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Best of Catherine Poe

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I'm High on Asheville

24 June 2000

Slung like a giant hammock across the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville, North Carolina invites the visitor to take it easy, sip a little Southern sweet tea, and mosey, not hurry, through its hilly streets. This is the South at its best. For years, Asheville was one of America's better kept secrets. No more. Thomas Wolfe was the first to put his hometown on the map with Look Homeward, Angel, angering the denizens with his too truthful, but fictional portrayal. Then much later in the 1980s, Yankees discovered the area, initially as tourists to the Great Smokies and now as retirees.

Today the little city of nearly 62,000 fairly hums with its Saturday night shindigs on the village green, symphonies at the Biltmore Estate, art exhibits from New York's Whitney Museum, Appalachian crafts at the Folk Art Center, down-home cooking complete with grits and red eye gravy at the local cafes, and even a reincarnation of the Titanic's last dinner complete with wine at each course at Gabrielle's (for $65).

Here, sophistication rubs shoulders with the mountains and depending on what you are in the mood for, Asheville can meet your expectations. Thanks to the "outsiders" who have flooded into the area, support for the arts has grown from intellectual discussion groups at the University of North Carolina's Asheville campus to importing the ballet from New York.

But most tourists come to sample Southern hospitality, a cliche, but what better way to describe the friendliness of the people, the basic civility, the slow pace of the day, and the front-porch kind of mentality that encourages neighborliness. Every time I return, I find myself dawdling as both my pace and my speech become less hurried. That's the first reason to come to Asheville I tell my skeptical friends. This is what the South is all about.

SHIMMERING BEAUTY

Then there's the natural beauty. The pine-covered mountains shimmer blue-green in the morning, hazy and wispy, blue and lavender at dusk. No wonder they are called the Smokies. Ridge after blue ridge stretches to the horizon and while they may not be as high as the Rockies, these are mountains whose unspoiled beauty gives new meaning to the word high. In fact, when the movie director of Last of the Mohicans was looking for a location as pristine as the 18th Century Adirondacks that James Fenimore Cooper described, he selected North Carolina and not New York.

Surprisingly, the scenery is that virginal. Having hiked Mt. Mitchell, the tallest peak at 6500 feet, and picnicked atop Mt. Balsam at 6200 feet, I can attest to that. And just beyond, Cold Mountain, the peak that gave its name to this year's best seller, beckons. Then there are the waterfalls. Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, cascades of cool water tumble over cliffs. Some falls, like Sliding Rock, encourage adults and kids to do just that, landing in a swirling pool of water. Others, such as Looking Glass Falls, overwhelm most people with their thundering power, except for those few brave hearts who swim across the icy water to dive beneath the falls. Me, I settle for picture taking and leave the swimming to hardier types.

After a day on the trails, I usually head to Mt. Pisgah Inn. This restaurant is accustomed to grimy, bedraggled hikers like myself arriving for dinner and the views across the valley. One night I started the meal with smoked trout before moving to my entree, more fresh mountain trout, grilled this time. It was heaven. For $25, including salad, drinks, coffee, and tip, who could ask for more?

Other folks like their nature more tamed, but with a touch of elegance, and the Biltmore Estate on 8000 acres is that place. Ambling among the formal flower beds, under the grape arbor, through the glass conservatory, and along woodland paths, I am always amazed that there was a time when men like Vanderbilt could build and maintain an estate that once spanned 100,000 acres and a house that at 250 rooms is still the largest residence in the United States.

The current owners allow us for a $27.95 fee to wander through their chateau at our own pace, marveling at the estate's grandeur before heading downstairs to the austere servant quarters. A short drive from the house, across the manor's fields, following the river, takes you to the winery. Biltmore wine is quite good, but expensive, and the tour of the winery is not very interesting for anyone who has sampled California wineries.

GOATS AND ANTIQUES

For an antidote against folks who had more money than sense, a half-hour drive down to Flat Rock and poet Carl Sandburg's home, Connemara, will restore your faith in the human race. Sprawled over 250 acres of hills beneath Mt. Glassy and purchased for $40,000 in 1945, Connemara is where Sandburg wrote, his wife raised prize winning goats, and his children and grandchildren lived the simple life. His daughters wanted it to remain just as it was when he resided there, so the house has a cluttered, lived-in look. As you walk through (only $3), you almost expect the Pulitzer Prize biographer of Lincoln to look up from his desk and ask you to stay for dinner. After all, the dining room table is already set.

