Holidays in the South: An XOJET Journey Through Asheville, Pinehurst, Charleston, and Bluffton
While the chance of seeing holiday snow in the South is slim, that doesn’t stop Southerners from celebrating the season with ornate decorative displays, generous oyster roasts, visits by Santa, candlelight displays, and glamorous shopping galore.
XOJET gives you the freedom to experience these time-honored holiday traditions in four of the South’s most distinctive areas—the idyllic Blue Ridge Mountains, legendary Pinehurst, iconic Charleston, and the seductive Lowcountry—with an hour or less between stops. Start the journey with a hike through the forested hills of North Carolina and finish with a candlelight estate tour in South Carolina’s Lowcounty. Here’s how to make it happen—and what not to miss.
Asheville, North Carolina
XOJET Tip: Fly into Asheville Regional Airport (AVL), roughly 20 minutes from downtown Asheville.
Consider starting your trip in Asheville, a mountain town that has somehow managed to maintain its quirkiness—a drum circle plays downtown every Friday night—amid an unprecedented increase in sophisticated options for dining and lodging. It’s visually stunning, too, with forested mountains (and, for good measure, a few snowy peaks), rushing waterfalls, and miles of hiking trails that unspool across it all.
Besides its natural beauty, Asheville is known for Biltmore House, the 175,000-square-foot French Renaissance-style chateau built in 1895 by George Vanderbilt. The 250-room home is filled with the Vanderbilt family’s collection of art and antiques and surrounded by the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate, where private gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted are set against the natural backdrop of Pisgah National Forest.
Biltmore’s Christmas season begins November 3rd, when the home’s 30,000 twinkling holiday lights, 300 outdoor luminaries, 100 hand-decorated Christmas trees—including a 55-foot-tall Norway spruce draped with more than 45,000 lights—are illuminated and nightly candlelight tours of the home and gardens begin. Another grand holiday tradition is the National Gingerbread Competition, which draws hundreds of ornate castles, artistic landscapes, fanciful animals, and sweet cottages, all adorned in icing and candy, to the historic Omni Grove Park Inn.
Although there are a number of notable properties in downtown Asheville, Grove Park Inn is the only one that feels like a love letter to Asheville. Built in 1913 on the west slope of Sunset Mountain, the resort is filled with odes to the region, including Volkswagen-sized fireplaces made from native stone, the Sunset Terrace bar, and Grovewood Village, where you’ll find artists’ workshops, a sculpture garden, and a gallery selling the work of more than 400 artists all set within six 100-year-old English-style cottages.
Asheville has been at the center of the southeastern craft movement for decades and the city’s downtown is packed with shops selling sculptures, paintings, fabric art, and more. In Asheville’s new River Arts District, working galleries are interspersed with trendy restaurants, breweries, bars, and music venues. For full-on immersion, take a behind-the-scenes, hands-on tour with glass artist John Almaguer and stay for lunch or dinner at The Bull and Beggar or the original White Duck Taco.
Funky Asheville doesn’t have many white tablecloth restaurants, but you won’t miss them: Dining spots like Rhubarb, three-time James Beard “Best Chef in the Southeast” finalist John Fleer’s farm-to-table restaurant; chic Nightbell, Katie Button’s homage to beautiful food; and The Admiral, a seafood mecca and Asheville’s closest thing to an old-school restaurant, serve creative dishes with fun and flair. Don’t miss drinks and views at Capella on 9, the AC Hotel’s rooftop bar, or burgers at the Sierra Nevada brewery—one of 29 in the city—which is located, conveniently, next to the Asheville Airport.
Photos courtesy of R. L. Terry and Sandra Cohen-Rose & Colin Rose.
Pinehurst, North Carolina
XOJET Tip: Fly into Moore County Airport (SOP), roughly 10 minutes from Pinehurst Resort.
