To a northerner like myself, Asheville, North Carolina, evokes the feel of small towns in Vermont or Maine. Nestled in the French Broad River Valley in the Blue Ridge mountains at 2100 feet above sea level, the town is by turns artsy, crafty, foodie, and very easygoing — a comfortable marriage between a kind of hip, escape-from-the-rat-race vibe and southern charm. A creative air suffuses it all: Everyone you meet, it seems, is an artist, writer, brewmaster, or chef.
So you go to Asheville to enjoy the arts, crafts, beer, and food, and also to go hiking, biking, or something active and outdoorsy. (The peak tourist season is October when the leaves turn color – the changes cascading down the mountains over several weeks – and it’s also when hotel rooms are priciest.)
As for shopping: wonderful, quirky, and super-local. You won’t find many chain stores here. It’s not that there’s an ordinance blocking them, but rather that their presence is discouraged — sometimes aggressively. Picketers marched up and down in front of Urban Outfitters a few years ago when it first opened. (Apparently the same censure does not apply to sugary treats: Ben and Jerry’s had no such problems in setting up shop.)
My wife Estelle and I pulled into town on a Monday in early August and stayed at the centrally located AC Marriott Hotel. This is a modern, recently renovated property with rooms that are light and airy. At nine stories, the building is tall for Asheville. The top floor holds an elegant restaurant with an outdoor seating area allowing expansive views.
Our dinner that first evening was at Limones, a Mexican restaurant — not at all like your local taco joint — where San Francisco-trained chef Hugo Ramirez gives a modern twist to traditional Mexican fare. After an appetizer of ceviche and a fresh tuna sampler, we tasted plates of salmon and scallops in a broth with corn. Delicious food, and you couldn’t help noticing the place was packed to the gills even at 9 p.m. on a Monday night.
The next morning, we were off to the arts district, where a series of 22 industrial buildings and warehouses are spread out for a mile along the French Broad River. More than 200 artists occupy these spaces as part of the city’s effort both to boost the arts and reclaim what had been a decaying part of town. Pottery predominates, but there are also interesting paintings, metalwork, fiber, glass, and paper art.
For the afternoon, we embarked on the “Eating Asheville” food tour, which involves marching around for two-and-a-half hours, stopping along the way at local eateries for a bite here, a nibble there, and a sip in between. First stop was the eclectic Battery Park Book Exchange, which features 80,000 lightly used books for sale as well as a wine and champagne bar. There, we sipped sparkling wine while browsing the book collection, arranged by theme. Treasures abound. Under Civil War history, I stumbled across War is Hell! by General Sherman, an extraordinary journal of his march to Atlanta, including photo plates. In the Western section, I was stopped by The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard. The writer of Get Shorty and countless other modern crime novels got his start writing western stories for the pulp magazines in the early ‘50s. After paging through it for a few minutes, I put it back on the shelf. (But two days later, I was still thinking about it, and had to come back to buy the thing. It didn’t disappoint.)
The bookstore is located in Grove Arcade, built by one of Asheville’s most noted developers, E.W. Grove, who also built the four-star Grove Park Inn at the edge of town. We learned that he (along with George Vanderbilt) were some of the first to see the potential for what was then a sleepy little town. The three-story arcade, one of America’s first shopping malls, is a late gothic revival building featuring an ornate décor that includes a series of grotesques (distinct from gargoyles in that they are purely decorative and don’t have water spouts) said to be modeled on the face of a debtor who owed Grove around $200. “A precursor to Facebook shaming” suggested Kaycee, our guide.
As for the food, over the course of two hours, we sampled Indian food, barbecue, Italian food, and tacos — culminating in brownies topped with single-source chocolate at the popular tourist spot, French Broad Chocolate Lounge.
With barely enough time to recover from the gustatory overload, I donned a reflective vest and hard hat for a tour of the then-still-under-construction Kimpton Hotel Arras with general manager David McCarthy. (The hotel opened in October of 2019.)
Hotel Arras is a gut renovation of the city’s tallest building, the 18-story BB&T Bank building built in 1965. Today, the top floors house 54 condos, ranging in price from $750,000 to $1.5 million and featuring fantastic views from every window. In the hotel portion, occupying the lower floors, the 128 rooms are decorated with Calacatta marble, European oak, leather, metals, and original artwork by local artists. In the closet of each room, aside from the Frette linen robes, guests will find their own yoga mat. (Asheville is something of a yoga center, with two training schools.)
