As soon as roads could bring them, health-conscious travelers began flocking to this mountain retreat for its curative sulfur springs and crisp mountain air. These days Asheville stands out as a haven for progressive and creative spirits: artists and craftsmen, New Agers, musicians, retirees, environmentalists.
It’s also a terrific base for outdoors enthusiasts, with outstanding hiking, whitewater rafting, and golfing. This sophisticated city of 70,000 blends a laid-back country vibe with urbane cultural attractions and striking architecture. In addition to the hallowed Biltmore Estate (see next page) and the Arts and Crafts–inspired Grove Park Inn (see p. 357), downtown boasts the greatest concentration of art deco architecture in the Southeast, some 170 buildings.
Following on the heels of George Vanderbilt II (who completed the Biltmore in 1895) came such Roaring ’20s movers and shakers as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda. Native son Thomas Wolfe’s semiautobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel was set in his mother’s boardinghouse and offered a thinly veiled glimpse into the somewhat scandalous lives of Ashevillians. The book was banned from the local library and Wolfe was persona non grata for years. Learn about the author at his boyhood home, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, where a visitors center displays many of his personal belongings.
Downtown Asheville’s key cultural draw, Pack Place, contains the Asheville Art Museum, Colburn Earth Science Museum, YMI Cultural Center (which celebrates the city’s African American community), and the much-acclaimed Diane Wortham Theatre.
Follow the 1.7-mile self-guided Urban Trail to see over 30 sculptures that tell the story of Asheville’s history, and browse dozens of art galleries and offbeat coffeehouses, including the one at Malaprops, a beloved and free-spirited independent bookshop. And don’t miss the Grove Arcade; one of the country’s first indoor marketplaces, it contains dozens of specialty food shops, eclectic restaurants, and fine crafts galleries.
Spend your nights at the Richmond Hill Inn, a regal 1889 Queen Anne mansion converted into a cushy hideaway in 1989. High on a bluff above the French Broad River, this 37-room compound recalls the Gilded Age with its cottages set around a croquet court, and swank guest rooms, many with fireplaces and whirlpool tubs. Stroll through the Parterre Garden, admiring the waterfall, before dining at the inn’s elegant restaurant, Gabrielle’s.
WHERE: 130 miles northwest of Charlotte.
WOLFE MEMORIAL: Tel 828-253-8304; www.wolfememorial.com. When: closed Mon.
PACK PLACE: Tel 828-257-4500; When: closed Mon.
MALAPROPS: Tel 828-254-6734; www.malaprops.com.
GROVE ARCADE: Tel 828-252-7799; www.grovearcade.com.
RICHMOND HILL INN: Tel 828-252-7313; Cost: from $220 (off-peak), from $415 (peak); prix fixe dinner $58.
BEST TIMES: spring for weather, rafting, and golfing; late July for Bele Chere festival; early Aug for Mountain Dance & Folk Festival (www.folkheritage.org); last week of Oct for foliage.