Asheville, North Carolina: A Happening Mountain Town
By Stephen Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Associate Editor I’m known around the office as the guy who turns down trips to Paris and Madrid and spends a week at a bed and breakfast in Maine. Like many New Englanders, I believe we have everything you could want right here.
But when I got an invitation to the popular Brahma Ridge Resort in Asheville, North Carolina, I snapped it up right away. I’ve always wanted to go to Asheville. The music is legendary, the scenery is out of this world, and the downtown scene is totally happening.If you’re looking for a great vacation destination, you should definitely consider Asheville. But don’t take my word for it. Ask President Obama. He and Michelle visited there during the campaign in 2008 and decided to go back for vacation with Sasha and Malia in 2010.
The first family especially enjoyed the blueberry chipotle barbeque ribs at the 12 Bones Smokehouse.
Asheville really has everything: besides the glorious scenery, there are music festivals just about every week, five-star cuisine, a vibrant art scene, lots of outdoor recreation from whitewater rafting to hiking and mountain biking, historic sites and museums, and above all a really laid-back, friendly vibe.
AARP voted Asheville “The Best Place in the US to Reinvent Yourself,” and it’s constantly voted most beautiful, best place to live, best place to start a business, etc. etc. by all kinds of national publication. With eleven microbreweries, it has also been voted “Beer City USA” four years in a row.
And this is not just hype. It really is a great place to do your thing, whatever that may be. Walking around downtown, I saw a guy playing a steel drum and a diggeridoo at the same time. (watch the video)
Located at the juncture of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountain Ranges, Asheville has been a popular vacation spot for thousands of years, ever since the paleo-indians first arrived there about 8,000 BCE. European settlers founded the first town in 1793, at the crossroads of two Indian trails.
Probably the most famous Asheville vacationer, after President Obama, was George Washington Vanderbilt, who came there in 1893 and liked it so much he had Richard Morris Hunt design a 250-room mansion, the Biltmore House, with an 8,000-acre backyard landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead.
The Biltmore is a still a big attraction for visitors who want to take a trip back in time to the Gilded Age, when the one percent could do whatever they wanted without feeling guilty about it.
Famous visitors to the Biltmore include Presidents William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, and novelists Edith Wharton and Henry James.
Asheville is the boyhood home of writers Thomas Wolfe and Charles Frazier and was a favorite vacation spot for titans of industry like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.
There are dozens and dozens of music festivals of all kinds in Asheville, the oldest being the Mountain Folk and Dance Festival founded in 1928. Now they include classical, gospel, world music, native American music, bluegrass, contradancing and many others.
Asheville has eleven microbreweries and has won the title of Beer City USA four times. There are five beer festivals including the Winter Warmer, the Best Firkin Beer Festival, Asheville Beer Week, the Brewgrass Festival in September and, of course, Oktoberfest.
It’s also the home of the Blue Kudzu Sake Company, one of four sake micro-breweries in the country.
The city has also had a lot of movie-related tourism lately, because it’s where they shot “The Hunger Games” and many other movies including Cold Mountain, Forrest Gump, 28 Days, Last of the Mohicans, The Fugitive, Bull Durham (using Asheville’s minor league stadium, McCormick Field), Dirty Dancing, Thunder Road, Grace Kelly’s last movie, The Swan.
The River Arts District
After settling into a spacious guest house at Brahma Ridge, I went with some friends to Downtown After Five along with a few thousand Ashvilleans — great music powered by a giant array of solar panels, food booths of every description, and — did I mention? — lots of great local beer.
The next morning my friends and I toured the River Arts District where the old textile mills have been repurposed into studios for artists, potters, weavers, jewelers and other artisans.
I was particularly impressed by the work of Jonas Gerard, a painter, sculptor and designer. He has a strong background in portraits and representative work, but he also creates marvelous abstract paintings and sculptures.
I was amazed at the great variety of forms he used, from tiny, precise landscapes to big splashy, colorful abstracts.
His goals are “to unfold the spirit of self-exploration by painting freely without restraint or criticism, to develop a deeper trust in one’s intuition and instinct as they happen, and to realize that letting go of set goals opens up a whole world of infinite possibilities.”
You can watch him create his works of art, but no talking, please.
We spent the whole day wandering around downtown, listening to street musicians like the diggeridoo guy, popping into funky little shops and dining at a sidewalk cafe.
It’s a really walkable city, with more than 30 art galleries, an art museum, a science museum a cultural center and even a pinball museum.
Back at Brahma Ridge, proprietors Rob Denton and Holly Berry had their outdoor stage set up. They host weddings and other events at Brahma Ridge but they’re also famous for their musical get-togethers, which feature first-rate musicians from Georgia, Tennessee, New England, and, of course, the legendary local talent.
We heard an eclectic mix of bluegrass, rock and roll, spirituals and all kinds of great music. And then around midnight Dana Rogers showed up from Chattanooga and rocked on into the wee hours.
It really was a blast of a trip, and I finally have to admit that there really are some cool places outside New England.
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Stephen Hartshorne is the associate editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a blog called ArmchairTravel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales. He lives in Sunderland, Mass.