Image: The Blue Ridge Parkway
National Park Service
The Blue Ridge Parkway is 469 miles of poetry. It’s only two lanes wide, and the 45 mph speed limit means there is not much choice but to be mellow and take in the scenery. That scenery—sweeping vistas, high mountain lakes and dense flora—gives the parkway a starring role on seemingly every list of the top 10 drives in North America.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 10/8/2007 3:12:42 PM ET 2007-10-08T19:12:42

The seemingly endless highways of America have inspired wanderlust in generations of travelers. With miles of asphalt and a stunning diversity of landscapes to explore, the nation has perfected that uniquely mellow and meandering form of travel known as “the road trip.”

Perhaps no road in the country is quite as mellow and meandering as the Blue Ridge Parkway. Set into the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina, the parkway is 469 miles of poetry. It’s only two lanes wide, and the 45 mph speed limit means there is not much choice but to be mellow and take in the scenery. That scenery — sweeping vistas, high mountain lakes and dense flora — gives the parkway a starring role on seemingly every list of the top 10 drives in North America.

It’s one of only 23 roads in the country to earn an All-American Road designation from the U.S. Department of Transportation, meaning the Blue Ridge Parkway is recognized as a "destination unto itself."

The tricky part about road trips in the 21st Century, All-American Road or not, is that phrases like “carbon footprint” and “global warming” have begun to sneak into the minds of some long-distance pleasure drivers. Add to that the volatile price of gasoline, and one might say the good ol’ American road trip is in some jeopardy.

Enter the hybrid car. With an electrical motor to assist the gas engine, and an average fuel economy around 50 miles per gallon, hybrids have about half the carbon footprint of a traditional car. As far as the hybrid car is concerned, the Blue Ridge Parkway should not be 469 miles long, but rather only 235 miles— in gasoline used and in greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

Putting this theory to the test, I set out at the start of the parkway in a 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid. The idea was to do all 469 miles on a single tank of gas, just 12.3 gallons Averaging 50 miles per gallon, I should have been able to do the whole drive and take almost 150 miles in sightseeing detours along the way. And there are certain detours not to be missed.

“The Blue Ridge Parkway should be thought of like a string of pearls,” says Houck Medford, executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. “Taken as a whole, it is the largest landscape architecture project in history. But you’ll certainly want to stop and enjoy some of the pearls along the way.”

The Blue Ridge Parkway Association publishes a free guidebook detailing the pearls, like the Peaks of Otter, three mountains that form a ring around a reflective lake. Staring at the lake from the just the right angle, it’s hard to tell when you’re looking at the real tree-covered mountains, and when their reflections in the crystalline water. The guidebook also includes driving tips and seasonal information, as well as essentials like where to get gas along the route.

Hoping to avoid that gasoline aspect altogether, I topped off the tank in a small town just before the start of the parkway. The Civic features an electric motor display on the dashboard, so the driver knows when the battery is charging and when it is increasing fuel efficiency by providing electric juice to the engine. There is a hypnotic element to watching the battery charge and discharge, and experienced hybrid drivers have mastered the gentle breaking and acceleration necessary to get the most mileage from their vehicles. Beyond this unique instrumentation on the dashboard, the Civic drives just like any traditional all-gas car, a truly seamless hybrid integration.

My own skill at coaxing a full 469 miles from one tank of gas was somewhat less than seamless. The low speeds, along with frequent inclines and regular stops to admire the scenery, seriously undermined my gas mileage. Around mile mark 400 the tank got low enough to warrant a fill-up in Asheville, N.C. Still, filling up a Honda Civic is significantly less expensive than many of the SUVs that roam the parkway, and even with two tanks, the whole ride cost less than $60 in gas.

With constant improvements to hybrid technology, pleasure drivers now have a viable way to insulate their love for the great American road trip from both environmental unease and global oil politics.

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A hybrid road trip itinerary for the Blue Ridge Parkway
The parkway begins 20 miles southwest of Charlottesville, VA, where hotel options are limited (especially if the University of Virginia is playing a home game). For a wider selection, head to Richmond, the state capital and home to a great music scene and nightlife in the historic Shockoe Bottom district. The Jefferson Hotel, provides easy access to Shockoe in a century-old setting, replete enough charm to make this hotel the destination of choice for hundreds of honeymooning couples annually. As one of only 27 hotels in the country to have earned both carry both a Mobil Five Star and AA Five Diamond rating, there is a certain elegance that the staff works hard, and quite successfully, to maintain.

Among the largest cities situated directly off the parkway, Roanoke is a good choice after the first day of driving. The Hotel Roanoke is located right across (by a glass enclosed pedestrian walkway) from the downtown shopping and entertainment area. The hotel itself was constructed in 1882 by railroad tycoon Frederick J. Kimball, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The front desk keeps freshly baked cookies warm and ready to present to guests upon check in.

For a less urban experience, try spending a night in Blowing Rock, N.C. This mountain town has been attracting visitors since the late 19th Century, when it gained renown for its cool summer temperatures and fresh, cleansing air. Innkeepers Scott Seaman and Christopher Brantley do an impeccable job with their Blowing Rock Victorian Inn, an intimate Victorian home turned Bed and Breakfast. Many of the rooms have fireplaces and hot tubs,  and Scott has devised his own breakfast specialties. For a more private experience, the same innkeepers also run the Roaring River Chalets, private riverside cabins perfect for two.

The city of Asheville is famous as the forward-thinking, musical and cultural center of the region. Among the town slogans: “Asheville: Where it’s weird to be normal.” Along with this quirkiness comes a range of bed and breakfasts, perhaps none as unique as the 1900 Inn on Montford, where Ron and Lynn Carlson have converted the second floor of a rear house into a 1300-square-foot citadel, complete with projection screen, 12-jet Shiatsu massage hot tub and a walk-in steam room. Local Bluegrass musician Ben Scales makes regular appearances in the inn’s main parlor, where he regales the guests with stories of an unlikely life as a tropical lawyer. For a more time-honored Asheville elegance, try the Grove Park Inn, a labyrinthine granite hotel constructed in 1912 that has hosted no less than eight U.S. presidents. Some of the specialty suites are indistinguishable from trendy urban art galleries, and the sweeping mountain views from any of the hotel’s massive rear balconies are art displays in themselves.

After a few days in the mountains, it’s natural to yearn for a breath of seaside air, and Asheville is only a four hour drive away from the celebrated ports of Charleston, S.C. The Planters Inn is something approaching the epitome of Southern charm. The guest room windows overlook the city’s Old Market area, where dozens of shops, restaurants and cultural attractions, not to mention the scenic waterfront, are in easy walking distance. Most convenient is the hotel’s in-house restaurant, the Peninsula Grill, where a sumptuous menu includes sophisticated takes on regional delicacies like Lowcountry oyster stew and lobster-basil hushpuppies. The bartender also mixes a mean “Dixie Manhattan,” like the original whisky Manhattan, but with added Southern clout in the form of Wild Turkey Honey Liquor mixed into the bourbon.

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