A quick flight east from Asheville brings you to what many consider the home of American golf, XOJET’s newest partner Pinehurst Resort. Experiencing this storied property is special regardless of season, but there’s something particularly meaningful about visiting during the festive period. Coupled with clear-blue skies and balmy temperatures ideal for golf, its rich history and proud tradition ring stronger than ever amid the charms of holiday season in the South.
To experience the true essence of Pinehurst, stay in one of the resort’s idyllic on-property hotels and inns, from the century-old Carolina Hotel to the family-friendly Condos at Pinehurst. Each gives you seamless access to Pinehurst’s nine spectacular golf courses, including Donald Ross’ legendary No. 2.
Home to more golf championships than any other course in America—most recently, back-to-back U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Opens in 2014—this 7,565-yard masterpiece consistently ranks among the finest courses in the world and stands out for its complex, crowned greens, tall, mystical pines, and thoughtful, strategic layout. Following in the footsteps of legends like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Ben Hogan, tee off on what Ross called “the fairest test of championship golf I have ever designed.”
Keep reading blog.xojet.com in coming weeks to learn about XOJET’s new partnership with Pinehurst, offering exclusive benefits available to XOJET Access Solutions clients.
Charleston, South Carolina
XOJET Tip: Fly into Charleston International Airport (CHS), roughly 20 minutes from downtown Charleston, or Johns Island Airport (JZI), roughly 30 minutes from downtown Charleston.
No city is more food-obsessed than Asheville…except perhaps Charleston, South Carolina, just an hour’s flight from Asheville. In a place where the “hot list” seems to change every week, Chef Michelle Weaver’s Southern-inflected fare at Charleston Grill continues to dazzle. Sommelier Rick Rubel presides over a first-class list; give him room to roam and he’ll surprise you with deliciously offbeat pairings. There’s nightly jazz, too.
Charleston’s historic homes and museums come alive during the holidays with special tours, programs, and performances. On December 6, The Gibbes Museum‘s annual King Street Stroll is a perennial favorite and the perfect chance to explore Charleston’s finest antique dealers and learn about the history of their treasures with local experts. Visit Middleton Place over the weekend of December 14, 15, and 16 for the Grand Illumination, as actors in period costume take you back to the Christmas of 1782. This lively event celebrates the return of Arthur Middleton from Philadelphia, the end of the Revolutionary War in the South, and the departure from Charleston of the British troops. Guests will feast on early American cuisine and specialty cocktails from the colonial period in a graceful pavilion tent following the presentation. Beginning December 6, the Garden Club of Charleston decks the halls of Joseph Manigault’s magnificent house with creative arrangements made exclusively with live, historically accurate plant materials that would have cultivated in Charleston during the early 1800s. Learn about the holiday traditions enjoyed by the Joseph Manigault Family during special tours of the home. There are also performances of The Nutcracker ballet, A Christmas Carol, and Holiday Pops with the Charleston Symphony; gospel music and children’s classical events; Christmas Tree and Menorah lightings; and a parade and a boat parade. Visit charlestonarts.org for dates and times.
You’ll find more than fresh produce at Charleston’s famous Farmer’s Market, which will be open Saturdays and Sundays the first three weekends of December. More than a hundred food specialty vendors are on hand turning out crepes, omelets, juice, pastries, cheese, charcuterie, and more, as well as artisans selling hand-crafted jewelry, art, ceramics, toys, pet items, giftable foods, wine, craft beer, clothing, garden items, and holiday plants.
Rather upgrade your shopping? King Street is rife with luxe brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, but to get a sense of old Charleston, step into Croghan’s Jewel Box, which has been meeting the Holy City’s jewelry and gift needs for more than 100 years. This isn’t your average jewelry store. Croghan’s sells a number of collections of its own design including the Instagram-darling Gold Bugs and double-rope “club” bracelets and necklaces, as well as estate diamonds, pearls and other gems, and classic southern sterling julep cups, baskets, and trays. All can be hand-engraved by a master engraver. RTW is another shop unique to Charleston; beyond carrying to ready-to-wear lines like The Row and Brunello Cucinelli, the shop is known for its vast selection of wraps and scarves in silk, wool, linen, and cashmere.
