Whatever the season, Asheville has something to offer everyone.
Summer festivals, fall foliage, winter sports, springtime flowers — choose a season to spend in this lovely western North Carolina city and you just can’t go wrong. (Although I must admit I would’ve welcomed some cool mountain breezes during my recent summertime visit there!)
From Baltimore, Asheville is a relatively quick getaway. You can drive — approximately eight hours (or 509 miles) — or fly from BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport to Charlotte, and then rent a car for the easy two-hour drive.
There are flights from Charlotte to Asheville, but the 130-mile drive is pleasant and you’ll want a car in Asheville to get out and about.
There are a variety of lodging options in Asheville (nicknamed “Land of the Sky” and “the San Francisco of the East”), from vacation rentals to B&Bs to larger hotels. We stayed at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel, a Marriott brand, which was stylish, comfortable and conveniently located.
Our first full day there was devoted to all things Biltmore, the vast estate billed as America’s largest home. George Vanderbilt’s 250-room chateau and gardens are as impressive today as when completed in 1895. You can take a self-guided tour and then stroll through the gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Sr., co-designer of New York’s Central Park and Baltimore’s Sudbrook Park neighborhood. (Olmstead’s son, Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., was instrumental in the design of Guilford, Homeland and Roland Park here in Charm City).
Biltmore is currently exhibiting the works of acclaimed artistic glassblower Dale Chihuly throughout the chateau and grounds, which only adds to the beauty of the surroundings.
(A tip from the author – if possible, purchase Biltmore tickets ahead of time and go during the week. This is one of Asheville’s most popular attractions, and visitors from around the world flock there year-round.)
By the way, there is plenty of opportunities for shopping and dining on or near Biltmore, so you can indeed make this a full-day affair.
After a rest in blessed air-conditioning back at the hotel, it was a casual pizza dinner at Mellow Mushroom, where you can entertain yourself by looking at the kitschy decor covering virtually every inch of space (think Papermoon Diner here in Remington and you’ll get the idea).
Then, it was on to the Asheville Community Theatre for an outstanding production of “The Full Monty” (yes, nudity involved but with judicious lighting!). The ACT was established in 1946 and is the oldest continuously operating theater in Asheville and one of the nation’s oldest community theaters.
A plaque outside notes that Asheville has supported live theater since the first thespians rode into town in the 1830s. Among the notables who have been involved with the ACT are William S. Hart, a western star of the silent film era, Lydia Clarke and her then-unknown husband, the late Academy Award-winner Charlton Heston, both of whom were early directors at the theater.
Put a Spell on You
The second day of our Asheville getaway started off with breakfast at the city’s favorite morning spot, the Over Easy Café. No reservations, just show up, give your name and wait on the sidewalk with all of the other hungry locals and visitors alike. You’re bound to make a few friends while waiting.
After fueling up — ourselves, not the car — it was a day devoted to local galleries. Mountain craft galleries abound in this part of the Tar Heel State, as do fine arts galleries.
In addition to in-town galleries, the River Arts District on the outskirts of town consists of artists and working studios in 22 former industrial and historical buildings along a one-mile stretch of the French Broad River. More than 200 artists work in paint, pencil, pottery, metal, fiber, glass, wax, paper and more.
There are no official “Open Hours” for the River Arts District, but there are bound to be plenty of studios open whenever you visit. If you are coming to see someone in particular, your best bet is to check in with them before your visit.
Back in town, it was a wander through the popular bookstores Malaprop’s and the Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar (kudos to the genius who came up with that great idea!), as well as the Grove Arcade, a historic building from the 1920s that housed one of the country’s first indoor shopping malls. In 1943, it was sold to the federal government and housed the National Climatic Data Center until 1995. It’s now once again a shopping and dining venue.
Following dinner at the Chestnut restaurant and bar (highly recommended, especially their take on shrimp and grits) and dessert at French Broad Chocolates (even more highly recommended!), we strolled through downtown, taking in the festival-like atmosphere with open-air concerts, street performers and an overall ‘Hot Town! Summer in the City!’ vibe.
To escape the heat, we decided that Day 3 of our getaway would be spent in the car, exploring some of western North Carolina’s other attractions. The towns of Saluda, Henderson and Tryon (best known as the birthplace of chanteuse Nina “I Put a Spell on You” Simone) all made for a pleasant excursion and an opportunity to see more of the surrounding mountain vistas (a trip back in the autumn sounds decidedly appealing).
After returning to Asheville, I spent an hour touring the Thomas Wolfe House, located right across the street from our hotel. Our knowledgeable guide provided an up-close-and-personal look at the “You Can’t Go Home Again” author and his Asheville roots. Wolfe’s coming-of-age 1929 novel “Look Homeward, Angel” is said to be based on his early life in Asheville, and so outraged the residents that he went into self-imposed exile and did not return to his birthplace for eight years.
Our final evening in Asheville was spent dining at the contemporary American restaurant Posana, and taking a last walk through this youthful, vibrant, arts-oriented city. (OK, and one more dessert at French Broad Chocolates.)
We were in agreement — Asheville is definitely worth a visit.
Indeed, more than one.
For information, visit exploreasheville.com.
Carol Sorgen is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.