By: Aimee Tafreshi
It’s that magical time of year again … time for sweetly decorated sugar cookies, brightly twinkling lights and Nat King Cole singing on the radio … and time to decide how, when and where you will spend your holidays. If you have children and there are grandparents in the picture, chances are your holiday schedule may look more complex than a shared custody arrangement. Distribute family members throughout the country, and you may have no choice but to alternate years or holidays at different homes. Or better yet, make them all travel to you à la Christmas Vacation. We all know how well that turned out…
Last year, my husband’s work schedule offered the opportunity to take vacation, so we stuffed our SUV to the gills and hit the road for Texas, just over 1,000 miles halfway across the country. Our road trip required a hotel stop to break up the drive, and even then we were putting the pedal to the medal to make good time and arrive as quickly as possible. We were lucky because my family lives in Austin, while hubby’s family was down the road in Houston, so we could share nearly a week with each of them. We spent time at my parents’ house, his uncle’s house and a rented beach house in a game of musical homes.
We have generous family members who bestowed many gifts on our children, so my husband and father-in-law spent the final two days of our trip locating the last rooftop cargo carrier in the greater Houston area and securing the behemoth case to our car. As we pulled away from the quaint beach house, we expressed gratitude at getting to see all of our family members in one fell swoop and felt relief that we did our duty. We then immediately agreed that next time they could come to us!
This year is different. My spouse’s work schedule is grueling, and we are getting older and more tired. We didn’t entertain the thought of driving to the Lone Star State for Thanksgiving, as the road trip alone would have consumed four days. We looked up airfare for a family of five to see a price tag in the couple of thousands, and when we checked airfare to see his parents in Alaska, the price tag was double.
Where do you go when you live in a beach town and have no relatives living east of the Mississippi? You head to the mountains! The eighty-degree Florida weather in November was beginning to wear on my nerves, and my husband was a polar bear in a past life, with his ability to wear shorts in forty-degree temps. I recalled visiting a cool, happening town called Asheville in 2001 when clerking at a South Carolina law firm. I remembered that there were smaller mountains (compared to the Rockies), a thriving food and beer scene and the Biltmore Estate. I was sold just imagining how the cool weather would feel on my face and arms, as opposed to dried sweat and humidity.
We decide we would spend three full days in Asheville, with two days dedicated to driving. As the trip approached, I began researching restaurants online and reviewing my North Carolina travel guide. I became so excited that I decided we should head out a day earlier, giving us one extra day to enjoy all that Asheville has to offer. Unfortunately, I came to this realization on the very morning that I wanted to head to the mountains with nary a suitcase packed.
We hurriedly gathered enough cold weather gear for a move to Switzerland and headed out just shy of 3 p.m. This was not the wisest decision, as darkness would fall around 5:30, and we would arrive well past the kids’ bedtimes. Two-thirds of the way there, our weary bodies and bleary eyes begged us to stop at a hotel for the night, but we stubbornly pressed onward.
Armed with only sea bands, my older son began feeling a little woozy driving through the mountains, which suddenly towered over the dark horizon when we crossed into North Carolina. We didn’t think too much of his whimpers until he puked all over himself. It’s not a real road trip experience until a child has thrown up all over his person and his car seat. (On a previous excursion my husband cleaned up the sick child while lightning struck the ground around us and I cowered in my seat.) We lost about 30 minutes at a sketchy gas station cleaning him up as best we could and arrived at our hotel looking (and smelling) a little worse for the wear.
After settling the kids into their beds, their father of the year had to make a midnight run to the local drugstore for cleaning supplies. You’d think we’d know to bring disinfectant wipes by now. On the plus side, the room set-up was perfect. We had a suite, which is a must-have with children. We woke up the next day and headed down to the free breakfast buffet. After feeding our picky eaters, we headed back up to the room to plan our day. Our son proceeded to regurgitate the contents of his breakfast, all over himself, so we then prepared to do our second load of hotel laundry. (Conveniently the laundry facilities were located on our floor.)
Once every one was dressed in non-soiled clothes, I checked the weather to see sub-freezing temperatures for the morning. We bundled up in our arctic gear and headed out to the Western North Carolina Nature Center. In a stroke of luck, our local zoo membership got us a fifty percent discount off admission. Now most of us parents have seen our fair share of zoos and critters, but this one ranks toward the top for me. Other than freezing and suddenly longing for the Florida shorts and flip flop weather, the scenery was tree-filled and postcard perfect. My favorite exhibits included the gray wolves, some of which eerily resembled my longer-haired German Shepherd, and the highly endangered red wolves. There was supposed to be a black bear, but he was smarter than us humans and staying warm in his den.
After unwisely choosing a breakfast of simple carbs and walking around in the frigid air, I was as ravenous as one of those rangy wolves. We wrapped up our visit at the wildlife park and headed downtown to a famous restaurant called Tupelo Honey. I remembered what it was like to live in a bigger city when we had to park in a cramped garage and walk to the restaurant. My older son complained the whole walk about the bitter cold, and secretly I wanted to cry, too.
