The hospitality industry in Western North Carolina enjoys a tourism season that runs virtually uninterrupted from April through December. But that springtime-to-Christmas tourist rush still leaves a three-month gap when the trees are bare, the temperatures are frigid—and many of the fairweather visitors are sitting snug in their far-away homes.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s the temperatures go down, the region seems to slow down, leaving many entrepreneurs and employees in the city’s tourism industry contemplating an escapist mantra:
“It’s the slow time, the low time,
the ‘Florida’s warmer let’s go time.’”
But this drab, chilly season does have a few bright spots to lift the winter gloom. There’s Asheville Restaurant Week in January, when many area dining spots offer reduced prices on lunch and dinner. Then in February, the long Presidents’ Day weekend gives visitors an excuse to get out and fight off the annual cabin fever. And, last but certainly not least, Valentine’s Day sets entrepreneurial hearts aflutter. Hotels, bed and breakfast inns, specialty shops, florists, chocolatiers, and, of course, restaurants open their doors to a feast of midwinter business. And romantic couples can choose among the many options to create their own personal feast.
This year Valentine’s Day falls on a Saturday, and—Double Bonus—President’s Day will be celebrated on Monday, February 16th. That quirk in the calendar turns Valentine’s Day into a three-day weekend that allows, even encourages, couples to celebrate their special relationship with delights ranging from a single rose to a luxurious weekend getaway.
But before the celebration can begin, couples must sort through a puzzle of tempting options. Saturday dinner? Sunday brunch? An intimate cocktail? A getaway to a fancy hotel or charming bed and breakfast inn? Whatever your choice, make your reservations early or you may be left out in the February cold.
Many restaurateurs agree that Valentine’s is one of their busiest days of the year. But this year, Valentine’s is not a Day, it’s almost a mini-vacation. Couples who want to avoid the Saturday dinner rush may decide to make Sunday or even Monday their own personal Valentine’s Day. The Asheville tourism website (exploreasheville.com) lists no fewer than 247 restaurants that cater to every budget, every diet, and every cuisine. From coffee shops to continental dinners, from breakfast to a midnight snack, the restaurant scene offers something for every Valentine’s celebrant.
One imaginative—and adventuresome—dinner will top the Valentine’s menu at the Phoenix restaurant in Brevard, where executive chef Matthew Montandon has designed a five-course dinner that contains no fewer than 12 aphrodisiacs. “My sous chef and I put the ingredients together from a dictionary of aphrodisiacs. We took the list and figured which ones we could work into our dinner.” Some of the ingredients he has included are avocado, cinnamon, coconut, and pomegranate. He promises the servings will be tasty as well as…, um, romantic.
And this year, Sunday brunch can fit nicely into a romantic weekend. Chestnut Restaurant on Broadway in Asheville (across from the Aloft hotel) is one of several area restaurants that serve a popular brunch. But remember: Restaurants cannot serve alcohol until noon on Sunday, so if your brunch preference includes a drink, book your reservation a little later.
For couples who prefer a romantic outing without all the trappings of a full meal, the Battery Park Book Exchange in the Grove Arcade suggests a bubbly beverage accompanied by their selection of French Broad chocolates. The book exchange includes several intimate little nooks perfect for a quiet, romantic afternoon or evening. Manager and sommelier Emily Kraynik will be happy to recommend “a bubbly or a nice cabernet or zinfandel that will complement the chocolates.” Getting into the spirit of the day, Emily suggested, “you might also want to check out our poetry section for some literary inspiration.”
Some couples will prefer to avoid the restaurant scene altogether and spend Valentine’s evening at home. They might want to consider an intimate dinner in front of the fireplace with their own selections for romantic background music. But that implies the hassle of cooking. Not to worry. Sit back, put another log on the fire and turn up the stereo. That frisky Dan Cupid has the dinner situation under control. An Asheville company called Valet Gourmet will deliver dinner from your favorite restaurant to your front door.
The company works with more than 50 Asheville restaurants, and market manager Nick Barr says their average delivery time is “between an hour and an hour and 15 minutes. But those times are estimates,” he says. “We have to deal with a couple of uncontrollable variables, such as traffic and restaurant volume.” Still, he says, they make most deliveries “within a 5- or 10-minute window.”
Valet Gourmet has been operating for 11 years, and Nick says, “Valentine’s is our busiest day of the year. Last year we delivered 260 dinners.” You can place an order as much as a month in advance, and Nick suggests you order early for Valentine’s.
