Novelist Nicole Seitz channels the romance of F. Scott Fitzgerald after a stay at Asheville’s hundred-year-old hotel.
Just four hours away from Charleston, my husband and I arrive in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina, for a short romantic getaway. Our goal? To relax and refresh at the Omni Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa. As a writer and history lover, I’ve been dreaming about the place since we stopped in over the holidays to see the annual National Gingerbread Competition. I’m enchanted by the grandeur of this Arts and Crafts masterpiece and the hospitality of its people.
The granite stone façade and undulating red clay roof appears as if out of the pages of a storybook. We are greeted by a suited doorman from bygone days as soft 1920s music serenades us and my eyes fix on the Blue Ridge mountain range, a majestic view, through the back windows. There are two huge stone fireplaces that reach all the way to the 24-foot ceiling on either side of the Great Hall, each dotted with rocking chairs in front for the contemplative traveler. It’s a popular seat, and one we covet for later. True to the period are the Stickley and Roycroft furnishings, stained glass fixtures and Art Deco designs everywhere we look. A Model T Ford rests in the Great Hall, and more historical memorabilia is scattered throughout the property.
Edwin Wiley Grove, a pharmaceutical company owner, built the Grove Park Inn 103 years ago to be a place of respite, a sanctuary for health. The artisans who helped build the nearby Biltmore Estate also lent their hands to this structure. Over the years, the inn has housed such esteemed guests as Eleanor Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller, Helen Keller, and Presidents Wilson, Eisenhower, Bush, Clinton and Obama. But author F. Scott Fitzgerald is the celebrity who’s caught my attention. Just across the hall from us are two adjoining rooms emblazoned with a brass placard bearing his name. He stayed here in the years 1935 and 1936. His Great Gatsby days come and gone, he’d arrived hoping to rejuvenate, to find some semblance of sanity. If any place could have restored Fitzgerald to health, it would have been the Grove Park Inn.
Legend has it Fitzgerald asked for rooms overlooking the front drive, one for sleeping and one in which to write. He forwent the stunning mountain views out back in order to watch attractive ladies and wealthy guests making their arrival. Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, was off in a local psychiatric hospital while her husband wrestled with regrets, depression, physical ailments and alcohol. No longer producing crowd-pleasing works, he struggled to write short stories and essays. Affected by the times, by fame and fortune (or the lack thereof), Fitzgerald had passed his peak by the time he stayed at Grove Park Inn. Nonetheless, here remains a real sense of his literary legacy. There’s a weekend celebration every year near his birthday, September 24, with music, food, speakers and tours of the Fitzgerald Room on the fourth floor of the main hall. (You can also stay in Fitzgerald Rooms 441 and 443.)
Eagerly seeking our own rejuvenation, my husband and I leave the main hall and make our way to enjoy day passes at the 43,000-sqare-foot full-service spa just behind the property. In the Women’s Relaxation Lounge, I sip herbal tea and find peace in therapeutic pools, saunas and eucalyptus inhalation rooms before joining my husband in the coed underground grotto with heated lap pools and waterfalls. Lights flicker above us like stars. For a moment I forget all my cares. I am weightless in the mineral waters and as I dip beneath the surface and hold my breath, I hear underwater music and the sounds of my soul. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote, “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” If only the spa had been here for him in the 1930s — it was added in 2001. We finish our spa experience with champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries while soaking in the outdoor heated tub. Steam curls around us and stretches toward the valley.
Our dinner this evening is at VUE 1913. We watch the sun dip down behind the mountains in a blaze of fire before sharing smoked oysters in mignonette with Bloody Mary shooters, then decadent lobster risotto and beef filet with mushroom jus. Plumped and pampered, we sleep well in our nicely-appointed room and dream of what the next day might bring.
In the morning, a delightful elevator steward helps us downstairs in the oldest working elevator in America, noted in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. There are two such elevators here hidden behind the grand fireplaces. Before our guided history tour of the facility, my quiche, coffee and conversation with the Omni Grove Park Inn’s charming PR director, Tracey Johnston-Crum, starts my day off right. Johnston-Crum is an Asheville native who found success in New York as an actress. She is eager to tell me about her early summers spent working at the Grove Park Inn, which was under different ownership then. She describes the struggles and triumphs of this special place, and finally, her positive outlook for the luxury resort’s future, now that it is under the umbrella of Omni, a true hospitality company. We discuss the ghost stories, which haunt and delight visitors, and though I look as hard as I can, I never catch a whiff of the supernatural. Unless, of course, I consider the otherworldly peace I enjoy, my childlike glee reignited of exploring and wondering what I might discover around this corner, or this one.
Lunch is at the on-site EDISON Craft Ales & Restaurant, named for the many visits by Thomas Edison and his vagabond buddies, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. We dine on a Cobb salad and smashed burger and fries while watching flakes of snow fall softly outside our window. We are mostly quiet, soaking it in and a little somber knowing we’re about to leave for home. For me, the Omni Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa is a sort of dignified theme park for my history loving soul, seeking adventure, solace and romance. There are a thousand places to meditate and a million moments I want to revisit. Asheville’s Omni Grove Park Inn is not simply a destination, it’s a travel experience back in time and one I’ll be sure to remember.
An overnight stay is spectacular, but you don’t have to spend the night to enjoy the spa, the restaurants, 18-hole Donald Ross golf course or to simply sit by the fireplace with an evening cocktail. Watch artisans work next door at Biltmore Industries or enjoy the antique car museum or Grovewood Gallery. Spend the day whitewater rafting, kayaking or fly-fishing with the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Take a shuttle into downtown Asheville for excellent shopping, art galleries, breweries, restaurants and performing arts. Visit the nearby Biltmore Estate house, gardens and winery, take a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway or hop over to Black Mountain (site of author Ann Hite’s books). Whether it’s fresh mountain air like Fitzgerald was in search of or hiking, food, arts and entertainment you desire, Omni Grove Park Inn is the place to reawaken your muse.
Photo credits: Featured photo, hotel doors, Fitzgerald artifacts and Cobb salad by Nicole Seitz; hotel exterior and pool courtesy of Omni Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa.
Nicole Seitz is the editor of When You Pass through Waters: Words of Hope and Healing from Your Favorite Authors and the author of six novels set in her native South Carolina lowcountry — most recently Beyond Molasses Creek and The Inheritance of Beauty. Seitz holds a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a B.F.A. in illustration from the Savannah College of Art and Design. She lives in Charleston, where she teaches art at a local school and summer workshops for creative writing and illustration. Her seventh novel, The Cage-maker, is forthcoming from USC Press’s Story River Books.