Our drive to another destination resort would take us through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the country. On our way, we stopped along the Arts and Crafts loop just outside of Gatlinburg, a wonderful assortment of scores of local artists along an eight mile loop which winds through the foot hills of the Smokies. This was the highlight of the day, as the park itself was a bit of a let down. The mountains would basically be classified as hills west of the Mississippi, and were pleasant enough, but nothing we had seen many times over on our trip. As we descended into western North Carolina, we entered the Cherokee Indian reservation, which is as depressing as every other indian reservation we have been through, especially with billboards saying "Domestic Violence is Not Part of Our Culture", ramshackle casinos and curio stores tended by aging keepers in worn headdresses. We arrived in Asheville shortly and would spend the next two days at The Grove Park Inn, a massive Craftsman resort built in the hills above Asheville
. Asheville gained its popularity as a health destination in the early 1900s due to its bracing mountain air and nearby sulphur springs and Grove Park was built as a destination resort in the 1930s. The massive lobby holds two three story fireplaces built from local boulders pulled from the hillsides and beautiful oak woodwork. A bonus for Kirsten is another top notch spa, which was just added two years ago. We were here to relax in this historical setting, and so took runs, relaxed in the spa (parked under the massaging waterfall hot tubs) and wandered around the historical downtown, which is nestled into the valleys between the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. We did venture on one sightseeing sojourn here, to the Biltmore Estate, where the Vanderbilts spent time in the country when outside of New York. This massive estate had a 5 mile drive around the grounds, an arboretum and a winery. The house itself was magnificent, and had the expected collection of Louis XIV furniture, impressionist paintings and Napoleon's chess set. More interesting was a full-on pipe organ in the banquet room, a bowling alley and pool in the basement and so on. Unfortunately this was yet another location which prohibited photos inside. We had fun taking the girls through the estate in back packs, telling them to be on the look out for the prince and princess in the "castle". Jocelyn kept asking the guards where the princess was, and don't you know it, we just kept missing her (out getting lunch, napping, helping the queen, etc.). The search for royalty did get us through the entire mansion without a meltdown, though.
June 5 (Day 36) Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill
We spent a day in the "research triangle" area wandering the campuses of Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, checking out the museums and overnighting before our push to the coast the next day
. We really enjoyed the small town feel of Chapel Hill, which had all the resources of Duke and UNC at its disposal, including an art museum with the largest collection of Asian art in the southeast, which Kirsten enjoyed critiquing.
June 6 (Day 37) Belhaven
Our arrival in Belhaven gave us the first hints we were approaching the Atlantic Coast. This tidewater area of North Carolina had a very similar feel to the bayou area of Louisiana, from the socioeconomic diversity to the sprawling plantations (tobacco instead of sugarcane this time). As we drew into town we thought we were going to have another St. Martinville on our hands, as the town looked deserted and run down. However, a half mile further down the road and we were in a different landscape of harborside homes, sailboats in their slips at marinas and our destination the Riverview Marina and Hotel. We had an introduction to the Carolina mosquito while in Belhaven. We were eaten alive. These bugs somehow extract pints without even a hint of a bite. Anyway, we felt Belhaven was a bit strange, we could not put our fingers on it, but we were happy to move on to our next destination resort, the Outer Banks.
June 7-8 (Days 38-39) Duck, NC (Outer Banks)
We drove through marsh land and stunted pine forests from Belhaven out to the narrow sand spit called the Outer Banks
. Many of you may know the Outer Banks as a common landing point for hurricanes and tropical storms moving up the eastern seaboard. We were shocked and stunned at the amount of over development from Nags Head up to the town of Duck, where we were staying. Mega house upon mega house, each an arms length apart and strip mall after strip mall. It was a huge disappointment for us. We drove south to Cape Hatteras to see the famed lighthouse and seek out some unspoiled beach. We were relieved to see the park service had preserved what it could of the coastline. Our trip to the Hatteras light was also a disappointment, as we were not allowed to carry the girls to the top. So we admired the structure from afar, more so because this massive building had been moved 800 yards inland on hydraulic jacks recently to protect it from the encroaching ocean. We made a quick stop at the old lighthouse location and let the girls play on the beach for five minutes before a rain squall moved in and it basically continued to rain for the rest of our stay on the outer banks. Thankfully the rain was spotty and we were able to visit the other primary attraction for us, The Wright Brothers Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, just south of Duck. This green plot is protected by the national park service, thankfully, as just outside the gates we saw the First Flight Buffet and the like. As you may know, this year is the Centennial of Flight, and the park is gearing up for that date on December 17, which will be 100 years to the day of those famous four flights. When we went out to the markers which show the distance the Wright Flyer covered in those four test flights, we were shocked at how short the first flight was. It is literally a stone's throw or less in 12 seconds. The final flight that day, at 59 seconds covered a more impressive distance.