Weekenders: Artsy Asheville

A creative haven with a thriving food scene in the Blue Ridge Mountains—what’s not to love?

By Jessen O’Brien

The beauty and promise of this North Carolina mountain town first became apparent to outsiders in the 1890s when wealthy families and businessmen traveled here for the restorative air. Many of them stayed and invested capital in their own burgeoning endeavors as well as in residents’ homespun fabrics, wood carvings and other crafts. By the 1920s, the city was poised for expansion—but in 1929, the stock market crashed, and the boom hushed to a whisper.

It took 50 years for the area to shrug off the Great Depression. At one point, unable to afford redevelopment, the city covered buildings downtown with modern facades, only to peel them back decades later and unmask a well-preserved collection of Art Deco architecture. Indeed, Asheville seems to have picked up where it left off 100 years before, and this time the creative scene is complemented by talented chefs who, like the town’s artisans, draw inspiration from the Appalachians.

Art and Architecture

His mother’s health may have brought George Washington Vanderbilt II to Asheville in 1888, but a passion for the landscape kept him here. He raised a country estate, the Biltmore, modeled on French Renaissance châteaus, in just six years, while incorporating modern elements such as a steel frame and two Otis elevators. With 250 rooms and more than four acres of floor space, the Biltmore endures as America’s largest home. Consider signing up for the rooftop architecture tour, which showcases areas otherwise off-limits to the public.

Like her husband, Edith Vanderbilt came to Asheville for family only to devote herself to the region. She supported existing weavers and woodworking enterprises by bringing them under the umbrella of Biltmore Industries. The factories now house the Grovewood Gallery as well as studios for 11 resident artists. To celebrate the gallery’s 25th anniversary and Biltmore Industries’ 100th year in this spot, a history tour debuted in April.

Grovewood hosts demos, and with pieces from more than 400 craftspeople on view and a sculpture garden, there’s plenty to take in on your own. Or spend an afternoon poking into studios in the River Arts District five miles south. At the North Carolina Glass Center, you can create an ornament, while pottery lines shelf after shelf at Odyssey Co-op Gallery.

To really get to know Asheville’s artists, consider booking a personalized Art Connections tour with native Sherry Masters. She’ll regale you with the story of the area’s craft movement while steering her Mini Cooper up steep forested foothills to visit artists at their home studios. Don’t be surprised if she ushers you along because you’re too intent on watching Grovewood’s Carl Powell plot geometric shapes for a stained-glass window or paging through one of Kristy Higby’s poetic art books. Higby’s husband, painter and mixed-media artist Mark Flowers, calls Asheville the land of objects. Scarcity once spurred much of the creation here, and many of the arts practiced in Asheville today meld aesthetics and useful application. In recent years, Appalachian self-sufficiency has been met with an enthusiasm for collaboration, and the unlikely juxtaposition has attracted artists from across the country.

Literature and Music

Thomas Wolfe, one of North Carolina’s most famous authors, grew up in Asheville in the early 1900s, and he cast his novels with characters from his life. His mother’s boardinghouse, a key setting in his writing, is now the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. Tours not only color in Wolfe’s story but also provide a counterpoint to the Biltmore by showing how many of Asheville’s other residents lived in the early 20th century.

Wolfe shared an editor with F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose wife, Zelda, spent time in the lodging. Before that, he stayed two summers at the Grove Park Inn, a Gilded Age retreat built in the Arts and Crafts style on a massive scale (imagine two stone fireplaces spanning 36 feet wide each). You can attend the history tour to learn more about some of the mischief Fitzgerald got up to; on the weekend closest to his birthday (September 24), the inn reverts his rooms to period décor. If you’re motivated to do a little reading, you can get cozy with a book and glass of bubbly at the Victorian-themed Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar nearby.

From buskers wielding banjos to barbershop quartets, you never know what performers you might hear while turning a corner in downtown Asheville. One of the main venues in town, the Asheville Music Hall, teams up with the offbeat Mojo Kitchen & Lounge on Sundays to offer a Bluegrass Brunch. There’s no cover and no fuss, just ample helpings of eggs and four hours of bluegrass broken up by well-worn patter. In the evenings, local bands versed in indie pop, African folk, soul, jazz and more keep the crowds swaying and singing at 5 Walnut Wine Bar, a few blocks away.

Food and Drink

Asheville’s surrounding mountains carve out dozens of microclimates, allowing farmers to grow a wide range of ingredients—giving chefs plenty to play with.

The family-friendly 67 Biltmore is a great way to start your day. Try the quinoa bowl if you’re looking for something light, the challah French toast if you’re not, and the Appalachian poutine if you’re lucky enough to see it listed. About a block north, bourbon-smoked paprika, small-batch bitters and other goodies are for sale at The Rhu, a café from five-time James Beard finalist John Fleer.

