Randy Johnson Books

 

Three Perfect Days - Asheville

Randy Johnson, Hemispheres Magazine, 2002

In the early 20th century, writer and naturalist Horace Kephart turned up zip in his research on the Southern Appalachians. “Had I wanted information on Timbuctu, I would have had it aplenty. But about this rooftop of Eastern America, the libraries were strangely silent.” Not so today. National bestsellers like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek are evidence that, suddenly, the Appalachians are cool. Actually, they always have been.

When Kephart finally entered this rippled realm, he discovered that “people at these heights sleep under blankets even in mid-summer.” That climate drew the first tourists in the late 1800s. Summers are gentle (80 is record heat at the loftiest elevations), spring sparkles (Aaron Copland had ample inspiration for Appalachian Spring), and autumn glows neon.

The seasons, and activities that go with them, are the main draw, but these mist-filled valleys and evergreen summits also beckon because they occupy an eddy in time: Hidden away in the hollows, the music of the settlers and the lilt of local speech have survived. So has a handicraft heritage. Three perfect days in Asheville will bring you up-to-date with a place that’s still in touch with the past.

DAY ONE / For lodging, follow the example set by poet Sydney Lanier, among Asheville’s first tourists. He camped right on Richmond Hill, but you’ll stay at the Richmond Hill Inn. Book the Garden Pavilion suite, named for the oasis below its private porch, and awake to the sound of a waterfall.

Head downtown for breakfast. Amble east from the Wall Street parking garage to Early Girl Eatery, named for a type of cool-climate tomato. The fare reflects the city’s support for local growers. The fried green tomato sandwich with bacon is a standout. A nip in the air? Try the vegetarian version of biscuits and gravy seasoned with fresh organic herbs. Grab the “Urban Trail” brochure as you exit for a downtown walking tour. Second only to Miami Beach as the South’s biggest concentration of art deco buildings, Asheville owes its cityscape to a 50-year struggle to erase Depression-era debt.

Head back toward the car park (check out Paul Taylor Custom Sandals en route), and turn right up the steps to Battery Park Avenue. Take the Urban Trail’s crosswalk to trail stop 10—the Grove Arcade neo-Gothic public market, an architect’s vision in etched glass. With a fortune made hawking Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic, Dr. E.W. Grove commissioned the arcade in the late 1920s. The newly restored, resplendent structure re-opens this fall after 50 years as a federal data storage site. Peruse the arcade’s hand-carved gargoyles and griffins; then venture inside a landmark returned to what it was meant to be.

Two Urban Trail stops later, the Saint Lawrence Basilica illustrates how downtown got its distinctive start: In the 1890s, artisans worldwide were lured here by the building of the Vanderbilt family’s Biltmore Estate, still the United States’ largest private home. Spanish-born architect Rafael Guastavino settled here and built a Catholic church with North America’s largest freestanding elliptical dome. Survey the elaborately interlocking tiles.

On the way down Haywood, cross over to check out Ariel, an art gallery owned by a cooperative of mountain artists who take turns running the shop. Nearby is Malaprop’s, named by Publishers’ Weekly the nation’s bookseller of the year in 2000. Veer left on funky Lexington Avenue for lunch at Heiwa Shokudo, a hip sushi restaurant with a granola approach to inspired dishes.

The Urban Trail’s markers change by district: The angels represent the neighborhood of Look Homeward, Angel author Thomas Wolfe. One of the book’s settings—his mother’s real-life boardinghouse—is currently closed while fire damage is repaired, but the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Visitor Center wonderfully interprets the man who for a while actually couldn’t go home again after parodying his hometown’s provinciality. Continuing, admire City Hall, a deco icon by Douglas Ellington, and the Jackson Building’s gargoyles.

Go south for a few blocks (from trail stop 30) on Biltmore Avenue and take in the diverse arts and crafts at the Blue Spiral 1 Gallery and, farther down, American Folk Art. Cross the street to Laurey’s Catering and Gourmet-to-go and select a picnic; it’ll be delivered to the Richmond Hill Inn for tomorrow’s drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Then peek into Mast General Store, one of a chain of historic mercantile shops, just up the street.

You’re approaching Pack Square, the city’s heart. The Asheville Art Museum, pride of the Pack Place cultural center, is worth a look. (A painting by Zelda Fitzgerald hangs there.) Grab a seat outside at Salsa’s for Mexican-Caribbean cuisine prepared by Puerto Rican transplant Hector Diaz. The chips and salsa sampler will give you a taste of why he’s achieved national acclaim. Pair that with a local Highland Brewing Co. Gaelic Ale.

The Kress Emporium on the opposite corner is a crafts bonanza. Pause at the corner of College and Haywood to marvel at another of Ellington’s deco masterpieces, the 1929 S&W Cafeteria building. Turn left on Battery Park Avenue and head back to your car. It’s late afternoon; Richmond Hill and relaxation beckon.

When you’ve had a breather, drive to Rezaz, the newest Mediterranean dining hotspot. Arrive an hour before dinner to explore the streets of Historic Biltmore Village, once a neighborhood for Biltmore Estate employees but now an exclusive collection of shops. Don’t miss New Morning Gallery and its rich array of high-quality mountain crafts. At Rezaz, start with the “Reza Mezze,” assorted dips, marinated olives, and feta with warm pita. You’re in for a treat.

