Going The Distance

| February 2, 2012


Ah, Valentine’s Day.
It’s the day of the year reserved for love, lovers and romance.

But, after a while, romance may need a little jump start.

To help get you primed for the day, we looked at quick getaways where you can relight a fire or pour gasoline on a fire already lit.

So, pour a glass of wine and plan a romantic breakaway from everyday life.

Biltmore

Nestled in the rolling hills of Western North Carolina lies one of America’s true gems, and one of the most romantic places in the area.

A mere five hours away by car is The Biltmore Estate. Built by George Vanderbilt for his family, the original 125,000-acre estate’s grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same man who designed Louisville’s parks. Famed architect Richard Morris Hunt modeled the buildings on three different 16th century French Chateaux.

And what a job they did.

The grounds are stunning and the family has restored the Estate to its original glory.

The grounds are impressive, to say the least. Beset with massive limestone walls and huge gargoyles, the main house is beyond elegant, but still retains its homey feel.

As you walk through you can see where children played, meals were eaten and Vanderbilt built his empire.

Over the years, the estate has seen good and bad times, but members of the Vanderbilt family renewed the estate in 2001 when they opened the Inn on the Biltmore and completed its transformation to a true tourist destination.

The Inn, as it’s called, is truly a romantic, soothing getaway for couples, or anyone, needing to recharge.

As you drive into the estate, you’re greeted with tree-lined avenues, horse paths, massive gardens and a vineyard. All before you arrive at the Inn itself.

Once inside the Inn, you’re greeted with a staff that doesn’t understand the word “no.”

On many trips to the Inn, the most seemingly insane requests have been greeted with “we’ll take care of it,” including one request for fresh roses to be delivered to a suite while dining – at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night.

From the massive twin fireplaces adorning the lobby to the elegant word work and perpetual fresh flowers, the Inn invites you to sit down, relax, have a cocktail and enjoy the breathtaking view of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.

Once you’re on property, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a reason to leave.

The Inn features elegant, white tablecloth dining in the massive dining room; less formal, but still delicious meals in the Bistro and casual fare in the bar. One warning, the bar is very small. Wine and cocktails are meant to be enjoyed in the lobby, not the bar it seems.

The Bistro staff is as welcoming as the Inn’s main staff.

If you tell them it’s a special occasion, they will graciously create something on the fly off menu to help guests remember the moment.

After you’ve eaten, you can retire to a well-appointed room with every modem amenity you can think of. Again, with service that is impeccable.

Turn down service is seemingly mandatory, along with chocolates and a fresh flower or two.

After a night’s rest, you’ll want to explore the massive Estate, which sits on four acres and has 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces.

The Biltmore staff is well trained in its history – just try to stump them on any minute detail and they will know it, instantly.

Be prepared to walk and walk, it takes about three hours to tour the estate and it’s a walking tour.

Adjacent to the estate are the famous Biltmore gardens.

While winter is not the best time to see them, there is always something blooming.

The best season for viewing the gardens is late spring, when the tulips are in bloom and the roses are just beginning to bud.

The experience is not inexpensive, with February rate at $139 for weekdays and $179 on weekends, tax not included.

While it may be a bit higher than some other locations, the luxury and pampering you experience will more than make up for the additional cost.

The Inn on the Biltmore, 1 Lodge St., Asheville, N.C.; 866.336.1245; www.biltmore.com.

Moonrise

Right outside downtown St. Louis is a neighborhood much like Louisville’s own NuLu district.

Called “The Loop,” this area is the destination for both the hip and tragically hip.

And the loop is home to one of the most interesting, coolest hotels around, The Moonrise.

A mere four-hour drive from Louisville, St. Louis is called “The Gateway To The West,” and is home to the St. Louis Arch, the Anheuser-Busch brewery, the St. Louis Botanical Gardens, museums and exhibits and more restaurants than you can shake a stick at.

But The Loop, ah The Loop. Trendy, hip and urban, this neighborhood has a distinctly Louisville feel to it.

And the Moonrise offers a central place where you can unwind, eat and explore the area all in the lap of luxury.

From spaciously appointed rooms to vintage toy collections, the Moonrise offers something for everyone.

Upon arriving at The Moonrise, you’re met with an ever-chaging color display from its iridescent lobby wall and very open staircase.

Keeping with the space theme, the lobby and adjoining areas are decorated with lunar toys, jewelry and memorabilia from America’s space program. These are not the toys you’d find at a yard sale or flea market, but rather high end originals that have been painstaking restored.

Guest rooms are built out with a modern, luxury feel including Symmons Rain Showers, which makes getting clean an experience all in itself. The décor of the rooms are one-of-a-kind and are certainly not standard hotel fare.

After checking in, and checking out your room, head down to the lobby bar.

This is not a hotel where the bar is dark, rather it’s bright, airy and the focal point to the evening’s beginning.

After a cocktail or glass or wine, you may find yourself hungry and this is a place where The Moonrise shines.

The Eclipse (notice the lunar theme?) restaurant is a true sensory experience. Blue fiber optic lighting brings a ambience that you really have to experience to believe. And the food is just as eclectic as the atmosphere.

Boasting entrees such as Hunter’s Duck Loaf and Artichoke Boursin Ravioli, the menu changes quarterly. Be warned, this being St. Louis, the menu is heavy on beef, but the kitchen staff didn’t disappoint when I dined there.

And, if you’re in St. Louis, you have to make sure you have at least one serving of the city specialty, toasted ravioli. The Eclipse does it a little different than just a usual cheese filing by mixing cheese, pork and fennel with a spicy puttanesca sauce. It’s truly heavenly.

