Monday, January 29, 2018

A cold day on the Outer Banks

There is a wildness to the Carolina coast in the winter, one that is not so readily visible in the summer when the beaches are filled with sunbathers and laughing children. The wind coming off the water is unlike that of a spring thunderstorm, and the chill that accompanies it brings tears to your eyes. The waves seem harsher, the dunes less contained, even the sky has a desolate aura of abandonment.

We emerged from the Hampton Inn Outer Banks to an empty stretch of shore. While there are plenty of homes along the stretch between Duck and Corolla, we were the only people as far as the eye could see; a marked contrast to the constant stream of cars riding up and down the beach north of Corolla. We chose the hotel partially due to the (comparatively) remote location, and also as it would put both Corolla and Duck within an easy drive; we had planned to see the wild horses on one day, and the Wright Brothers National Memorial the next.

The beach was littered with shells. The boys immediately started collecting, but at moments I would look up to see them facing the ocean, lost in thought, shells washing in and out at their feet. My bag started to fill as well, the color purple catching my eye most often: scallops and cockles, carditids and tellins.

A squadron of pelicans flew overhead, the bright sun reflecting off their white bodies in Morse code of flashes. While the air traffic slows down during the winter, the Outer Banks remain a prime area for bird-watching. Right across the street on the Currituck Sound side is the last piece of untouched property on the northeastern portion of the Outer Banks, the Donal C. O'Brien Sanctuary and Audubon Center at Pine Island. Preserving 2,600 acres of marsh, upland maritime forest and sandy beaches, the Sanctuary remains largely free from development, so birds and wildlife can continue to have a safe place to thrive free from human disturbance. The entrance to the 2.5-mile nature trail is directly opposite the hotel, and during the summer it is possible to take kayak tours and participate in other public programs.

It was inevitable – the feet get wet. The allure of a shell tumbling back out with the surf, or a careless moment while the mind wanders… The waves relentlessly tug at the sand, and the ceaseless repetition of the tides mesmerizes and captivates. Although it might have been the wet shoes and cold feet that eventually forced us indoors, once we retreated we noticed our cheeks were stinging and fingers were tingling. However, we had found what we had been searching for: the surf, the shells, the seclusion. Suddenly famished, we filled our bellies and afterwards spread out our discovered shells, already dreaming what treasures the ocean would bring us next.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Le Spice of Spartanburg

Owners Nicolas and Amonrat Dhers are hard at work in the kitchen every time we visit, far more noticeable than the restaurant’s white wooden sign out on Abernathy Highway. We had passed the unassuming sign often on our way to Barnet Park and downtown Spartanburg, but didn’t give it a second thought until a friend suggested lunch after a morning at Hatcher Garden Woodland Preserve. Having tasted a pain au chocolat (here called choco croissant) just as light and flaky as I remember from our time living in France, I brought Roberts in so he could judge for himself.

While it might have been the French pastries that first brought us to Le Spice Restaurant and Bakery, it is the eclectic international fusion that brings us back; the French favorites mingle with Thai, Cuban and Mexican in a fascinating selection of breakfast and lunch dishes. Amonrat is from a small village in Thailand, and Nicolas from the Normandy region in France; the two met while working in the food industry in Miami, setting the stage for one of the Upstate’s most captivating international restaurants.

Chef's daily special, Buffalo turkey crêpe w/ carrot ginger soup

The menu isn’t overwhelming; there is a soup & salad section, the crêpes, sandwiches and house specialties. However I still haven’t managed to try everything, as favorites from previous visits vie with the as-of-yet unexperienced options. From the French end of things there are of course the crêpes, but also escargot, Quiche Lorraine, Niçoise salad and the Croque-monsieur. Mexican and Cuban flavors also make an appearance in the crêpe menu, with a Cuban chicken option that features pork belly, Swiss cheese and creamy mustard sauce, or La Mexicaine with cheddar cheese, guac, onions, peppers and tomatoes. These appear side-by-side on the menu with more traditional crepes: La Rousse with fresh salmon, creamy pink tomato sauce and Swiss, or the bacon, egg & brie.

