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.
WHERE TO SIP Believe it or not, western North Carolina is the East Coast's newest wine region (the state ranks 10th nationally in grape production), and it's tearing through the roster of cold-climate vinifera, producing self-possessed Chardonnays, Cabernet Francs, and Viogniers that are good enough to drink right now. Founded by a textile executive and his wife, Rockhouse Vineyards (1525 Turner Rd., Tryon; 828/863-2784), a half-hour's drive south from Asheville, is bottling some of the most promising Cabernets and Chardonnays in a corner of the state that once produced only lowly table grapes. Rockhouse wines are vinified on the premises and stored in the stone basement; upstairs, there's a Stickley-esque tasting room with a copper-topped bar. • Biltmore Estate Winery (1 Approach Rd.; 800/543-2961 or 828/225-1333) is attracting crowds to its beautifully restored dairy barn turned tasting room. Not all of Biltmore's bottles are worthy of their lush setting, but some are head-turners, including the sparkling wines and the Chateau Reserve wines (at about $20 a bottle), made exclusively from grapes grown on the Vanderbilt estate. • The blend is the thing at Shelton Vineyards (286 Cabernet Lane, Dobson; 336/366-4724), in the Yadkin Valley, 2 1/2 hours from Asheville—an ideal destination for a day trip. The well-financed venture aims to give Bordeaux a run for its money. Sample the winery's luxurious Family Reserve claret ($50) and the award-winning Madison Lee blend (a great value at $10) in a cathedral-ceilinged tasting sanctuary. • Back in town, the Asheville Wine Market (65 Biltmore Ave.; 800/825-7175 or 828/253-0060) carries all the best North Carolina vintages and has an exceptionally knowledgeable sales staff.
WHERE TO SHOP Asheville is home to one of the first malls in the country, the Grove Arcade; erected in 1929 right in the center of town, it was recently restored to its full Art Deco grandeur. Even so, Versace probably won't be setting up an outpost here any time soon. Instead, you'll find the South's best selection of arts—from fine to crafty, from 19th-century portraits to hand-carved maple rolling pins. Whether you're equipping yourself for a summerlong hike on the Appalachian Trail or just looking for a good book to read in an afternoon on your hotel's front porch, you'll find it here. Bookworms and browsers throng Malaprop's Bookstore & Café (55 Haywood St.; 800/441-9829; www.malaprops.com) on the main shopping drag. Malaprop's has fed the intellectual cravings of Buncombe County since 1982 and it's also a great place to pick up entertainment weeklies like Mountain Xpress. • Along the Blue Ridge Parkway—one of the nation's most scenic routes—the Southern Highland Craft Guild (Folk Art Center, Mile 382, Blue Ridge Pkwy.; 828/298-7928; www.southernhighlandguild.org) offers the area's best collection of indigenous crafts, including quilts and ceramics, in styles from rustic to lace-light. • Preppies and gorp-munching backpackers alike flock to Mast General Store (15 Biltmore Ave.; 828/232-1883), a clothier and outfitter that's been supplying togs for every occasion—from cocktails to camping—since 1883. • Longstreet Maps & Prints (8 Biltmore Ave.; 828/254-0081; www.thesciencebookstore.com), on the town square, holds one of the Southeast's finest collections of antiquarian maps, photos, and prints, with a specialty in panoramic photographs. • Sign up for a two-week residency in pottery, glassblowing, metalwork, or weaving at the esteemed Penland School of Crafts (816 Penland School Rd., Penland; 828/765-2359; www.penland.org), a beautiful hour's drive out of town, or just visit the school's gallery, which sells the instructors' handiwork and a wide selection of books. • If you forget sensible shoes, visit Tops for Shoes (27 N. Lexington Ave.; 828/254-6721), a vast footwear emporium with two floors of everything from Taryn Rose and Cole Haan to Birkenstock and a twice-yearly buy-a-pair-get-a-second-pair-for-half-price sale.
WHERE TO GALLERY-HOP A party atmosphere descends on the streets the first Friday of every other month, from April through October, when Asheville's many art spaces stay open until 8 p.m. for Art Walk. Log on to www.ashevilledowntowngalleries.org, or stop in at Malaprop's bookstore to pick up a guide. • The top gallery in town is the spacious three-story Blue Spiral 1 (38 Biltmore Ave.; 828/251-0202), which specializes in Southeastern painters and sculptors. It has a deep collection of pastels by Will Henry Stevens (18811949), who managed to marry his Cubist tendencies to the moody Southern landscape. • For the optimum craft perspective (with an emphasis on artisan-made fountains, furniture, and lamps), New Morning Gallery (7 Boston Way; 828/274-2831; www.newmorninggallerync.com) in Biltmore Village, opposite the gates to Biltmore Estate, offers a bridal registry and enough on display (delicate pottery, handblown stemware, and wrought-iron bed frames) to give you objet overload. • Local work is shown in a more intimate setting at Ariel Craft Gallery (46 Haywood St.; 828/236-2660; www.arielcraftgallery.com), a cooperative gallery where the person explaining a piece to you is often the artist herself. • The funkiest, crunchiest arts vibe can be found at Sky People Gallery (51 N. Lexington Ave.; 828/232-0076). The work of the 28 artists who exhibit here offers great browsing and quirky gifts.
MATT LEE and TED LEE are T+L contributing editors.
Major airport Asheville Regional, 15 minutes from downtown by car service ($30)
Number of shops that specialize in musical instruments 16
Number of North Carolina wineries 45 (7 more expected by the end of 2005)
Acres of vineyards in the state 1,500
New state nickname Organic StairMaster, because of the region's rugged terrain
With so many strummers, fiddlers, and pickers living in the area, it's a rare night that you won't find live music spilling out of Asheville's clubs. Orange Peel Social Aid & Pleasure Club (101 Biltmore Ave.; 828/225-5851), the city's largest venue, attracts national acts like Chattanooga heartthrobs the Kings of Leon and the Southern lo-fi rocker group My Morning Jacket. • Hardworking acoustic soloists perform for tourists and locals alike at Jack of the Wood (95 Patton Ave.; 828/ 252-5445), a brewpub with a Celtic twist. Cheap beer flows and hometown favorites like the Greasy Beans and the Biscuit Burners jam at the Town Pump Tavern (135 Cherry St., Black Mountain; 828/669-4808).
North Carolina puts the scene in scenic drives. Here, three to get your engines running. The Blue Ridge Parkway, a gentle meander along the tippy-top ridge of the range, offers astonishing views. Combine it with a visit to Penland, an artsy enclave only 60 miles from Asheville. If you crave an adrenaline rush, register for Biltmore Estate's Land Rover Experience (800/624-1575) driving school. • Venture west on Route 63 for a peek into the emerald-green valleys of Appalachia. • A 20-minute drive east brings you to the fabled college town of Black Mountain. Stop in at Dripolator (221 W. State St.; 828/669-0999) for the best coffee this side of Seattle.
Cookbook author and local music critic
WAKE-UP CALL "I love the 'breakfast salad' at the Sunny Point Café & Bakery [626 Haywood Rd.; 828/252-0055]: greens dressed in a tart vinaigrette with hickory-smoked bacon and grits 'croutons,' topped with a poached egg."
MUSIC TO MY EARS "The intimate Grey Eagle [185 Clingman Ave.; 828/232-5800] is one of the best venues to catch American folk music stars like Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. Also, as soon as you get to Asheville, tune in to WNCW 88.7 FM for traditional bluegrass and alternative folk."
KITCHEN COLLECTION "My favorite antiques mall, the Screen Door [115 Fairview Rd.; 828/277-3667], has lots of funky vintage finds like Russel Wright and Bauer ceramics."
CHILL OUT "The best hot-stone massage I ever had was at Sensibilities Day Spa [59 Haywood St.; 828/253-3222], where the vibe isn't hurried or glitzy."
Mondays are sleepy, and many Asheville restaurants are closed that day, so call ahead
Asheville is aggressive about enforcing parking regulations; if the sign says you will be towed, you will be towed
Art Walk happens the first Friday of every other warm month. Galleries and stores stay open late, and restaurants are hopping