Late April found me driving through the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. As mentioned at the end of my last blog entry, I planned to visit the remaining uncollected counties in VA, as well as the last mountain counties in NC and TN. With that in mind, the trip south began.
The first stop (not counting breakfast) was Clintwood, VA, roughly 6 hours from home. Another 6 hours, and 7 county seats, brought me to Boone, NC and the CY. This location has been open for about three years and still has that new feeling. jakeal and other beer fans will appreciate the beer and wine shop right next door stocked with all manner of libations and staffed by a knowledgeable staff. Looking for something from the local area, this is the place to go.
Following a recommendation from IAHFLYR, after getting settled, I drove another 7 or so miles to the town of Blowing Rock to eat at Woodlands Bar-B-Que.
Dinner was good, but not as amazing as I had hoped. My pulled pork sandwich was a little on the dry side, but a generous squirt of BBQ sauce and a dollop of coleslaw on top (Carolina style) solved that problem. I enjoyed dinner while listening to a local musician playing guitar and singing. Not a bad way to start a trip.
Driving the hills of western NC and eastern TN through towns like Burnsville, Bakersville, Jonesborough, brought me to Asheville, NC by the end of day 2. I had originally planned on staying at the Autograph Grand Bohemian, but when the rate jumped to almost three times the price of a room at the Renaissance, I opted for the latter. Being upgraded to a suite proved that I made the right choice. Dinner in Asheville was at the nearby Pack’s Tavern where I sampled a couple of the local craft brews. My favorite was the Hi-Wire Lager, made right in downtown Asheville. The area around Asheville has more microbreweries per capita than anywhere else in the U.S., something I learned from the front desk staff at the Renaissance.
The Renaissance in Asheville is within easy walking distance of more restaurants than I could count. It’s now a category 8 property, and while nice, I’m not sure why it’s rated so. I've stayed at nicer properties which were lower categories, so location must be a major factor. Certainly a place I can recommend, and one I would consider visiting again.
Day 3 took me farther south into NC and eventually to northeast GA. One notable stop along the way was Brevard, NC, the county seat for Transylvania County. Among other things, the area is known for its white squirrels. During my short visit, I saw three different indications of the significance these little creatures (though sadly, no actual white squirrels).
For anyone interested the town holds an annual White Squirrel Festival the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday before Memorial Day. Now might be a good time to make plans.
By late afternoon, I visited the last county on my list for the day and headed south about another 30 miles to the Springhill Suites in Athens, GA. I had previously driven through Athens and collected the nearby counties, but being so close foxglove territory, I couldn't pass up a chance to visit with a fellow Insider. Details of this meeting can be found at Another Insider meet up (bejacob and foxglove).
Day 4 took me north, this time as far as Knoxville, TN. Though the day began with rain, it cleared up by the time I reached Deal’s Gap and the Tail of the Dragon, the nickname for US route 129 between NC and TN. Route 129 winds along the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and has become a favorite drive for car and motorcycle enthusiasts. For me, it represented the shortest distance from Robbinsville, NC and Maryville, TN. Over the course of about 11 miles, there are 318 curves. Some readers may remember about a year ago I mentioned this route when I drove state route 16 in western VA which has been nicknamed “The Back of the Dragon” (see North Carolina – From the Mountains to the Sea). Back then, I didn't think I'd have an opportunity to experience this route as well. Funny how things work out sometimes. The drive along US 129 is not for the timid, but it as long as traffic isn't too heavy, it can be enjoyable and the scenery is amazing. Here is a map showing the route (note the yellow mileage signs).
Before starting the drive, I stopped at the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort to take a few photos. One of my favorites was the “Tree of Shame” which collects pieces of wrecked motorcycles from along the route.
Though not particularly dangerous if diving at a reasonable speed, every year it seems at least one reckless biker loses his life on the road. It does put things in perspective. The popularity of the Tail of the Dragon has encouraged numerous enterprising photographers to set up shop along the route. Much like roller coaster cameras, photos are available for purchase on the web after the ride. I'm still deciding if I want to buy one (I found my pictures from all the different companies, but have not yet determined which one to get, if any. It is, after all, just a picture of me in my car, though I suppose it does prove I was there).
By early evening Saturday, I arrived at the Knoxville Marriott. The properties dates from the early 1970s and is reminiscent of the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World in its A-frame design and 10-story lobby (though no monorail). Despite a couple places where it shows its age, it is well-maintained, and is a great place to stay when in Knoxville. Oh, and is still a category 5 property. It compared favorably with the category 8 Renaissance in Asheville, making it a bargain for points redemption. I would gladly visit again.
It’s an easy walk from the hotel to downtown Knoxville where a plethora of restaurants await. I chose the Downtown Grill & Brewery. Beer is brewed on site (their coasters proudly proclaim “the cure for all your ales”) and with 7 signature beers, there is bound to be one that pleases (I liked the Downtown Blonde Ale best).
By midday Sunday, I mailed the last postcard of this trip and headed home. Of the 62 postcards sent, all but one have arrived. Hopefully the missing one (Ellijay, GA) will show up soon. If not, are return visit will be in order. As has become my habit, I have prepared before and after maps showing my continuing progress.
The goal for the trip was to fill in that strange gap just below WV. Looking at the ‘after’ map, I’d say, “Mission Accomplished.” I still have a few counties in northern Georgia along I-75, but a flight to ATL on DL and a rental car would take care of those in no time.
Each check-in was accomplished with the mobile app which worked like a charm. Keys were ready for pickup when I arrived at each of the four hotels which happened to all be different brands. I did get one upgrade and because the lounge was closed at both the Renaissance (renovation) and the Marriott (weekend), I earned additional points.
During this journey, Virginia became the 10th state in which I have mailed and received postcards from every country. Virginia, in addition to the 95 counties, has 38 independent cities which are technically not part of any county despite the fact that 13 of these cities also serve as county seats. So I collected 120 postcards in the state, 95 county seats, plus the 25 independent cities that are not county seats (confused yet? Don't worry, it took me a while to figure out how I was going to tackle this very issue).
With no travel planned for May, it appears I will break my string of 15 straight months with at least one Marriott stay . Up next will be a short visit to Michigan in early June followed by Hawaii at the beginning of September . Although there may be one or two Marriott nights in between, my stays during the typical summer promo period are limited this year. Hopefully, I can still earn a few bonus points .
Overall my county collecting total has reached 46% of my intended destinations, up from 40% at the start the year. Hitting the halfway point is still possible this year, though it will require adding at least one trip to my already planned itineraries. Whether I cross that mark this year or next, I'll detail the trip here.