SOUTH HOMINY, N.C. — Anyone who takes serendipitous side roads off the meandering Blue Ridge Parkway can feel like TV commentator Charles Kuralt, discovering local color as well as bargain-basement prices deep in the heart of America.
This hamlet, for instance, lies along Hominy Creek, a few miles out of Asheville en route to Pisgah National Forest.
Horses and cows graze in meadows, sourwood honey is sometimes for sale at roadside stands and an award winning square dance team teaches at a family vacation spot called Pisgah View Ranch, just off North Carolina 151.
Hominy Valley Found
I found bucolic Hominy Valley on the way back to the parkway after getting lost in Asheville looking for the cemetery where Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry are buried.
The big news from the parkway is that it was finished last fall, more than 50 years after it was begun, with the opening of the longtime missing link, the Linn Cove Viaduct between Linville and Blowing Rock.
This extraordinary S-shaped, steel-and-concrete bridge, one of the most complex ever built, seems to hover gently around Grandfather Mountain and float above its vertical supports.
The proposed route had been in dispute between the government and the Hugh Morton family, owners of Grandfather Mountain, for decades, and once the route was agreed on, a freeze in parkway construction funds during the Nixon Administration allowed technology to catch up.
The bridge, with its 154 precast concrete segments, is the first of its kind in the United States.
Our driving tour started at the North Carolina-Virginia border near Cumberland Knob, at Milepost 217 along the sequentially numbered highway. It ended a few days later at Milepost 469, which marks the end of the parkway and the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Along the way we found the following:
Frescoes, handmade harps and homemade ice cream, Milepost 260--Glendale Springs.
This beguiling little town, only a few hundred yards off the parkway, contains the Blue Ridge Mountain frescoes (free, always open) in Holy Trinity Church, a harp maker and some great baking and box lunches at the bakery next door.
Inn Built in 1895
But if you're there near mealtime or bedtime, go straight to the Glendale Springs Inn, which was built in 1895. You can dine there nicely on pasta with home-grown shiitake mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes, local trout or homemade peach ice cream, and stay overnight in a room full of country antiques with private bath ($75 for two, including a full breakfast).
For more information, contact Glendale Springs Inn, Glendale Springs, N.C. 28629, phone (919) 982-2102.
A genuine general store off Milepost 275 is Mast General Store (take the Boone exit and drive seven miles to Valle Crucis).
Want to buy a weather vane, a hex sign, a spinning wheel or sunbonnet? This century-old store has shelves heaped floor to ceiling with all sorts of oddments, some probably left over from its grand opening in 1883, while an annex down the road carries outdoor clothing, camping gear and sleeping bags.
"Ripley's Believe It or Not," Milepost 293--Blowing Rock. The rock is "the only place in the world where snow falls upside down," thanks to a strong updraft (adults $3, children $1).
Take children for a three-mile ride on the steam-powered Tweetsie Railroad (adults $9, children $7), or shop for mountain crafts, from $10 framed wildflower prints to made-to-order Colonial slipper chairs ($87 in walnut or cherry), at the parkway crafts center at Cone Memorial Park.
Try the pretty Meadowbrook Inn on Main Street for a $5.50 buffet lunch of soups, salads, cold cuts, cheese and fruit.
Mildred the Bear, Milepost 318, exit to Grandfather Mountain Park. The 21-year-old Mildred is one of several bears living in a natural habitat along with cougars, eagles and deer.
All worth a short detour are the mile-high swinging bridge, daily hang-gliding exhibitions and blockbuster annual events, including the 80-year-old "Singing on the Mountain" on the fourth Sunday in June and the Scottish Highland Games the second weekend in July, plus a good view of Linn Cove Viaduct. Open daily all year (adults $6, children $3).
The mansion and the boarding house, Milepost 388--Asheville exit on U.S. 25.
George Vanderbilt's 250-room Biltmore Estate, largest private home in the United States, was featured in the Peter Sellers film, "Being There."
With its acres of gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, its winery, tasting room and restaurants on the grounds, it's good for several hours to a full day (adults $16, open daily all year except major holidays).
Continue to downtown Asheville to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, the boarding house fictionalized as Dixieland, where the author of "Look Homeward, Angel" stayed from age 6 to 16 (adults $1, open daily April through October, closed Mondays in winter).