There are two distinct vibes in Asheville for which one could easily draw a political parallel. But I won’t, because in the case of Asheville, I happen to enjoy both sides.
On one hand, there is the stately, slightly formal, somewhat wealthy conservative side. At the heart of this affluence is the beautiful 8,000 acre Biltmore Estate, featuring a 250-room “Chateau” built in 1895 by George Vanderbilt. This extravagant home contains an incredible collection of perfectly preserved 19th century furnishings, turn of the century “futuristic” inventions, and even an indoor pool and bowling alley. The expansive gardens, walking paths, rose gardens, and greenhouse are all spectacularly landscaped, with even a vineyard and winery on the grounds.
I have had the good fortune to tour this home in all seasons, and with each visit, I see things I didn’t see in previous visits. The tour guides and volunteers exude extreme pride and knowledge as they tirelessly answer my most trivial of questions. The patchwork colors of autumn across the Blue Ridge Mountains are mesmerizing as observed from the expansive balcony views. In spring, the Festival of Flowers is an olfactory delight when every room in the house gets filled with floral arrangements designed to complement the décor of each individual room. But by far the most evocative and my favorite is the Candlelight Christmas, where the only ambient light comes from candlelight, twinkling lights from dozens trees loaded with unique ornaments, and the warm crackling glow from the massive fireplaces in each room.
KEEP ASHEVILLE WEIRD!
On the other hand, there is the funky, artsy counterculture of Asheville’s next generation hippies, promoted on those bumper stickers proclaiming, “Keep Asheville Weird!” The entire movement, from the bohemian clothing styles to the freestyle dancing in the street takes me back to my childhood, riding through Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco “with flowers in my hair.”
A great place to spend hours immersed in this culture is the LAAFF, or Lexington Avenue Arts & Fun Festival that takes place in downtown Asheville over Labor Day weekend. I haven’t seen that many Caucasian dreadlocks since I left Thailand’s Khaosan Road!
“THE MOUNTAINS ARE CALLING AND I MUST GO” — John Muir
Just 30 miles outside of Asheville is the expansive Pisgah National Forest offering scenic drives, waterfalls, camping, hiking, and even fly fishing downstream from the Pisgah National Forest Fish Hatchery.
My absolute favorite kind of hike is a loop trail of moderate difficulty with varying terrain, between two to three hours in duration. I consider myself lucky if I can find one hike in an area that meets these criteria. However, the Pisgah National Forest forces me to make a choice.
I decide to go with the Park Ranger’s favorite, Cat Gap Trail to John Rock Overlook. It offers a little bit of everything I love; mountain streams, wildflowers, hemlocks, a ridge line, and majestic mountain views!
THE LONG AND WINDING BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY
Who doesn’t love a nice, winding scenic byway?
This popular 469 mile stretch of two-lane, initiated by Roosevelt in 1935, runs like a ribbon road at 45mph without a stop from Cherokee, NC all the way to Waynesboro, VA, crossing 168 bridges, 6 viaducts, 26 tunnels, and stretches right through the heart of Asheville. The highest point along the parkway at 6,053 ft is near Mount Pisgah.
Just down the road is the Pisgah Inn and Restaurant, ”the Peak of the Parkway,” a popular stop for motorcycle enthusiasts and campers alike. They have a really nice menu with good food alongside picture windows overlooking miles of view across the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Driving the Parkway in its entirety is on my “bucket list” So far, I have only made it from the Southern terminus to Boone, NC, but that’s what RV’s are for!
BATHE TO CLEANSE THE BODY, SOAK TO CLEANSE THE SOUL…
Since all that driving, hiking and “rubbernecking” usually leaves me with stiff muscles, no trip to Asheville is ever complete without a visit to my favorite day spa, the Shoji Retreat. I always go for the “Stress Less Package,” which includes an hour-long soak in the private hot tub, followed by a 50 minute massage.
Shoji offers the complete “Japanese experience,” and in true Japanese tradition, one must bathe first before you head down to the bubbling hot pool. So they start you out with the issuance of a soft Yukata ( Japanese cotton robe) rolled tightly into a bundle and slippers to snuggle into right after a steaming hot shower lathered up in Japanese Cedar scented bath products. There is a dry sauna if you need further heating not afforded in the 100+ degree hot tub. And if your thermostat heats up too much, there is always the 55 degree cold plunge pool.
All that soaking gets you all plump and pliable for a pummeling massage — Plenty of pampering to end a perfect Asheville getaway!