The last stop on the tour was the ground floor, where two restaurants (now open) were still under construction. There’s District 42, featuring cocktails and sharable small plates. And for fine dining, Bargello offers Mediterranean fare. The menus for both restaurants were developed by Chef Peter Pollay of Asheville’s Posana restaurant. Bargello wasn’t yet open when I visited, but I was treated to a sampling of their scrumptious food at Posana a few days later.
The evening belonged to Isis Restaurant and Dinner Hall in West Asheville. It was more of a music venue in design, with tables facing a large stage. You might expect the food to be standard bar fare, burgers and wings, but you’d be wrong. We sampled delicious plates of Ahi tuna with risotto and trout stuffed with herbs. Meanwhile on stage that evening was some excellent bluegrass music by Nashville-by-way-of-Australia’s Kristy Cox and her five-piece band.
The next morning, it was off on a foraging tour with a No Taste Like Home, which was part hike, part botany lesson, with a focus on the edible. About a dozen participants gathered at a modest farm about 25 minutes west of Asheville where Becky Beyer, a trained botanist, guided us on our trek into the nearby hillside. We stopped every few dozen yards for a little talk about a given plant – and a nibble on said plant. The gist is that there’s food all around us. We learned for example that plain old Pennsylvania smartweed (which we learned to ID by the little hairs on the stem) has leaves that can be fried into chips; that you can safely eat all segmented berries, not just the obvious wild blackberries and raspberries; that Carolina hemlock (distinct from the poison that killed Socrates) can be used for seasoning and has a rosemary flavor; that jewelweed has healing properties; that goldenrod has a carrot-like flavor; and that the tea made from Queen Anne’s lace is good for arthritis.
Noshing on leaves, stems and the occasional root was all good, but it became clear that the group’s main interest was mushrooms. Becky quickly gave in to the mushroom energy and guided us up a trail where we soon found plenty. “Don’t pick anything white,” she warned.
Heeding her advice, we filled our bags with tiny orange chanterelles and also tawny milkcap mushrooms, indigo milkcap mushrooms (which look deadly as hell, but are edible), painted boletes, and huge, malformed (as if by a nuclear accident) lobster mushrooms. The latter is not technically a mushroom, but rather a parasitic fungus that grows on certain other mushrooms and has a reddish color like a cooked lobster as well as a faint seafood odor and flavor.
After a few hours of hunting and gathering, Becky and her assistant Natalie Dechiara rolled out a blanket and we dumped and sorted our finds. Each cache was carefully reviewed for safety before being repacked to take home. Natalie lit a portable camping stove and cut up one of the giant lobster mushrooms and fried it in butter. Creamy and delicious.
The next day, we paid a visit to Asheville’s crown jewel, Biltmore, just outside of Asheville. It was created by George Vanderbilt in 1895 as a retreat reminiscent of the grand castles and estates of France and Britain. Vanderbilt fell in love with the North Carolina mountains after visiting with his mother in the late 1880s and immediately began acquiring land. By late 1889, he was ready to build his dream house, bringing together two of the leading architects of the age, Richard Morris Hunt (best known for designing the façade and entrance hall of New York’s Metropolitan Museum) and Frederick Law Olmsted (the father of American landscape architecture and the architect of New York’s Central Park).
On a tour of the extraordinary 178,000 square foot house set on 125,000 acres, we were escorted back 100 years to the gilded age. We first entered the dining hall with 70-foot ceilings where formal dinners featured men in white tie and tails and women in evening gowns.
The tour continued through sumptuous sitting rooms, breakfast halls, a music room, a walnut sided library with 10,000 books, a gallery featuring fine Flemish tapestries. Along the way, Vanderbilt’s art collection includes Ming dynasty urns, Dürer prints, a portrait of Washington by John Singer Sargent, a portrait of Vanderbilt’s wife Edith by Whistler, collections of Japanese art, and more.
So, what’s not to like about this lovely southern town? Well, some fear the town is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success: Too many tourists, traffic jams, and soaring real estate prices. In the previous four years alone, 2,761 new hotel rooms have been approved — this, in a once-sleepy town of 92,000.
To put the brakes on the town’s growth spurt, in September of 2019 the city council voted 7-0 to put a moratorium on approvals for new hotels for a year, which in practical terms means several years, since the planning of a new hotel requires a long lead time. As a city council member said in an interview explaining the decision, “For many people here, expansion of tourism, the increase in tourism and the corresponding increase in hotel development mean that Asheville is losing its character.”
Still, one can easily see why Asheville is so popular. The climate, the artsy vibe, the high quality food, and brewpub scene. It’s the kind of place where you can’t help taking mental notes about coming back again, maybe even looking for a place of your own.
Featured image: Asheville, North Carolina skyline nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains (Shutterstock)