If you get paid time off, I’m a firm believer in taking at least one full week off once a year to go on vacation. In a study that I once read (but can no longer seem to find), researchers suggested it takes a minimum of two weeks away from your workspace to reap the full mental benefits of a vacation.
Two weeks in a row ain’t in the cards for me quite yet. So, for the past couple years, my once-per-year weeklong vacations entailed camping in national parks, partly because it’s what I love to do and partly because camping is cheap.
But this year, Mike and I wanted to take a break from tenting. That’s when we settled on a part of the country neither of us was too familiar with: the southeast. We road-tripped from Chicago to Charleston (a 13-hour drive) and broke up the distance by stopping in Asheville, North Carolina for a spell.
Here are some highlights from our first leg of the trip.
Touring George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina
George Vanderbilt, son of shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, chose Asheville as the locale for his turn-of-the-century manse called Biltmore Estate. Though it was intended to be a bachelor pad, Biltmore became the largest home in America (I imagine George was like, whoopsy poopsy!), which is what happens when you’re the grandson of the wealthiest man in America, I s’pose.
I love house museums, so when I discovered that our road trip route passed through Asheville, I basically rolled up my sleeves and declared Christmas done come early this year. Mike was a trooper. We marveled at Vanderbilt’s goodies: Flemish tapestries from the 1600s, original Renoir portraits, a two-story library filled with invaluable first edition prints including Darwin’s Origin of Species, a collection of flags from the Columbian World’s Exposition. Mama likey.
Speaking of the library, I want my ashes spread there, if only to piss off the guard who wouldn’t let me take a (flashless, mind you) photo with my iPhone. It reminded of the library from The Beauty and the Beast, with an enormous fireplace, plush oversized couches, and a second floor balcony that led to a secret hallway. Here’s a photo from the site so you get the full idea. But you have to imagine it with four walls of books!
Mike managed to sneak a photo of the dining room. That’s m’boy.
After, we toured the estate’s gardens, designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (he of Central Park fame). My favorite was the Walled Garden, because of its delicious Art Deco, 1920s-California feel.
Historic Downtown Charleston
We scheduled an introductory carriage tour of Charleston’s massive historic district on our first morning in town, which provided a much-needed overview of the city’s history and general layout. The town’s overall look and colonial roots reminded me a lot of Boston, actually, just with a tropical bent.
I fell in love with every house and cobblestone street I saw. I could spend my whole life on those big Charleston porches, with a good novel in hand.
Later, we paddled through the swamp forests of Cypress Gardens. Any Notebook fans, this is the swamp where Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams row through all those ducks and get caught in the rain storm…oh what the hell, let’s just watch the clip together.
They ain’t kidding when they call it “blackwater” down here. Couldn’t see a darned thing beneath that water surface. I was very aware that we were in prime gator territory. I kept asking Mike, “Okay, how much money to jump in and swim to THAT tree” and so on. The correct answer is no amount of money when there are prehistoric eating machines just waiting to snap your femur like a wishbone.
We spotted a baby gator sunning himself and then spied his momma around the corner. Those son-of-a-guns sure know how to blend in.
Fort Sumter is situated near the mouth of the Charleston Harbor. Apparently, when the Confederates bombed it in 1861 (officially kicking off the Civil War), the well-heeled homeowners with waterfront views in Charleston held porch parties to watch the attack.
We walked through a museum detailing the events leading up to the bombing and it was a much-needed refresher course on the build-up to the Civil War. I remarked to Mike that the 1860s were not really that long ago and how it’s absolutely bananas to think of a state just saying, “Eff this noise” and actually LEAVING the union. And then taking 10 other states with it. So while the fort itself was a bit underwhelming, I definitely walked away with a deeper understanding of the Civil War.
Stay tuned for Part II, in which we visited plantations, kayaked with dolphins, and ate our weight in southern fried foods.