This treasure of a city extends an open invitation
By Glenda Winders // photography courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com
Say the word “Asheville” to people who have visited this North Carolina treasure in the Blue Ridge Mountains and watch the smile that spreads across their faces, the wistful look in their eyes as they recall the good times they had there. Besides being in an idyllic location, the city is filled with fun things to do and intriguing places to eat. And it’s an easy drive away.
“Some 58 percent of the nation’s population lives east of the Mississippi River,” says Landis Taylor, public relations manager at Explore Asheville, “and Ashe-ville is smack in the middle.”
That being the case, why not hit the road?
What to do
The Biltmore is Asheville’s crown jewel and the reason many people go there in the first place. At 180,000 square feet, the mansion has long been the largest residence in the United States. It has 250 rooms and 43 bathrooms that were maintained in its heyday at the turn of the last century by 40 servants — all for just George Washington Vanderbilt II and his wife and daughter.
An audio guided tour helps visitors navigate from the conservatory through the banquet hall and organ loft, salon and tapestry gallery, library and rooms named for their contents, such as the Damask Room, the Tyrolean Chimney Room, the smoking room and the Claude Room with prints of paintings by Claude Lorrain on the walls.
Downstairs are the servants’ quarters, reminiscent of “Downton Abbey” with tiny bedrooms, below-stairs dining hall, pantries, walk-in refrigerators and laundry room. The family and their guests occasionally came down to use the swimming pool, bowling alley and gym. Frederick Law Olmsted, the so-called “father of American landscape architecture,” designed the gardens with pools and greenhouses everywhere.
Plan to spend the better part of a day here. In addition to touring the estate you’ll want to save time for Antler Hill Village on the way out. Here you’ll find a museum, shops and free wine-tasting.
Other homes in Asheville are also worth touring. Very different but equally fascinating is poet Carl Sandburg’s more modest home, Connemara Farms. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Lincoln biographer moved here in 1945 so that he could have solitude for writing, and his wife, Lilian, a world-renowned breeder of goats, could have room for her work, too.
When the poet died, his wife donated the farm to the National Park Service and left the interior intact — right down to Sandburg’s typewriter sitting on an orange crate and 12,000 books from his personal library. (The other 5,000 are at the Library of Congress.) One of its best features is a comfortable porch with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and while you’re here you can pet the goats that are descendants of Lilian’s herd.
The literary heritage here is rich, and another home open to visitors is the one where Thomas Wolfe lived and that he featured in his novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” You can also visit Wolfe’s grave at Riverside Cemetery, along with that of William Sydney Porter, better known by his pen name, O. Henry. His fans will remember the “one dollar and eighty-seven cents” mentioned in the first line of “The Gift of the Magi,” so they won’t be surprised to find the gravesite strewn with coins. The city collects them from time to time and donates them to charities.
A good way to see the rest of town and learn its history is to take a “hop-on, hop-off” Gray Line Trolley Tour or the comedy tour on the purple LaZoom bus. Rather find your way on foot? Print a map to the Urban Trail that will take you to 30 significant spots or join a guided “Asheville by Foot” tour. Hood Huggers Tours, led by historian and activist DeWayne Barton, will take you to some of the city’s overlooked neighborhoods, including The Block, a vibrant African-American community that fell into disrepair but is now being revitalized.
Once you have the lay of the land, strike out to discover the many galleries where you’ll find pieces by local artists and shops where you’ll find one-of-a-kind clothing and gifts. The Grove Arcade is home to stores, Makers Market for the wares of local artisans and Restaurant Row for some of the city’s finest eats. Asheville prides itself on its independent bookstores. The roster of shops includes the Battery Park Book Exchange, where you can take your dog and sip champagne while you sit and read.
The River Arts District along the banks of the French Broad River is not to be missed. Here, visit galleries and studios of local artists for items ranging from jewelry to textiles to paintings. One of the district’s co-founders, Pattiy Torno, established Curve studios in 1989; she works there still. She says a recent infrastructure program has made the area even more accessible.
“It is now possible to walk or bike along the French Broad River to get from one studio to the next via sidewalks and greenways,” she says. “We have more than 300 artists in 26 buildings as well as a number of new public art installations, so getting from one point to the next is easy and engaging.”
At the Asheville Art Museum you’ll find a robust collection of 20th- and 21st-century American art. Other museums you might want to take in are the Estes-Winn Antique Car Museum, the Pinball Museum, where you can actually play the machines, and the Moog Music Factory to see the synthesizers being made.
Musical entertainment abounds here with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra and the Asheville Lyric Opera. Or see a play at the Diana Wortham Theatre, the Asheville Community Theatre or the Magnetic Theatre. Summers the Montford Park Players offer free Shakespeare performances outdoors.
Outdoors are plenty of options for an active vacation. The setting is ideal, with the Pisgah National Forest on two sides and three state parks — Chimney Rock, DuPont and Gorges — close by. Among these parks, you’ll be able to look for birds and waterfalls, fish, hike, bike, picnic or boat. Or take a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where describing the autumn scenery as “beautiful” would be a massive understatement. Be sure to include a stop at the Folk Art Center for more local artwork and crafts.