We showed up to the restaurant way beyond the typical lunch hour, and the joint was packed wall-to-wall with hungry locals and tourists. After enduring a 20-minute wait (that felt like an eternity with crazed hellions), we were seated. In our famished state, we ordered two appetizers (pimento cheese dip and a goat cheese plate), which were then followed by the best homemade biscuits and blueberry jam I have ever tasted in my life. I could have just eaten biscuits and jam for lunch, and I am not even a bread person.
When my entrée arrived – their signature shrimp and grits, jazzed up with some goat cheese (what else?), red peppers and mouth-watering chorizo – I could barely put a dent in my meal. I shoved spoonfuls of southern deliciousness in my mouth until my stomach begged me to stop. Transformed from weak and cold to as stuffed as a turkey on Thanksgiving, we waddled back to the car. I complimented my husband’s great sense of direction in finding the parking garage and commented, “If it was just me, I’d be lost already walking around downtown Charlotte.” Oh wait, we’re in Asheville… I can’t even keep my cities straight, let alone my city blocks.
After our initial vacation hiccups, the trip smoothed out and we began to enter into that relaxation mode that is so elusive when you have small children accompanying you. Our youngest son’s favorite activity was the indoor pool, which brought back memories of my younger sister and I swimming at the Embassy Suites on various family vacations. We were prepared and brought the kiddie inner tubes so we could be somewhat “hands free” in the pool. We splashed and played in the water every evening, teaching the kids “Marco Polo” and stealing some time in the hot tub to warm up our chilled bodies.
The most memorable time for me was the day we visited the sprawling Biltmore Estate. I had toured the grand home in my twenties but could only remember the indoor pool and bowling alley. I had reserved audio guides for us adults, but our two oldest children commandeered them. They would listen and repeat various facts about the home to me. Next time I will splurge for two of the children’s narrated headphones, as the audio guides proved invaluable in keeping them engaged (i.e., not bored, pummeling each other, or destroying priceless Vanderbilt heirlooms) as we toured the 250-room mansion.
We marveled at one of the country’s first bowling alleys and large but barren natatorium and laughed at the wooden old-fashioned dog gate to keep the help’s large dogs out of the kitchen in the early 1900s. After our tour of the chateau, we chose to eat lunch on the estate in a horse stable turned causal restaurant, a fitting venue for our wild bunch. We were impressed to learn that our meat was sourced from the Biltmore property, where they raise cattle and other livestock.
Following a post-lunch walk around the expansive gardens, we headed to a different part of the sprawling grounds, which now houses a village and winery, as well as two hotels. Alex and I relished our first winery experience together while the kids savored some grape juice. My youngest son shotgunned his drink and raced up to the bar with berry-stained vampire lips begging for another glass. We bought a couple of bottles of the local vino, great for Christmas gifts, and capped off the day at the ice cream shop. It’s safe to say that we ate our way through Asheville!
A favorite memory of our trip was the unique Asheville Pinball Museum in downtown. We knew this was a hot ticket when we arrived to a waitlist with a thirty-minute wait. In the interim, we headed down the street to view the Basilica of St. Lawrence, a Catholic church designed by the same design team behind the Biltmore House, and considered an “architectural treasure” of the town. We walked inside to see the luminous stained glass walls, and luckily the kids were quiet and respectful toward the few worshipers inside.
The Pinball Museum was an experience that could be enjoyed across generations. The gallery housed working pinball machines dating back to the 1960s through the decades. We rotated around the large arcade, trying out different machines, and even my youngest son was able to pull the knob with enough force to put each ball into play. The hidden gems of the museum were tucked away in a back room, where old Atari and classic video games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong beckoned. We ended our outing with the original Mario Brothers, a classic for our generation, and I passed through some of the levels before getting killed off, even recalling some tricks. Now the kids want Nintendos for Christmas…
Altogether, our trip to Asheville was one of our most successful family vacations. I think its laidback nature, with a mix of planning and spontaneity, contributed to the satisfaction level. The hotel played a big part too, with its free hot breakfasts (a bonus for large families) and complimentary dinner (with free booze!) served during most nights.
And I hadn’t even mentioned the best part – the majestic scenery. A feeling of peace descended upon us as we took in the mountainous views. After stuffing our faces at the historic Grove Park Inn on Thanksgiving, we leisurely drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway and simply took in its natural beauty and peaks of the cityscape between the vibrant fall foliage and the lush rolling hills.
We will definitely return to Asheville. As the kids get older, we will seek out adventure activities like zip lining or white-water rafting. And there’s about 600 restaurants left to sample…
What I took away from this family vacation is that sometimes a non-traditional celebration or destination can exceed your expectations and create new customs and treasured memories. As we enter the holidays, we will be spending our first Christmas at our own home, having traveled out-of-state for the last two seasons. We are excited to stroll through our own downtown among the glimmering lights, decorate our first non-artificial tree, eat at our favorite Mexican food restaurant on the big day and not worry about overstuffed luggage or airport layovers. Wherever your holidays take you this year, here’s to celebrating old traditions, embracing new ones and creating your own.
Aimee Tafreshi is a mother of three young children and former litigator who has contributed to Nameberry.com, Fé Fit and her own blog, aimeetafreshi.com. She also enjoys teaching Zumba in her spare time, seeking out Mexican food dives (in Florida!) and watching Texas football.