After dinner, drive to the Wall Street parking deck again and stroll into Jack of the Wood, a British Isles–style pub with an Appalachian twist. Have a Green Man Ale and enjoy house pickers Sons of Ralph or whatever Celtic or mountain musicians are on tap.

DAY TWO / Asheville calls itself The Land of the Sky, and there’s no better way to see why than to head for the Blue Ridge Parkway—“America’s most scenic highway” and most-visited national park. After breakfast at the Richmond Hill Inn, start early and plan on easy strolls to eye-popping views, or just hit the road and save time for a challenging hike on Grandfather Mountain.

With the picnic lunch from Laurey’s, drive north, pausing at the parkway’s impressive Folk Art Center craft gallery, home to Allanstand, the nation’s first craft shop. Higher up the parkway, the sunny warmth of Asheville yields to shade and a chill breeze. Summits and clouds coalesce. You’re bound for the East’s highest mountains. At the small Craggy Gardens Visitor Center, take the nature trail through a rhododendron tunnel to emerge amid the waving grasses and all-encompassing views of a mountaintop meadow.

If the Great Craggy Mountains remind you of Scotland, the towering evergreen forests near Mount Mitchell will evoke the Pacific Northwest. At milepost 355, turn left to the summit and stroll to the East’s highest view tower at 6,684 feet. More snow falls here annually than on Buffalo, New York.

An hour north, the rocky prow of Grandfather Mountain bulks above you. The Linn Cove Viaduct, a world-renowned span that arcs across the cliff-slashed mountainside, was opened in 1987 to complete the parkway. The Tanawha Trail takes hikers under the bridge. Three overlooks north, walk to an inspiring view at Rough Ridge. The greatest drop of the Blue Ridge plunges almost a vertical mile from Grandfather’s peaks to the foothills below. Go left at the U.S. 221 exit (milepost 298.6), and then turn right for a dirt-road meander through pastoral national parklands. Where the Tanawha Trail crosses the road (1 mile from the parkway), stroll in either direction and picnic in a meadow with a stunning view.

Motor on through colorful woods, and then go right at the next stop sign to N.C. 105 and the heart of the High Country. Turn left on 105 to Antonaccio Fine Art. Florence-trained Italian painter Egidio Antonaccio startlingly captures the grandeur of the local mountains.

Stay south on 105 and go left in Linville on U.S. 221 to Grandfather Mountain, a natural area with a global reputation. Drive to the dramatic first peak, but pause along the way at environmental habitats for deer, bears, eagles, otters, and cougars and at one of North Carolina’s best nature museums. Drive to the summit and cross the Mile-High Swinging Bridge—immortalized in millions of tourist photos. More ambitious? Hike over MacRae Peak, where ladders climb cliffs, and you’ll understand why early botanist/explorer André Michaux ended his own hike in 1794 certain that this was “the highest peak in all North America.”

Back in Linville, it’s only 90 minutes to Asheville via U.S. 221 and I-40. At Richmond Hill, hit the Jacuzzi, and then follow the tumbling stream to the main inn for dinner at one of the city’s brightest culinary gems— Gabrielle’s. Indulge in Gabrielle’s Grande, a five-course menu of fresh local ingredients and inspiring flavors.

DAY THREE / Rise early, and when you head out take along a change of clothes for dinner. From your now-favorite parking garage on Wall Street, walk to breakfast at Tupelo Honey. The wait staff is Asheville personified; the food is Southern-special. Try the shrimp and grits, and then head to Biltmore Estate. You can’t miss George Vanderbilt’s “summer cottage.”

Wind your way to the main house, a 250-room, 16th century–style chateau. Take the house tour—three floors showcase priceless works of art. You’ll recognize the settings of many movies, including Peter Sellers’ last film, Being There. Wander the adjoining garden before a winery lunch at The Bistro. Try the pecan-encrusted, estate-raised trout, and look out the window at the luxurious new 250-room Inn on Biltmore Estate.

For some serious pampering, you’ve saved the Grove Park Inn for last. First, stop at Grovewood Gallery, near the inn, for fine art and crafts. There is no better place in Asheville to shop for a souvenir that’ll last generations. The furniture is astounding. The Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa is a majestic stone structure akin to the great national park lodges of the West. From the valet parking area, look up at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s room above the porch—chosen so he could ogle the female guests as they arrived. Make your own eye-catching arrival.

If the high mountains and artsy ambiance haven’t put you in touch with why Asheville is a center of New Age spirituality, the new spa at the Grove Park Inn will. The spa’s long cavelike stone entry corridor—with its otherworldly music and water trickling over rocks—stunningly sets the stage. Settle beside a fireplace in one of the luxurious lounges and let serenity soak in. Have a massage; then make a circuit through the diverse pools of the spa’s subterranean-like waterscape, or laze outside in the sun with a snack from the spa’s café.

When you’re recharged, change into your eveningwear and emerge upstairs in Horizons for a four-course, four-diamond meal with a five-star view. Start with “a study of mushrooms,” locally grown, of course. Then have the prime fillet à la Toscana with 125-year-old aceto balsamico. Savor the “forest through the trees” chocolate dessert while the sun sets, the city sparkles, and alpenglow bathes an encircling skyline of summits. Afterward, retire to the lobby bar for a nightcap to sip on the porch. For years, Fitzgerald nightly wandered upstairs to his room from here. Tip a glass to him and to artsy Asheville. Now you understand why so many people are making these mountains a place they come home to again and again.

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