The company has 55 delivery cars on the road, and charges between $4.95 and $8.95 for delivery, depending on your location. “We don’t mark up any of the food,” he says. “But we do encourage a tip for the driver.” You can also order beer, wine or flowers, for an extra delivery fee. To place an order, go to the company website, valetgourmet.com, or call 828-252-1221.
Another delivery that might add a nice touch to a celebration is a Brother Wolf Puppygram. A real live puppy will bring a Valentine’s package of flowers, sweets, balloons, and a hand-written card. “People get to play with the puppy for a while, and then we take him back with us,” says Brother Wolf’s president Denise Bitz. “If someone is interested in adopting the puppy, they can come down the following day to make it official.” The project is both a fundraiser and outreach for adoptions. Denise says last year their team of puppies delivered about 140 Valentines, with the effort resulting in about six adoptions. “You can order online (bwar.org) or by phone (828-505-3440),” Denise says. “Our standard order is for flowers, a sweet treat, and a balloon, but we’ll honor any order within reason.”
Dinner and puppies are not the only ways to celebrate a romance. No less an expert than William Shakespeare proclaimed: “If music be the food of love play on,” and Western North Carolina presents a multitude of places to play, listen, dance, and sing along. From country to classical, the music scene offers a tune for every ear. Rock classics, jazz favorites, and even a dueling piano bar can turn a Valentine’s celebration into an evening to remember.
For lovers of classical music, the Asheville Symphony will perform a Valentine’s Day program featuring pianist Jeremy Denk. A native of Durham, North Carolina, this will be Jeremy’s debut performance with the Asheville symphony. The New York Times printed a rave review of his work, saying: “Mr. Denk, clearly, is a pianist you want to hear no matter what he performs, in whatever combination—both for his penetrating intellectual engagement with the music and for the generosity of his playing.”
Among the selections for the Valentine’s program is Bela Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which he composed in 1945 while he was living in Asheville. Play on, indeed.
Couples seeking a lighter musical production might drive down to Greenville, South Carolina, to catch a performance of the Broadway hit, Wicked. Winner of three Tony Awards, Wicked tells the story of the witches of Oz—before Dorothy stumbles down that yellow brick road. Entertainment Weekly has called Wicked, “the best musical of the decade,” and Variety described it as “a cultural phenomenon.” The play ends its Greenville run at the Peace Center on Sunday, February 15th. For musical theater lovers, it might make the perfect centerpiece for a Valentine’s weekend.
With or without a side trip to the land of Oz, many celebrants this year will expand Valentine’s Day into the entire three-day weekend, and they will have a wide variety of overnight accommodations to fit their inclinations. The various local tourism websites list cabins, hotels and motels, resorts, and bed and breakfast inns.
There are about 50 bed and breakfast inns in Asheville and at least that many more in the surrounding counties, all offering much more than a bed and a breakfast. Lynn Carlson is host at the 1900 Inn on Montford Avenue and president of the Legendary Inns of Asheville, a group of several bed and breakfast inns. She calls them ‘special occasion’ accommodations, meaning they try to offer the extra touches that can turn an overnight stay into a memorable occasion.
At the 1900, she says, “if a guest requests it, we put free champagne and balloons in their room. And they can also order extras, such as French Broad chocolates, a couple’s massage, or flowers in their room. We always serve a candle-lit three-course breakfast, and we try to stay in tune with the holiday. We’ll have a parfait with a heart decoration and a heart-shaped dessert.”
The rooms at 1900 Montford range from the quaint and charming to the luxurious and lavish, featuring bathrooms that look more like sensuous water gymnasiums. The bathroom in the Thomas Wolfe room, for instance, includes a flashing light show embedded in the wall and floor tiles, a ceiling-mounted rain shower, and a “Roman Bath” that creates a gentle waterfall over the shoulders of seated bathers (see the photo the the right).
The bed and breakfast inns try to set themselves apart from hotels by creating individualized décor in their rooms and by presenting breakfasts that are more elaborate than the usual hotel fare. But Lynn Carlson says the real key to a special Valentine’s Day might lie in the timing. She says there’s no magic to the February 14th date. “Valentine’s Day is always busy, and sometimes the rush can get in the way of a really great experience. And you want it to be perfect. If our special rooms are booked, we always say, give her a card with a gift certificate for the room you want. Celebrate your romance the following week or whenever you decide the time is right. You’ll enjoy it twice as much.”