The Duck Bun

We’ve delighted finding Thai flavors in the sandwiches, a popular choice being the Duck Bun: roasted duck, sriracha aioli, red onion jam and cilantro on a brioche bun. The Bangbang Banh Mi features marinated pork, aioli, carrots, onions, cornichon pickles, cucumber and bangbang sauce on baguette. The Thai Green Curry Bowl is a house specialty, while the Thai Pulled Pork sandwich offers a Thai twist on a southern classic.

The front entrance, with Chef Nicolas cooking up a storm in the kitchen

The little house with the blue door creates a welcoming atmosphere, with plenty of seating options. When we arrive with a group of moms (kids in tow), we’ll often choose to sit in the first room, the family-style table allowing us all to sit together without disturbing other patrons. Other times we sit in the main dining room with light streaming in through the large windows, while on a warm spring day we might venture out to the patio and listen to the breeze in the forest surrounding the small creek on its way to the North Tyger River.

If you get there early enough you might be able to sample one of the bacon chocolate cookies for dessert, although don’t be despondent if you miss out – there are plenty of other mouthwatering options such as maple sea salt pecan pie and lemon meringue to tempt your taste buds. In lieu of dessert we’ll often purchase bread to take home, the multi grain loaves soft and pillowy, sometimes disappearing before their intended role in lunch the following day.

A raspberry Danish, choco croissant and cinnamon roll

Le Spice is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8am to 3pm. Everything is cooked fresh and to order, but there is a call-ahead option if you’re short on time. Le Spice does to-go orders, as well as catering, whole pies, and a Chef’s table option. Located at 8881 Warren H. Abernathy Hwy. in Spartanburg, Le Spice can be found online on Facebook and Instagram.

This article is part of the series Food on Friday.

Le Spice has also been featured in Spartanburg Magazine and in the new book by Hub City Press, A Taste of Spartanburg.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

USC Upstate women's basketball with Anda Kuzmina

In addition to the dynamic downtown scene, Spartanburg is also home to several universities including the University of South Carolina Upstate (USC Upstate). The public university (formerly known as USC Spartanburg) was founded in 1967, and is one of the fastest growing universities in South Carolina offering both undergraduate and graduate programs.

Last weekend it was a freshman on the USC Upstate women’s basketball team that brought us to the G.B. Hodge Center, the newly-renovated arena that was recently ranked among the best Division I college basketball arenas for game atmosphere and experience. 5’10” guard Anda Kuzmina is a new addition to the team, coming from Rīga and a Latvian team that finished in 8th place at the European U-20 championship.

The psychology major transferred to USC Upstate from Latvijas Universitāte in 2017, and has already been making headlines; in December she was named ASUN Freshman of the Week. Anda is one of multiple women’s basketball players from Latvia playing in the NCAA in the news: Digna Strautmane (freshman forward @ Syracuse) with Rookie of the Week last week, Kitija Laksa (USF junior guard) receiving the USBWA player of the week honor in Division I last month, and Marta Miščenko (Wingate senior center) earning SAC Player of the Week in December.

The fast-paced game against the North Florida Ospreys ended in a narrow loss for Upstate, but Anda played for 28 minutes, finishing the game with 8 points and 5 rebounds. The Spartans are currently 6-14, but with 9 games to go this season they still have time to improve their record. Meanwhile, Anda shows promise and we wish her the best in her continued time with the USC Spartans.

USC Upstate: Home to approximately 6,000 students and 340 full-time faculty, it is the largest of the seven colleges and universities in Spartanburg. While we’re familiar with the much smaller Wofford College (due to the Carolina Panthers training camp that takes place there every summer), only Spartanburg Community College comes close in # of students; however the 2-year college has about half the staff of USC Upstate.

For the USC Upstate women’s basketball schedule, click here.
For a complete list of Latvians playing in the NCAA, click here.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Strolling Downtown Spartanburg

Spartanburg is the second-largest city in Upstate South Carolina, and is just 30 minutes from Greenville, with the two cities sharing GSP airport. Possibly best known as the home of Wofford College and the Carolina Panthers training camp, Spartanburg is also the site of headquarters for Denny's and is home to the BMW Spartanburg factory. On the other hand, the city has been around since 1753 and is packed with historic attractions, cultural sites and outdoor activities. Spartanburg became a hub city back in the late 1800s when seven train lines fanned out from the city like spokes on a wheel, and today the nickname “Hub City” is still appropriate, although it is highways that connect the city to Altanta, DC, and Charlotte just 80 miles to the east. Recently the city has been energized in a rebirth, and nowhere is this new prestige as a tourist destination more evident than on a stroll down Main Street.

