In my family, Dad was the travel planner, and vacations meant escaping Manhattan for the open road—with him at the wheel, Mom at his side, and me sandwiched between my younger sisters in the backseat. Dad, an oldest child himself, likes to remind me that "we eldests have to stick together," and that includes traveling. About 10 years ago, he and I made a pact to ride the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway someday, but Siberia will have to wait. Today is Father's Day, and we're embarking on our first dad-daughter trip: tackling the Blue Ridge Mountains in the western tip of North Carolina. As the early-morning mist dissipates, bluegrass plays on the stereo and, at last, I'm driving.
There's already a crowd sprawled on the patio ofSunny Point Café, in the funky town of Asheville, when we pull up at 10 a.m. We help ourselves to mugs of coffee and add our name to the waiting list. A server reads out "George W. Bush," and a crunchy couple gets up to peals of laughter. Once we're seated, I choose the MGB, a "mighty good breakfast" of spicy sausage patties, scrambled eggs, a biscuit, and organic chipotle cheese grits. Dad has his work cut out for him, too, with a pile of cornmeal hotcakes served with blackberry butter. Surveying the scene, he quips, "It's dreads meet yups."
We see Asheville's creative side in full force in the River Arts District. This weekend happens to be the biannual studio stroll, and we wander into Phil Mechanic Studios during a glassblowing demo. Dad inadvertently takes the exit reading hippies use side door, and I snap a photo of him flashing a peace sign. At a gallery called Clayspace, I ask him to take my picture by a wood-fired ceramic vase that's taller than I am. As Dad fumbles with my camera, I swipe it away and ask a scruffy guy to capture the shot, and he obliges—it turns out he's the giant vessel's creator, Eric Knoche.
Fathers get into theBiltmoreestate free today, so Dad and I cut our studio stroll short in the interest of saving $50—a per-person admission fee as staggering as the Vanderbilts' 8,000-acre country retreat. We're wowed by the 250-room house, and especially by the banquet hall with its 70-foot ceiling, 16th-century tapestries, and pipe organ. In the courtyard café, root beer floats recharge us for the gardens, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also codesigned Central Park. We end our visit with a tasting at the winery; our favorite is a crisp zinfandel.
It's dark when we get to the early-20th-centuryRed Rocker Innin the town of Black Mountain. Some guests are playing board games in the parlor, which looks appealing to me, but Dad won't rest until we've had our first bite of North Carolina barbecue. Doug Bowman, the innkeeper, points us toPhil's Bar-B-Que Pit. The place clearly doesn't take sides in the state's raging barbecue debate, as tables have bottles of both vinegar- and tomato-based sauces. Our order of so-so ribs and hand-chopped pork leaves us yearning for more fire.
Red Rocker Inn
136 N. Dougherty St., Black Mountain, 888/669-5991, redrockerinn.com, from $105
Sunny Point Café
626 Haywood Rd., Asheville, 828/252-0055, MGB $7.25
Phil's Bar-B-Que Pit
701 N.C. Hwy. 9, Black Mountain, 828/669-3606, pork plate $7
1 Approach Rd., Asheville, 800/411-3812, biltmore.com, from $35, depending on the season
Jack of the Wood
95 Patton Ave., Asheville, 828/252-5445, jackofthewood.com
While I order a fair-trade latte atDripolator Coffeehouse, Dad spies New Mexico and Mississippi license plates, bringing our count—a road-trip tradition—to 25 states. We pick up Route 74 East, which runs parallel to the boulder-filled Rocky Broad River, and pass towering, shaggy trees that remind me of the ents fromThe Lord of the Rings.
Our first stop isChimney Rock Park, whose namesake 315-foot-tall granite monolith juts out of the mountainside. An elevator built inside the rock zooms us to the top, and we admire the view of the emerald countryside and Lake Lure. Narrow wood stairs stretch across a chasm to a still higher lookout point. One of the less desirable qualities I inherited from Dad is a fear of heights. I stand frozen at the base of the steps. Up goes someone in flip-flops, then some toddlers; down comes a grandma who's helped back into a wheelchair. That does it—clutching the railing as my heart races, I charge up. At the top, I give a tree a hug of relief.
On lower ground, Dad and I hike to Hickory Nut Falls. Much of Daniel Day-Lewis'sThe Last of the Mohicanswas filmed in this hickory, oak, and maple forest. At the calls of two birds, Dad, a birder, breaks out binoculars, but the creatures prove elusive. Ready for the next challenge—canoeing—we speed toLake Lure, where Dirty Dancing was filmed. It's nearly closing time, so the friendly teens at the canoe stand give us the rental for free, and we paddle around the tree-ringed lake for an hour.
Sitting in the car feels good after all that activity. We enter Pisgah National Forest on U.S. 276 and brake for Looking Glass Falls, one of the hundreds of waterfalls in the state's southwest corner. The late-afternoon sun makes me a little dizzy as we snake south and west along the Blue Ridge Parkway. A dense canopy of trees shades the road, only to yield to a bright, open stretch at the next turn, forcing me to push my sunglasses on and off. I steal glimpses of the undulating mountain ridges, and Dad gives the digital camera another try at milepost 431, the parkway's highest point.
