I wore clean underwear for this: High tea at the Omni Grove Park Inn

by Nick Lucey • On assignment at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, for the Carolina Epicurian

“Guess what we’re doing this weekend, dear?” These seven dreaded words can shake any married man to his core. The words fall from my wife’s lips like a guillotine. Instinctively, my palms begin sweating, my mind races, and the excuses start percolating. Surely, something needs to be fixed around the house on Saturday … right? RIGHT?!?

My shoulders collapse under the weight of despair. As usual, she anticipates my chronic apathy while awaiting my pathetic lethargy. “We’ve been invited to high tea at the Omni Grove Park Inn.” The final n in “inn” trails off like the bitter end of a hangman’s rope. Somehow, this weekend is going to involve smelling good, wearing fresh underwear, and eating tiny food of some sort. I. just. know. it. “Oh, and you’re going to write about it,” she continues, dealing me the final, merciful death blow.

Gulp. Hey, it’s cool. I can be comfortable with this kinda stuff. Two decades as a travel photojournalist, I’ve stayed in some of the world’s poshest resorts. I’ve swam with sharks, but never experienced high tea. There’s a first for everything. And let’s face it, I’ve gotta be cool with it if I want to keep peace in the land. “Happy wife, happy life” and all that jazz, amiright? So I figured I’d better do my homework, and see what this Grove Park Inn thing is all about. I do my due diligence, and summon the Googles. Here’s what I discovered, in no particular order:

The venerable Grove Park Inn was built by tonic magnate (and “father of modern Asheville” fame) E.W. Grove, and his son-in-law and pharmaceutical tycoon Fred Seely. The palatial resort was hewn from native granite boulders that make the walls up to five feet thick. Four hundred men and 20 Italian stonemasons toiled 10-hour shifts six days a week to move the massive boulders — some weighing as much as five tons — with mules, wagons and ropes and into place on the side of Sunset Mountain. The inn was influenced by the austere Arts & Crafts style, which evokes a rustic grandeur that seamlessly blends with its Appalachian, western North Carolina surroundings. Admittedly, I’m a fan of the movement. 

On July 12, 1913 — almost exactly one year after its groundbreaking — the original 156 rooms opened amid fanfare and an address by then-Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who proclaimed that the inn was “built for the ages.” The hotel then encompassed a dining room and a 120- by 80-foot lobby. From the git-go, the inn was promoted as a place to escape the pressures of everyday existence, appealing to “tired, busy people seeking to get away from excitement and annoyances, and to rest their nerves.” Alcohol was prohibited (gasp!), but bringing small children was discouraged. Whew. Now, I was truly intrigued. 

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the inn’s past is as storied as it is illustrious. The auberge has been frequented by no less than ten U.S. presidents (including FDR, Nixon, Bush Sr., and Obama). Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald lived there in the mid-1930s while his wife Zelda sought care for her mental health in Asheville, allowing his own to spiral downward in a way only tortured writers can. Tortured myself, I can relate. Maybe this assignment will be cathartic and self-exploratory after all? I’m already feeling better.

During World War II, the inn was used as an internment facility for Axis nation diplomats. These envoys and their staff were granted escorted trips into Asheville, where they would purchase goods from local merchants, helping to boost the economy. As the war raged on, the Philippine government functioned in exile from the inn’s Presidential Cottage. After the war, the U.S. military used the inn as a rehabilitation facility for returning sailors, and as a place where soldiers rested before being assigned to other duties. It’s said that during the Cold War, the U.S. Supreme Court planned to relocate here in the event of a nuclear attack. Talk about a winning business model — world-class chillin’ in the middle of an armageddon. 

The inn’s renaissance began in the mid-1950s, when Texas businessman Charles Sammons renovated and expanded it. By the late 1980s, the property tallied 510 guest rooms spread over 140 acres. The sprawling inn is now home to six restaurants and cafes, a 44,000-square-foot spa, indoor and outdoor pools, a sports complex, gift shops, bars and lounges, an 18-hole golf course, and much, much more. 

The Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina.
The Omni Grove Park Inn’s westerly-facing terrace, tailor-made for perfect sunsets.

As we ventured onto the property, our cares disappeared just as quickly as our car was whisked away by the friendly valets. We checked into our comfortable room in the Sammons wing, with incredible views of the Asheville skyline and crepuscular-rayed Blue Ridge Mountains beyond. The subsequent 24 hours were nothing short of miraculous.

The inn’s west-facing orientation on Sunset Mountain affords amazing views of the melting sun, a perfect setting for adult beverages on the terrace, and gazing longingly into your partner’s eyes. We continued our twilight merrymaking, retreating to one of the inn’s eateries — the Blue Ridge — and consumed so much delicious sustenance that I literally groaned as I slid myself away from the table. We stumbled down the long corridor and into the elevator, and descended into the dueling piano bar, which was way more fun than either of us thought possible. I can get used to this kinda thing. Being middle-aged and allergic to the dark, however, it was well past our bedtime, so we retired to our chamber to sleep comfortably and rest up for our raucous tea party the next day. Besides, smelling nice don’t come easy. Or quickly.  

The Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina.
Nick’s wife, Tiffany, thoroughly enjoying every minute of our stay at the Omni Grove Park Inn.

The day of reckoning had finally arrived. I took a deep breath as we boarded the shuttle, and bounced along the property road down to the Country Club. I mustered up the courage, and we entered the opulent hall. We waltzed in, freshly showered and ready to do battle, accompanied by live violin music (“Baby Got Back” just hits different when played by a 16th-century stringed instrument). We took our seats in front of a large shelf of hors d’ouevres, which contained diminutive macaroons, quiche tarts, tea sandwiches (you know, with the crusts cut off), scones, mini-croissants, and other bite-sized marvelous morsels. It’s a good thing I cleaned up for this, because gorging yourself on tiny treats is an exhausting endeavor. Signaling surrender, I raise my pinkie into the air, and sip a fine cup of Earl Grey, all the while, every chromosome in my body screams for war movies, violent sporting events, and a trip to my local hardware store. 

When the dust settled, I had survived a high tea, at the incredible Omni Grove Park Inn no less. We had gorged ourselves on delicious foods, toured opulent grounds, witnessed a life-changing sunset (and a freak northern lights show after dark), slept among the ghosts of presidents, and had everything put in perspective. All said and done, the Omni Grove Park Inn is definitely somewhere I’d like to stay if there were ever a nuclear war. Because if doomsday ever comes, I want to be well rested, well fed, and properly bathed.  

For more information about a dream getaway — and high tea — at the Omni Grove Park Inn, visit omnihotels.com/hotels/asheville-grove-park. Feedback about this article? Contact us and let us know!

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