Still others are drawn to Asheville to practice that great American ritual -- shopping. And very good shopping it is. Antique shops abound from the chaotic Antique Tobacco Barn with its dusty, hidden treasures to Gilded Age, specializing in turn-of-the-century pieces. Nowadays, most savvy shoppers know that for incredible furniture deals, they must head to North Carolina, where whole towns are named for furniture makers, such as Drexel and Thomasville.

Other towns, like Hickory and High Point, offer acres of brand-name furniture at half the price. And all this value is within two hours of Asheville. Then there are the craft shops, some with rinky-dink collectibles and others selling quilts, pottery, wooden toys, woven dresses, and bent wood furniture made by mountain people as well as some aging hippies, who keep the long tradition of crafts alive.

If you are not fortunate enough to visit during either the third weekends of July or October when the Craft Guild sponsors the Southern Highlands Arts and Craft show, then head out to their Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 382. And, of course, there are the usual number of art galleries, displaying talented North Carolinians, particularly those who specialize in romantic-realism and authentic Cherokee art.

BELE CHERE

The trick to browsing around Asheville is to pace yourself. This city is built on steep hills and you may find your body craving water rather quickly. This is especially true during the last weekend in July when the street and music festival Bele Chere closes most of the downtown and sets up three days of non-stop food, crafts, and music. Bele Chere brings together some of the best bluegrass, hard rock, soft rock, bagpipes, and rhythm and blues I have ever heard, all scattered at a half dozen outdoor stages so that the music pulsates continually for twelve hours a day. And the best part? It's all free. Just book your room early for this one.

My favorite place, a B & B within three blocks of downtown, is the Flint Street Inn (704-253-6723) which at $95 a night offers cozy rooms with oak antiques and a delicious, bountiful breakfast with an emphasis on the homemade that could easily sustain you through the day. However, if money is no object, then the two places that are musts are the Richmond Hill Inn (704-252-7313), a lavish Victorian hotel (starting at $145 a night), and the historic Grove Park Inn (704-252-2711) perched on Sunset Mountain, a resort, complete with golf and tennis (starting at $119 a night).

If you prefer something more traditional, the Radisson (704-252-8211) is right downtown (starting at $109 a day), while the Four Seasons Motor Inn (704-254-5324) offers much cheaper (starting at $32) but adequate rooms, a short drive away.

You will never starve in Asheville. Fast food seems to be the mainstay of many Southerners, so you can get your fill at Foot Long Hot Dogs and Little Pigs Barbecue. But when I aim to keep the fat content down and still have delicious food, I head over to The Laughing Seed on Wall Street for vegetarian food that gives a new meaning to innovative seasoning. This restaurant's burritos with beans and corn salsa and chilled pumpkin soup will convert the most ardent red meat lover. Vegetarian can be good. And it's cheap. Ten to fifteen dollars, tops, will be the tariff. More upscale, with food presented to look as good as it tastes, The Market, also on Wall Street (704-252-4162), may set you back $35 to $40 a person, a bit much in Asheville, but for a last night celebration of your great vacation, it is the place to go. And don't forget to save room for the blueberry souffle. This is berry country, so this dessert is just this side of heaven.

CRANKY KIDS, CRANKY ADULTS

Chimney Rock, Bat Cave, Grandfather Mountain, and Blowing Rock are destinations within half an hour of Asheville. All are the kinds of places that kids love and parents find as much fun as their kids do. Who isn't thrilled to be scared to death by a descent into pitch black caverns? Or to stand at a precipice and realize it is only the wind that keeps you from falling? A day's outing will satisfy the most cranky kid.

But what about the cranky grown-up who wants to have some adult fun? An hour outside of Asheville, high in the Smokies, the Cherokee Reservation recently opened Harrah's, a VDL lover's delight. From slots to blackjack, the monstrous, gaudy cave of machines entices both novices, who like me lost $20 in 15 minutes on the slots (I should've read Scobe's book Break the One-Armed Bandits before playing), and experts who straddled three machines, pulling in winner after winner. When your money runs out like mine did, drive past the Tom-Tom Mall and the Papoose Moteland and visit the Cherokee Museum and Village, which has been recreated to tell the historically accurate story of this tribe. Harrah's may be what the Cherokees have become, but the Village reminds us of who they once were.

Depending on what you came to Asheville to do and see, you can have a great long weekend, but for the full Asheville experience, allow a week. By the time you head home, if you're like me, you will opt not to take I-40, but decide to meander the Blue Ridge Parkway that snakes along the spine of these blue mountains all the way up to Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley. The speed limit is a mere 45 miles per hour and in many places it is only 35. Now when was the last time you drove that slowly? That's when you know you are really on vacation.

Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.
Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.