The bed and breakfast inns are generally small places with no more than a dozen guest rooms. On the other end of that spectrum is the iconic Grove Park Inn, a 101-year-old stone monument to ‘The Good Life.’
The inn, now part of the Omni hotel chain, features some of the most spectacular views this side of the Grand Canyon with accommodations and services to match. A Valentine’s weekend at the Grove Park can include treatments in the $50 million spa, which includes hot tubs, a steam room, an eucalyptus inhalation room, a sauna, waterfall whirlpools, and mineral, lap, or plunge pools.
For dining options, public relations director Tracey Johnston-Crum says the inn features four signature restaurants, which offer a blend of French and American cuisine, using local ingredients whenever possible.
“It’s like stepping into a fairy tale,” she says. “You can order any special amenities, such as flowers or wine, delivered to your room, and immerse yourself in old-world luxury with all the most modern touches.”
[quote float=”right”]Escape can blur the everyday distractions of life and allow a couple to focus on each other. Of course a backdrop of luxurious surroundings can only enhance the experience.[/quote]For a romantic after-dinner Valentine’s moment, the Grove Park has four cocktail areas, including the Great Hall, which is flanked by two massive fireplaces, 36 feet wide with a 14-foot hearth opening. On Saturday night a three- or four-piece combo plays American standard tunes, adding a musical background to a romantic evening. If you’re planning to celebrate at the Grove Park, ask about their special Valentine’s package.
At first blush, the simple fact of distance doesn’t seem like an auspicious element of a romantic weekend, but distance equals escape. And escape can blur the everyday distractions of life and allow a couple to focus on each other. Of course a backdrop of luxurious surroundings can only enhance the experience.
Old Edwards Inn and Spa in Highlands is an hour-and-forty-minute drive from downtown Asheville, close enough to be convenient and far enough to feel like a real escape. And the place is swimming in luxury. The inn was named the No. 1 hotel in the South and No. 4 in the United States in the 2014 Conde Nast readers’ poll, and it offers every service a Valentine’s celebrant could want. It covers three square blocks of a mountain town surrounded by Appalachian views; it includes no fewer than 30 buildings with 95 residential rooms, a restaurant, a spa, fitness center, a coffee café, and two cocktail lounges.
Old Edwards’ Valentine’s weekend celebration includes extra features such as spa treatments, couples massage, “Cupid’s Kiss” cocktails, and flowers delivered to your room or dinner table.
Marjorie Christiansen, the marketing manager at Old Edwards, said the experience is worth the drive. “If you want a truly relaxed, elegant setting with live music on weekends, there’s nothing like the escape to Old Edwards. Not only is Mother Nature beautiful, our service is impeccable. You will be treated like a king and a queen. It will be a weekend that you will not forget.”
February weather could turn a mountain drive into more of an adventure than a romantic getaway, and Marjorie says the inn may be full for the Valentine’s weekend. But she suggests an alternative. “If on the chance that we are booked, a fabulous idea would be a gift certificate to be used at your convenience. All the romantic extras will still be available. Romance just blooms here.”
In the other direction, a warm and charming excursion into history awaits at the Nu Wray Inn in Burnsville. The new owners of this historic inn have put together an overnight Valentine’s package that includes lodging, a wine-and-hors d’oeuvres hour, dinner, a movie at the quaint Yancey theater just down the block, and Sunday brunch at the Kirkwood Buffet just across the Burnsville town square.
The Nu Wray opened in 1833, and over its 182-year history it has welcomed everyone from Superman (Christopher Reeve) to the King (Elvis Presley). Other luminaries include former President Jimmy Carter and Mark Twain. Jerry Farmer and Eric Wilson, the new owners of the inn, are intent on preserving its historic character, while offering a charming and comfortable experience in the shadow of Mount Mitchell.
“We’re hoping our Valentine’s package will introduce new people to Burnsville and the Nu Wray,” says Joey Farmer. “The inn and the town are both really unique. You walk into the Nu Wray and it’s like you walk back in time a hundred years.” If you reserve early, you might be able to book the room where Elvis slept back in the 1960s.
To the hospitality industry, Valentine’s Day is a welcome rush of activity. And to the public, the holiday is an excuse for couples to celebrate each other. From a cozy, intimate moment to an extravagant long weekend getaway, those couples can find the perfect ingredients to warm up a dismal February weekend with the joy of their celebration. Dan Cupid never had it so good.
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