A great place to start is Denny’s Plaza, the greenspace adjacent to Denny's Corporate Headquarters. Denny's main offices were located California until 1989, at which time the office was moved to Spartanburg, headquarters of the parent company Trans World Corporation that acquired Denny's in 1987. The Plaza is home to fountains and gardens, as well as seasonal attractions such as the “Dickens of a Christmas” holiday tree.

Denny's headquarters and plaza

Headed west you’ll pass multiple popular stores including the Local Hiker and Hub City Scoops. Shortly before reaching S. Church St. you’ll find Fr8yard, the one of a kind, family friendly, outdoor entertainment and restaurant complex that opened last year. The venue is a community gathering place that was bustling even on a chilly January day.

You’ll notice multiple light-bulb sculptures as you walk, a part of the large-scale public art project headed up by the Spartanburg Art Museum. The project is titled “Lighten Up Spartanburg!”and features 28 light-bulb sculptures in public spaces around Spartanburg’s Downtown Cultural District, each decorated by a local or regional artist, designer or architect who was given free rein to paint, shape and decorate the sculptures.

Wall Street is the pedestrian thoroughfare that features multiple restaurants and stores. The ‘festival street’ is a good example of how the city has recently invested in Spartanburg to make it more bikable and walkable, and is part of a larger trails plan that will eventually connect 200 miles of countywide bike lanes and trails.

There is a different type of trail that runs through downtown as well - the Spartanburg Music Trail. A 30-minute walking tour of the city’s music history guides you from Daniel Morgan Avenue up Main Street to Liberty Street, colorful markers describing various artists at each point and appropriate music audible through your smartphoneIt was Southern Rock superstars the Marshall Tucker Band who put Spartanburg on the musical map, but you’ll also learn which Spartanburg bluesman lent his first name to British rock group Pink Floyd, who played electric guitar for Elvis Presley, who wrote “Duelin’ Banjos,” and who put the words and music together to create the hymn “Amazing Grace.”

Along with the light bulbs you might also notice metal cycling statues scattered around, part of a ArtCycle scavenger hunt that has participants searching for the 11 pieces created by local artist Hoondirt. The art is in honor of Spartanburg’s bicycle-friendly designation from the League of American Bicyclists (SC’s first), as well as being the first city in the Southeast with a bike sharing program.

You’ll want to plan to spend some time in the Masonic Temple, today home to Hub City Writers Project and Cakehead Bakeshop. The award-winning bakery (in 2012 their cajun tater biscuit was judged the world’s best biscuit at the International Biscuit Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee) shares the ground floor with the Spartanburg publisher and bookseller. The Opera House was at this location from 1880 until demolished in 1907, and while several smaller buildings occupied the site in the interim, several Masonic lodges pooled resources to build the current space in 1927, designed by Spartanburg architect Frank Collins.

The Masons still meet at the location regularly, the upper floors housing an elegant auditorium. We picked up coffee roasted by local Little River Roasting Co. at the coffee bar, and after browsing for almost an hour at the bookstore, selected the second edition of “The Underground Guide to Spartanburg.” Printed by Hub City Press, this volume is the perfect guide to finding great stuff to do in the city.

Hub City Press publications

Back outside and continuing east, you’ll notice that for a brief period the opposing lanes of traffic on Main Street are split by a small pocket park. In the center is the clock tower; originally a feature of the Opera House, then a fixture of the Magnolia Street courthouse, the bell and clock were moved to the present location in 1986.

The north block Between Magnolia Street and Church Street is devoted to Morgan Square. At the west end is the Daniel Morgan Monument, the 1881 memorial a tribute to General Morgan’s victory at Cowpens. In the center is a fountain, and during the winter months you’ll find the skating rink to be a fun stop.

