Category Archives: Adventure

Asheville for a Ladies Weekend? Yes, Please!

Written by: Jillian Hillard

With Asheville exactly 2 hours to the minute from our home in Charlotte, it’s the ideal get away for many occasions. As the last of my girlfriends sail away to marital bliss, it has been a popular spot for Bachelorette parties. The city’s beautiful mountains, laid back culture, thriving local food and brewery scene, truly provides a great setting for a lady’s last hoorah of singledom. Get ready to check off your #squadgoals, with some musts in Asheville.

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Staying in Asheville

Asheville is one of those cities that you can do the traditional hotel stay, but if you aren’t Airbnb or VRBO’ing it in the mountains or historic districts, then you are missing out on the lure of fresh mountain air and nostalgia. Also, what group of girls doesn’t love the opportunity to have an open space to chit chat in their pj’s while sipping mimosas together?

Note to caution, depending where you are just make sure you have good directions for the Uber or call the local cab company. For the smaller of the two bachelorette parties, we stayed in Montford, which was about a 10 min walk into the city, and the area couldn’t have been cuter!

Friday Night Dining

Like any classy bachelorette party, Friday night both times in Asheville started out with a delicious dinner at a top spot. I had the pleasure of eating at both Posana and Rhubarb, each offering their own version of “local” cuisine. They are actually right next to each other in the heart of downtown Asheville. Rhubarb’s craft cocktails and fresh farm roasted chicken sealed my sentiment for their offerings, while Posana’s Carolina Bison and Beet Tartare is unlike any tartare I have had before.  I keep dreaming of the next time I can bite into it. It’s also worth mentioning that the last bachelorette party I attended had 17 girls and due to some transportation issues, half the party arrived much later. Posana was extremely accommodating keeping the drinks flowing for the girls there and getting the girls who arrived later quickly lubricated. Both times, a good dinner followed by a few night caps at local watering holes ended the night so we could be ready to take on the next day.

Tip: Make a reservation.

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Saturday All-Day Funtivities

It’s the Saturday all day funtivities that deserve the bulk of this article. Keeping up your figure in your 30s is a real struggle. Both bachelorette parties sought to start the day with some physical activity which is readily available surrounding Asheville. A mountain hike or any of the many 5K-10K runs in the city are a great way to energize for the let’s be honest, day drinking to follow. So without further ado, the two day drinking activities I recommend most.

Asheville Brewery Tours

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With the tagline, “let the locals drive you,” our driver Lindsay Lee of Asheville Brewery Tours was phenomenal. It felt like a longtime friend fresh with the knowledge of the local brewery scene picked you up. Our particular tour started at noon and took us to three of Asheville’s own Green Man Brewery, Hi-Wire and Catawba. At each we received a tour and background info, multiple tastings and enough time to sit and enjoy the atmosphere before hopping to the next one. It was a well-timed trip ending at 4pm.

A personal favorite was Green Man with its newly opened facility and great décor (and light fixtures I want for my home).

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I really enjoyed the English Porter, but I am not much of an IPA gal so sorry for those looking for an IPA review. My fellow ladies who are into IPAs found H-Wire more their jam. While at Hi-Wire we also enjoyed the Foothills Meats food truck with again “local farm-to- table” ingredients. Their Cuban sandwich paired with beer was everything needed for a day of drinking.

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In addition to beer, all of the breweries offered some form of live music, outdoor spaces and games from cornhole to Jenga. Asheville in March at 70 degrees is hit or miss, but we hit well not having to worry about transportation and getting a cultured beerucation!

The tour drops you back off in downtown Asheville, close to many other breweries. This led us to tour one more brewery, the popular Wicked Weed, which is also great for non-beer drinkers, and people who love dogs. This brewery does a good job of attracting people and puppies.

Zen Tubing

Oh, what fun you will have floating down a river for 4-5 hours! I mean it, this is one of the best times I have had at a bachelorette party. It’s simple, you rent your tube and rent a tube for a cooler, and proceed to float down the French Broad River while drinking your own spirits and chomping on snacks with your best friends. It’s for all ages and if you do the Midtown one, it will end you just minutes away from the New Belgium Brewery in case you didn’t bring enough to drink on your float! As you float you pass the majestic nature scene of Asheville, while also meeting and passing other floaters along the way. There are “professional” floaters with “Taj Mahal-like” floats that are sure to initiate a giggle and photo op. We did get caught in a storm but it was part of the fun to be honest, and allowed us to meet some fellow floaters for more cheers along the way.

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Sunday Brunch

All successful Southern bachelorette parties generally comes to a close with the traditional Southern brunch (note: NC laws will not allow alcohol before noon, so don’t stumble in before that if you are seeking “hair of the dog” with some of Asheville’s famous Bloody Mary’s and Mimosas). On these two occasions, we experienced Mayfel’s and The Marketplace Restaurant & Lounge. Mayfels, opened by Loretta Woolley in the spring of 2003, brings Louisiana-style cuisine to Asheville’s brunch scene, and for a cute story on the name check out the site. It’s a rather small footprint so plan for a smaller bachelorette party. As an avid eggs benedict bruncher, I had to go with the Mountains to Sea Crab Cakes, and the generous pieces of crab softly bunched together as a patty showcased they know how to do a proper crab cake. The atmosphere here is warm and friendly, and the bright colors will help you feel more energetic after a hard hitting weekend.

For a bit of a more upscale experience, and larger parties, The Market Place hit the spot. The restaurant has been a fixture in downtown Asheville since 1979 and is currently headed up by Chef William Dissen who has a list of accolades to be proud of. Chef’s Dissen’s commitment to the “local” can be seen in the menu choices. My favorite thing is to buddy up with a friend and share two entrees to get a taste of both the savory and sweet side of breakfast rather than decide. On this trip, my girlfriend and I split the Banana Bread French Toast with mascarpone, bourbon macerated raspberries, and maple syrup; and the Spinach & Goat Cheese Omelet with herb roasted potatoes and a jalapeno biscuit. If I had to choose one, the Banana Bread French Toast was just on its own level. I am sitting her salivating as I write this because its hands down one of the best brunch dishes I have ever had, and that is generous considering the food I have experienced in life. It was fresh, it was sweet, it was melt in your mouth delicious.

Asheville has a little bit of everything and I only skimmed the surface with the fun things to do there for a bachelorette or any event really.

Helpful Planning Tips:

  •  Rent a home through AirBnB or VRBO
  • Make a reservation for hot restaurant spots, Curate is another great place
  • Do plan an outdoor activity, be it hiking, tubing, etc.
  • Brunch is a must because that’s what the South does best on Sundays
  • Bring a jacket or sweater at night, it’s the mountains and gets chilly
  • If you aren’t beer drinkers, call ahead to breweries to check on their liquor, cider and wine offerings; some do options for everyone
  • Go to a brewery, it’s a part of the Asheville scene, I would also recommend coffee shop stops too
  • Casual is key, you can still look super cute but this laid-back town isn’t it for sparkly dresses

The Memory of a Perfect Brunch “Preserved” in My Mind

Article written by: Jillian Hillard

To create the perfect brunch, there are a few MUST elements. Most obvious, great food and company, but add in perfect weather and a picturesque setting, and voilà!

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Let’s start by creating the setting. Nestled just on the outskirts of St. Augustine is the town of Lincolnville. With a rich history of its own, it’s hard not to stare in awe at its many Victorian-style homes, and particularly the large and lovely Victorian-style house with a wraparound porch just next to a sign sharing the town’s historic significance. The house is home to restaurant and bed and breakfast cleverly called Preserved due to all the time spent to restore it to its former Victorian glory. Charmingly enough, it was formerly owned by Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Maria Jefferson Shine and her husband,Dr. William F. Shine. With a reservation ready, we were seated on the porch at their version of the Chef’s Table, which had a window that peaked into the kitchen where all the magic of preparation was happening. Top this off with the sun shining in at 75 degrees with a slight breeze coming in from the salty shores at the perfect time of 11am on a Saturday, and your table is set for the perfect brunch.

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As with any idea brunch, spirits are a necessity and Preserved did not disappoint. We all went the route of mimosas, but each with its own twist. Matt settled on tradition with his classic orange juice mimosa, while my mother and I ventured out – her trying the Poinsettia and myself the Shrubmosa. Each were stupendously delicious in their own right and hit the spot in providing that little morning kick you can’t get from coffee. A Poinsetta traditionally features cranberry juice, Cointreau and a hint of orange be it from juice or zest. A Shrubmosa can be many things, but you have to discover this particular one to truly understand its pun-intended, intoxication.

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The next element and perhaps the most weighted, the food. Our noticeably British waiter had the gift of persuasion for as soon as he said “shall we start you with our homemade, warm blueberry scones with rhubarb jam,” the only answer was “yes.” So fresh you might mistake it for a cinnamon bun-scone hybrid, they were melt in your mouth good.

