Destination Wednesday: Asheville, As You Like It

The sprawling, classically elegant Biltmore. (All photos Bill Ballew.)

By Bill Ballew

The spotlight is hitting Asheville, and the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain destination is ready for its closeup.

Asheville has landed on no fewer than 17 top-10 lists this year, ranging from “quirkiest” to “best arts destination.” (Among the other top-10 appearances: foodie cities, spring drives, beer cities, music cities, retirement destinations, best places to live as a moviemaker, and college towns. The last two make perfect sense, considering that the beer, food, and music are already there.)

Asheville is getting props from everywhere. Actress Kristen Wiig, who spent the summer filming a movie in the area, went on Late Night With David Letterman and called Asheville a “little hippie town, where people who used to follow the Grateful Dead have moved to die.”

Actually, Wiig liked Asheville. She praised its “good restaurants” and weekly drum circles, and said she meditated in salt caves and a sensory-deprivation tank.

Wiig’s experience epitomizes Asheville, whose marketing slogan since the mid-2000s has been “any way you like it.” After decades of promoting itself as the jumping-off point for the Biltmore Estate, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the annual fall-foliage tours, the city has recast itself as a winning mixture of old and new, with funky craft breweries, eclectic restaurants, art galleries, music venues, and outdoor recreational opportunities.

Call it Boulder East, with biscuits and gravy.

A mountain hamlet until the late 1860s, Asheville boomed when the railroad traversed the Eastern Continental Divide. The railroad brought visitors, and the city quickly garnered a reputation as a tourist destination for the Victorian wealthy.

Lavish hotels sprung up, and George W. Vanderbilt, one of the Vanderbilts, bought 125,000 acres of what he called “the most beautiful place I have ever seen” and built a 255-room mansion, the Biltmore Estate. Biltmore was true to its name; it was the country’s largest private residence when it was completed in 1895.

Shades of the Vanderbilts: the splendid Basilica of St. Lawrence.

The Vanderbilt influence was felt throughout Asheville. In 1905, Spanish architect Raphael Guastavino, through his association with Vanderbilt, built the imposing Basilica of St. Lawrence, with what is reputed to be the largest freestanding elliptical dome in North America. The Grove Park Inn opened in 1913, with Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan delivering the keynote. Downtown became dotted with splendiferous art-deco buildings, more than any American city north of Miami.

The Great Depression hit Asheville hard, and the city became a virtual ghost town before showing signs of life in the 1980s and gaining steam in the 1990s. That momentum has accelerated over the past dozen years, making the city one of the country’s most vibrant, unique destinations.

While fall colors remain the main attraction for leaf peepers, nothing has generated more interest than the craft-beer industry. Asheville has earned its “Beer City USA” moniker, with more breweries per capita than any other American city.

Wicked Weed Brewing is nationally renowned for the 20-plus house beers it brews downtown, but it has lots of competition: Asheville Brewing, Burial Beer, Twin Leaf Brewery, Green Man Brewery and Hi-Wire Brewing all are Ashville born and bred, and interlopers like Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have chosen the area for their East Coast facilities.

Asheville's famously funky Orange Peel.
Asheville’s famously funky Orange Peel.

The other half of the food-and-drink equation is thriving downtown, where 250 independent restaurants offer a ethnic and exotic smorgasbord, with vegetarian and vegan choices galore. In the area known as “Foodtopia,” world-class chefs tickle the taste buds with their unique creations, many showcasing local products like fairy potatoes and reishi.

Those spots downtown not housing restaurants or breweries are filled by art galleries, craft shops and studios that spill over to the nearby River Arts District and the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Musically, the Pritchard Park drum circle creates a beautiful noise on warm Friday evenings, while Saturday nights mean Shindig on the Green, with old-time mountain music at the Pack Square Park’s Roger McGuire Green. Live music can be heard year-round at venues like the Orange Peel (which features many national acts), the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium and the US Cellular Center.

For outdoor sports enthusiasts, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park provide the perfect departure points for hiking and biking. Whitewater rafting, kayaking, zipline canopy tours, and winter snow skiing are all part of Asheville’s outdoor experience.

Sunset at McCormick Field.
Sunset at McCormick Field.

A more traditional sport, baseball, has a long history in the city. The Asheville Tourists, the Class A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, have called McCormick Field home since 1924. Although the grandstand was rebuilt in 1992, the remainder of the facility remains the same as when Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson dug their cleats into the dirt during post-spring-training trips. The Tourists’ signature event, Thirsty Thursday, features $1 beers and gives a little kick to languid summer nights at McCormick.

Lodging options range from campsite cheap to off-the-hook elegance. On the top end reside the Inn at Biltmore, located on the Biltmore Estate and internationally renowned for its hospitality and service, and the Omni Grove Park Inn, which offers unmatched sunsets and a world-class, $44 million, 40,000-square foot subterranean spa.

Maybe that slogan has it right. Asheville really does offer something for everyone, “any way you like it.”

Bill Ballew is a freelance writer based in Asheville.