Just across the street on N Church St. is the Growler Haus, the Upstate chain that offers multiple seasonal and tasteful craft/micro beers and other libations. Comfy couches, local craft beer (and cider & komboucha) and knowledgeable bartenders will convince you to stay awhile.

On the next block over, 127 Dunbar Street (it has frontage on both Main and Dunbar) is the former location of the chain department store Woolworth’s. On July 26, 1960 the lunch counter was the site of a sit-in to protest the store’s all-white lunch counter service policy, part of the momentous national movement. You’ll find a plaque to commemorate this historic event.

Just a bit further and you’ll find yourself back in front of the Denny’s Plaza, however this should not be the end of your Spartanburg tour as there is much more to do in Hub City… Car enthusiasts should not miss touring BMW Zentrum, the German car maker’s only museum and manufacturing plant in America. Hiking often brings us out to Milliken Arboretum or Hatcher Garden & Woodland Preserve, while Croft State Park is a mere 15 minutes south. The Spartanburg International Festival draws more than 12,000 people to Barnet Park every October, while every summer the Carolina Panthers practice can be easily combined with a day in downtown by utilizing the free shuttle to Wofford. However you choose to spend your time in Hub City, you’ll find that it’s a dynamic city, full of history and culture – that will only pique your interest in coming back.

For a historic tour of Spartanburg, check out this guide by Hub City Tour. It features a few of the sites on Main Street in addition to a wide range of attractions throughout the city.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Cafe and Then Some, featuring Viva Greenvegas!

“Something to offend everyone” is the motto at Cafe and Then Some, downtown Greenville’s comedy dinner theater. In business since 1979, Cafe and Then Some combines great food with hilarious entertainment for an evening of make-your-sides-hurt fun.

We headed downtown to check out the new show, Viva GreenVegas: “Join Toy Pettigru, Mary Louise Earl McDaniel Hampton Pinckney, Veranda Bannister and her daughter Madison, a Greenville city policeman, two Reedy River crayfish and a host of others as they attempt to explain exactly what is going in in Greenville with all the trendy restaurants and new construction of apartments and condos!  And where the hell all the people are going to come from to support this madness!”

The comedy troupe is spot-on in this newest show, poking some good-natured fun at Greenville’s restaurant scene and current events. The cast includes Susan Smith, Maureen Abdalla, Jim Wilkins, Traysie Amick and Bill Smith, and the show ran the gamut of comedy with one-liners, funny costumes, musical numbers and enough witty repartee to keep the laughter coming.

The cafe opens for dinner at 6:30, but another option is going for drinks and dessert (served at intermission). The menu ranges from standard to southern, but make sure to save room for dessert; their "Homemade Sin" is a chocolate chip cookie baked during the show and smothered in ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream and peanuts. Or try "The Elvis!," a miniature peanut butter and banana sandwich, battered, deep-fried and rolled in powdered sugar and cinnamon, topped with a mixed berry puree and mini marshmallows. The drinks menu is reasonable, and the service always friendly and cheerful. The show starts somewhere after 8pm and goes around two hours – admission is $20+tax. Make reservations in advance as the venue frequently sells out, and to stay up to date on the newest shows (and get alerts on opening night which is usually free), check out their facebook page. Shows run Wednesday through Saturday, and the dialogue often changes over the course of time as the cast fine-tunes the skits based on audience response. 

This article is part of the Food on Friday series.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

WNC Nature Center / Asheville Wildlife Park

On federal holidays we take a different approach to choosing places to go explore with the kids, as many destinations are closed (such as parks, historic sites and museums), while others offer specific programming meant to care for children while their parents are at work (popular kids’ attractions). We used the recent day off to take a day-trip to  Asheville, to one of my favorites - the Western North Carolina Nature Center. Open 7 days a week (with the exceptions of Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve & Day, and New Year's Day), from 10 to 5!

Owned by the City of Asheville, the WNC Nature Center is dedicated to connecting people with the animals and plants of the Southern Appalachians. The location within a bend of the Swannanoa River was previously home to the Asheville Zoo, which housed exotic animals from 1925 until it was transformed into the Nature Center in 1977. (Read more about the fascinating history of the zoo here; it includes tidbits such as that the location of the grave of Henrietta, a three-ton Indian Elephant who spent 30 years at the center, is under what is now the petting zoo area.)

