spent his summers.
The afternoon is set aside for a visit to the Biltmore Estate, a grand home — officially America’s largest — built by George W. Vanderbilt in the late 1800s on a good chunk of prime Asheville real estate. America’s Versailles sits in the Blue Ridge forest like a jewel on a green velvet pillow. The President and Mrs. Obama were reportedly impressed. So are we
Then again, it’s hard not to be impressed with Vanderbilt’s monument to excess, which features 250 rooms — 43 bathrooms alone — along with art pieces and tapestries that would not look out of place in the Louvre; an indoor swimming pool, bowling alley and a series of magical gardens.
The mansion is the centerpiece of an estate spread over 8,000 acres and which also features an award-winning winery, hiking and cycling trails, an Inn that’s a mini Grove Park, and its own village.
Left: 12 Bones owner pulls a mean pint. Right: They line up early to get the ribs at 12 Bones.
Biltmore Village is where the Obamas eat dinner on Day II, at a healthy eatery called the Corner Kitchen, but, because we have reservations at the Grove Park’s Sunset Terrace, we simply explore the place that was designed in the 1890s directly across from the estate entrance. The village even has its own cathedral, where Vanderbilt’s only daughter, Cornelia, was married.
Our perfectly-prepared and presented Sunset Terrace meal, and the sheer thrill of seeing the sun and Blue Ridge Mountains work together in romantic harmony at the end of a day, is a perfect way to end Day II in Asheville.
The final day of the presidential visit sees the Obamas enjoying a Sunday Brunch in their suite before driving to nearby Black Mountain, a Main Street, U.S.A. town where the Reverend Billy Graham lives.
After paying a courtesy call on Graham, the spiritual adviser to many American leaders, the Obamas fly back to Washington.
Our morning round of golf and spa treatment over, we drive the 60 kilometres to Black Mountain and are greeted by a town that looks like it jumped off a Norman Rockwell canvas. Sweet-smelling bake shops, cafes, quilt shops and toy stores are what make Black Mountain enchanting.
After purchasing a couple of quilts, we head back to Asheville to sample some of the city’s micro-brews. Asheville is actually the craft-brewing capital of the southeast and its nine local breweries turn out 50 different beers. The president tried a few and was impressed.
Obama’s enthusiasm for craft beers prompted local brewer Mike Rangal at the Asheville Brewing Co. to make up a special blend to commemorate the president’s visit.
Over a pint of President’s Spring Break Ale, we toast all that Asheville has to offer. It’s a place fit for kings of industries, presidents of the United States, or just plain folk like us passing through one of the loveliest towns in America.