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It Turns Out Luxury Travel Isn’t Just for the Rich and Famous.

Hey.

Let’s talk for a second about luxury travel.

I know — this coming from the girl who once wrote about the superiority of backpacks.

Until recently, I hadn’t had much experience with “luxury” travel.

What do I mean when I say “luxury?” To me, the answer to whether or not you’re traveling in luxury comes down to one simple question:

 

Would you rather sleep in your own bed, or your current travel bed?

 

If your answer is your own bed, then it’s very likely you’ve been resting your head on a lumpy hostel pillow, your back on a friend’s futon, or your body on the plastic cover you bought to place between yourself and the questionable mattress at the Motel 6. You, my friend, have not been traveling in luxury.

However, if your answer is your current travel bed, then congratulations! You’ve experienced the near-nauseating swipe of the credit card that means you’re very likely resting your derrière and other well-deserving body parts on a pressure-pointless Tempur-Pedic mattress, allergen-free faux down pillows, and 400 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets.

It will change your life.

See, it used to be that there were 2 things in this world on which I was comfortable splurging: A nice dinner out, or ingredients for a nice dinner in. Other than that, I’m a budget gal, through and through. (Well. Let’s be realistic. I’m not actually organized enough to have a budget. But I do watch our spending, keep a relatively close eye on money coming in and money going out, and never buy things I cannot afford.) Much of the time when Justin and I travel, we try to stay with people we know in order to save a substantial amount of money. The last time we went to Hawaii, we stayed with my extremely generous aunt and uncle on the air mattress on their guest room. When we went to Spain, we stayed with Justin’s extremely generous sister and her boyfriend on the futon in their tiny flat in Malaga. We call it “travel mooching,” and it’s a great way to go if you’re on a budget, have friends in fantastic places, and would rather spend your money on an incredible meal or an interesting piece of art or a jump from a Cessna Caravan.

These things happen.

It’s not that we’re cheap — it’s just that we like being close to family since we live so far away from everyone.

And also we’re cheap.

But when I was planning this trip to the North Carolina mountains, I knew that the point was to relax. Let Justin unwind from Afghanistan. No art hunting, no mountain hiking, no plane jumping. We didn’t even buy tickets to the famous Biltmore Estate, which is apparently the largest home in America. It’s one of those things I’d love to see one day, but the idea of spending over $100 to stand in line for a home tour is something for which I have to psyche myself up — and I’m not going to squeeze it into a 3 day vacation. No way.

Because we wanted an intimate and relaxing experience, I decided it would be a Bed & Breakfast vacation. Justin and I had stayed in a B&B once before, just over 7 years ago, when he proposed to me in St. Augustine, Florida. We were the youngest couple staying there then, and we were still the youngest couple this time around. I’m not sure why this is, except that maybe young, modern couples don’t understand the appeal of a B&B. I’ll save that for another post. Suffice to say, when Andi wrote and told me we should try the Banner Elk Winery & Villa on our way to Asheville, it sealed the deal.

We pulled up to the house, not really knowing what to expect. I’d been in touch with Michelle, one of the wonderful owners, but I knew no one would be there that day because it was Monday, the one day the winery is closed each week, and they don’t have an on-site inn keeper.

It was like a postcard.

Banner Elk Villa

How can I describe to you the tranquility of this place?

The villa itself is perched on a hill at the bottom of a mountain valley. Vineyards drape down its slopes in graceful lines, and the winery sits at the bottom near a pond. Porches and vestibules abound — there is no lack of a cozy nook with a picturesque view.

When some people think of a B&B, they automatically think of stuffy, antique-filled rooms. Untouchable heirlooms. Creaking furniture. Oldness.

And some are like that, I’m sure. But while in the photos many might appear “too fancy” for relaxation, they’re actually designed for comfort. That 100-year-old settee? The comfiest, cushiest, reading sofa you’ve ever experienced. That hammered copper kitchen island? A gathering place for morning coffee. That leopard print entry chair? A conversation-starter, that’s what. These things are meant to be used — that’s why they’ve lasted so long.

This B&B just happened to be the perfect combination of old-world charm and modern comforts. The decor was quirky and comfortable. The atmosphere — soft, jazzy background music, crackling fires, and a well-stocked kitchen was relaxing, to say the least.

We stayed in the more modestly priced Blueberry Suite which, with its grand carved 4 poster bed, insanely comfortable Tempur-Pedic mattress and ultra soft sheets, huge bathroom with jacuzzi tub and multiple shower jets, and panoramic view of the winery and pond, certainly didn’t feel modest.

It felt, I’d say, exactly how I’d want my own home to feel if I had no limit on disposable income.

And that, my friends, is luxury.

They’re lucky we couldn’t fit that bed in the Honda.

A girl could get used to a splurge like this. Pretty soon I’ll be demanding moist towelettes on airplanes and a bowl full of M&M’s — just the green ones — waiting in my hotel suites.

And so it begins.

Private Chef’s Dinner for Two? We Can Now Cross THAT Off The List.

I think we should just take a moment to appreciate something.

House red.

Orzo salad with braised asparagus ti ps and Manchego(?) cheese.

Crab Rangoon in puffed pastry.


Purple potato-encrusted halibut over a bed of swiss chard and pureed parsnips.


Cheesecake with chocolate and pistachios.

Obviously, I appreciated it a little more than you can.

This is what happens when you order a private dinner from Chef Jackie at the Banner Elk Winery and Villa. (It was dark in there for dinner, so please ignore the odd photo lighting.)

We opted for the Chef’s dinner since we knew we wanted the first day of our mini-retreat to be as relaxing as possible. The last thing Justin needed upon his return from Afghanistan was me screaming and grabbing his arm as we negotiated winding mountain roads back to the b&b in the dark after dinner.

I am so glad we splurged. It was very cool watching her cook and enjoying casual conversation while we inhaled course after delicious course.

What better way to spend an evening than with my two best loves — food, and my husband?

Probably in that order.

Kidding.

I think.

Okay, Fall. You Win.

I hate to get all Anthony Bourdain on you (except way nicer and shorter and not quite as pompous but let’s be honest — almost.) by writing one travel post after another and continuously waxing on about the importance of throwing out your itineraries and talking to locals and aimlessly wandering cobblestoned streets with no real plan in mind. (The exception, of course, being dinner reservations. Because food is awesome.)

But the thing is, I have to just go with what I’m feeling. Sometimes it’s painting. Sometimes it’s cooking. And sometimes — most times — it’s travel.

In fact, in an instantaneous and clichéd moment of clarity, I just now realized.

THAT is why I’m domestiphobic.

My love for travel.

While I definitely enjoy some domestic activities — especially those that improve my knowledge of wine, food, photography, turning my home into a comfortable retreat, reading with my husband, playing with my mutts, and wine, I am terrified — terrified — that I will allow these things entrap me in a vortex of stagnancy.

That alluringly hypnotizing momentum of mediocrity.

I don’t want that for myself.

Or my family.

So I write what I feel. And for right now, while I still have some stories and photos to share, it’s travel.

I know this confuses some people. Why do you love it so much? they ask. Don’t you miss your own bed? Your own home? Your closet, your husband (when he’s not with you), your dogs, your ability to relax and unwind?

Of course. Of course I miss these things. All except that last part. Because the thing is, if you haven’t learned to relax and unwind while you travel, I have news for you:

 

you just aren’t doing it right.

 

If you know how to relax, there are plenty of aspects about travel that counterbalance the things you miss, like meeting interesting travelers and locals. Tasting exotic foods. Repeating your tattered, worn-out stories to new and shiny faces. Absorbing foreign sights and sounds and experiences that keep you — your soul — young.

Alive.

Interested in life.

Before heading to Asheville, Justin and I decided to spend a night at a B&B in the town of Banner Elk, NC at the suggestion of Andi, from My Beautiful Adventures. (Seriously. She has a top-rated travel blog, runs her own business, and still has time to council lil’ ol’ me on where I should take my husband to relax upon his return home from Afghanistan. Kind of awesome.)

After a romantic dinner at the villa (more on that in another post) and a coma-like slumber on the most comfortable hotel bed ever (more on that in another post), and a glorious breakfast of mimosas, coffee, blueberry/pomegranate(?) juice (because everyone needs at least 3 beverages with breakfast), eggy toast, bacon, swiss chard/purple potato concoction, home fries, and yogurt with granola and fresh fruit (more on that — well, here:

)

we asked Jackie, our incredible Chef/hostess/innkeeper/overall just awesome person if there was anything else we should do before heading to Asheville. Of course, she said we needed to head to the winery for our complimentary tasting, but since that didn’t open until noon, we should head out to the “high vineyard” to check out the views.

Her instructions were simple: Turn right at the stop sign, stay left at the place where there’s “kind of” a fork in the road, don’t drive off of the winding mountain path for 1-2 miles, turn left at the Christmas tree farm, park along the dirt road, unplug the electric cow fence, climb over the barbed wire, and viola! High vineyard.

Ooookaaayyy….

If the travel mojo has taught me anything, I knew we had to go with it.

And of course, our skepticism exploded all over the inside of Justin’s practical 4-door sedan when we arrived at the high vineyard.

Banner Elk Vineyard

We wanted fall colors? We got fall colors.

Okay. So in the past I know I’ve been guilty of saying I dislike fall. And it’s still true. I mean, I like fall — I like the colors and the fuzzy socks and the crackling fires (well, not-so-much crackling in our case, since ours is gas, but you get the gist). What I don’t like is its implication of impending winter.

The cold. The ice. The lack of sun.

She’s so dreary and boring and long.

Ick.

But.

She does put on a pretty good pre-game show, doesn’t she?

 

(Yes, we brought a tripod to the top of a mountain. Pretty much just your typical day. And yes, I ran back and forth with a timer setting at a high altitude, which is why I look like I’ve been running back and forth with a timer setting at a high altitude. Just to get this picture for you. You’re welcome.)

I can’t tell you how long we lounged there, near the top of the mountain, bathing in the sun and warmth and wondering if the man with the sprawling estate on the next hill over was watching us through telescopes.

Hey.

No place is perfect.

But this one, I think, was pretty damn close.

UPDATE: It would probably be helpful to mention that the place where we stayed in Banner Elk was the Banner Elk Winery & Villa. Highly recommend it. Also, check out a screenshot from today’s webcam:

This is just over a week after our stay. Travel Mojo, man. Dig it.

Mostly The World Is Filled With Good People. You Should Meet Them Sometime.

Well. I’m back.

I didn’t mean to neglect you for the entire week — I really didn’t. But there’s just something about the B&B atmosphere — the bed and breakfastry of it all — that makes one sloggy.

See? Thirty-five words in and I’ve already made up 2 of them.

I even brought a computer along with perfectly good intentions of using it, but I find that when I’m surrounded by food and wine and luxury bedding and fall leaves and wine, I have absolutely zero motivation to turn it on.

Zero. (This image is straight from the iPhone. No filters or instagrammin’ or enhancements. Just pure, unadulterated, vineyardy goodness.)

Plus, we had a full case of Travel Mojo happening, and you don’t interrupt the flow of good TM with trivialities like technology.

Especially when there’s a full case involved.

What?

You’re unfamiliar with Travel Mojo?

Well that could be because I made it up.

In fact, maybe I should trademark that.

And its acronym. So it’d be: TM™.

Awesome.

Anyway.

Travel Mojo is what happens when a trip just has good vibes. You go into it all, hey. Whatever happens, happens. I might make reservations at a couple of restaurants just so we don’t turn into B&B porch lumps and starve to death, but other than that, I’m not going to over plan it.

And you know what happens?

Rainbows and butterflies and fantastic people and complimentary drinks and entire free meals, that’s what.

It’s letting go of the anal schedules and planning and trying to squeeze every possible attraction into an already overstuffed agenda because the thing is, the world is full of wonders.

And trying to see them all will only stress you out.

It’s about kicking off your shoes, enjoying the drive, and sticking your toes into random photos of fall foliage.

It’s about books.

And conversing.

And sometimes just silently admiring a particularly interesting view.

I know.

We’re getting old.

But don’t get me wrong — there was also raucous laughter, swing dancing attempts and inebriated strolls through the city of Asheville.

And the TM was with us then, too.

And while it really was with us the whole time, it culminated on our last evening in Asheville.

See, I actually spent an entire day planning the basic milestones — food and lodging — of this trip before Justin came home from Afghanistan (which for me and my miniscule attention span is remarkable). I’d heard that Asheville is the type of town where you need to make reservations pretty much every night of the week. Many of the restaurants are small, privately owned boutique eateries that concentrate on quality over quantity, so I spent an impressive amount of time just deciding where we should dine.

And the winner for our last night was a place called Cúrate (cu-rah-tay), which apparently means “to cure yourself.”

And that, it did.

They say they serve authentic Spanish style tapas (“small plates”), but having been to Spain and eaten Spanish tapas, I would say the ones at Cúrate are significantly better. By far.

The Chef, Katie Button, quit her prestigious PhD program in Neuroscience (yes, and that’s after earning her master’s from L’Ecole Centrale in Paris, France, and her bachelor’s from Cornell University) in “pursuit of passion, life, and happiness.

Sounds like my kind of chick.

All of this information is available on the restaurant’s website, but I’d actually read it in a book about North Carolina chefs just down the street from the restaurant while we waited for our reservation, which meant I was super excited when I saw Katie in person. Like, celebrity sighting excited.

I used the Open Table app on my phone to reserve us a place at the bar. (If you’ve never used Open Table to make reservations, you should start immediately. It’s so simple to use.) From there, we could see all of the action because the restaurant’s kitchen actually runs along the back wall of the bar.

We were practically inside it.

Curate Menu

The atmosphere was my favorite — small, energetic, and full of shiny glassware.

 

We ordered many phenomenal dishes:

Butternut squash soup with smoked Spanish paprika.


pimientos de piquillo con queso de cabra

Piquillo peppers stuffed with caña de cabra cheese (my favorite dish).

gambas al ajillo

Sautéed shrimp and sliced garlic.

pincho moruno

Lamb skewers marinated in moorish spices.

berenjenas la taberna

Fried eggplant with honey and rosemary.

Tapas dining is perfect for me because when it comes to menu options, I’m often paralyzed with indecision. But at a tapas restaurant that doesn’t matter, because I can try a bit of everything until I can’t try no mo’.

We were pretty much at that point when I stared talking to one of the couples sitting next to us. In an intimate setting like the one at Cúrate, it’s easy to start commenting on what your neighbors order and from there, strike up a conversation. (If the thought of starting a conversation with strangers terrifies you, start thinking of it the way I do — if they’re rude and unreceptive, they’re not the kind of people I’d enjoy talking to anyway.)

It turned out they were celebrating a birthday, and they ended up sharing their intricate sugar raspberry dessert with us and the couple I’d been talking to on my other side.

Before long, the birthday couple was ordering us more drinks and we ended up having a grand old time — it felt like we’d been friends all along, even though we didn’t even know each others’ names.

Then they were saying goodbye as we wrapped up conversation with the couple on the other side. I snapped a photo, we hugged, and they walked out of the door.

A few minutes later, we asked for our bill.

Server: Can I get you anything else?

Us: No thanks, that was fantastic! Could we please have our ticket?

Server: Um. It’s already been taken care of.

Us: What?

Server: The couple that was next to you. They took care of it.

Us: No, they just bought us drinks. We still have to pay for our food and original bottle of wine.

Server: You’re not getting it. They paid. They picked up your entire tab.

Us: ….

Server: Have a nice night!

Seriously? Speechless.

Maybe they’d had too much to drink and felt overly generous. Maybe they just really liked us. Maybe it was their way of thanking Justin for his military service. Maybe they’re just extraordinarily nice people.

Whatever the reason, we won’t forget them.

The Travel Mojo – it works in mysterious ways.

I actually feared discussing the Mojo because I was afraid that would weaken its power.

But you know what?

I think it’s like most positive forces in the Universe: The more you give, the more you get.

It’s not about hoarding and saving and tucking it away where no one else can see.

It’s about spreading the wealth. Sharing the fortune. Pouring butter over everything and not adding any calories.

If you see this couple, please let me know. Pronto.

Travel Mojo.

It’s energy and smiles.

Can you feel it?

Cúrate on Urbanspoon

Where The Highway Ends – Chillin’ in the OBX.

Okay.

So I know that I just took a trip, and I haven’t even finished telling you about that.  Or, for that matter, the one before that.  Or the one before that.

But that’s okay, I figure, because things don’t need to happen chronologically in blog time.  In blog time, time does not exist as we know it in life.

It’s not even a line.

It’s a viscous fluid, like tanniny wine.

Anyway.

I just took a trip, but if this post of yore was any indication, I was still in need of a getaway.

And while planes are awesome and can transport me from coast to coast in a matter of hours, sometimes I just need to get in my car and drive.  If you don’t know that feeling — if you’ve never had it before — I think you’re probably lucky.  And I think your car, unlike my tracker, probably doesn’t have over 160,000 miles on it.

Go, Tracker – Go!

Jack Kerouac probably said it best in On the Road — a book I didn’t at first fully appreciate (and probably still don’t), but inside of which find snippets of virtue here and there whenever I happen to need it — he said, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

And that’s how it feels — meditation on wheels.

So when Justin’s aunt and uncle (the same ones we visited in Philly earlier this year) invited me to stay the weekend at the beach house they’d rented with their two kids and Justin’s grandparents, I could hardly say no.  Especially after I realized it was only 4 hours away.  And especially when I realized it was in North Carolina’s Outer Banks (also known to the trendy peeps as OBX) — somewhere I still hadn’t been.

