Travelogue: Southern Road Trip – Part 3 (North Carolina)

To see previous legs of this trip, click below:
Part 1 – Florida
Part 2 – Georgia

Days 10-11: Asheville, NC

Pre-kids, a 3+ hour drive from Atlanta to Asheville would have been no big deal, but since we knew it would turn into 5 or 6 hours with 2 little ones, I did some on-the-fly research for a place for us all to stretch our legs. Black Rock Lake in Black Rock Mountain State Park (on the Georgia side of the GA/NC line) fit the bill perfectly. It was about a 1.5 mile loop and not ridiculously far off the highway. Julia is in a phase where she needs some motivation to hike willingly and will otherwise whine about being tired and wanting to be carried. Luckily, there are several bridges on the trail, as well as blue diamond-shaped trail markers,, so we made it a game to stop and find all the trail markers on our walk. Sure, it took a little longer, but she also hiked the whole trail herself and was genuinely excited about it (she still asks if we can go back to that trail), which made her much more fun for the remainder of the day.

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Finding blue diamond trail markers at Black Rock Lake

I had originally hoped we’d be able to stay at the Crooked Oak Mountain Inn, the B&B where Peter and I honeymooned 8 years ago (their website lists them as family friendly, and based on our previous stay, I would agree with that), but they were booked for the two weekends around our trip, so I couldn’t make it work. Instead, we stayed at the Country Inn & Suites. I had reserved a “1 bedroom suite,” but in hindsight, I should have paid less and just gotten 2 queen beds because the sleeping areas were not actually separate, thereby defeating the purpose of a bedroom, and the sofa bed was truly horrendously worn. However, the staff was friendly and the hotel was clean and convenient, as long as you don’t mind crossing a big alleyway and a huge parking lot between your car and the front entrance every time.

After checking in, we made our way to the River Arts District for a little pre-dinner walk. We stopped to see some glass blowing at the NC Glass Center and then ended up chugging a beer at Wedge Brewing because the heat, long day, and lack of promised corn hole made our two munchkins act less than their best.  Peter and I had really enjoyed dinner at Mela Indian when we came years ago, so we tried to repeat the experience on our return trip. The food wasn’t as good as I remembered and corn (Peter is allergic) was unexpectedly in several of the dishes, but it was still a reasonable place to take kids in the downtown Asheville area. Not too far up the street were some sweet little painted fairy houses on the hill, so it made for a lovely little post-dinner walk.

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Fairy houses painted in downtown Asheville

The breakfast in our hotel was mediocre looking at best and not particularly conducive to my husband’s allergies, so I did some research to come up with an alternative and found OWL (Old World Levain) bakery. This place was amazing – their butter and milk are from grass-fed cows (therefore no issues with my husband’s corn and soy allergies) and their pastries and coffee were so good! They even went above and beyond when we asked what farm the eggs came from (in order to research ourselves whether the chickens eat corn and soy) – they called the farm and asked, finding out that they don’t! I almost felt like we should pull a Portlandia and ask them for the chicken’s name…

After breakfast, we drove about an hour to the Cradle of Forestry in the Pisgah National Forest. Because it was May 4th, they had a “May The ‘Four’est Be With You” program going on with extra activities. We did the Forest Festival Trail together (it’s a 1.3 mile loop), which is largely paved and has stops relatively frequently with something for kids to climb on and learn about how logs used to be harvested. The best part was the old steam engine with a working bell and lots of spaces to climb. Our 3 year old walked almost the whole trail before needing to go in the toddler carrier, and baby James slept a good chunk of the time. There’s a small entrance fee ($6 for adults and $3 for kids starting at 4 years old), but it’s cut in half for America the Beautiful passholders. We didn’t know about the discount till we showed up and had left our pass in the car, but they just trusted us and gave us the discount anyway. After the hike, we checked out the onsite cafe, which was really good, especially for a cafe in the middle of nowhere in a park. I had a grilled pimiento cheese with a salad and Peter had a black bean burger with fries. The chef, Zika, knew all the ingredients in the burger off the top of his head, so we were able to confirm it wouldn’t cause issues with Peter’s allergies, which was even more impressive to me.

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Climbing the steam engine on the Forest Festival Trail in the Cradle of Forestry

Everyone except the grown-ups napped on the way back to Asheville, but it gave us some quiet time to listen to podcasts, chat, and enjoy the beautiful drive through the forest. It rained seriously hard (but off and on) for the rest of the day. Luckily, we had some (mostly) indoor activities:

  • French Broad Chocolate – I had originally wanted to go on a tour of the French Broad factory, but a girl scout tour (so cute!) filled up all of the spots while we were there. So, we waited in the long line at their shop to get our fill. They had great vegan (and soy free) items, including a delicious olive oil cake and chocolate ice cream, so it was definitely worth the wait.
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French Broad Chocolate Lounge
  • Asheville Museum of Science – this was a last minute add because it was even rainier than expected and we needed something to fill the gap to dinner time. They close at 5 p.m., so we didn’t have very much time, but it was a small museum, so we really only needed about 1.5 hrs there. It’s best suited to kids about Julia’s age (3 years old) or maybe slightly older, with a climbing area and some interactive exhibits like a dino digging pit, a water table that shows how waterways react to different obstacles (like irrigation for farming or dams), etc.
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Water table at the Asheville Museum of Science
  • Tupelo Honey – we made last minute reservations for dinner here (early) and are so glad we did. The trout was so good, and I loved the side dishes and cocktail options. James was pretty fussy and didn’t want to eat, so that made it a bit more stressful since they were busy, but dinner was still delicious. There was a really long wait for tables as we left (at least 90 minutes), so I’m glad we reserved.
  • Asheville Brewing Company – It had stopped raining by the time we finished dinner and we all needed some fresh air, so we walked to this family-friendly brewery to grab a beer. Still no promised corn-hole, but there were some hand rails for Julia to swing on (probably not sanctioned, but no one stopped us…) and a fairly open area for her to run around. The place is also really dog-friendly, which made us a little nervous because Julia is afraid of dogs, but everyone had their pups on a leash and they were well-behaved, so it was manageable for us.