Smart stays abound as new hotels have opened all over the city. Perhaps the most interesting is the Restoration Hotel, which started life about eight years ago as condos, then a self-service condo hotel; with its exposed brick and relevant indigo-blue accents (the blue dye was perfected in Charleston in the 18th century), the 54-room boutique hotel feels like it’s been there forever. Thanks to its history as a residential building, though, many of the rooms are particularly large and have full, eat-in kitchens, balconies, and access to a private rooftop garden.
Oversized rooms, which come with cool extras like a fridge filled with free soft drinks, provide complimentary breakfast delivered from the on-site Euro-style coffee bar, evening port, and free bikes to zoom around town. There’s also a tiny jewel-box spa and Charleston’s highest rooftop restaurant, The Watch. Stop by for happy hour, when you can crunch on addictive buffalo-style chicken skins and watch the sun set with crowd of young, hip professionals that congregate there each night.
Photos courtesy of Denis Bin and Ken Lund.
Bluffton, South Carolina
XOJET Tip: Fly into Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (SAV), roughly 40 minutes from Montage Palmetto Bluff, or Hilton Head Island Airport (HXD), also 40 minutes away.
It’s just a half-hour by air from Charleston to the airport in Hilton Head or Savannah, then on to Bluffton’s Montage Palmetto Bluff, the charismatic South Carolina resort that’s the next stop on your southern tour. Set on 20,000 acres of marine forest, marsh, and riverfront, Montage Palmetto Bluff encompasses the spirit of South Carolina’s Lowcountry with diversions like clay shooting, horseback riding, kayaking, boating, cycling, golf, and fishing on a pristine swath of scene-stealing land decked with twisty ancient live oak trees, golden marshes, winding oyster-shell pathways, and estate ruins. But this is no rustic hotel in the country. Book one of the refined riverfront cottages and you’ll find shiny heart-pine floors, wide porches set with comfy chairs and couches, fireplaces, four-poster beds, and huge marble bathrooms with clawfoot tubs. Then there’s the spa, where dozens of treatments, some of which utilize mineral-rich local mud, revive, renew, and restore. The waterfront restaurant, Canoe Club, serves coastal cuisine sourced directly from the adjacent May River—shrimp, oysters, and local seafood—with fresh produce honoring the Lowcountry.
Here, even the usual becomes sublime. It’s not uncommon for dolphin to follow kayaks as they wend their way through the marsh, diving, circling, and generally posing for the camera. Stroll along the river and you’ll likely spot otters backstroking through the calm water while hawks and even eagles soar overhead.
To explore further afield, take advantage of the Mercedes loaner program, or hire a guide to take you to the nearby towns of Savannah, Beaufort, or even Daufuskie Island, where author Pat Conroy taught school. Sheldon Church, which was burned to the ground by both British and Union forces, stands in glorious ruin about 20 minutes from the resort.
Holiday activities begin on November 25 with a tree lighting and unveiling of the Inn’s decorations and continue throughout the month with fun runs, weekend chestnut roasts, traditional oyster roasts, special cocktails, and children’s activities.
Photos (including feature) courtesy of Montage Palmetto Bluff.
By Katie McElveen
Travel and lifestyle writer Katie McElveen discovered the joy of wandering when, as a teenager, she made a wrong turn in rural South Carolina on the way to a family vacation and ended up taking back roads nearly all the way to the beach. Since then, she hasn’t stopped exploring, although she now travels with a map and more than $3.00 in cash. Based in Columbia, South Carolina, Katie has shared her discoveries through her work in magazines such as Real Simple, Business Traveler, Modern Bride, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Town & Country, Southern Living, Spa and Tennis.