Upon arrival guests enter through the Welcome Center. Prices are reasonable ($6.95 for children ages 3-15 and $10.95 for adults, with discounts to Buncombe County Residents and seniors), but we got in for free; as an accredited AZA and ASTC member, the center participates in the passport reciprocity program offering discounted admission to over 350 zoos, aquariums and science centers nationwide including the Greenville Zoo and Roper Mountain Science Center. There are only eight AZA –accredited facilities in North Carolina: among them the Durham Museum of Life and Science and the Greensboro Science Center.

Pisgah and Mitchell, the resident cougars

We headed for the raccoon and fox enclosures first, passing two Nature Play areas on our way. These zones are located throughout the park and feature activities such as natural balance beams and stump jumps, musical instruments, art sites and more. At “builder’s Deck” the boys built a racecourse with chutes, and then just behind the Turtle Amphitheater they built a lean-to while listening to the sounds of pebble-triggered instruments. Age-appropriate scavenger hunts are also available – see the website to print those out before your visit.

Nature Play areas are located throughout the park!

The Small Mammal exhibits opened in 2009 and are home to red & gray foxes and raccoons. In addition to education, one of the main goals of the center is to allow the public to see the animals in their natural habitat, with little-to-no cages or concrete. Large viewing windows accommodate visitors of all sizes, while fencing allows views into the enclosure while not making it seem confined.

Sassy the raccoon and Toby the red fox

When the otter feeding was announced we headed to Brandon’s Otter Falls where we met Olive and Obi Wan Kenobi, two North American River Otters. The exhibit features underwater viewing and a flowing river, and while the keeper fed the otters he discussed their care and habits.

The resident otters, the lower underwater viewing area, and the otter slide play area

Next up, the 4-acre Appalachian Predators exhibit features coyotes, cougars & bobcats, and contains the red & gray wolf habitats. The red wolf exhibit opened in 2008 and complies with the requirements of the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan. In 1980 there were fewer than 20 wolves remaining in the wild, while today approximately 90 – 110 wild red wolves live at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Since 1990, 13 red wolf pups have been born at the WNC Nature Center.

The two gray wolves, Nova and Wayah, were born in a wildlife facility in Montana and came to the Nature Center in June of 2014. We got an up-close view of the wolves, giving an adrenaline-rush despite the thick safety glass separating us from these skilled hunters.

Stare down!

We paused in the Arachnid Adventure Playground for some more nature play; the boys climbed webs while I hunted for the spider sculptures hidden there. The Trillium Nature Trail begins at this end; the 0.6 mile trail winds through the forest along the Swannanoa River.

After a hot chocolate break at the Explorer’s Outpost (which has gem mining during the warmer months) to warm up we stopped at the Main Barn and Petting Zoo area. It was too cold to pet the animals on our visit; however we enjoyed additional Nature Play areas before circling around Black Bear Ridge.

This Cotswold sheep (Gibson) is a resident of the petting zoo

The black bears were already hibernating, but the white tailed deer were out in the adjacent enclosure. This whole area will see a large revamp in the coming years, as the next phase of the park’s “2020 Vision” will feature a new and improved park entrance, the addition of species such as the red panda, and a new name: Asheville Wildlife Park. You can download your copy of the master site plan here.

The bear enclosure, with the main barn visible in the background

We made one final pass through the heart of the zoo, greeting the Birds of Prey and exploring the “World Underground” before entering Appalachian Station. The indoor exhibit features a variety of reptiles including rattlesnakes and copperheads, as well as amphibians and small mammals. I took a break on one of the benches in the center while the boys circled the aquariums and terrariums, locating each inhabitant and discussing their favorites.

What makes the WNC Nature Center unique is that it concentrates exclusively on the wildlife of the Southern Appalachians. Throughout the 42 acres visitors will find engaging exhibits and hands-on nature play centers, offering a wealth of information and entertainment. And it just keeps getting better! On our way out we passed the construction zone on the lower lot; we’ll be back soon to watch the progress towards the Nature Center’s transformation into the Asheville Wildlife Park!