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The highlight had to be the main entrees and when I mentioned an element of a perfect brunch is company that to me means company who is willing to share their dishes for a true sampling of the many offerings. I went with the eggs benedict with crispy prosciutto. You know you are at a great brunch spot when they don’t ask “how you would like your eggs poached,” they just make them the way they are supposed to be made. My only critique of this dish is it left me wanting a bit more of the crispy pieces of prosciutto as they were somewhat spearing. I had convinced my mom to get their other version of eggs benedict with 102 bridge eggs and cornflour fried oysters … it was the right choice. After my bite, all I could mutter was, “It tastes of everything in the South.” And if that wasn’t Southern enough, Matt’s dish came next, the classic Shrimp & Grits with antebellum grits, Florida white shrimp, crisp bacon and creamed corn. Southern cuisine is all about comfort and I could have curled up on the porch after eating this and dozed in the warm sunshine a happy lady.

The perfect brunch, with two of my favorite people. We left bellies full and ready to take on the St. Augustine Distillery.

Learn more about James Beard nominated Chef Brian Whittington, Preserved’s local food culture and its history at www.preservedrestaurant.com.

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A Day at Raffaldini

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Raffaldini Vineyards

Located in Ronda, NC

Chianti in the Carolina’s is what they like to call it, and it’s fitting. As you ascend up the hill to get that first glimpse of the grounds and the villa, you forget that you are in North Carolina and instead get hit with the overwhelming sensation that you are somewhere magical, somewhere foreign, someplace Italian.

With brilliant views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this family-owned Vineyard brings an Old World feeling to the Carolinas. It is 102 acres of pastoral hills sprinkled with fig and olive trees, and rose bushes. They have cute tables that look out over the vineyard and there is plenty of room to stretch out on the grass for a picnic or even a nap.

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Then there is the Tuscan Villa which is stunning in it’s own right.

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The Raffaldini family, whose lineage stretches back to the 14th century, traces its origins to Mantua, Italy, where for generations the family produced wine on their family farm. The Raffaldini family chose the Swan Creek Region of North Carolina because the area closely resembles the winemaking region of Tuscany with rolling hills, rocky soil, gentle breezes and constant sun.

Wine in North Carolina is making a strong comeback , yet it can still be hit or miss when it comes to quality. We can say that Raffaldini is certainly one of the better vineyards we have visited and sampled. Their wine selection is extremely good and we were pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety.

We sampled 8 different wines.

  1. 2015 Pinot Grigio
  2. 2016 Vermentino Superiore
  3. 2015 Girasole
  4. 2014 Sangiovese Classico
  5. 2015 Bella Misto
  6. 2015 Sagrantino
  7. 2014 Montepilciano Riserva
  8. La Dolce Vita

Out of the 8, we ended up buying two bottles, (2016 Vermentino and the 2014 Montepilciano Reserva) and we had an extra glass of the 2015 Girasole and the 2014 Sangiovese Classico as we walked the grounds. I would say that out of the 8, we enjoyed all but 1, which is pretty impressive and the one we didn’t really care for (2015 Sagrantino) just needs to sit a little longer to age.

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Raffaldini Vineyards currently produces Italian varietal wines including: Vermentino, Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Sangiovese Riserva and Montepulciano and Montepulciano Riserva; as well as Italian-style proprietary blends. Raffaldini also hosts public and private events throughout the year. Please visit their web site, www.raffaldini.com, call 336.835.9463 or email info@raffaldini.com for more information.

Raffaldini Vineyards is located 10 minutes from the I-77—Hwy. 421 interchange. Visit www.raffaldini.com/directions.php for detailed directions. Plan your visit now, you won’t be disappointed.

Hunter’s Kentucky Derby

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The Kentucky Derby is fast approaching, and with it comes all the glorious pomp and pageantry associated with the grand spectacle. Old money and tradition meets frat-tastic young drunkards in a vortex of pastel and bourbon-fueled ecstasy. Also, there is horse racing…

The Derby truly incapsulates everything amazing about the South…for good or ill. People get dressed up, wearing expensive suits and dresses and hats, carrying with them their southern charm and manners. Yet, as he day goes on, manners give way to the beasts within and the real spectacle gets underway.

And that is why for me, when I think about the Derby, the first thing that comes to mind is not the horses or the wild hats or the seersucker or even mint juleps for that matter. No, for me, the first thing that comes to mind is one of my most favorite articles of all time. A piece that captures all the amazing nonsense that goes on at the Derby and that’s

Hunter S Thompson’s : The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved

I read it every year and it makes me laugh and cringe every single time. It’s crude, hilarious and brutally honest … also wildly exaggerated, which is what makes me love Hunters work. He was notorious about writing an article on a topic yet making himself the main focal point. Hell, sometimes there was no story until he injected himself into it, and what makes this piece so amazing is that Hunter and his cohort Ralph Steadman are the main characters really … the Derby is just the backdrop.

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If you are not familiar with Hunter S. Thompson, check out Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  As for Ralph Stedman, his artwork are the images you will see in this piece.  What is also special about this article is that it’s the first time Hunter and Ralph ever met. Over the years these two formed a volatile bond and collaborated on many other projects through the year.

I thought I would post Hunters Derby piece on here for anyone to enjoy and I hope you really do take the time to read it.

This article was written for  Scanlan’s magazine  back in 1970. Enjoy

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The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved

I GOT OFF the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands … big grins and a whoop here and there: “By God! You old bastard! Good to see you, boy! Damn good … and I mean it!”

In the air-conditioned lounge I met a man from Houston who said his name was something or other — “but just call me Jimbo” — and he was here to get it on. “I’m ready for anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinkin?” I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn’t hear of it: “Naw, naw … what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby time? What’s wrong with you, boy?” He grinned and winked at the bartender. “Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey … ”

I shrugged. “Okay, a double Old Fitz on ice.” Jimbo nodded his approval.

“Look.” He tapped me on the arm to make sure I was listening. “I know this Derby crowd, I come here every year, and let me tell you one thing I’ve learned — this is no town to be giving people the impression you’re some kind of faggot. Not in public, anyway. Shit, they’ll roll you in a minute, knock you in the head and take every goddam cent you have.”

I thanked him and fitted a Marlboro into my cigarette holder. “Say,” he said, “you look like you might be in the horse business … am I right?”

“No,” I said. “I’m a photographer.”

“Oh yeah?” He eyed my ragged leather bag with new interest. “Is that what you got there — cameras? Who you work for?”

“Playboy,” I said.

He laughed. “Well goddam! What are you gonna take pictures of — nekkid horses? Haw! I guess you’ll be workin’ pretty hard when they run the Kentucky Oaks. That’s a race jut for fillies.” He was laughing wildly. “Hell yes! And they’ll all be nekkid too!”

I shook my head and said nothing; just stared at him for a moment, trying to look grim. “There’s going to be trouble,” I said. “My assignment is to take pictures of the riot.”

“What riot?”

I hesitated, twirling the ice in my drink. “At the track. On Derby Day. The Black Panthers.” I stared at him again. “Don’t you read the newspapers?”

The grin on his face had collapsed. “What the hell are you talkin about?”

“Well … maybe I shouldn’t be telling you … ” I shrugged. “But hell, everybody seems to know. The cops and the National Guard have been getting ready for six weeks. They have 20,000 troops on alert at Fort Knox. They warned us — all the press and photographers — to wear helmets and special vests like flak jackets. We were told to expect shooting … ”

“No!” he shouted; his hands flew up and hovered momentarily between us, as if to ward off the words he was hearing. Then he hacked his fist on the bar. “Those sons of bitches! God Almighty! The Kentucky Derby!” He kept shaking his head. “No! Jesus! That’s almost too bad to believe!” Now he seemed to be jagging on the stool, and when he looked up his eyes were misty. “Why? Why here? Don’t they respect anything?”

I shrugged again. “It’s not just the Panthers. The FBI says busloads of white crazies are coming in from all over the country — to mix with the crowd and attack all at once, from every direction. They’ll be dressed like everybody else. You know — coats and ties and all that. But when the trouble starts … well, that’s why the cops are so worried.”

He sat for a moment, looking hurt and confused and not quite able to digest all this terrible news. Then he cried out: “Oh … Jesus! What in the name of God is happening in this country? Where can you get away from it?”

“Not here,” I said, picking up my bag. “Thanks for the drink … and good luck.”

He grabbed my arm, urging me to have another, but I said I was overdue at the Press Club and hustled off to get my act together for the awful spectacle. At the airport newsstand I picked up a Courier-Journal and scanned the front page headlines: “Nixon Sends GI’s into Cambodia to Hit Reds” … “B-52’s Raid, then 2,000 GI’s Advance 20 Miles” … “4,000 U.S. Troops Deployed Near Yale as Tension Grows Over Panther Protest.” At the bottom of the page was a photo of Diane Crump, soon to become the first woman jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby.3 The photographer had snapped her “stopping in the barn area to fondle her mount, Fathom.” The rest of the paper was spotted with ugly war news and stories of “student unrest.” There was no mention of any protest action at a small Ohio school called Kent State.4

I went to the Hertz desk to pick up my car, but the moon-faced young swinger in charge said they didn’t have any. “You can’t rent one anywhere,” he assured me. “Our Derby reservations have been booked for six weeks.” I explained that my agent had confirmed a white Chrysler convertible for me that very afternoon but he shook his head. “Maybe we’ll have a cancellation. Where are you staying?”