Tube through the city on the French Broad River or go zip lining with the companies just waiting to set you up. One of the best is Navitat Canopy Adventures, whose Treetop Tour offers six zip lines, two bridges, a rappel and a spiral staircase. Its Mountaintop Tour features three side-by-side racing zip lines that are 3,600 feet long and take you 350 feet above the forest floor. Best of all, you’re looking at Blue Ridge scenery while you’re flying through the air.
On your way back to town, stop at the North Carolina Arboretum, designed by the same Frederick Law Olmsted who designed the gardens at the Biltmore as well as New York’s Central Park. The Botanical Gardens of Asheville specialize in native plants and habitats.
Health and wellness are on everyone’s mind right now, and Asheville is the place to come for that, too. “Asheville has been a center for healing and rejuvenation for centuries,” says Nicole Will, owner of Asheville Wellness Tours, “and that trend is certainly not slowing as we increasingly seek opportunities to unplug from overly busy lives.”
Her company sets up whatever wellness experience you’d like to have, from traditional practices such as yoga, meditation and massage to tarot readings, a sound journey, aromatherapy, a forest bathing walk or a personal moment of reflection at sunset.
“No matter what you choose, we hope you discover new ways to connect more deeply with yourself along the way,” Will says. “The wellness community in Asheville has you covered!”
One of the many spa experiences you can have is at the Japanese-inspired Shoji Spa and Lodge. Here you can soak in salt hydrotherapy tubs as you enjoy their tub-side tea service. Or book the Salt Spa of Asheville and Himalayan Salt Cave Sanctuary for a different kind of relaxing experience.
Where to eat
Asheville is so much a foodie town that locals call it “Foodtopia,” and the good eats begin long before you get to a restaurant. Tours for people who like food include the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail. You can do this at your own pace, stopping to visit with cheese-makers along the way about how they do their work and sampling their wares. At Hickory Nut Gap Farm you can interact with animals and pick up fresh produce alongside the local chefs who also shop here. Take cooking lessons at Asheville Kitchen or Asheville Mountain Kitchen. Then join a brewery tour that will walk or drive you to several places to sip the suds or have cocktails with the help of the Asheville Rooftop Bar Tour.
Asheville Food Tours will take you to restaurants — lots of them — where you can try a variety of foods and beverages. The Downtown Tour takes you to locally owned establishments in the heart of town, while the Food Fan Foot Tour takes you to other places with local food writer Stu Helm as your guide. He also guides the Night Tour, with stops for tapas at six spots. On Saturdays enjoy the Brunch Tour with four stops. Another local personality, Davaion Bristol, leads you through historic West Asheville. The Friday International Tour is bilingual in English and Spanish.
When you are ready to settle down for a meal, the possibilities abound, and decorated chefs are at the helm of many of the local restaurants. Take, for example, Benne on Eagle in the aforementioned Block. “Eagle” refers to the main street in this community, where owner and chef John Fleer is determined to practice sankofa, that is, the Ghanese concept of moving forward while preserving the past. His chef de cuisine is Ashleigh Shanti, whose passion is finding new ways to prepare the foods of her heritage. Her mentor is Hanan Shabazz, who owned a restaurant here during the area’s 1960s heyday and now provides her family’s soul food recipes.
For Indian food, there’s Chai Pani, whose owner Meherwan Irani, also operates the Spicewalla spice market. Charlie Hodge and partner Sunil Patel operate Sovereign Remedies, serving Appalachian meals from whatever is available at their Patchwork Urban Farms. For tapas, go to Curate, where chef Katie Button is committed to local food and to treating both her staff and her customers well. Buxton Hall BBQ, Bonfire Barbecue and 12 Bones Smokehouse are the places to go for this Southern favorite. Finish off your dinner at Aux Bar with a local favorite: Appalachian vinegar pie.
For breakfast the next morning check out one of the four Green Sage Café locations, where the philosophy is serving pure food that nourishes the body. Everything here is organic — from the farm-fresh eggs and humanely raised bacon to the veggies they put in their omelets.
Where to stay
If you’d still rather stay away from crowds, the mountains around Ashe-ville offer lots of options. Cabins of Asheville outfits each of its log cabins with hot tubs. Asheville Cottages provide a bit more luxury, as do Asheville Cabins of Willow Winds with 25 cabins on 40 acres landscaped with gardens, waterfalls and a trout pond.
Or stay at the JuneBug Retro Resort and celebrate the 1950s in restored campers. “Glamping” is also big here, and you can do it in yurts, domes or tent cabins. Pisgah Glamping at Lake Powhatan offers queen-size beds in luxurious platform tents.
Asheville is filled with historic homes that are now B&Bs. The 1889 WhiteGate Inn is set among serene gardens with waterfalls and koi ponds. At the Chestnut Street Inn you’ll feast on local beers and warm cookies as well as have spa treatments in the privacy and comfort of your room. Pinecrest Bed and Breakfast, situated among lush gardens, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
If you’re in literary mode, opt for the Grove Park Inn, where F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed while his wife, Zelda, received treatment at a nearby hospital. The Klimpton Hotel Arras is smack downtown and close to whatever you want to do, whether it’s shopping or taking a hike. The Foundry Hotel offers “industrial elegance” in The Block neighborhood. Here modern design is created in buildings that were once the foundry that forged the steel for the Biltmore Estate. Or splurge and stay right on the grounds at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, where you’ll be pampered as if you were one of the Vanderbilts.