Insider's Guide to Asheville
The misty Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains provide visitors a magical natural backdrop to the town of Asheville, North Carolina, and its many charms. The heady combination of Asheville’s stunning location and its proximity to the University of North Carolina's Asheville campus have helped the city attract intellectuals, artists, writers and other creative types, creating a thriving, cultural enclave. Visitors can explore the galleries of the burgeoning River Arts District, pay a visit to the iconic Biltmore Estate or chow down at one of the many locally sourced, organic eateries that line Asheville's streets. Pack your granola and Birkenstocks, and discover the highlights of this charming “Land of the Sky.”
Where to Eat
Asheville has no shortage of hip, locally sourced eateries, but its most popular may well be the Early Girl Eatery, a tiny restaurant named after a type of tomato, and teeming with 1950s retro charm and darn good comfort food. Much of the produce served here is grown by regional farms, and many of the cheeses and meats on the menu are produced and raised locally as well. The menu changes periodically to reflect a focus on fresh, in-season ingredients, and includes Southern favorites like shrimp and grits with peppers, onions and andouille sausage, as well as pan-fried catfish topped with pear chutney. Vegetarian options feature heavily on the menu, too, such as sweet potato black bean cakes with sour cream and avocado relish, and a tempeh Reuben complete with sauerkraut, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese.
Mayfel’s leans heavy on Cajun-Creole influences, much to the delight of its patrons' tastebuds. Menu favorites include the seafood etouffée, with shrimp, crawfish and crab served over basmati rice, and the spicy jambalaya, overflowing with chicken, pork and andouille sausage in a tomato-based broth. Other comfort food classics grace the menu, like Mama Mayfel’s meatloaf, served with friend okra, mashed potatoes, Cajun pickles and cornbread. No worries if the Cajun pickles become addictive; Mayfel’s sells them and the restaurant's sweet onion relish as souvenirs. This Asheville institution also occupies some of the town's most prime real estate, across from the eclectic Pritchard Park, where live music and drum circles provide regular entertainment for Mayfel's guests eating on the outdoor patio.
The bold flavors of classic Indian street food lurks in downtown Asheville, and can come as a welcome respite from the (albeit delicious) "new" Southern cuisine pouring out of so many restaurant kitchens. Chai Pani translates to "tea and water," but is slang for a quick, little bite to eat -- what this Asheville restaurant does best. Chai Pani specializes in Indian street food snacks, importing specialty ingredients from India, and grinding and roasting its own spice blends. Try the classic bhel puri, a snack of puffed rice, flour crisps, crispy chickpea noodles and potatoes, tossed with tamarind and green chutneys, or a fusion dish like the Bombay chili cheese fries, a decadent dish of Indian turkey hash, masala fries, paneer, onion and cilantro, topped with a special hot sauce and served with tomato chutney. While the chai tea offers a tasty way to wet your whistle, we suggest indulging in the traditional mango lassi, a yogurt drink made with mango pulp and cardamom.
Where to Stay
The exquisite decor of the Grand Bohemian Hotel leaves guests feeling like they've wandered into the Tudor-style hunting lodge of a king, so plush are the furnishings and artwork. While old-world luxuries like hand-carved furniture and antique fixtures fill the 104-room hotel, guests are also treated to the ultimate in contemporary comforts, such as pillow-top mattresses, LCD interactive televisions and Wi-Fi. The hotel lies in proximity to Asheville's many attractions, and is adjacent to the Biltmore Estate, though guests have the opportunity to explore artwork right on the hotel premises at the Grand Bohemian Gallery, which has displayed 100 works of art from international and local artists. When hunger strikes, sate your inner carnivore at the hotel's Red Stag Grill, which features locally sourced, hormone-free steaks and even a river elk tenderloin.
Inn on Biltmore Estate
Make like a Vanderbilt and swathe yourself in luxury with a stay at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, located on the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate property. The 201 guestrooms offer ample high-end amenities, including twice daily housekeeping, turndown service with chocolates, Antica Farmacista bath products and goose down pillows. While the inn's rooms feature sweeping views of the surrounding woodlands, guests can also embrace their stunning surrounds in the rimless outdoor pool and hot tub. A delectable meal is never more than a few steps away at the inn's award-winning restaurant, which features produce harvested right from the estate's grounds. When it's time to unwind, book a treatment at the inn's spa, which offers seasonal-themed packages, like the 50-minute spiced pumpkin chai body creme massage.
Beaufort House Victorian Inn
This historic Queen Anne Victorian home-turned-romantic-bed-and-breakfast offers guests an idyllic escape on 1 1/2 acres complete with manicured gardens, fountains and a waterfall. Despite the sense of utter privacy and respite, the inn lies an easy half-mile walk from downtown Asheville. Beaufort was once the home of Charlton Heston, and has been restored to feature 11 luxurious guest rooms, complete with fireplaces, 2-person Jacuzzis and Aveda bath products. Rates also include a gourmet 2-course breakfast. The inn's impeccable decor features gleaming, dark-wood accents and Victorian-era furnishings, though a large part of Beaufort's charm lies in its exterior: Guests can enjoy sitting on the wraparound porch, resting in a rocking chair and admiring the surrounding mountain vistas.