I shrugged. “Where’s the Texas crowd staying? I want to be with my people.”

He sighed. “My friend, you’re in trouble. This town is flat full. Always is, for the Derby.”

I leaned closer to him, half-whispering: “Look, I’m from Playboy. How would you like a job?”

He backed off quickly. “What? Come on, now. What kind of a job?”

“Never mind,” I said. “You just blew it.” I swept my bag off the counter and went to find a cab. The bag is a valuable prop in this kind of work; mine has a lot of baggage tags on it — SF, LA, NY, Lima, Rome, Bangkok, that sort of thing — and the most prominent tag of all is a very official, plastic-coated thing that said “Photog. Playboy Mag.” I bought it from a pimp in Vail, Colorado, and he told me how to use it. “Never mention Playboy until you’re sure they’ve seen this thing first,” he said. “Then, when you see them notice it, that’s the time to strike. They’ll go belly up every time. This thing is magic, I tell you. Pure magic.”

Well … maybe so. I’d used it on the poor geek in the bar, and now, humming along in a Yellow Cab toward town, I felt a little guilty about jangling the poor bugger’s brains with that evil fantasy. But, what the hell? Anybody who wanders around the world saying, “Yes, I’m from Texas,” deserves whatever happens to him. And he had, after all, come here once again to make a 19th century ass of himself in the midst of some jaded, atavistic freakout with nothing to recommend it except a very saleable “tradition.” Early in our chat, Jimbo had told me that he hasn’t missed a Derby since 1954. “The little lady won’t come anymore,” he said. “She just grits her teeth and turns me loose for this one. And when I say ‘loose’ I do mean loose! I toss ten-dollar bills around like they were goin’ outa style! Horses, whiskey, women … shit, there’s women in this town that’ll do anything for money.”

Why not? Money is a good thing to have in these twisted times. Even Richard Nixon is hungry for it. Only a few days before the Derby he said, “If I had any money I’d invest it in the stock market.” And the market, meanwhile, continued its grim slide.

Waiting for Steadman

The next day was heavy. With 30 hours to post time I had no press credentials and — according to the sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal — no hope at all of getting any. Worse, I needed two sets; one for myself and another for Ralph Steadman, the English illustrator who was coming from London to do some Derby drawings.5 All I knew about him was that this was his first visit to the United States. And the more I pondered that fact, the more it gave me fear. Would he bear up under the heinous culture shock of being lifted out of London and plunged into a drunken mob scene at the Kentucky Derby? There was no way of knowing. Hopefully, he would arrive at least a day or so ahead, and give himself time to get acclimated. Maybe a few hours of peaceful sightseeing in the Bluegrass country around Lexington. My plan was to pick him up at the airport in the huge Pontiac Ballbuster I’d rented from a used car salesman named Colonel Quick, then whisk him off to some peaceful setting to remind him of England.

Colonel Quick had solved the car problem, and money (four times the normal rate) had bought two rooms in a scumbox on the outskirts of town. The only other kink was the task of convincing the moguls at Churchill Downs that Scanlan’s was such a prestigious sporting journal that common sense compelled them to give us two sets of the best press tickets. This was not easily done. My first call to the publicity office resulted in total failure. The press handler was shocked at the idea that anyone would be stupid enough to apply for press credentials two days before the Derby. “Hell, you can’t be serious,” he said. “The deadline was two months ago. The press box is full; there’s no more room … and what the hell is Scanlan’s Monthly anyway?”

I uttered a painful groan. “Didn’t the London office call you? They’re flying an artist over to do the paintings. Steadman. He’s Irish, I think. Very famous over there. I just got in from the Coast. The San Francisco office told me we were all set.”

He seemed interested, and even sympathetic, but there was nothing he could do. I flattered him with more gibberish, and finally he offered a compromise: he could get us two passes to the clubhouse grounds.

“That sounds a little weird,” I said. “It’s unacceptable. We must have access to everything. All of it. The spectacle, the people, the pageantry and certainly the race. You don’t think we came all this way to watch the damn thing on television, do you? One way or another we’ll get inside. Maybe we’ll have to bribe a guard — or even Mace somebody.” (I had picked up a spray can of Mace in a downtown drugstore for $5.98 and suddenly, in the midst of that phone talk, I was struck by the hideous possibilities of using it out at the track. Macing ushers at the narrow gates to the clubhouse inner sanctum, then slipping quickly inside, firing a huge load of Mace into the governor’s box, just as the race starts. Or Macing helpless drunks in the clubhouse restroom, for their own good … )

By noon on Friday I was still without credentials and still unable to locate Steadman. For all I knew he’d changed his mind and gone back to London. Finally, after giving up on Steadman and trying unsuccessfully to reach my man in the press office, I decided my only hope for credentials was to go out to the track and confront the man in person, with no warning — demanding only one pass now, instead of two, and talking very fast with a strange lilt in my voice, like a man trying hard to control some inner frenzy. On the way out, I stopped at the motel desk to cash a check. Then, as a useless afterthought, I asked if by any wild chance Mr. Steadman had checked in.

The lady on the desk was about fifty years old and very peculiar-looking; when I mentioned Steadman’s name she nodded, without looking up from whatever she was writing, and said in a low voice, “You bet he did.” Then she favored me with a big smile. “Yes, indeed. Mr. Steadman just left for the racetrack. Is he a friend of yours?”

I shook my head. “I’m supposed to be working with him, but I don’t even know what he looks like. Now, goddammit, I’ll have to find him in that mob at the track.”

She chuckled. “You won’t have any trouble finding him. You could pick that man out of any crowd.”

“Why?” I asked. “What’s wrong with him? What does he look like?”

“Well … ” she said, still grinning, “he’s the funniest looking thing I’ve seen in a long time. He has this … ah … this growth all over his face. As a matter of fact it’s all over his head.” She nodded. “You’ll know him when you see him; don’t worry about that.”

Great creeping Jesus, I thought. That screws the press credentials. I had a vision of some nerve-rattling geek all covered with matted hair and string-warts showing up in the press office and demanding Scanlan’s press packet. Well … what the hell? We could always load up on acid and spend the day roaming around the grounds with big sketch pads, laughing hysterically at the natives and swilling mint juleps so the cops wouldn’t think we’re abnormal. Perhaps even make the act pay up: set up an easel with a big sign saying, “Let a Foreign Artist Paint Your Portrait, $10 Each. Do It NOW!”

A Huge Outdoor Loony Bin
I took the expressway out to the track, driving very fast and jumping the monster car back and forth between lanes, driving with a beer in one hand and my mind so muddled that I almost crushed a Volkswagen full of nuns when I swerved to catch the right exit. There was a slim chance, I thought, that I might be able to catch the ugly Britisher before he checked in.

But Steadman was already in the press box when I got there, a bearded young Englishman wearing a tweed coat and HAF sunglasses.6 There was nothing particularly odd about him. No facial veins or clumps of bristly warts. I told him about the motel woman’s description and he seemed puzzled. “Don’t let it bother you,” I said. “Just keep in mind for the next few days that we’re in Louisville, Kentucky. Not London. Not even New York. This is a weird place. You’re lucky that mental defective at the motel didn’t jerk a pistol out of the cash register and blow a big hole in you.” I laughed, but he looked worried.7

“Just pretend you’re visiting a huge outdoor loony bin,” I said. “If the inmates get out of control we’ll soak them down with Mace.” I showed him the can of “Chemical Billy,” resisting the urge to fire it across the room at a rat-faced man typing diligently in the Associated Press section. We were standing at the bar, sipping the management’s scotch and congratulating each other on our sudden, unexplained luck in picking up two sets of fine press credentials. The lady at the desk had been very friendly to him, he said. “I just told her my name and she gave me the whole works.”

By midafternoon we had everything under control. We had seats looking down on the finish line, color TV and a free bar in the press room, and a selection of passes that would take us anywhere from the clubhouse roof to the jockey room. The only thing we lacked was unlimited access to the clubhouse inner sanctum in sections “F&G” … and I felt we needed that, to see the whisky gentry in action. The governor would be in “G.” Barry Goldwater would be in a box in “G” where we could rest and sip juleps, soak up a bit of atmosphere and the Derby’s special vibrations.

The bars and dining rooms were also in “F&G,” and the clubhouse bars on Derby Day are a very special kind of scene. Along with the politicians, society belle and local captains of commerce, every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretensions to anything within 500 miles of Louisville will show up there to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious. The Paddock bar is probably the best place in the track to sit and watch faces. Nobody minds being stared at; that’s what they’re in there for. Some people spend most of their time in the Paddock; they can hunker down at one of the many wooden tables, lean back in a comfortable chair and watch the ever-changing odds flash up and down on the big tote board outside the window. Black waiters in white serving jackets move through the crowd with trays of drinks, while the experts ponder their racing forms and the hunch bettors pick lucky numbers or scan the lineup for right-sounding names. There is a constant flow of traffic to and from the pari-mutuel windows outside in the wooden corridors. Then, as post time nears, the crowd thins out as people go back to their boxes.