Approaching the town of Cherokee, we see billboards for tribal bingo and kitschy amusement parks like Santa's Land, home to the Rudicoaster. We've got other plans:Unto These Hills, an outdoor play about local Cherokee history with a cast of more than 100. We're moved by the tale of gutsy tribe members who refused to leave their homeland during the forced Trail of Tears march and instead hid out right here in the surrounding Great Smokies.
34 Hwy. 441 N., Cherokee, 828/497-2746, $70
221 W. State St., Black Mountain, 828/669-0999, latte $2.50
Chimney Rock Park
431 Main St., Chimney Rock, 828/625-9611, chimneyrockpark.com,, $14
2771 Memorial Hwy., Lake Lure, 877/386-4255, lakelure.com, canoe rental $20 per hour
Unto These Hills
Mountainside Theatre, Cherokee, 866/554-4557, cherokee-nc.com, June 5–Aug. 29, $18
After a good night's sleep at the modest Newfound Lodge, Dad and I—both serious pancake people—hitPeter's Pancakes & Waffles. I opt for the cakes with chopped pecans. Dad, the family cook, declares his buckwheat stack terrific. Outside, we notice that the street signs are written in curly Cherokee letters as well as in English, a reminder that we're within the 100-square-mile Qualla Boundary, owned by the Eastern Cherokee and held in trust by the government. There's a glut of souvenir shops with names like Sundancer Crafts and Totem Pole.
We browse atQualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, which sells cloth dolls and stone carvings made by a cooperative of Cherokee artisans. My mom would love this place; I buy her a beaded red-felt ornament shaped like a pair of moccasins. When I find my dad, he's tugging at a huge bow and arrow. Across the street at theMuseum of the Cherokee Indian, we scope out a 22-foot-long dugout canoe and an exhibit with dioramas, audio clips, and digital images.
The weather is too gorgeous to stay indoors any longer, especially withGreat Smoky Mountains National Parknext door. Newfound Gap Road brings us to the North Carolina–Tennessee border at an elevation of 5,046 feet, where the road intersects the Appalachian Trail. Just before setting off on the narrow path, we chat with backpackers who are embarking on a five-day loop on the AT. Dad swaps stories from his hiking glory days, and I learn for the first time that he has covered sections of the trail in seven states. Now he can count our few hours in Tennessee, too.
Back in North Carolina, we follow curvy U.S. 19 northeast through Maggie Valley. A forgotten-by-time rural tableau unfolds: covered wooden bridges, a white clapboard Methodist church, crows soaring over knee-high cornfields, a lone woman tending a vegetable patch. We pass Hot Springs and pick our way in the dark, pausing near an underpass while Dad puzzles over the map. When a car pulls up close, we get tense—the New Yorker's instinct—but the driver just wants to help us find our way. It's almost midnight when we roll into Boone without a reservation;Holiday Inn Expressnever looked so welcoming.
Holiday Inn Express
1943 Blowing Rock Rd., Boone, 888/733-6867, expressboone.com, from $89
Peter's Pancakes & Waffles
1384 Tsali Blvd., Cherokee, 828/497-5116, pecan pancakes $5
Museum of the Cherokee Indian
589 Tsali Blvd., Cherokee, 828/497-3481, cherokeemuseum.org, $9
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
865/436-1200, nps.gov/grsm, free
Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual
645 Tsali Blvd., Cherokee, 828/497-3103
Tweetsie Railroad, a Western-themed amusement park, has live shows and thrill rides, but a historic steam locomotive is the main attraction. Dad and I join the kids on the three-mile train ride, even though we've been warned about outlaws and Indians in these parts. A gun-toting cowgirl boards our cabin, and sure enough, it's a holdup!
In nearby Blowing Rock, gently lilting music lures me across the town's too-cute Main Street toThe Dulcimer Shop. I bypass the wooden instruments for the patented Dulci-can, a one-string gizmo with a tin can at the end. My lame rendition of "Where Is Thumbkin?" wins the owner's smile of approval.
No local musicians get more love than Sons of Ralph, a bluegrass-Cajun-rock band. At the start of the trip, Dad and I caught the band's gig atJack of the Woodpub, in Asheville, and got a CD autographed by Ralph Lewis, 81, vocalist, mandolinplayer, and father of two band members. The songs have made a fitting soundtrack. As we head back to Asheville, our meandering adventure drawing to a close, we join the chorus: "I want to travel from town to town, I'll never settle and as long as I live, honey, you know I'm the ramblin' kind."
300 Tweetsie Railroad Ln., Blowing Rock, 800/526-5740, tweetsie.com, $27, open May 1 to Nov. 2, 2009
The Dulcimer Shop
1098 Main St., Blowing Rock, 828/295-3616, thedulcimershop.com
FINDING THE WAY
The launching-off point for this trip is a two-hour drive from the closest major airport, in Winston-Salem, N.C. It's handier to fly into Asheville Regional Airport, serviced by Continental, Delta, Northwest, and U.S. Airways. Roads in the area are beyond curvy, so distances take much longer than you might anticipate when looking at the map.