Plenty of golf options available in Asheville
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - As I hand my luggage to the woman behind the ticket counter at the airport, she looks surprised.
"You're not taking golf clubs? Everybody who goes to Asheville this time of year takes clubs," she says.
Of course, she hadn't looked closely enough because, yes, the golf clubs were right behind me. Seems I'm not the only one heading to this mountain hideaway with the sticks in tow.
Wealthy Southerners have always vacationed here to escape the summer's swelter, but now travel-savvy Northerners are finding their way to this college town buried deep in a valley surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Asheville has always had a reputation of healing. During the height of the tuberculosis scare of the early 1900s, Asheville became the premier center for treatment of the disease east of the Rockies. More than 130 sanitarians sprang up, believing the mountain air and a healthy diet would cure the ailment.
Now-a-days, with tuberculosis well under control (but not eradicated as some might think), the mountain air serves to heal another affliction -- a golfers' itch. Plenty of options abound.
The Grove Park Inn has history and modern technology to thank for its classy golf course. Donald Ross designed the par-70 layout in 1924, creating a course good enough to hold a PGA Tour event from 1933-1951.
A masterful renovation in 2002 breathed life back into the design. The $2.5 million project added yardage and introduced hybrid bentgrass to the tees and reinvented several of the holes. Now, immaculate conditions accompany a fun 6,700-yard track in the shadow of Sunset Mountain. Despite its reverence for history (notice the knickers and ties worn by the staff), Grove Park is the only course in the western side of the state with global positioning systems in the carts.
Mount Mitchell Golf Resort in Burnsville is a good 45-minute drive from Asheville in the Toe River valley. The 6,495-yard course ranks among the top 50 courses in the state (public and private) by the North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry and has landed a 4 ½ star rating from Golf Digest in the past.
Forget the first five holes, which mimic a shooting gallery. Starting at No. 11, a tiny downhill par-3, the course begins living up to its rankings. Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, towers in the background, keeping watch over your foursome. It's a stunning setting for golf. Roy Williams, the popular men's basketball coach of the North Carolina Tarheels, teed off just as my group finished, proving the course has enough star power to draw celebrities.
Don't let the name of the Lake Lure Golf & Beach Resort fool you. The resort's signature track, the 6,756-yard Apple Valley course, doesn't come close to skirting Lake Lure. Still, the Dan Maples' design has plenty of highlights, like the elevated tee shot off the 384-yard fourth hole and the 369-yard par-4 12th with a stream running through the fairway. There is one massive quirk -- the questionable par-5 seventh forces players to lay-up 180 yards off the tee to play around the dogleg to the right. If it were redesigned into a long par-4 after the dogleg, the hole would be a masterpiece.
Richard Mandell redesigned the resort's original layout, Bald Mountain, built in 1968 by W.B. Lewis, in 2001. At 6,200 yards, it plays second-fiddle to Apple Valley, but is still worth a look on a long weekend.
Reems Creek, in nearby Weaverville, rolls gently through 300 acres minutes from downtown Asheville. Its convenience, price ($53 on weekends) and playability make it a local favorite for those who don't want to mess with the winding mountain roads that lead to Lake Lure and Mount Mitchell.
Where to stay
Picking where to stay is actually a much tougher choice than choosing where to golf.
The options are overwhelming. Asheville has one of the largest concentrations of bed-n-breakfasts in the country, many large, stately homes with a southern flare.
Your most memorable bet is a couple of nights at GPI, founded by E.W. Grove, who made his money creating tonics and crackpot health potions. The Main Inn, supposedly haunted by the pink lady, was built in 1913 and recently went through a major renovation. Its stone-faced exterior and the massive fireplaces on either end of the Great Hall are spectacular. The resort has other accommodations, adding up to 510 rooms.
The 213-room Biltmore Inn is another high-end palace on the Biltmore Estates property. It isn't as nice as the famous 250-room Biltmore mansion of George Vanderbilt, the largest private residence in America, but it certainly isn't shabby, either.
For a less pricey weekend, try the 160-room Doubletree Biltmore Hotel in Asheville, which features an outdoor swimming pool and whirlpool and the adjoining TGI Friday's restaurant.
Staying at Mount Mitchell or Lake Lure are the more secluded ways to enjoy the mountain air. Mount Mitchell offers 2- and 3-bedroom town homes on the 18th fairway, private homes in its golf community and 2- to 5-bedroom units on the eighth fairway. The Lake Lure Inn is a family retreat buried deep in the mountains next to a 1,500-acre lake, one of the nation's largest man-made bodies of water. Besides the main inn, which boasts three restaurants and nearby tennis courts, beach and marina, Lake Lure offers studio villas, 2- to 3-bedroom condos and resort homes with two to six bedrooms.
Off the Course
If you've ever seen The Last of the Mohicans, a movie released in the 1990s, you've already seen glimpses of Chimney Rock Park. But the real thing is even more breathtaking. The 1,000-acre park, owned by the Morse family since 1902, provides scenic views of Lake Lure from atop Chimney Rock. Nature trails, all hiker-friendly, roam through the thick forests and around the 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls.
Closer to civilization, downtown Asheville is a college town with a vibrant artistic underground. The city of 70,000 people is an eclectic collection of art galleries, trendy shops and outdoor eateries. Very walkable, Asheville bustles with outdoor concerts, street scenes and other festivals come summer time.
Touring the Biltmore Estate and its 250 acres of landscaped gardens, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the creator of New York's Central Park, affords a trip back in time. The winery is among the nation's most popular.
Where to Eat
For the best views, the patio of the Grove Park Inn's Blue Ridge Dining Room wins, no contest. The open air eatery looks down upon the spa, the golf course and even the tallest buildings of downtown Asheville stick out majestically above the trees. Horizons, the most luxurious choice, was ranked as one of the nation's 50 best hotel restaurants by Food & Wine magazine.
You won't go wrong with any of the four restaurants at the Biltmore Estates. The wines are home-grown and the steak and salmon real taste bud ticklers.
For the best variety, head downtown. The Grape Escape (www.ashevillegrapeescape.com, 828-225-9463) boasts more than 80 wines. For a casual night out, try Barley's Taproom & Pizzaria (www.barleystaproom.com/Asheville, 828-255-0504) or the Flying Frog Café (828-254-9411).
Asheville probably rates higher as a tourist destination for families - with the Biltmore Estate and its scenic mountain trails - than it does a golf destination. If you want great golf in North Carolina, chances are you' re headed to the Sandhills. But if you're looking for a cheaper, cooler destination come summer time, Asheville is it. The golf isn't world class (GPI is close) but good enough to bring your camera and tell your buddies back home about it.
June 4, 2004