The next morning, we stopped at OWL bakery again for breakfast and treats for the road to Raleigh.

Days 12-13: Raleigh-Durham, NC

We had another long day of driving (relatively speaking), so it was great to stop in the Durham area to visit the Museum of Life and Science. I wish we had more time to visit, but it was raining heavily the whole drive, so it took us longer than expected to get there. The inside of the museum has fun interactive exhibits focusing primarily on physical science and there’s a giant outdoor area that has different age group spaces. We didn’t get to explore outdoors until our last 15 minutes before closing time, but it was a really well-done space and I’d love to go back.

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Julia explores some of the outdoor spaces at the Museum of Life and Science

After the museum, we went to Viceroy in Durham to meet Peter’s old college roommate and his family for dinner. The Indian food was delicious, but James decided he didn’t like the ambiance (a little noisy and fairly dark) and cried for most of the meal, which meant I largely spent it in the back by the bathroom trying to bounce him into contentment. Luckily, the servers didn’t blink an eye and the family we were meeting had a 5 month old and didn’t mind the constant interruptions. To soothe our frazzled nerves, we visited the Parlour up the street for some wonderful ice cream and took a walk down the street while we were finally able to chat.

We checked into our room at the Hyatt in Raleigh after a short drive from Durham. The sofa bed was the most comfortable I slept on during the trip and the hot breakfast in the mornings was actually decent, so I appreciated our stay here. The only drawback was that the pool ended up being “seasonal,”  so we couldn’t use it during our stay. It’s outdoors, but it was well above 80 degrees outside and that’s pretty normal for early May in the south, so it was surprising that it wasn’t open and it wasn’t marked as seasonal on the website.

The next morning, we ate breakfast at La Farm, which wasn’t far from our hotel. Touted as an authentic French bakery, I was expecting something like our experience at OWL in Asheville, which it definitely was not. It felt more like a better Starbucks. However, the staff were really nice (they gave Julia a free cookie for patiently waiting in line) and breakfast/coffee were decent. Next, we drove downtown to the (free!) Museum of Natural Sciences. There were several school groups visiting along with us, but the space was large and it never felt overwhelming like the Georgia Aquarium had. The first building had a lot of taxidermy, skeletons, and some live animal exhibits. Julia enjoyed those, but her absolute favorite part of the visit was the labs in the second building. They had age-appropriate experiments in a couple of different labs, including one to test pH that was perfect for an older toddler. One of her favorite books is Ada Twist, Scientist, and we’ve been talking about hypotheses and experiments (especially with food coloring to mix colors), so watching different liquids change color was right up her alley. We also had lunch at the museum’s cafe, which had some pretty healthy options (like a veggie quesadilla and smoothies) and seemed to be popular with local business people as well.

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Testing pH at the Raleigh Museum of Natural Sciences

After the museum, we strolled around downtown Raleigh while the kids napped and checked out the beautiful historic houses, stopping for coffee along the way. A distant cousin of Peter’s lives in Raleigh, and although she was on a work trip, her son is about Julia’s age and the kids were able to meet up with his grandma to play at Kids Together Playground in Cary. They were having so much fun and I was chatting, so I didn’t get many pictures, but there were several great play structures that provided challenges for both kids and Julia was so happy to burn off some energy. Originally, I had planned to make a pilgrimage to Picnic, a BBQ place in Durham, but with evening traffic, it was going to be an hour each way to get there and everyone was feeling tired. So, we detoured to City BBQ in Cary. The BBQ was decent (I’m not a total BBQ snob; someone who is might disagree with me) and I loved their collard greens. Julia appreciated sitting outside on their patio and dancing with me to some blues-y music they had playing. There wasn’t really anything there besides french fries that Peter could eat, but the silver lining was that I hadn’t been able to eat my Indian food the night before, so he had leftovers waiting back at the hotel.

On our last day, we started off with a walk through the North Carolina State Farmer’s Market. There are tons of vendors there even on a weekday and I’m surprised they can make a living since everyone had lots of similar produce, but we got some truly delicious strawberries and wished we’d bought more (we finished them before we got to our next stop!). Next, we made our way to Pullen Park and spent the better part of the morning and early afternoon playing. They have great playgrounds, kiddie boats, a little train and a carousel (with really inventive characters), which absolutely made Julia’s day. We left our car in the parking lot and walked to Irregardless Cafe for lunch. The cafe is in a relatively unassuming section of a residential neighborhood, but it was busy in the way that convinces you the food will be good, and it was. They had plenty of options for Peter (he loved the shrimp and citrus salad) and the food felt nutritious while still being delicious.

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Driving her toy boat at Pullen Park

After lunch, it was time to head for the airport to make our way home. After about 2 weeks on the road with little ones, we were ready for a rest before our big European adventure.

North Carolina highlights: