Hey, friends! I’m so excited to share a bit about our experience in North Carolina the week before last.
As you may recall, we made the trip out there to celebrate Zen’s (my brother’s) graduation from Duke University and decided that we’d make a week-long adventure out of it!
Jeremy and I left early on Friday morning, and made the 11-ish hour drive to Durham with my mom in tow, while my dad took a flight. Zen and Jessie will be leaving Durham soon, so they loaded up one of their vehicles with some of their belongings for my mom to drive back to Indiana. It was smooth sailing on the road, with only a few stops along the way.
Midwest friends, if you ever get the chance to visit, this seemed to be such a fun and quaint town, and the food, drinks, and atmosphere at Jackie O’s are totally worth a visit all on their own. We sat rooftop, enjoyed some great conversation, and got some stretching in before hitting the road again.
We arrived in Durham around 9 PM and, after unloading our bags at the hotel, made the five-minute drive to Zen and Jessie’s for some catching up and a little lovin’ from Spoke before returning to our hotel for some much-needed sleep.
In the morning, we were treated to a delicious breakfast and Zen’s amazing coffee-making skills (he spent some time in Durham working at Joe Van Gogh‘s and if you get the chance, go and stock up because we’ve been drinking their coffee like crazy since we got back!) before hitting the trails just behind their apartment for a morning walk. Don’t get me wrong, I love where J and I are living, but walking out of my front door into a massive forest is something I could definitely get used to!
Following our walk, Zen and Jessie drove us to 9th Street, which reminded us of Broad Ripple, Indiana, for those of you who have been there! Plenty of upscale shops and eateries, but peppered with several artsy shops, cafés, and diners with perfect vibes and prices for the average college student, too.
We made our way to a a cute pet and outdoor supply store, and, because we’re those people, immediately spotted and purchased a little hedgehog-shaped treat for Rosie. From there, we popped into several small shops, including a bookstore and record shop where we walked away with a few gems!
With the sun out in full force, we were getting hot and terribly thirsty, so we ventured into Ninth Street Coffee House and Juice Bar where we were treated to some incredible smoothies and decor that left me all kinds of inspired. Wood and light everywhere, please!
After taking a quick break, we drove across town to the Central Park District, which, as we learned, is an up-and-coming area, to pop into Motorco – a garage-themed bar that also serves as an entertainment venue (Against Me! played a show there the following night) with an open and airy feel and quite possibly the greatest vegetarian selections of all time and what looked to be the biggest, baddest Bloody Mary bar in all the lands.
I was feeling a little overwhelmed when choosing what to try for lunch with so many choices. I ended up ordering the veggie samosas and veggie tacos and was in veggie heaven there for awhile.
After fueling up at Motorco, we made our way back to the hotel to cool off and change before heading to Duke for graduation.
When we got to the university, we dropped Zen off with his fellow classmates and took a little tour of the building he spent the most time in with Jessie.
Then, we hopped in the very lengthy line and waited to get in and seated for the ceremony.
I have to admit, standing in that line had me all sorts of emotional. One, I couldn’t believe (I mean, of course I could believe it but where does the time go?) my baby brother was about to receive a Masters – from such a prestigious school, at at that!
And secondly, taking in the intricate details and overall massiveness of Duke’s gorgeous chapel reminded me so much of my time spent taking in those exact elements of Canterbury’s great cathedral during my time in England. In many ways, for even just the quickest second, it took me back.
Inside the chapel was equally stunning, and there were plenty of tears and cheers and high-fives and hugs to go around as hundreds of friends, family, and mentors witnessed our loved ones start an exciting new chapter in their lives.
It was the perfect evening to spend a little extra time outside of the chapel snapping some photos and meeting a couple of Zen and Jessie’s friends!
Following graduation, our tour guides took us to what might have been our favorite area (if we were forced to choose) of the city overall – the Tobacco District.
We slammed on a top-notch dinner at Tyler’s (don’t leave without trying their fries) before taking a leisurely stroll to explore our surroundings. Zen and Jessie had a lot to offer about it’s history and recent progress, which made it even better.
Seriously, if you’re short on time when visiting Durham, make sure you schedule an hour or two to visit this part of town. It’s remarkable.
Our last day in Durham began with a stroll through Duke Gardens – nearly 60 acres of land owned by the university that is brimming with life and color.
There are hundreds of varieties of plants, acres upon acres of forest, unique bridges, buildings, fountains, and ponds.
We also spotted lots of wildlife as we went along.
Needless to say, I was left feeling a little behind on my landscaping progress back home! One day… one day.
Jeremy had been looking forward to stopping into a few breweries while in the city, so we piled in the car – Spoke, too – and drove over to Ponysaurus to grab drinks and lunch.
One thing we loved so much about all of North Carolina is just how dog-friendly every business is, including restaurants!
If we’re being honest, we could have spent all day at Ponysaurus. The spacious outdoor seating, the incredible beer, and the delicious food from Pie Pushers food truck were exactly what we needed and we were all so content. I was a little concerned our next stop wouldn’t measure up.
I was so wrong. While a totally different vibe, Fullsteam was the perfect place to visit next. There was a vegan bake sale going on in the front of the venue, a couple of guys performing on stage, and outdoor seating, where we ventured to, and proceeded to spend the next couple of hours playing cornhole and catching up.
Jeremy also got a chance to bend a bartender’s ear for awhile and learn a bit about the brewery scene in Durham before we headed back to Zen and Jessie’s apartment.
We spent a little time there hanging out outside, laughing uncontrollably as we played Heads Up! (if you haven’t downloaded this app yet, you’re missing out!) and played around with the Boomerang app – also one you should check out if you haven’t already because you can do stuff like this:
They had been telling us just how excited they were for our last dinner there with them, from one of their favorite places in the city, Heavenly Buffaloes, a wings-only joint. Once again, I didn’t know what to do with myself when I found out I could order my vegan wings with any kind of sauce or rub my heart desired. I never get the opportunity to eat “wings” and had no idea the flavor options were so vast! But I decided on a honey barbecue sauce and placed my order. Guys. I’m obsessed. I actually might stop writing for a moment to go look up a recipe to make these right now because what-the-what they were INCREDIBLE.
We ate our wings and waffle fries back at the apartment in near silence because we were too busy stuffing our faces with the goodness to care about anything else. Afterwards, we cleaned up, poured a few glasses of beer and wine, and played another, even more hilarious round of Heads Up! before ending the evening with some more serious conversations and saying our goodbyes.
Goodbyes are my least favorite thing on this earth, and so we were happy to learn that Zen and Jessie would be able to meet up for a few hours during our time in Asheville a few days later!
On Monday morning, as much as I wanted to spend more time in Durham, I could barely wait to hit the road because our next (lightning-speed) stop was to Charlotte to meet up with my dear friend, Leigh Anne! You can read about the many adventures this fabulous lady and I had after meeting abroad here.
As we entered Charlotte, I was literally shaking with excitement as we watched the GPS count down the minutes until we reached her home. And when I was about halfway up the sidewalk, she came bursting out of the door and we hug-cried-hugged for ages before starting to talk a million miles a minute.
She showed us around her and her roomates’ adorable place, introduced us to their Great Dane, Albus, and new puppy, Lou, and I would have been totally content staying right there for a week, catching up.
But we got the best of both worlds, because Leigh Anne was kind enough to plan a quick day around Charlotte for us and it was picture-book-perfect through and through.
We started with brunch at Luna’s Living Kitchen, which was to die for. Leigh Anne and I both got an avocado and basil sandwich, while J got the “Living Bagel” and a couple of beers.
We talked about just about everything under the sun – memories and stories from our time in England, what we’ve been up to lately, how our dreams have changed and how they haven’t changed at all, her studies, the state of change and progress Charlotte and Fort Wayne are currently undergoing…
I was so invested in our adventures and conversation that we took exactly five photos during our time there, one being this snap of the river that runs through Freedom Park, a gorgeous piece of the city that Leigh Anne drove us to following our meal. We took a casual stroll through the park, continuing our conversation, and as J and I have had some time to reflect on our trip, we’ve recognized how that slow, calm trek was exactly what we needed after the go-go-go we’d experienced in the days prior.