Clearly, we were going to have to figure out some way to spend more time in the clubhouse tomorrow. But the “walkaround” press passes to F&G were only good for 30 minutes at a time, presumably to allow the newspaper types to rush in and out for photos or quick interviews, but to prevent drifters like Steadman and me from spending all day in the clubhouse, harassing the gentry and rifling an old handbag or two while cruising around the boxes. Or macing the governor. The time limit was no problem on Friday, but on Derby Day the walkaround passes would be in heavy demand. And since it took about 10 minutes to get from the press box to the Paddock, and 10 more minutes to get back, that didn’t leave much time for serious people-watching. And unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.

View from Thompson’s Head
Later Friday afternoon, we went out on the balcony of the press box and I tried to describe the difference between what we had seen today and what would be happening tomorrow. This was the first time I’d been to a Derby in 10 years, but before that, when I lived in Louisville, I used to go every year. Now, looking down from the press box, I pointed to the huge grassy meadow enclosed by the track. “That whole thing,” I said, “will be jammed with people; fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It’s a fantastic scene — thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles. We’ll have to spend some time out there, but it’s hard to move around, too many bodies.”

“Is it safe out there? Will we ever come back?”

“Sure,” I said. “We’ll just have to be careful not to step on anybody’s stomach and start a fight.” I shrugged. “Hell, this clubhouse scene right below us will be almost as bad as the infield. Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By midafternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races. The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It’s hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped. Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines. Dropping handfuls of money and fighting to stoop over and pick it up.”

He looked so nervous that I laughed. “I’m just kidding,” I said. “Don’t worry. At the first hint of trouble I’ll start Macing everybody I can reach.”

He had done a few good sketches but so far we hadn’t seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for the lead drawing. It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry — a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture. One of the key genetic rules in breeding dogs, horses or any other kind of thoroughbred is that close inbreeding tends to magnify the weak points in a bloodline as well as the strong points. In horse breeding, for instance, there is a definite risk in breeding two fast horses who are both a little crazy. The offspring will likely be very fast and also very crazy. So the trick in breeding thoroughbreds is to retain the good traits and filter out the bad. But the breeding of humans is not so wisely supervised, particularly in a narrow Southern society where the closest kind of inbreeding is not only stylish and acceptable, but far more convenient — to the parents — than setting their offspring free to find their own mates, for their own reasons and their own ways. (“Goddam, did you hear about Smitty’s daughter? She went crazy in Boston last week and married a nigger!”)

So the face I was trying to find in Churchill Downs that weekend was a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.

On our way back to the motel after Friday’s races I warned Steadman about some of the other problems we’d have to cope with. Neither of us had brought any strange illegal drugs, so we would have to get by on booze. “You should keep in mind,” I said, “that almost everybody you talk to from now on will be drunk. People who seem very pleasant at first might suddenly swing at you for no reason at all.” He nodded, staring straight ahead. He seemed to be getting a little numb and I tried to cheer him up by inviting him to dinner that night, with my brother.

“What Mace?”

Back at the motel we talked for a while about America, the South, England, just relaxing a bit before dinner. There was no way either of us could have known, at the time, that it would be the last normal conversation we would have. From that point on, the weekend became a vicious, drunken nightmare. We both went completely to pieces. The main problem was my prior attachment to Louisville, which naturally led to meetings with old friends, relatives, etc., many of whom were in the process of falling apart, going mad, plotting divorces, cracking up under the strain of terrible debts or recovering from bad accidents. Right in the middle of the whole frenzied Derby action, a member of my own family had to be institutionalized.8This added a certain amount of strain to the situation, and since poor Steadman had no choice but to take whatever came his way, he was subjected to shock after shock.

Another problem was his habit of sketching people he met in the various social situations I dragged him into, then giving them the sketches. The results were always unfortunate. I warned him several times about letting the subjects see his foul renderings, but for some perverse reason he kept doing it. Consequently, he was regarded with fear and loathing9 by nearly everyone who’d seen or even heard about his work. He couldn’t understand it. “It’s sort of a joke,” he kept saying. “Why, in England it’s quite normal. People don’t take offense. They understand that I’m just putting them on a bit.”

“Fuck England,” I said. “This is Middle America. These people regard what you’re doing to them as a brutal, bilious insult. Look what happened last night. I thought my brother was going to tear your head off.”

Steadman shook his head sadly, “But I like him. He struck me as a very decent, straightforward sort.”

“Look, Ralph,” I said. “Let’s not kid ourselves. That was a very horrible drawing you gave him. It was the face of a monster. It got on his nerves very badly.” I shrugged. “Why in the hell do you think we left the restaurant so fast?”

“I thought it was because of the Mace,” he said.

“What Mace?”

He grinned. “When you shot it at the headwaiter, don’t you remember?”10

“Hell, that was nothing,” I said. “I missed him … and we were leaving, anyway.”

“But it got all over us,” he said. “The room was full of that damn gas. Your brother was sneezing and his wife was crying. My eyes hurt for two hours. I couldn’t see to draw when we got back to the motel.”

“That’s right,” I said. “The stuff got on her leg, didn’t it?”

“She was angry,” he said.

“Yah … well, okay … let’s just figure we fucked up about equally on that one,” I said. “But from now on let’s try to be careful when we’re around people I know. You won’t sketch them and I won’t Mace them. We’ll just try to relax and get drunk.”

“Right,” he said. “We’ll go native.”

Derby Morning

It was Saturday morning, the day of the Big Race, and we were having breakfast in a plastic hamburger palace called the Ptomaine Village. Our rooms were just across the road in a foul scumbox of a place called the Horn Suburban Hotel. They had a dining room, but the food was so bad that we couldn’t handle it anymore. The waitresses seemed to be suffering from shin splints; they moved around very slowly, moaning and cursing the “darkies” in the kitchen.

Steadman liked the Ptomaine Village because it had fish and chips. I preferred the “french toast,” which was really pancake batter, fried to the proper thickness and then chopped out with a sort of cookie cutter to resemble pieces of toast.

Beyond drink and lack of sleep, our only real problem at that point was the question of access to the clubhouse. Finally we decided just to go ahead and steal two passes, if necessary, rather than miss that part of the action. This was the last coherent decision we were able to make for the next 48 hours. From that point on — almost from the very moment we started out to the track — we lost all control of events and spent the rest of the weekend just churning around in a sea of drunken horrors. My notes and recollections from Derby Day are somewhat scrambled.

But now, looking at the big red notebook I carried all through that scene, I see more or less that happened. The book itself is somewhat mangled and bent; some of the pages are torn, others are shriveled and stained by what appears to be whiskey, but taken as a whole, with sporadic memory flashes, the notes seem to tell the story. To wit:

Unscrambling Derby Day — I 
Steadman Is Worried About Fire

Rain all nite until dawn. No sleep. Christ, here we go, a nightmare of mud and madness …. Drunks in the mud. Drowning, fighting for shelter …. But no. By noon the sun burns, perfect day, not even humid.

Steadman is now worried about Fire. Somebody told him about the clubhouse catching on fire two years ago. Could it happen again? Horrible. Trapped in the press box. Holocaust. A hundred thousand people fighting to get out. Drunks screaming in the flames and the mud, crazed horses running wild. Blind in the smoke. Grandstand collapsing into the flames with us on the roof. Poor Ralph is about to crack. Drinking heavily, into the Haig.

Out to the track in a cab, avoid that terrible parking in people’s front yards, $25 each, toothless old men on the street with big signs: Park Here, flagging cars in the yard. “That’s fine, boy, never mind the tulips.” Wild hair on his head, straight up like a clump of reeds.

Sidewalks full of people all moving in the same direction, towards Churchill Downs. Kids hauling coolers and blankets, teenyboppers in tight pink shorts, many blacks … black dudes in white felt hats with leopard-skin bands, cops waving traffic along.

The mob was thick for many blocks around the track; very slow going in the crowd, very hot. On the way to the press box elevator, just inside the clubhouse, we came on a row of soldiers all carrying long white riot sticks. About two platoons, with helmets. A man walking next to us said they were waiting for the governor and his party. Steadman eyed them nervously. “Why do they have those clubs?”

“Black Panthers,” I said. Then I remembered good old “Jimbo” at the airport and I wondered what he was thinking right now. Probably very nervous; the place was teeming with cops and soldiers. We pressed on through the crowd, through many gates, past the paddock where the jockeys bring the horses out and parade around for a while before each race so the bettors can get a good look. Five million dollars will be bet today. Many winners, more losers. What the hell. The press gate was jammed up with people trying to get in, shouting at the guards, waving strange press badges: Chicago Sporting Times, Pittsburgh Police Athletic League … they were all turned away. “Move on, fella, make way for the working press.” We shoved through the crowd and into the elevator, then quickly up to the free bar. Why not? Get it on. Very hot today, not feeling well, must be this rotten climate. The press box was cool and airy, plenty of room to walk around and balcony seats for watching the race or looking down at the crowd. We got a betting sheet and went outside.