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Corolla wild horses

We most often associate free-roaming horses with the American West, but did you know there are multiple populations of wild horses that live along the Atlantic coast? In the Southeast there are the Chincoteague Ponies of Assateague Island in Maryland and Virginia, the Cumberland Island horses in Georgia, and four separate groups in North Carolina: the wild horses of Shackleford Banks, Beaufort's wild horses, the Ocracoke Island Banker ponies, and the wild Spanish mustangs of Corolla.

The Corolla horses are a living legacy of European and American history, descendants of Spanish mustangs brought to the Carolina coast by European explorers and colonists in the 1500s. The small, sturdy horses have survived for centuries in the salt marshes, dunes and maritime forests of the Outer Banks, at one point roaming freely along the entire length of the coastal barrier island chain.

The terrain and inaccessibility of the islands insulated them from human contact for nearly 400 years, but with the increase in popularity and development of the barrier islands, the horses saw a proportionate decrease in territory available for them to roam. The wild horses were pushed into isolated havens, one such group making their home in the islands north of Duck.

After highway NC12 was completed from Duck to Corolla in the mid 1980's, the traffic, increase in population and explosive development proved dangerous for the horses. The decline in population was a result of car accidents and the proximity to humans; the horses are used to a natural diet found in the marshes and forests, and consuming other food can cause illness and death. Once free to roam from the village of Corolla north to the Virginia border, the remaining wild Spanish mustangs were eventually given protected status and moved north to the mostly undeveloped land on the northern-most reaches of Currituck Banks. Organizations such as the Corolla Wild Horse Fund monitor the health of the herd and work to educate the public to keep the Corolla horses safe.

Seeing the wild horses isn’t as easy as taking a stroll on the beach. Although their habitat has shrunk, it is still a large area to cover - stretching eleven miles from a the fence north of Corolla to the NC/VA border fence, bounded on the East by the Atlantic Ocean and on the West by Currituck Sound. In addition, the horses are often grazing inland, hidden away in the marshes and forests.

To see the Corolla mustangs you need a four-wheel drive vehicle and a bit of luck. Highway NC-12 ends at the south horse fence, and proceeding north the beach becomes a highway of sorts. The hundreds of beach homes scattered throughout the area are connected to the ‘beach highway’ by a series of sandy paths, roads only in the loosest sense. It helps to have a local along to navigate this maze of routes, as they know where the horses often congregate and which areas are closed to vehicular traffic.

We opted to book a tour with one of the companies that take visitors up the beach and onto the back roads, Corolla Outback Adventures. The family business has been in operation since 1962, when the Benders began offering tours north from Kill Devil Hills at a time when there were no paved roads in the region. The tour company has exclusive access to certain areas, increasing the odds of seeing the horses in their natural habitat.

The amount of visitors to Currituck is another reason to visit the Outer Banks off season. Despite the chilly November temperatures there was a steady stream of vehicles headed up and down the beach – I can’t imagine how crazy the traffic must be in the summer. This is not an area for beachcombing or playing in the surf, and the high density of vehicles was definitely a turn-off. It got better once we turned off the beach, but the area is not the wildlife area I had imagined; instead it is dotted with beach houses, new construction going up everywhere. The first horses we saw were grazing in people’s yards, and we listened to stories of visitors waking up to the sounds of the wild horses taking shelter under their rental home in inclement weather.

If we were to do it all again we might rent a house in Carova Beach, renting a 4x4 vehicle for a few days and spending our time driving the sand roads and searching for horses. On the other hand it was easy enough to make the trip from our hotel in Duck, and the beach there didn’t pose the hazard of vehicular traffic – a definite plus in terms of keeping the kids happy. One day spent up in the northern reaches of Currituck seemed enough; we saw the wild mustangs in the early afternoon (which gave it a chance to warm up a bit for the tour!), and then spent the rest of our time in Corolla, climbing the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and then watching the sunset over the sound.

All in all, our guide was knowledgeable on multiple subjects and had the added experience of being a guide and resident for many years. In addition to seeing over a dozen horses we also visited the maritime forest and enjoyed a view of Currituck Sound and the marsh. When it was time to head back south to Corolla and paved roads, our gaze and thoughts remained north – on the dunes of Currituck, the blue waters of the Atlantic, and the Corolla wild mustangs.

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