After our relaxing wander, we got back in the car and headed downtown, to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art to see an exhibit dubbed “The House that Modernism Built.” The exhibit featured furniture, textile, ceramic, and printed pieces from the 1920s through the 1980s and focused on telling the backstories of how the designers were inspired to create them. If you happen to be in Charlotte while this exhibit is still around or it comes to a city near you, it’s absolutely worth checking out!
We took the time to visit the museum’s other floors, too, getting our fill of art for the day, and allowing J to see why I love visiting museums with Leigh Anne so much, as she totally made fun of a Picasso piece in the most hilarious way.
-Leigh Anne: “That owl looks sassy. And drunk.” *Proceeds to imitate the owl.*
-Jeremy: “Isn’t that a Picasso?”
-Aly: “No way.”
-Leigh Anne: *Reads caption.* “Oh my god, it is!”
After getting our giggles out (and side-eyed by museum security) we took off for our final stop of our visit – The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery.
We spent a couple of hours sipping our brews and chatting away as the sun slowly lowered in the sky. The conversations I have with this girl are always so special and leave me feeling re-energized and ready for the next adventure. If I could sum up our trip to Charlotte in two snaps, this is it:
Before we left, we very seriously discussed meeting up somewhere (Nashville, we’re looking at you) in the fall and, as always, it was nearly impossible for me to say goodbye without losing it, but Leigh Anne’s dancing in the driveway and blowing kisses our way until we could no longer see her in the rearview made it a little easier to handle. Thank you for everything, you beautiful, selfless soul! We love you!
After leaving Charlotte, we got into Asheville around 9 PM. I haven’t mentioned it until now, but, you see, we did’t stay in the center of Asheville, but in a little town about ten minutes away called Weaverville. And we didn’t exactly stay in a hotel or bed and breakfast or even a hostel, rather, we booked ourselves a bus. A bus in the middle of the woods.
Finding Sparklebark Farm (the name of the Airbnb that rents out the bus) was no problem, but as we crept down the gravel driveway and parked in front of a handmade sign that read “Guest Parking” and proceeded to read and follow the lengthy (though perfectly accurate) directions about how to find our bus in the woods in the dark, we were kind of second guessing our decision to stay there.
Once we found it though – any concerns we had were thrown out the window.
It was gorgeous, even in the dark! While we planned to do some reading and enjoy a drink or two before crawling into the comfiest bed I’ve ever known, I made the mistake of snuggling under the covers and was out before the clock struck 10!
We woke up to a thunderstorm the following morning, and while it was a little awkward having to run a few yards across the farm to get to the fancy outhouse, even the rain couldn’t stop us from taking in the beautiful view of the mountains on our way to and from doing our business.
We didn’t get much of a chance to explore the farm that morning before we drove into Asheville. We had woken up a little late and were starving. So we popped into Early Girl Eatery for a late breakfast.
I know I’ve already gone on about the food in North Carolina too much, but it just kept getting better. I wanted to try everything on the menu, but opted for poached eggs over a hashbrown patty, topped with avocado and a tomato gravy as well as a cup of organic apple juice, which could have passed for cider. J got a veggie breakfast bowl and we both practically licked our plates clean!
We had a bit of time to spare before meeting up with Zen and Jessie, so we did a little walking and shopping and then found our way back to the car to find Wicked Weed Brewing, where we’d planned to meet them.
This place was at the top of J’s list based on many of his friends’ recommendations, and it definitely lived up to the hype!
I love how airy all of the restaurants and breweries we visited in North Carolina were, and, just to reiterate, how dog-friendly every single one of them was – Wicked Weed being no exception!
We spent a couple of hours there, trying their brews and chatting away, before taking a detour back to our Airbnb to show them the digs and take in the view. They’re both incredibly environmentally conscious and Zen’s even considered the idea of organic farming, so we thought it might spark some inspiration for their future plans!
We ended our time with them back in the city at Burial Beer Company. I’m so thankful they made the drive over to see us for a few more hours before we made our way back home – I think all of us needed the time together!