Unscrambling D-day II
Clubhouse/Paddock Bar

Pink faces with stylish Southern sag, old Ivy styles, seersucker coats and buttondown collars. “Mayblossom Senility” (Steadman’s phrase) … burnt out early or maybe just not much to burn in the first place. Not much energy in these faces, not much curiosity. Suffering in silence, nowhere to go after thirty in this life, just hang on and humor the children. Let the young enjoy themselves while they can. Why not? The grim reaper comes early in this league … banshees on the lawn at night, screaming out there beside that little iron nigger in jockey clothes. Maybe he’s the one who’s screaming. Bad DT’s and too many snarls at the bridge club. Going down with the stock market. Oh Jesus, the kid has wrecked the new car, wrapped it around that big stone pillar at the bottom of the driveway. Broken leg? Twisted eye? Send him off to Yale, they can cure anything up there.

Yale? Did you see today’s paper? New Haven is under siege. Yale is swarming with Black Panthers ….I tell you, Colonel, the world has gone mad, stone mad. Why they tell me a goddam woman jockey might ride in the Derby today.

I left Steadman sketching in the Paddock bar and sent off to place our bets on the sixth race. When I came back he was staring intently at a group of young men around a stable not far away. “Jesus, look at the corruption in that face!” he whispered. “Look at the madness, the fear, the greed!” I looked, then quickly turned my back on the table he was drawing. The face he’d picked out to draw was the face of an old friend of mine, a prep school football star in the good old days with a sleek red Chevy convertible and a very quick hand, it was said, with the snaps of a 32 B brassiere. They called him “Cat Man.”

But now, a dozen years later, I wouldn’t have recognized him anywhere but here, where I should have expected to find him, in the Paddock bar on Derby Day … fat slanted eyes and a pimp’s smoke, blue silk suit and his friends looking like crooked bank tellers on a binge ….

Steadman wanted to see some Kentucky Colonels, but he wasn’t sure what they looked like. I told him to go back to the clubhouse men’s rooms and look for men in white linen suits vomiting in the urinals. “They’ll usually have large brown whiskey stains on the fronts of their suits,” I said. “But watch the shoes, that’s the tip-off. Most of them manage to avoid vomiting on their own clothes, but they never miss their shoes.”

In a box not far from ours was Colonel Anna Friedman Goldman, Chairman and Keeper of the Great Seal of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. Not all the 76 million or so Kentucky Colonels could make it to the Derby this year, but many had kept the faith and several days prior to the Derby they gathered for their annual dinner at the Seelbach Hotel.

The Derby, the actual race, was scheduled for late afternoon, and as the magic hour approached I suggested to Steadman that we should probably spend some time in the infield, that boiling sea of people across the track from the clubhouse. He seemed a little nervous about it, but since none of the awful things I’d warned him about had happened so far — no race riots, firestorms, or savage drunken attacks — he shrugged and said, “Right, let’s do it.”

To get there we had to pass through many gates, each one a step down in status, then through a tunnel under the track. Emerging from the tunnel was such a culture shock that it took us a while to adjust. “Cool almighty!” Steadman muttered. “This is a … Jesus!” He plunged ahead with his tiny camera, stepping over bodies, and I followed, trying to take notes.

Unscrambling D-day III
The Infield

Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the track … nobody cares. Big lines at the outdoor betting windows, then stand back to watch winning numbers flash on the big board, like a giant bingo game.

Old blacks arguing about bets; “hold on there, I’ll handle this” (waving pint of whiskey, fistful of dollar bills); girl riding piggyback, T-shirt says, “Stolen from Fort Lauderdale Jail.” Thousands of teenagers, group singing “Let the Sun Shine In,” ten soldiers guarding the American flag, and a huge fat drunk wearing a blue football jersey (No. 80) reeling around with quart of beer in hand.

No booze sold out here, too dangerous … no bathrooms either. Muscle Beach … Woodstock … many cops with riot sticks, but no sign of riot. Far across the track the clubhouse looks like a postcard from the Kentucky Derby.

Unscrambling D-day IV
“My Old Kentucky Home”

We went back to the clubhouse to watch the big race. When the crowd stood to face the flag and sing “My Old Kentucky Home,” Steadman faced the crowd and sketched frantically. Somewhere up in the boxes a voice screeched, “Turn around, you hairy freak!” The race itself was only two minutes long, and even from our super-status seats and using 12-power glasses, there was no way to see what was really happening. Later, watching a TV rerun in the press box, we saw what happened to our horses. Holy Land, Ralph’s choice, stumbled and lost his jockey in the final turn. Mine, Silent Screen, had the lead coming into the stretch, but faded to fifth at the finish. The winner was a 16–1 shot named Dust Commander.

Moments after the race was over, the crowd surged wildly for the exits, rushing for cabs and busses. The next day’s Courier told of violence in the parking lot; people were punched and trampled, pockets were picked, children lost, bottles hurled. But we missed all this, having retired to the press box for a bit of post-race drinking. By this time we were both half-crazy from too much whiskey, sun fatigue, culture shock, lack of sleep and general dissolution. We hung around the press box long enough to watch a mass interview with the winning owner, a dapper little man named Lehmann who said he had just flown into Louisville that morning from Nepal, where he’d “bagged a record tiger.”11 The sportswriters murmured their admiration and a waiter filled Lehmann’s glass with Chivas Regal. He had just won $127,000 with a horse that cost him $6,500 two years ago. His occupation, he said, was “retired contractor.” And then he added, with a big grin, “I just retired.”

The rest of that day blurs into madness. The rest of that night too. And all the next day and night. Such horrible things occurred that I can’t bring myself even to think about them now, much less put them down in print. Steadman was lucky to get out of Louisville without serious injuries, and I was lucky to get out at all. One of my clearest memories of that vicious time is Ralph being attacked by one of my old friends in the billiard room of the Pendennis Club12 in downtown Louisville on Saturday night. The man had ripped his own shirt open to the waist before deciding that Ralph wasn’t after his wife. No blows were struck, but the emotional effects were massive. Then, as a sort of final horror, Steadman put is fiendish pen to work and tried to patch things up by doing a little sketch of the girl he’d been accused of hustling. That finished us in the Pendennis.

Getting Out of Town

Sometime around 10:30 Monday morning I was awakened by a scratching sound at my door. I leaned out of bed and pulled the curtain back just far enough to see Steadman outside. “What the fuck do you want?” I shouted.

“What about having breakfast?” he said.

I lunged out of bed and tried to open the door, but it caught on the night-chain and banged shut again. I couldn’t cope with the chain! The thing wouldn’t come out of the track — so I ripped it out of the wall with a vicious jerk on the door. Ralph didn’t blink. “Bad luck,” he muttered.

I could barely see him. My eyes were swollen almost shut and the sudden burst of sunlight through the door left me stunned and helpless like a sick mole. Steadman was mumbling about sickness and terrible heat; I fell back on the bed and tried to focus on him as he moved around the room in a very distracted way for a few moments, then suddenly darted over to the beer bucket and seized a Colt .45. “Christ,” I said. “you’re getting out of control.”

He nodded and ripped the cap off, taking a long drink. “You know, this is really awful,” he said finally. “I must get out of this place … ” he shook his head nervously. “The plane leaves at 3:30, but I don’t know if I’ll make it.”

I barely heard him. My eyes had finally opened enough for me to focus on the mirror across the room and I was stunned at the shock of recognition. For a confused instant I thought that Ralph had brought somebody with him — a model for that one special face we’d been looking for. There he was, by God — a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature … like an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in some once-proud mother’s family photo album. It was the face we’d been looking for — and it was, of course, my own. Horrible, horrible …

“Maybe I should sleep a while longer,” I said. “Why don’t you go on over to the Ptomaine Village and eat some of those rotten fish and chips? Then come back and get me around noon. I feel too near death to hit the streets at this hour.”

He shook his head. “No … no … I think I’ll go back upstairs and work on those drawings for a while.” He leaned down to fetch two more cans out of the beer bucket. “I tried to work earlier,” he said, “but my hands keep trembling … It’s teddible, teddible.”

“You’ve got to stop drinking,” I said.

He nodded. “I know. This is no good, no good at all. But for some reason I think it makes me feel better … ”

“Not for long,” I said. “You’ll probably collapse into some kind of hysterical DT’s tonight — probably just about the time you get off the plane at Kennedy. They’ll zip you up in a straightjacket and drag you down to the Tombs, then beat you on the kidneys with a big stick until you straighten out.”

He shrugged and wandered out, pulling the door shut behind him. I went back to bed for another hour or so, and later — after the daily grapefruit juice run to the Nite Owl Food Mart — we drove once again to the Ptomaine Village for a fine lunch of dough and butcher’s offal, fried in heavy grease.