(Okay.  So my dark brown hair and green eyes don’t exactly make me visually fit in amongst these toe-heads and gingers, but with them, you don’t need to look like them to be treated like family.  Which we are anyway, through marriage, but you know what I mean.)

After work on Friday, I came home, fed the dogs, left my neighbor some feeding instructions, threw some stuff in a duffel bag, and just started driving.  Of course, as with any road trip, I made sure I had my mix CDs from the late ’90s and cranked up the tunes.

Why does driving away always feel so good?

I had to stop and pick up some boiled peanuts to bring to my hosts.

Welcome to The South.

Eventually, after about 4 hours, I reached the end of Highway 64 and consequently entered a whole other universe.

We’re not in Fayettenam anymore.

A universe with stilted, shaker-sided beach homes and salty air and nary a uniformed soldier in sight.

The Outer Banks are a series of barrier islands just off the northeast coast of North Carolina.  During hurricane season they have a tendency to get battered and beaten as they protect the mainland from the onslaught of the ocean’s fury, but now, during summer, they’re a laid-back refuge with dotted chains of trinket shops and surf towns with thought-provoking names like Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills  and Duck.

Duck?  Like the animal that quacks, or that thing you do when hurricane winds hurl a tree branch your way?

As I started heading North from Nags Head towards Duck, I caught an incredible view.

And then another.

Nags Head, OBX, NC

And then — WHAT IS THAT?!

Really, what IS that?

Dunes.

Nags Head Dunes

Sand mountains.

People frolicking and dancing, drawn to the sunset and the soft, soft sand.

I’ve never seen anything like it.  I had to pull off to the side, kick of my sandals, and climb.

When I got to the top, I expected to see water, but no.

Just more dunes.

It was incredible.

Outer Banks Sand Dunes

Word on the street is you can hang glide off of these.  If this is true, I will be back.

But my shadow was long, and true to my M.O., I was already late for dinner.

So I headed back down.

The rest of the time, I spent doing what you do when you go to the OBX:  Eating, Drinking, Beaching, and keeping tabs on the sun.

Not my sand castle. Unfortunately.

Automobiles aren’t allowed on the beaches, and they’re lined with gorgeous beach houses — not hotels — so they feel more pristine and less crowded than my coastal areas in the U.S.

I really enjoyed the town of Duck.  It sits on one of the narrowest sections of the OBX, and our short walk to the beach included a simultaneous view of the ocean and the sound.  The town was quaint, with a great selection of restaurants, shops, and a fantastic boardwalk.  The walking/bike paths are fantastic, and our 7 mile bike ride made me feel less guilty about our late night dinner at Blue Point.

Outer Banks North Carolina Blue Point Restaurant

Punny.  And delicious.

Blue Point Restaurant Duck, NC

Crab saute with salmon and spoon bread.

OBX Blue Point Restaurant

Pork chop with Parmesan grits, pineapple, and radish.


Blue Point Restaurant Seafood

Pickled shrimp.

The food was pricey but tasty, although I wish I could have tried it 6 years ago, before the restaurant expanded.  The she-crab soup was decidedly the best item ordered.  I didn’t get a chance to take a photo before it was demolished.

I suspect you’re mainly paying for the service (which was impeccable) and the view (which we didn’t get to see at 10:00 p.m.).  If you’d like to try it, make reservations early so you can watch the sunset over the sound.

In my 36 hours at the OBX, I’m obviously no expert, but I shall impart my wisdom anyway.

What to Bring:

  • A car (mainly so you can bring everything else)
  • Recreational ocean stuff (to include bathing suits, towels, toys, kayaks, surf boards, paddle boards, paddle ball, boogie boards, jet skis, yachts, etc. If you have it, bring it.) Really, you can probably rent or buy pretty much anything you forget.
  • Sunscreen/Sunglasses/Sunbrellas
  • Bikes
  • Patience (traffic can be annoying)
  • Surfer ‘tude.

What to Buy:

  • Groceries (if you’re staying in a beach house, which likely you are, it gets expensive eating out for every meal. Buy groceries.)
  • Duck Donuts.  Just trust me on this.
  • Hammocks.  Apparently OBX is the place to buy hammocks.
  • Seafood.  Eat lots — and lots — of seafood.
  • Hang gliding lessons.

Next time, my friends.  Next time.