White House, mountain resort mum about Obamas' getaway

McClatchy NewspapersApril 22, 2010 

MBR

The Grove Park Inn opened in 1911. A major expansion in 2001 created a spa near Asheville, North Carolina.

TOM UHLENBROCK — Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT

WASHINGTON — No one at the White House, or in the city of Asheville, N.C., or at one of the nation's most posh resorts will talk much about what President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle might be doing on this weekend retreat to the mountains of western North Carolina.

However, the girls aren't coming along.

Ahem.

"They need a little time alone, perhaps," said Dolly Jenkins-Mullen, the chairwoman of the political science department at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, of the first couple.

"Who doesn't want to go off with their wife away from the lovely kids for a couple of days?" she asked.

The first couple is expected to stay at the Grove Park Inn, where rooms range from $280 a night for the room with "a subdued view" to $675 a night for the club level, with 24-hour concierge service and access to the inn's romantic spa. A weekend package offers a couples massage.

The hotel has plenty of experience serving high-value, hush-hush guests who need lots of privacy. Ten presidents (including Obama, back in his candidate days) have stayed at the Grove Park Inn.

Spokeswoman Deborah Potter sighed Thursday at the umpteenth press call — "I cannot comment" — and referred queries to the hotel website.

So the resort isn't talking officially, but there's a notice on the site about extra security, and members of the North Carolina Chiropractic Association were warned this week to expect delays at their annual convention.

The couple has planned a totally private weekend, with no public events scheduled. Reporters can watch Air Force One touch down Friday at the Asheville airport, and watch it go wheels-up Sunday, but that's it.

Still, no presidential action is totally un-political.

This is Obama's fourth visit to North Carolina as president, and he came nearly 20 times as a candidate. He took lefty Asheville heartily in the 2008 election, but fared worse in the surrounding rural, conservative counties. (He did win the state, though.)

Jenkins-Mullen sees the visit as a message to those outlying regions — a way to portray the president as a guy like the rest of us, just out for a weekend getaway with his wife after a few hard months at work.

"Perhaps it does give an opportunity for the tension to die down a bit and to give it a rest," she said. "There's the possibility people will see him as human."

The Asheville Tea Party sees it that way already. In a release this week, tea party chairwoman Erika Franzi welcomed Obama to the city and said she hopes he has a good time in the "mountain paradise."

The town's all atwitter, with both the visitor's bureau and the local newspaper a'Twittering about the visit.

The Asheville Citizen-Times wants readers to e-mail their Obama snapshots. The paper is warning of heightened security and snipers on rooftops, and on Thursday it posted 45 pictures of a giant cardboard Obama. The police department — always handy in a motorcade — isn't returning calls.

John Cram, owner of Blue Studio 1 art gallery downtown, saw a pair of black helicopters around noon Thursday.

Dave Russell, volunteer coordinator for an Earth Day picnic Saturday, was only slightly bummed about a Homeland Security demand that event organizers ground hot-air balloon rides they'd planned for the event.

Marla Tambellini, director of marketing at the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, hopes the couple will join the city's Friday night drum circle.

"The vacation plans are still a bit of a mystery," Tambellini said.

The White House, sadly, didn't call her for suggested itineraries. Too bad. She has lots of ideas. The Southern town of about 75,000, known for its craft beer, its liberal leanings and its Friday night drum circles, has plenty to offer.

Tambellini suggested sipping wine on the Grove Park Inn terrace, visiting the spring gardens at the historic Biltmore Estate, and strolling among street performers downtown before stopping for a microbrew or the city's farm-to-table epicurean fare.

The mountains are lovely, too, all abloom with spring redbuds.

The couple could take a turn on the Grove Park Inn golf course, designed by Donald Ross. Obama, who stayed at Grove Park in 2008 for debate preparations, wistfully said back then that he'd like to return and play the inn's course.

If the president wanted to be of-the-people, Tambellini suggested, the couple could play the Asheville city golf course, also Ross-designed and likely cheaper, with a greens fee of $22.

Then again, the weekend forecast calls for rain. Perfect for staying inside.

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