After they took off, we we decided to grab some dinner at Asheville Brewing Company (see a theme on this trip?!) I will say, this place had the best pizza I’ve maybe ever had and, what’s more, is they’re a brewery, restaurant, arcade, and theater all rolled into one! If you go, be sure to try the Homer’s Garlic Doh’ Knots… it should be considered a crime not to!
We got back to the bus and, once again, crashed hard. We were probably in bed by 10 PM again, but I made it one whole page into my book before zonking out, so hey, progress! J made it a little further, reading comics late into the night.
I woke up the following morning at sunrise, to sunrays dancing through the bus and filling it with the warmest golden light. I quietly snuck out of bed as not to wake J and grabbed my camera.
I sat and watched the sunrise over the mountains, listening to the roosters crow and birds sing. After a little while, I took a walk around the farm, admiring the gardens and buildings, and trying to make friends with a few of the hens and a little black cat.
I then walked back toward the bus, and noticed a trail that ran behind it. I ventured back into the woods for a little stretch before deciding to turn around and board the bus again.
We took our time getting around and loading up that morning before saying goodbye to Sparklebark and heading back to Asheville for a little more time in the city.
We had an early lunch at Luella’s BBQ, just on the outskirts of the city, which, no surprise, was delicious! I’m starting to wonder if there is such a thing as “bad” food in North Carolina. Vegetarians, there are options for you here! I promise the BBQ tempeh sandwich is well worth stop if you’re passing through.
With full bellies, we drove back into the center of the city and decided to just walk around for awhile.
We stopped into a few shops, took the time to look at a few murals and monuments, grabbed some ice cream, and when it began to look like rain, made our way back to the car for our last stop before home.
Bryson City, NC
I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much from Bryson City at all, especially knowing how popular the other cities we visited while in North Carolina are. I had mostly chosen it because of how many cabin rentals were available. However, as we got closer and closer, and more and more into the mountains, my excitement grew. When we entered the tiny town, it tripled. It’s small, yes, but so picturesque and lovely and welcoming!
We rented a cabin, through Carolina Mountain Vacations, for two nights just outside of the city, but check-in took place at a little place in town. We were greeted warmly and given several suggestions for places to check out.
Before driving to our cabin, we made a stop at the grocery to stock up, as we planned to do most of our eating in.
From the grocery, we started out of town and up the mountain to our cabin, Squirrel Run. I’m not sure the car had even come to a complete stop when I opened the door and ran toward our temporary home. It was so cute!
We were completely surrounded by forest, with only one cabin as our neighbor (which we couldn’t see or hear at all when inside or on our porch.) We spent the night in, making a home cooked meal, and lounging on the porch in the hot tub and rocking chairs. It was glorious.
The following day, we had a leisurely breakfast, and decided to go on a somewhat impromptu nature hike at Deep Creek Loop, where we proceeded to huff and puff our way up the mountain (this is becoming a theme on our trips together) in search of waterfalls.
We found them!
We don’t always plan to hike while on our adventures, but every single time, it ends up being a major highlight of our trip and so, so worth it.
This time was no exception.
It took up a good portion of our afternoon, so we went straight back to our cabin afterwards for some hot tub time, relaxation, and showers. We both lazed around, finally spending some time reading, and even squeezed in an afternoon nap. Is this what vacations are all about? Count me in!
We slowly got around upon waking for dinner in town at Anthony’s, an Italian Restaurant and Bar. It was a tough choice on whether we wanted to dine inside or out, because both came with wonderful atmospheres.
Because of the perfect weather, we decided to dine al fresco. The food and drinks, as you’ve come to expect, were on-point.
Our last stop out in North Carolina was Nantahala Brewing, unexpectedly, J’s favorite brewery of the entire trip! Look for a few upcoming brew reviews that feature beer from this location – and several others – because we certainly didn’t walk away empty handed!
We got back to the cabin, packed a little, relaxed in the hot tub one more time, then called it a night.
We hit the road early the next morning, stopping only for a quick dinner and equally quick run through IKEA in Cincinnati before making our way back to Indiana.
I haven’t stopped thinking about the people we spent time with, the places we got to see, and the experiences we had in North Carolina, and am already hoping for another trip there, because though I enjoyed every second, one week simply wasn’t enough!
Until next time, NC!