It’s a short zigzag from the Rhu to Table, whose New American dishes were some of the first in Asheville to have gained national attention. Another option: relative newcomer Local Provisions a few blocks down. Asheville chefs often highlight area farms, but this restaurant goes a step further. Not only can the staff tell you what came from where, including the bowls, but they might also share a story about one of the producers. Flavorful starters such as dainty roasted leeks compete with homey desserts like the apple fritter.

At Nightbell the plates are small, and it’s all too tempting to order a dozen. Chef Katie Button’s responsible approach to ingredients—rooted in the area’s waste-not philosophy—inspires courses and cocktails that joyfully echo one another. For example, the Rolling Pin, made with both cognac and bourbon, uses pecan syrup gleaned while candying nuts for Nightbell’s bourbon-pecan pie.

Bartenders rely on Appalachian herbs to mix cocktails at Sovereign Remedies. Or make like a local and head to West Asheville, where the Urban Orchard Cider Co. pours pints with none of the cloying sweetness typical of commercial brews. Packed with eight apples a glass and aged a full year, standout hard ciders include the habanero-infused Sidra del Diablo and crisp Ginger Campaign.

No matter how much you taste or sip, it’s hard to get your fill of Asheville. Even as the city wanes from sight, you may find yourself anticipating the next time the watercolor outline of the Blue Ridge Mountains will catch your eye—and your breath.

EXPLORE
Art Connections

828-779-6808; arttoursasheville.com; half-day tours, $65 a person

Biltmore

1 Lodge St.; 800-411-3812; biltmore.com; admission, $65; rooftop tours, additional $19

Grove Park Inn

290 Macon Ave.; 800-438-5800; omnihotels.com;  history tours, $10 a person

Thomas Wolfe Memorial

52 N. Market St.; 828-253-8304; wolfememorial.com; admission, $5

SHOP
Grovewood Gallery 

111 Grovewood Rd.; 828-253-7651; grovewood.com; history tours, Wed.–Sat., Apr.–Dec. at 1 p.m., free

North Carolina Glass Center 

140 Roberts St., Suite C; 828-505-3552; ncglasscenter.org; classes, from $60 a person

Odyssey Co-op Gallery 

238 Clingman Ave.; odysseycoopgallery.com; 828-285-9700

PLAY
Bluegrass Brunch

55 College St.; 828-255-7767; mojokitchen.biz; brunch for two, $20*

5 Walnut Wine Bar

5 Walnut St.; 828-253-2593; 5walnut.com; drinks for two, $20

RELAX
Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar

Grove Arcade, 1 Page Ave., Suite 101; 828-252-0020; grovearcade.com; drinks for two, $30

Sovereign Remedies

29 N. Market St.; 828-919-9518; sovereignremedies.com; drinks for two, $20

Urban Orchard Cider Co.

210 Haywood Rd.; 828-774-5151; urbanorchardcider.com; flights of four, $9

EAT
Local Provisions

77 Biltmore Ave.; 828-424-7815; localprovisionsasheville.com; dinner for two, $70

Nightbell

32 S. Lexington Ave.; 828-575-0375; heirloomhg.com; dinner for two, $60

The Rhu 

10 S. Lexington Ave.; 828-785-1799; the-rhu.com; breakfast for two, $15

67 Biltmore

67 Biltmore Ave.; 828-252-1500; 67biltmore.com; breakfast for two, $15

Table

48 College St.; 828-254-8980; tableasheville.com; dinner for two, $60

STAY
RCI® affiliated resorts near Austin include:
Willow Valley Resort 0129

These cabins in the woods are equipped with conveniences such as a dishwasher and television. 354 Bairds Creek Rd., Vilas

Fontana Village 1758

On-site stables mean you can arrange to go horseback riding. U.S. Hwy. 29, Fontana Dam

Fairway Forest at Sapphire Valley 3420

At the end of the day, head up to the rooftop sundeck to watch the sunset. 350 U.S. Hwy. 64 W., Sapphire

Smoketree Lodge 2608

Relax in this rustic resort’s indoor whirlpool. 11914 Hwy. 105 S., Banner Elk

The Highlands at Sugar 2518

One- and two-bedroom condos in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. 2173 Sugar Mountain Dr., Sugar Mountain

For member reviews and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

Search Now

Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Asheville include:
Bunn House

An outdoor hearth lit nightly and strands of twinkle lights draw guests outside, while amenities such as steam showers and white-noise machines keep this century-old property modern. 15 Clayton St.; 828-333-8700; bunnhouse.com; doubles from $369 a night

  • *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Fall 2017