What to Do
Don't have the time or -- let's face it -- the energy, to walk all 2,180 miles of the Appalachian Trail? Not to worry. You can still have your shot at hiking the iconic trail by hopping on the marked footpath from various points near Asheville and experiencing a wee bit of the A.T.'s mystique. Consider joining the trail at 4,600-foot-tall Max Patch mountain, the top of which has been cleared to a 350-acre tract, with extraordinary 360-degree views of the Great Smoky Mountains and Mt. Mitchell. Two loop trails, 1.4 miles and 2.4 miles respectively, provide access to the mountain, and make for an easy walk rewarded with stellar vistas. For a higher altitude hike, walk from Newfound Gap to the mountain peak oddly named Charlies Bunion. The moderate 4-mile hike takes you up to 6,222 feet, where you'll be greeted with jaw-dropping views of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Thomas Wolfe Memorial
Asheville prides itself on being the onetime home of acclaimed author Thomas Wolfe, and his childhood house, a sprawling 29-room Queen Anne-style structure, has been preserved and converted into a museum, displaying artifacts from his life. Literary fans will know that the house served as the setting for Wolfe's novel Look Homeward, Angel, and today visitors will encounter furnishings and decorations from the home, which Wolfe's mother ran as a boarding house, as well as from Wolfe's father's stonecutting shop and Wolfe's New York City apartment. The visitor center offers a biographical audio-visual presentation of Wolfe, and tours of the home depart from here as well. Literature buffs can geek out over spying the writer's typewriter, writing desk and even his Harvard diploma.
Chimney Rock State Park
Asheville has a firm fix on outdoor activities, and exploring Chimney Rock State Park should be a must-do on any visitor's trip list. The park is most commonly associated with the striking, 315-foot-high granite monolith that earned the park its name, the top of which can be reached via elevator. A trip to Chimney Rock's top rewards travelers with spectacular, 360-degree views of the surrounding forests and mountains. Other park highlights include the Devil's Head balancing rock, the 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls waterfall, and the Opera Box, a cavern-like space along Skyline Trail that affords visitors panoramic views of Lake Lure and Hickory Nut Gorge. If the park looks familiar, you might recognize it from its Hollywood history. Chimney Rock played a vital role as the setting for the final scenes in The Last of the Mohicans.
River Arts District
Quirky, creative people flock to Asheville, giving the town a vibrant and ever-changing arts community, the epicenter of which lies in the burgeoning River Arts District. What were once abandoned warehouses occupied by artists has turned into the District, where some 140 to 150 artists now have working studios in 16 buildings. The spaces are open to the public and have become a draw for locals, tourists and art dealers, and new businesses continue to pop up. There shouldn't be an affliction of starving -- or thirsty -- artists in this creative enclave; the acclaimed 12 Bones Smokehouse has opened and doles out baby back ribs to an ever-present line of customers, while Wedge Brewing Company pours a variety of cold tap beers and offers a chill patio space that's become a popular local's hangout.
Can't travel to France? Visit America's very own Versailles, with a trip to the Biltmore Estate, George Vanderbilt's 250-room French Renaissance chateau. The shipping and railroad heir built the sprawling estate on 8,000 acres, which takes visitors at least 5 hours to properly explore. Visitors should follow the map they are given upon buying tickets, which will take them through the mansion's first 3 floors, as well as the estate’s basement. It's all but impossible to wrap one's head around the lavish surrounds; the house was completed in 1895 and boasts 65 fireplaces, 43 bathrooms, an indoor pool and a bowling alley. Admission also includes access to the Antler Hill Village, which features a farm, as well as the Biltmore Winery, with free tastings of the wine produced right on the grounds.
Getting Here and Around
Asheville Regional Airport may be tiny, but it's well-serviced by Continental, Delta, United and US Airways. Asheville has nonstop service to Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, New York LaGuardia, Orlando (Sanford) and Fort Lauderdale. From the airport, travelers can take taxis or buses to get to downtown Asheville. Car rentals are also available, and many hotels offer free airport shuttles -- check with your hotel upon booking.
Asheville can be accessed from east and west via I-40, I-26 to the southeast, I-23/19A to the north and west, and I-240 circles the city. The spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway also winds its way through Asheville and into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Asheville is serviced by multiple taxi companies, including Metro Cab, Yellow Cab and Red Cab companies, as well as the local Asheville Transit System buses. If you don't have a car in town, but would like to cover more ground touring, there are also 2 trolley companies, Gray Line Trolley Tours of Asheville and Asheville Historic Trolley Tours.