By this time Ralph wouldn’t even order coffee; he kept asking for more water. “It’s the only thing they have that’s fit for human consumption,” he explained. Then, with an hour or so to kill before he had to catch the plane, we spread his drawings out on the table and pondered them for a while, wondering if he’d caught the proper spirit of the thing … but we couldn’t make up our minds. His hands were shaking so badly that he had trouble holding the paper, and my vision was so blurred that I could barely see what he’s drawn. “Shit,” I said. “We both look worse than anything you’ve drawn here.”

He smiled. “You know — I’ve been thinking about that,” he said. “We came down here to see this teddible scene: people all pissed out of their minds and vomiting on themselves and all that … and now, you know what? It’s us … ”

Huge Pontiac Ballbuster blowing through traffic on the expressway. The journalist is driving, ignoring his passenger who is now nearly naked after taking off most of his clothing, which he holds out the window, trying to wind-wash the Mace out of it. His eyes are bright red and his face and chest are soaked with the beer he’s been using to rinse the awful chemical off his flesh. The front of his woolen trousers is soaked with vomit; his body is racked with fits of coughing and wild choking sobs. The journalist rams the big car through traffic and into a spot in front of the terminal, then he reaches over to open the door on the passenger’s side and shoves the Englishman out, snarling: “Bug off, you worthless faggot! You twisted pigfucker! [Crazed laughter.] If I weren’t sick I’d kick your ass all the way to Bowling Green — you scumsucking foreign geek. Mace is too good for you …. We can do without your kind in Kentucky.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking Drinks at Random Row Brewing Co.

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Random Row Brewing Co. is a smaller place, as far a square footage goes, but a brewery doesn’t have to be gigantic to be good, they just need to make good beer.  I have to say, these guys make great beer.

A group of us went on a Saturday afternoon as the sun was setting. The vibe was very friendly, there were no “bros” about, no riff raff. Actually, there was a delightfully odd mix of people hanging out. There was a good number of families with kids, a hipster here and there, another couple that I would say were in there late 50’s, a few dogs, and people in their 30’s, like us. When you have a diverse mix of people at your establishment, it should clue you up on the quality of the place.

Before I tell you about what all we tasted, let me give you the Random Row backstory  (parts of the story pulled from the Random Row website).

For several years, Shannon and Kevin McElroy brewed beer at home. In 2013, Kevin entered the DominionCup and placed second out of around 500 entries with his Keagan’s Imperial Stout. Kevin began to wonder if the skills he had developed during his day job (as a Certified Clinical Perfusionist) could lend themselves to professional brewing.

Several of the Kevin’s friends and co-workers were also very interested in beer and beer-making.  They were also interested in the concept of founding,  owning and participating in the management of a local business.  Working with a co-worker who shared his passion for beer and local business development, Kevin spent over a year doing research on professional brewing and developing a business plan.  On June 20, 2015, Kevin held his first  fundraiser, serving four homebrewed beers in the basement of a friend’s house.  Within 6 days he received the commitments he needed to launch the business, and five days later, on July 1st, Random Row Brewing Company was officially commissioned as a Limited Liability Company in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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It’s such a great story. Many (like myself) love to brew their own beer and think and wish to “some day” open their own brewery. These guys actually went out and did it and with a group of friends , which make it even better.

Now for the Beer

Jillian and I decided that since it was our first time there, we should do a sampling (something I suggest for all first timers).

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This way you get a good mix and representation of what they have to offer.  Keep this in mind when you do a tasting: You are probably not going to like every single option. In this sampling there were three that I personally didn’t like. That doesn’t make them bad, it just means that I didn’t particularly like them. However, I have friends that would have loved those choices.

While you are sampling, please take your time to enjoy them. If you are looking to get hammered quickly, don’t do a tasting, just go in an alley with a PBR and shotgun the thing.

The Choices

My favorite: The Sublimation Stout. They call it a “classic Irish Stout” but to me it’s not a classic stout. To me … it’s better. To me, it tasted like liquid smoke, something that may not sound appealing to you, but I love it.

I also really enjoyed The Hill and Element Pale Ale

Next time you are in Charlottesville make a trip over to Random Row, I think you will enjoy the vibe and beer selection.

Hours of Operation:

  • M: 4:30P – 10P

  • T: 4:30P – 10P

  • W: 4:30P – 10P

  • R: 4:30P – 10P

  • F: 4:30P – 12A

  • SA: 12P – 12A

  • SU: 12P – 8P

Cheers!

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A Day at Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards

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The day started out overcast as we pulled up to Pippin Hills Farm & Vineyards , yet the place still radiated beauty. The six-acre vineyard is settled on a southern-facing hillside with stunning views of the valley. It’s truly a captivating  place.

The vineyard itself offers a range of event venues such as weddings, rehearsal dinners or private events (it’s rumored that Jennifer Anniston got married there but it’s not confimed).

Their Tasting Room offers samples and wine flights, along with a food pairing menu.

We happened to go on a Saturday and the place was packed, so we had to make our way back to a tasting table that was a little less crowded. Although our table was still jammed with folks, our young yet knowledgeable guide worked us through the selections without much delay.

 

The Tasting

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As we began the tasting, the sun decided to poke it’s head out turning a good day into an exceptional day. We eagerly worked our way through a 2015 Blanc de Blanc, a 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, a 2014 Merlot Reserve and a 2014 Petit Verdot. I had the pleasure of doing this with my beautiful girlfriend Jillian and one of my best friends David (who I have a hard time taking a photo with, without making strange faces).

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As far as the selection of wines go, I would have to say they were pretty solid, aside from the Merlot. In all fairness, Merlot’s tend to not do well in both Virginia and North Carolina (my home state) with the rare exception and their 2014 Merlot Reserve was rather weak, leaving a lot to be desired. However, what was really interesting was their Petit Verdot, which we ended up buying a bottle of to take home. It was surprisingly flavorful and in around 6 months it should be just right (it’s still a very “young tasting” wine). The Verdot aroma was intense with notes of vanilla, smoke, spice and leather. If you get a chance, purchase a bottle from their store, sit on it for 6-9 months and then crack that baby open at a party. The other selections were not bad either, the Verdot just happened to be mine and Jillian’s favorite.

The Food

Everything is grown there, and enjoyed there. It’s very farm-to-tableish, everything is fresh, local and sustainable. Their tasting menu serves up something for everyone, from their small plates to full entrees and desserts, with everything designed to complement their wines. If I were you, I would call ahead and set-up a time and table to do the pairing as there was little room to be had there on this day.

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Make Your Plans

If you get the chance (and you should make plans now as he leaves are starting to change) plan a visit up to Pippin Hills. I recommend going during the weekday if all possible to avoid the crowd. It’s such an amazing place and ideal for an afternoon date or to simply hangout with a group of friends. The staff is very courteous, knowledgable and the view is to die for. I sure hope you enjoy it as much as we did. Cheers!

Below are their current hours of operation:

Tuesday 11AM–5PM
Wednesday 11AM–5PM
Thursday 11AM–5PM
Friday 11AM–5PM
Saturday 11AM–5PM
Sunday 11AM–5PM
Monday Closed

 

 

 

 

 

Cider Tasting at Albemarle CiderWorks

 

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Charlottesville is such a beautiful place and I typically get to visit once or twice a year to see close friends. Every time I go I get introduced to something different and utterly fantastic, and this trip was no exception.

If you follow me or know me at all you have probably deduced that I love to go to vineyards and breweries. To me, it’s just such an interesting thing to do and a great way to have fun with friends or go on intimate dates.

On this trip I got to do a tasting of something a little different, and that is Cider. I typically don’t go in for this sort of thing but I’m sure glad we decided to do this. The place is called Albemarle CiderWorks which is located at 2545 Rural Ridge Lane in North Garden, VA . It’s a small yet delightful place that opened back in 2000 by the Shelton family. They grow a plethora  of fruit trees which many are of the older heirloom and local variety.

They began by planting a small array of apple trees, which has grown now to more than 200 different cultivars. They also have about three dozen peach varieties, as well as several plums, cherries, nectarines and apricots.

If you are game to plant your own, their catalog is online and they accept orders when the trees are dormant and best suited for shipping and planting (December-March).

In July 2009, they started making Cider. In the first year, they fermented and bottled three  selections: Jupiter’s Legacy, Ragged Mountain and Royal Pippin. Since then they have expanded the list, six of which I got to taste.

 

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Below are the the Ciders I tried. I’ve included the official website tasting guide for each selection, followed by my personal take and rating. Ratings are graded 1-5 with 5 being the best.

note: I am in no way shape or form a Cider expert. I also never give out 5’s. You should also not trust my opinion.

Arkansas Black 

The dark burgundy Arkansas Black is considered one of the most beautiful of apples. The tart, crisp cider it produces is slightly tannic, and sports aromatic qualities reminiscent of green apples with honey and vanilla notes.  This dry cider’s flavor hints of tart strawberry or melon and pairs well with the earthy notes of truffled dishes and creamy soft cheeses.  Its crisp minerality also recommends it for seafood, especially oysters and crab.

