Adventures in Asheville

By | Category: Travel destinations

New York, LA, Boston – been there, done that, got the t-shirt? For the perfect escape from the rat race, the magical mountain town of Asheville is where its at. And with the October release of Genius – a film depicting the real-life relationship between esteemed writer and Asheville native Thomas Wolfe and his editor Max Perkins  – sure to raise its profile, now is the time to go writes Kaye Holland

Been to America and never made it to Asheville? That must be righted. Owing to its canny line of  unique boutiques, microbreweries, live music scene and ability to serve fab coffee, the laid back North Carolina town has tonnes of charm. Plus time seems to move slower here than in frantic New York or in your face LA.

But dont just take my word for it: this year alone, Asheville has been ranked among Frommers Best places to goand Huffington Posts 13 best food destinationswhile travel bible Condé Nast hailed Thomas Wolfes hometown as one of the six best beer cities in America. Meanwhile that social nexus for travellers – Matador Network – has called it the coolest town in the U.S. Clearly theres something of a buzz building around Asheville – and not just because of the Biltmore Estate.

Americas largest private home – and Asheville’s number-one tourist attraction – the Biltmore was built in 11895 for George Washington Vanderbilt II, who modelled it after a grand chateaux he had seen in Europe. Its a handsome house alright – and enormous: theres 65 fireplaces, 43 bathrooms, a private bowling alley and 250 acres of perfectly manicured grounds and gardens to swoon over, so be sure to dedicate at least half a day to taking in its glory.

Of course you cant properly visit Asheville without checking out the childhood home of Thomas Wolfe – aka Ashevilles most famous son. The literary giant grew up in a 29-room downtown house that his mother ran as a boarding home and, one of the highlights of my spell in the souths hippest city, was touring the historic house immortalised as Dixielandin Wolfes novel Look Homeward, Angel which offered a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the author and local history.

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Thomas Wolfe Memorial House

During his brief but action packed life (the Asheville native died from tuberculous at just 37 years old, but not without having travelled extensively around Europe and America), Wolfe wrote many novels – most of them around the notion that all men are alone and strangers and never come to know each other  but his best known book is the inaugural Look Homeward, Angel.

For those who havent read it, the tome recounts the life of a young man born in western North Carolina, the son of a stonecutter and a woman who ran a boarding-house, and his burning desire to quit his small town and tumultuous family in search of a better life.

While Look Homeward, Angel made waves all around America it wasnt owing to its autobiographical nature well received in Asheville, where locals were angered by Wolfes portrayal of their town as a less than desirable destination, on its release.

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Asheville boasts many micro-breweries

Hollywood has recently jumped on the story and subsequently 2014 saw a string of celebs – heres looking at the A list likes of Jude Law, Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Guy Pearce – arrive in Asheville to film Genius, a forthcoming film chronicling Max Perkinss time as the book editor at Scribner, where he oversaw works by Wolfe as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

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Asheville is still without a single Starbucks

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Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar

Had enough gravitas? Then spend a not to be missed morning shopping up a storm in downtown Asheville – still without a single Starbucks or Gap  – in speciality stores such as Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar (a marriage of two of lifes greatest pleasures, books and bubbles, side by side) before making a difficult decision: where to eat lunch.

 

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Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar

Make no mistake: Asheville is fantastic foodie town and happily, at venues such as Tupelo Honey, the prices won’t cause your palms to moisten either. There are two locations (one downtown and one in the southern ‘burb) – both great places to taste Asheville on a plate. Whether you go for lunch, brunch, breakfast or dinner dont miss out on the hot biscuits with honey. Im still salivating over them

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I also enjoyed memorable meals at Asheville Music Hall (where every Sunday Mojo Kitchen and Lounge elevate brunch to the extraordinary), Rhubarb (run by James Beard award winning chef John Fleer) and the Sunset Terrace at the Omni Grove Park Inn – whose pretty patio is the perfect spot from which to salute the sun, while tucking into gourmet Fried green tomato sandwiches, local kale salads and (more) Southern buttermilk biscuits…

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The Omni Grove Park Inn

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The Omni Grove Park Inn

If youre feeling flush you could spend the night at Grove Park Inn whose guest list is pure Hollywood: Jude Law holed up at The Omni during the filming of Genius, while Scott Fitzgerald summered in high style here when his wife, Zelda, underwent treatment in the nearby Highland hospital. It’s popular with politicians too – no fewer than 10 US presidents have  left doodles in the hotels guestbook

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French Broad Chocolate Lounge


Elsewhere chocoholics scoring a cocoa fix should look to Lexington Avenue – home to the French Broad Chocolate Lounge but unless you like a queue go early or late

But food is only part of what makes Asheville great. The mountain town is also chock full of homegrown craft microbreweries such as Wicked Weed and Wedge (over in the edgy River Arts District), plus beer pubs like The Bywater. Beer not your thing? Other bar options include Bens Tune Up  a sake brewery, restaurant, convenience store & music hall where its hard not to feel hip.

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Lex 18

For something more sophisticated, Lex 18 – a moonshine bar and Appalachian super club – is a must.  The visual style is classic jazz-age, while dapper bartenders serve the most innovative cocktails in town with a heavy dash of southern hospitality, to a soundtrack of a live pianist. Owner, Georgia Malki, has done her Prohibition era homework here and it shows: gold star.

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Lex 18

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Dinner and drinks at Lex 18

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Blue Ridge Parkway


However as idyllic as all this dining and drinking maybe, it only gives you a limited view of what Asheville has to offer. Outdoor aficionados will be in heaven for Asheville is surrounded by one million acres of forest including the Smokies (America
s most visited national park) and the Blue Ridge Mountains (Americas favourite drive).

 

My early Sunday morning wake up call to join the Blue Ridge Hiking Company’s half day hike of Blue Park Ridgeway was worth it when I was greeted with magnificent million dollar mountain views, seldom seen plant species, thriving wildlife (watch out for bears!) and frothing waterfalls. The latter is where we paused for a rest (Im an active person but not what you would call a fitness fanatic) and to eat our apples and granola bars. Brave souls swam in the cold water but I was content to splash about in the shallows and listen to Lori  – our guide – wax lyrical about her boss Jennifer Pharr Davis. And rightly so: with more than 11,000 miles of long distance trails under her boots, the North Carolina native is the first woman to be overall record holder on the 2,168 mile Appalachian Trail – which had a starring role in Robert Redfords recent film, Walk in the Woods.

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Asheville is heaven for hikers

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Blue Ridge Parkway

Indeed it’s the forthright and fun loving locals who are invariably at the heart of what Asheville has to offer – everyone waves hello and shares a smile on the street. Spend a while with them and you may never want to leave. Or as Wolfe wrote his sister Mabel in 1938: “I have a thing to tell you now: that is you cant go home again.

Despite Wolfe’s words I did return home but I often think of Asheville – an America I’d thought was lost forever was there, ready to be discovered. I’ll go back. I hope it’s soon.

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