The Moonrise offers its guests spa services as well , but for a totally relaxing take on the word, make your way to the rooftop bar.

Offering a stellar view of the city, this bar is the place to be on a weekend night.

Often crowded to capacity, it’s certainly crowded but the staff still makes guests feel as though they are the only people in town. And the view. From the perch above the hotel, you can see everything for miles.

Getting away to St. Louis won’t break the bank, either.

The hotel is offering a “love shack” special during February, with rates from $179. The special includes a bottle of champagne, in-room breakfast, value parking and a romantic passion kit.

We’ll leave that one for you to explore.

Moonrise, 6177 Delmar In The Loop, St. Louis, Mo. 314.721.1111. www.moonrisehotel.com

Nashville

Tucked away in Nashville’s ever-vibrant downtown district is an oasis of fun, chic and modern luxury.

It’s the Indigo Hotel, and it’s a rampant departure from your ordinary big box hotel chain.

With its spacious open lobby, curved front desk and sprawling staircase, you’re more likely to think you’re in someone’s newly-built home than a hotel.

But, you are in a hotel and this outpost reminds you that you’re a guest at every turn.

From the well-appointed rooms with a distinctive modern flair to the lobby bar, the staff at this hotel likes to remind guests that they serve at your pleasure.

The hotel is parked within walking distance to many of Nashville’s greatest attractions, and at only three hours away, it’s the quickest getaway on our list.

Now, this getaway doesn’t have the same vibe that Asheville, St. Louis or Niagara has – you’ll not forget you’re in the heart of a city’s downtown, but what a downtown it can be.

With more restaurants that you can image (we had better sashimi in an eatery there than in New York City) and attractions galore, you can get out and about and see the sights without hailing a cab.

And there are plenty of things to see and do within a short walk.

Head up historic Second Avenue for a visit to famed music row where you can take in everything from jazz and blues to, yes, country music. Who knows, you may see one of the next up-and-comers in some honky tonk on Music Row. Hey, anything’s possible.

And the honky tonks are aplenty. Every type of libation you can think of is available up and down the row. Taste the local flair by trying the Bosco Famous Flaming Stone Beer or a PBR, which is insanely popular.

But, for a more intimate evening, escape back to the Indigo and enjoy a glass or two of their extensive wine list and appetizers before calling it a night.

Once you’ve called it a night, your room will beckon you with sleek lines, funky décor and an inviting vibe that can’t be beat.

From the hardwood floors to the bright colors, this hotel is anything but ordinary. Everything you expect is here, a desk, high-speed internet access and room service, but of all our escapes, this is the funkiest destination.

And like our other getaways, the staff is there to serve you. From helping you decide where to eat (just ask, they have been known to debate each other about the best place to grab a bite) to the best places to see, the desk staff has been helpful, attentive and quick with a comeback when warranted.

As part of the IHG Chain, which also owns Holiday Inn and the Intercontinental brands, Indigo is part of a growing trend where boutique hotels are corporately-owned, but it retains the “hyper local” vibe.

With rates starting at around $120 a night, the price and location can’t be beat.

Hotel Indigo, 301 Union St., Nashville, Tenn. 1.877.270.1392. www.hotelindigo.com.

Niagara

For those of you looking to really get away from it all, and have an interesting Valentine’s day, look north.

Way north.

Only a few hours away by air is Buffalo, N.Y.

Now, why would I say Buffalo for Valentine’s Day?

Because Niagara Falls is only another 30 minutes up the road from Buffalo.

Southwest Airlines offers daily flights to Buffalo, and both Continental and Delta offer daily service to nearby Rochester. None offer nonstop flights, but the layovers in Cleveland and Detroit aren’t that bad, in the 45 minute range. Just enough time to get your digital camera ready for some really fantastic pictures.

The sheer awe of Niagara Falls is something you have to see, feel and hear to truly appreciate. More than 650,000 gallons of water flow over the smallest of the falls every second. Formed by glaciers more than 12,000 years ago, the falls are part of the Niagara River.

Niagara Falls is not only a natural wonder, it’s also a prime spot for weddings and honeymoons.

In fact, less than a month ago, while visiting I saw a bride and groom assembling their wedding party in front of the famed Horseshoe Falls.

Niagara Falls is filled with interesting things to do on the U.S. side, namely the Seneca Casino, which is one of the few places left where smoking inside is encouraged, so be warned if you don’t like cigarette smoke.

During the off season, Niagara, N.Y. looks gray and dreary, sorta like the weather outside during the winter, but there are bright spots.

There are fewer crowds, which means you can actually see the falls and the hotel rates are much lower.

And the hotels, they are a plenty.

Name your chain and you’ll find it along both the U.S. and Canadian side. But, alas, without a Passport or Passport card you’ll never get to the Canadian side.

But, there is plenty to see and do in and around Niagara.

On the road from Buffalo to Niagara, you should plan a side trip to LeRoy, N.Y. (don’t worry, you can’t miss the signs on the Thruway) and visit the Jell-O museum. It was closed for the season when I recently made the trip, but rest assured it’s probably worth the visit.

Around the area, there are wineries, which make some pretty good wines; Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes. All of which are breathtaking in their own right, but it’s Niagara that is the big draw.

Beginning in Mid-April, the falls begin to come to life with the excursion boats launching again and the tourists coming back.

Best of all, viewing the Falls is free. Now, all of the side trips and tourist items will cost you, but they are not outrageous.

Airfare will vary, and the father in advance you book it, the less expensive it is and don’t forget the rental car. It may not be cheap, but the experience and beauty of the falls is worth both the price and the time.

Niagara Falls, N.Y., www.niagarafallsusa.org.

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