Matt Rating: 3.5

A little sweet but I was pleasantly surprised. This was probably my  third favorite of the lot.

 

Royal Pippin

Royal Pippin

The Albemarle Pippin, besides being an exquisite dessert and culinary apple, makes a delightful single varietal cider. Royal Pippin has notes of pineapple and grape, with a well balanced acidity and a lush apple taste. It is a refreshing apertif and pairs splendidly with seafood and pork. 8.5% ABV.

Matt’s Rating: 3

This section was a little too acidic and bitter for my liking but still, not bad at all.

 

Old Virginia Winesap

Old Virginia Winesap

A single varietal, Old Virginia Winesap is made entirely of Winesap apples. With notes of baked apple, cedar, and strawberry, this cider compliments roasted root vegetables and rosemary flavors.  7.5% ABV

Matt’s rating: 2.5

This was my least favorite of the group. Very sour tasting.

 

Goldrush

GoldRush is a recent American apple from Purdue University, named for its color and the rush of flavor it offers. That flavor is rich, complex and vinous. Its tart acidity, balanced with a spicy sweetness, makes it highly prized for cider. This fourth single varietal from Albemarle CiderWorks is dry and crisp with citrus overtones hinting of grapefruit. Its tartness on the tongue is smoothed by notes of honey and ginger. This is an elegantly dry cider that pairs wonderfully with a variety of foods-chicken cordon bleu, trout, Gruyere, Manchego- or on its own.

Matt’s Rating: 4

Out of all the Ciders I tasted, this is the one I ended up buying to take home. I was shocked by how much I actually enjoyed this.

 

Jupiter’s Legacy

Jupiter's Legacy

Jupiter’s Legacy has a bright acidity with notes of citrus. Made from a blend of classic cider apples that changes yearly with the variation of the apple harvest, this cider has a nicely astringent tannin and a tart apple finish. Elegant with chicken and cream finished dishes.  8.2% ABV.
Matt’s Rating: 3
Very acidic but pleasantly nice.

Ragged Mountain

Ragged Mountain
With a touch of sweetness, Ragged Mountain is perhaps our most traditional cider. It is an off-dry blend made from Albemarle Pippin, Goldrush, Pink Lady, and Virginia Gold among others. With a simple, fruity nose, this cider has a Champagne feel and a short, crisp finish. Ragged Mountain pairs well with salad courses, cheese plates, spicy and ethnic foods or is easily enjoyed on its own.  8.2% ABV.
Matt’s Rating: 3.5
This was probably my second favorite of the group. Very crisp finish, indeed.
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I had such  great time at Albemarle CiderWorks. The staff is extremely nice, knowledgeable  and accommodating. As I said before, it’s not a large place so if you have a big group you might want to call ahead to make reservations. If you are like me and never really drink Cider, this is a great place to start. Please check out their website for details and guides. I’ve added some FAQ below that I pulled from their site. I hope this was helpful. If you ever make it to the Charlottesville area you really should stop in and give it a try.

FAQ

How long does it take to make cider?

About 3-6 weeks; the apples are pressed and the juice is siphoned in to a stainless steel tank where a white wine yeast is added, and the whole tank is left to ferment until the yeast has converted all of the natural sugar in the juice in to alcohol.  The variability in the amount of time it takes for this to happen is in part based on the natural level of sugar in the apples to start with, which fluctuates by season and variety.

How long can I store cider before opening it?  How should I store my cider?

Your cider is ready to drink at the time of purchase, and we recommend consuming it within about 2 years from purchase date.  Cider should be stored in a cool, dry, dark place, similar to white wine.  Our ciders can be stored upright or on their sides.

Once I open a bottle, how long is it good for, and will it stay carbonated?

All of our ciders are sparkling, and once opened should be re-capped with a champagne-style topper, one that seals tightly against the inside of the bottle neck and does not allow for air exchange.  With such a cap, your cider may remain carbonated for at least a couple of days after being opened- but the more often you reopen the bottle, the more carbonation will escape.  Do not use a cap and pump system meant to pump air out of the bottle- your bubbles will be gone in no time!  If or when your cider does “go flat,” it can be drunk still, without bubbles, or used to great effect in cooking applications such as braising, glazing, as a dressing ingredient or added to soups- for more suggestions, see our “Recipes” pages.

How does one taste cider properly?

Cider was the “every-man’s” drink in the early days of America, and as such was, and is now, a very approachable beverage for the newcomer.  The proper glassware could be anything from a wine glass to a jelly jar; here at Albemarle Ciderworks, we prefer to use a mini-pilsner type glass, chosen for its similarities to cider glasses made popular during the reign of Henry VIII and used by many in the upper class for decades after.  Our ciders are all sparkling, and the carbonation helps to open up the flavors of the cider to your palate, which allows us to serve it chilled, and makes a glass shaped to funnel the aromas of the cider to your nose less necessary.  That being said, pour a glass and do have a sniff before taking a sip- many ciders have a lovely bouquet on the nose, which will enhance your tasting experience.  Hold the glass up to the light and take note of the color and clarity- is the cider golden, straw-colored, is there a hint of a blush to it?  Next take a small sip, allowing the cider to coat your palate; notice acidity, tannin, sweetness, savory flavors, ripe fruits.  And as you swallow, take note of the finish- is it long and bold, short and sweet, bright, lively, etc.  Repeat at your leisure!

A Day at Childress Vineyards

When you think of wine in the United States you typically think of California or Washington, but you may not be aware that at one time winemaking thrived in North Carolina. In fact, at the turn of the century, the Sixth Federal Census showed that North Carolina lead all states in wine production. That was until the onset of Prohibition in 1920. After that, there was a sharp decline in winemaking and folks got into making other spirits that the region is famous for. Eventually, other states grew into wine prominence and North Carolina was left behind.

By opening the doors to Childress Vineyards in 2004, NASCAR team owner Richard Childress has helped put North Carolina winemaking back on the map.

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After looking at options in California and New York, Childress chose Lexington, NC located less than five miles from his Richard Childress Racing (RCR) operations.

His winery features 72 acres of vineyards and 11 varieties of European Vitis vinifera cultivars at two vineyards sites.

The white varieties include Viognier, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. The red varieties of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Syrah.

Childress Vineyards produces a broad range of wines to appeal to both the introductory palate and the seasoned taster. More than 30 wines are produced including Classic house blends, premium varietals, a sparkling wine, dessert wines, Reserves, Signature Reserves and Muscadine wines.

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Wine Tasting

For your tasting pleasure you get to choose from two options: Note, the options change week to week. Please check the website.

Cellar Select   ($12 per person) 

This tasting is predominantly off-dry. Includes a souvenir glass.

  • Southern Rain
  • Riesling
  • Classic White
  • Classic Blush
  • Classic Red
  • Muscadine White
  • Muscadine Red
  • Late Harvest Viognier

Barrel Select  l  ($15 per person) 

Features dry and full bodied wines. Includes a souvenir glass.

  • Signature Chardonnay
  • 2011 Sangiovese
  • Pinnacle
  • Cabernet Franc
  • 2014 Reserve Viognier
  • Reserve Merlot
  • Reserve Meritage
  • 2010 Reserve Barbera

On my visit I went in for the Barrel Select option and was not disappointed . Actually, I was pleasantly surprised. Typically any time I’ve done a wine tasting, I come away only liking one or maybe two of the choices. I have to say, aside from the Cabernet Franc, I wanted to purchase a bottle of them all, and that includes the Chardonnay , which I never care for.

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I love a great story and one of the selections I tasted, the 2010 Reserve Barbera has a fascinating tale behind it.

According to the person we did our tasting with, the Reserve Barbera was grown off-site by a lady (didn’t get the name) and had Childress process and bottle it for her (something that the winery will do for people). However, the lady never came back to pick up the wine. I called back up to Childress to verify this story and they told me that it was true. The part I can’t verify is this. Supposedly, the reason she never came to pick up the wine is because she went through a nasty divorce, went bankrupt and the husband destroyed her vines. Whether this is true or not is speculation but the fact is, the wine was never picked up and Childress, as on the day I’m writing this, has only 190 cases of the wine left. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.

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The Tour

The tour is free and the guide gives a history of the vineyard while walking around the facility, and you learn how the wines are made.

  • Available Monday – Friday: noon and 3PM (no reservation needed)
  • Saturday and Sunday: noon, 1, 2, 3 and 4PM (no reservation needed)

The tour takes around 25-30 minutes and you are more than welcome to drink on the tour.

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The Bistro

Childress also has a Bistro. I cannot speak for the food as I did not eat there. From what I hear though, it’s very good and the menu changes often.

Bistro Hours: Monday – Sunday: 11:00 am – 3:00 pm

Special Events

Childress Vineyards also hosts special events throughout the month. You can check out their upcoming events here.

