If people tend to think of the South as a red-state monolith, then western North Carolina exists to shatter that common misperception—with a purple flourish. The region is peppered with hippie hideaways, old-order religious communities, and idealistic enclaves of every stripe, and shaped as much by the grandees who summer here every year as by a rich agricultural tradition.
Hilly, humpbacked Asheville, which sits beside the French Broad River in a gap between two mountain ranges, is the cultural capital of the lower Appalachians, blending a spirit of rugged individuality with Nantucket-like sophistication. A new spirit is in the air, as the old stone hotels spruce themselves up and add modern amenities to attract a younger clientele, and even underfoot, where the dark soil is being weaned off tobacco—thanks in part to the multibillion-dollar industry settlement of 1999—and a drop of rain falling east of the Appalachian ridge is more likely to be intercepted on its journey to the Atlantic by a Chardonnay grapevine, a head of organic lettuce, or a mineral spa.
Asheville has always been in the vanguard in some way or other. Even in the hidebound McCarthy era, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Josef Albers were splashing paint around at Black Mountain College, just east of the city. Since then, the place has become a mecca for the practitioners and purchasers of art and local crafts. Every other downtown block has a gallery to peruse (at last count there were 30), and there are countless opportunities for those with an interest in pottery, sculpture, and what weaving fanatics call "the fiber arts." And still, despite all the activity, Asheville's pulse-slowing, temperate mountain air continues to attract the convalescing Charlestonians and vacationing Yankees who have retreated here for more than a century. Don't be surprised if you stumble, as we did, upon Vietnam War general William Westmoreland sipping coffee with his wife at an outdoor café, just a stone's throw from a full-service piercing parlor.
WHERE TO STAY Typically, a visiting family finds a favorite hotel here and sticks with it through several generations. The mammoth limestone Inn on Biltmore Estate (1 Antler Hill Rd.; 800/858-4130; www.biltmore.com; doubles from $279) overlooks the winery of the famous 8,000-acre Vanderbilt property. Its 213 rooms have a classic feel, like that of the manor itself. • The family-owned hotel is alive and well at the quirky Monte Vista (308 W. State St., Black Mountain; 828/669-2119; www.montevistahotel.com; doubles from $62), which has worn white-wicker furniture on the porch and gold swag curtains in the recently renovated bar. • The handsome Richmond Hill Inn (87 Richmond Hill Dr.; 888/742-4554 or 828/252-7313; www.richmondhillinn.com; doubles from $205), a smartly restored 1889 mansion, makes the Victorian era look fresh—and relatively tchotchke-free, compared to the nearby, wedding cakelike Biltmore. • The old guard competes with the new South's digerati for the subterranean spa pools (think: grotto chic) at the 1913 Grove Park Inn (290 Macon Ave.; 800/438-5800 or 828/252-2711; www.groveparkinn.com; doubles from $189). A tourist destination in itself, the hulking, rusticated-granite hotel overlooks Asheville from a tony neighborhood at the city's north end.
WHERE TO EAT Asheville has always nurtured a burgeoning restaurant scene; these days, it favors honest vittles in relaxed settings. Food-savvy locals cheered the arrival four years ago of the Early Girl Eatery (8 Wall St.; 828/259-9292; www.earlygirleatery.com; dinner for two $35), a spartan but light-filled dining room located in the heart of downtown. Young chef-owner John Stehling gives Southern classics a mountain spin with ingredients sourced from local producers, in dishes like pan-fried trout with green tomatoand-blackberry relish and black-eyedpea cakes prepared with basmati rice. In the finest college-town tradition, the menu is scrawled on a blackboard. • Everything's housemade at Loretta's (27 Patton Ave.; 828/253-3747; lunch for two $14), a narrow diner favored by the working-lunch crowd. The pimento-cheese sandwiches on thick, pillowy, freshly baked bread are stellar. • Fiery shrimp-and-grits and poached eggs over crab cakes are just a few of the tweaked Southern staples served under the ceiling fans at Sharon Schott's Tupelo Honey Café (12 College St.; 828/255-4404; dinner for two $20). • A flamenco beat shakes up Asheville's bluegrass sound track at Zambra Wine & Tapas (85 Walnut St.; 828/232-1060; dinner for two $60), where the menu of excellent small plates changes nightly and might include duck confit with cranberry tapenade or flash-fried calamari. The zippy dishes and vibrantly colored Moorish-revival interior are a respite for the folk-weary.