By Jim Ferri
When you visit Asheville, the small North Carolina city tucked away in the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, you quickly discover it isn’t your typical small Southern city.
For starters, it’s a foodie’s paradise where you can find just about every type of cuisine imaginable. It also has a burgeoning crafts beer scene as well as a burgeoning crafts art scene.
Others know it as the location of one of the most famous homes in America, a huge and hugely beautiful French Renaissance château, surrounded by thousands of acres with gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame.
And lest we forget, the city also anchors the eastern entrance of the most popular National Park in the USA and is the final resting place of Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry, two major American writers.
There’s little wonder why it’s the destination of choice for many retirees leaving the cold North – or for those up north who retire to Florida and then decide to come halfway back up north.
“Halfbacks,” the locals call them.
A City of Surprises
There are two things you quickly notice when driving about Asheville.
The first is the surprising number of streets with New York names. Broadway, Lexington, Battery Park, Wall Street…they all say something about the number of former New Yorkers who live here.
The second is the surprising number of restaurants you find, more per block than in most other American cities. There are more than 250 of them and much of what graces their plates comes from the 14 farmers markets and more than 1,000 family farms in the region.
Downtown at noon one day I visited the funky-looking Early Girl Eatery, which promised a mix of vegan, vegetarian and “everything cooking,” it said in the window. I went inside and found an empty table in the almost-full back room.
Following the waitress’s recommendation, I ordered a Reuben sandwich, which unexpectedly was as good as any I’d ever had anywhere. All of my meals during my visit hit the same mark, which is appropriate in a city whose culture seems to revolve about eating and drinking.
Another surprise in Asheville: a smartphone guided walking tour combined with an amazing scavenger hunt adventure.
Asheville’s Nostalgic Downtown
But Asheville offers nostalgia, as well.
Since the city escaped the urban renewal craze that enveloped many other American urban areas, you still find remnants of Americana scattered about town. Some are small, some large, the latter including the re-purposing of some well-know merchants from the past.
After leaving the Early Girl I had another unexpected surprise when I came across an old Woolworth store at the corner of Battery Park and Haywood Street. The building had retained its original façade but now housed a consortium of artists.
What caught my eye though, was the soda fountain. Although it was a recreation of the original, it looked as it was many years ago, right down to the hats the soda jerks were wearing. The next day on the other side of town I stumbled on an old SH Kress and Company 5-10-$.25 store that also had been resurrected.
People in Asheville seem to relish their past, probably the reason you find places such as Woolworths and Wall Street. And the city itself seems bent on promoting itself as a great place for retired hippies. Based on the throwbacks to the sixties you see about town, ranging from a few tie-dyes to a couple of old VW buses being driven about, they appear to be meeting with success.
Art Abounds in Asheville
With more than 30 galleries in town, you find art all over Asheville. In addition, there’s an amazing amount of street art, both wall murals and sculptures, across the city.
At the Asheville Art Museum in the center of the city you’ll find an interesting collection of the cultural heritage and contemporary art of Western North Carolina. Right inside its front door is the museum’s Artworks Project Space, an area devoted to space-specific art works by local artists.
Another place to find interesting art is at the Folk Art Center, which has devoted itself to preserving the best folk art of the region. Amazingly, it is the most visited place on the entire 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, the popular scenic parkway that meanders through western North Carolina and Virginia.
I had expected the Center to be another one of those places selling locally produced woodcarvings, quilts and household knickknacks, but found instead a showcase of many types of art including painting, embroidery, pottery and stained glass, some very good, some outstanding. It’s worth a visit.
The Grandest Attraction in Asheville
Asheville’s greatest attraction is the astonishing Biltmore Estate, an 8,000-acre property that anchors the city to both the Smoky Mountains and the region’s cultural heritage. The original estate was 125,000 acres, although much of the land was sold to the National Forest Service.
The former home of George Vanderbilt, the estate includes a 250-room French Renaissance chateau, now a National Historic Landmark, and the largest private residence in North America. It is so massive it took 1,000 workmen six years to complete.
The place is way over-the-top by anyone’s standards: a dining room capable of seating 67 guests with three huge fireplaces at one end and a pipe organ at the other; a master bedroom that resembled a museum more than a place to retire for the night; nine guest bedrooms; a bowling alley, walk-in refrigerators (a marvel at the time), stables, etc.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Not far from Asheville is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in all of America. It encompasses 815 square miles of unspoiled Appalachia in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee and, like most national parks, is exceptionally beautiful.
It’s bisected by only one paved road, a 30+-mile stretch of US 441 between the towns of Cherokee, NC and Gatlinburg, TN but the drive will take a few hours due to the numerous twists and turns, as well as the frequent stops most people make to admire the scenery, flora and fauna.
And there’s plenty of flora and fauna: the park has 100 species of native trees, more than in all of northern Europe, as well as an extensive variety of other flora and fauna. Astonishingly, scientists currently know only about 17 percent of the plants and animals that live in the park, or about 17,000 species of probably 100,000 different organisms.
It’s a wonderful drive you should take. And if you time it right – driving back to Asheville in the late afternoon – you might come across some elk grazing alongside the road near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the eastern entrance.
Stop to admire the majesty of it all and then head back into Asheville for a wonderful dinner and, perhaps, one or two of the city’s famous craft beers.
If you go:
Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau
36 Montford Ave.
Asheville, North Carolina 28801
Tel: (828) 258-6101
Folk Art Center
Milepost 382 Blue Ridge Parkway
Tel: (828) 298-7928
1 Lodge Street
Asheville, NC 28803
Tel: (800) 411-3812 or (828) 225-1333