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Overall, Childress Vineyards is a beautiful facility and the wine selection is impressive. If you get a chance, go make a day of it. Do the tasting, take the tour, grab a bite to eat and then walk around the vineyard or sit in the new Childress patio and listen to live music. You won’t be disappointed.

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Be a Big Kid at Tweetsie Railroad

Tweetsie Railroad is an adorably hokey amusement park located up in the mountains of North Carolina. The park’s live shows, games, zoo, rides and two vintage steam locomotives, deliver the goods to people of all ages.

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I lived in Boone for many years, but never made it to the park. At times, I would hear the train whistle in the distance but somehow it never quite lured me there. I always thought the park was for little kids and I wouldn’t enjoy myself. Recently, I was in Boone visiting some friends and we decided to go to Tweetsie and take their two kids.

I find that as we get older we sometimes forget how to relax and have fun … to let go and be goofy. Thirty minutes at Tweetsie and you will find yourself smiling and loosing up as you see kids laughing and frolicking about. You will see grown-ass men and women running around dressed as Cowboys and Indians. You might see a baby goat  wander pass you on the sidewalk. You smell candy apples and fudge in the air. And then you have the trains. Oh my God, do I love trains! Let me tell you a little about the trains.

 

Tweetsie has two vintage steam locomotives: No. 12 “Tweetsie” and  the No. 190 the “Yukon Queen.” When you visit the train will be pulled by one of these historic and impressive engines. Both locomotives are coal-fired narrow-gauge engines, built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia.

Locomotive No. 12 is the last surviving narrow-gauge steam locomotive of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad (ET&WNC), which ran train service from Johnson City, Tennessee to Boone, North Carolina from 1919 to 1940. When the Tweetsie Railroad theme park opened with its first steam locomotive ride (one mile to a picnic area and back) in 1957, this was its sole locomotive.

Then in 1960, Tweetsie acquired another steam locomotive, No. 190 the “Yukon Queen” from Alaska’s White Pass & Yukon Railway.

Today, the locomotives steer you back into the woods where you will find Cowboys and Indians battling it out in various scenarios. No matter what your age, you will find this experience oddly enjoyable. The gunfight reenactments and indian attacks are so much fun … cheesy … but fun.

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Once you ride the train and watch the Cowboys and Indians duke it out, you can take the chairlift up the mountain for some rides and the petting zoo.

*note about the chairlift* This is by far the scariest thing to do in the entire park.

The Zoo

There are goats everywhere! Seriously … all over the place. Some are so tiny that they are able to get through the fence or hop over, so they sort of run around. It’s amazing!

The park allows you to feed the animals, and watching kids laughing uncontrollably while feeding baby goats might be the cutest thing ever witnessed.

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They also have Emus, Burros, Miniature horses, pot bellied pigs, turtles, and Llamas (the white one there is a real asshole and might spit in your face).

This is the asshole Llama. (I mean, just look at him. What a jerk.)

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After you visit the petting zoo you have the opportunity to ride some rides like the Ferris Wheel, the Free Fall, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Tornado or the hilarious Mouse Mine Train.

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Tweetsie is for kids no doubt, but why not take a day and go be a kid yourself?  Sure, the park is a little corny, sure it’s not as impressive as say, Carowinds or Six Flags, but Tweetsie has charm and the place gives you that nostalgic feeling that brings you back to being a kid. Do yourself a favor, plan a trip up to Boone in the fall when the leaves start to change and go to Tweetsie. During Halloween they deck the place out and have special events going on. Here are some of the Halloween attractions.

  • Ghost Train Ride
  • Haunted House
  • Halloween Shows on Main Street
  • 3-D Maze
  • Black Hole
  • Trick-or-Treating
  • Freaky Forest
  • Warp Tunnel
  • Tweetsie Palace Spooktacular Black Light Show

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Want to plan a trip? You should. Go check out their website for pricing. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

 

Day Drinking on a Train: The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad

Have you ever wanted to get day-drunk on a train? Yeah, I thought so. If you are anything like me, the very thought of drinking on a train sounds like a excellent way to spend any day, right? Regardless, if you want to drink or not, riding on an old train is pretty amazing as is. But what if I told you that you really could do both on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad?

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 It was actually my mother’s idea (she’s cool like that).  She asked me, “Would you like to go up to Bryson City and ride the train? They even have a moonshine car and …” “Yes,” I interrupted, “ I definitely want to go.” She had me at moonshine. She actually had me at train, but whatever.
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Living in North Carolina, I’d actually never been up to Bryson City. It’s a small town in Western North Carolina where everything seems oddly quaint, sort of like you’ve stepped back in time a little, but not too far. The pace is slower, the people nice … and they have magnificent trains that allow you to get drunk riding it.
There is actually a variety of train options and special event trains to choose from. Aside from the Moonshine Car that I went on you can dine in one of the First Class Cars with a private attendant or there is the Open Air Gondola. The Open Air Gondola car  is ideal for photographers wanting that perfect scenic shot. Created from retired baggage and flatbed cars, these open cars feature long padded outward-facing seats, perfect for the panoramic views.
Gondola Train Car
During Thanksgiving they have the PEANUT themed car and during Christmas, The Polar Express Train. It’s a great place to take your family as it allows you a variety of choices and experiences.
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No matter what option you choose, you are going to be treated to an amazing ride. With 53 miles of track, two tunnels and 25 bridges, you will certainly have a memorable journey whether spirits are involved or not.
As for me, if sprits can be involved … thats where I’ll be.

The Moonshine Car

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The “Shine and Dine” experience begins in a renovated First Class train fleet car, called The Carolina Shine. The interior design features copper lined walls filled with the history of moonshining in North Carolina. While taking in the view of the countryside you will learn about the proud tradition that the Appalachians established when bootlegging was an “acceptable” way of life. You will also learn about Swain County’s very own Major Redmond, the most infamous mountain moonshine outlaw of the 19th century.

Next, passengers are fed pulled pork barbeque, rubbed with Cajun spices and served with a southern sweet cornbread muffin, coleslaw, and cinnamon apples.

While you are eating, there is live music (usually one person playing the banjo or guitar). You are probably going to hear Wagon Wheel and Rocky Top or both…probably both.

After you have a little food in the belly, then comes the good stuff. You are treated to a sample tasting of NASCAR legend, Junior Johnsons, Midnight Moon family of spirits. This features Apple Pie, Blackberry, Blueberry, Cherry, Cranberry and Strawberry moonshine. I went through these pretty fast and felt fairly warm and buzzed. If you are like me, and the samples are still not enough, there’s  plenty of Moonshine infused cocktails like  the Copper Cola or Moonshiner’s Mimosa available for purchase after the tasting. All are delicious and I suggests that you try a few.

Passengers  will also receive their very own Carolina Shine mason drinking jar, a Midnight Moon official mason jar shot glass, and a souvenir Great Smoky Mountain Railroad tote bag.

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Train Museum

Before you go on the train or after you get off, you have to be sure to see the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum (included with your ticket) with its collection of  over 7,000 Lionel engines. The kids tend to love  it… so do drunk 36 year old men.

Train Museum

Excursions Options

Nantahala Gorge Excursion
Ride along the rushing Nantahala River. This 4.5-hour route carries you 44 miles to the Nantahala Gorge and back. The historic Trellis Bridge takes you across Fontana Lake. You arrive at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) for a one-hour layover on the river. If you enjoy whitewater rafting,  you can take their Raft and Rail combination trip.

Tuckasegee River Excursion
Ride through quiet countryside in Jackson County. This four hour excursion travels 32 miles round-trip to Dillsboro and back to Bryson City. Pass by the movie set of The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford and stop in Dillsboro for a 1.5-hour layover to explore the charming town with an impressive collection of galleries.

Other Train Seating Options

  • Most excursions have a full service concession car with snacks and lunch items, beverages and alcoholic drinks for purchase. Or pick up snacks or lunch at their cafe at the Depot before your ride. First Class includes a meal.
  • Standard Seating (Coach Class) is in restored vintage coaches that feature windows that open for fresh-air viewing, ceiling fans and heat for cooler days.
  • Open Air Gondolas are created from retired baggage and flatbed cars, with long padded outward-facing seats for the panoramic views.
  • In Crown Class, relax in restored coaches dating from 1925 with larger windows for better viewing and climate control. Get a souvenir tumbler to fill with a fountain soda.
  • The First Class riding experience. Travel in comfort and style in 1940s-era bar, lounge and dinner cars. Receive a lunch served by the car’s private attendant, a souvenir tumbler with a fountain soda and an embroidered tote bag gift. First Class cars are climate controlled and full bar service is available.

Click here to visit their Web site for current ticket pricing, packages and specials.

Pricing for the Moonshine Car

*note: they just re-introduced the  Steam Engine and I did not get a chance to take a ride on that one.*

Locomotive Adult (21+) Child (2-12) Infant (0-23 Months)
Diesel $99.00 ($105.00 October) N/A N/A
Steam $110.00 ($116.00 October) N/A N/A

 

Bryson City Map

The New South is Here