Welcome to Asheville. Population 87,236, small by American standards but blessed with more coolness than Leo winning his Oscar … finally.
Asheville makes it onto all the ‘best of America’ lists: happiest cities, best mountain destinations, best southern cities to live in, most gay-friendly cities, most underrated cities, best cities for artists and writers, best beer city and, of course, coolest cities.
Even my New York friends think so and around the world other people think so too. Asheville has seven sister cities, one each in Greece, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, France, Mexico, Russia and Nigeria.
So, I hear you ask, what makes Asheville different from other small towns?
Location. Asheville is in North Carolina wedged between the Blue Ridge Mountains (which really are blue) and the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s a paradise for campers, trampers, hunters and fishers.
A real downtown centre to walk around. Asheville is small so it’s easy to walk around but it’s not too small to have art deco architecture, including a beautiful town hall, 40 art and sculpture galleries, re-purposed factory buildings that house studios and theaters and restaurants, a Basilica that wouldn’t look out of place in Rome, gorgeous tree sculptures, and on summer Fridays a park where people gather to drum. Very cool.
Quirky shops. Asheville has a General Store, think Gore-Tex parkas, leather riding boots, tiny flashlights and gummy bears. Voltage Records with 50,000 bits of vinyl, three chocolatiers, a baked goods store for pets, an F.W. Woolworth’s from 1938 that’s now a showcase for 160 artists, and a smart covered galleria – The Grove – that’s the place to go for upmarket art, upmarket furniture and homeware or to visit a proper barbershop.
Soul. An indefinable quality but you know when it’s absent. Asheville has it in bucketloads and it might be because it has adopted sustainability and now has over 3,000 LED street lights and can claim to be the first US city to be a Green Dining Destination. History, architecture, friendly people and a decent public transport system with hybrid buses also help, and drums of course.
Easy to get to. Asheville is an easy place to get to. The Regional Airport is well connected to major hubs with several low-cost and mainstream airlines flying in and out every day.
Food. So much to eat, so little time: 12 hours in Asheville and here’s what I ate…
Breakfast at Biscuit Head in West Asheville, a separate little Main Street that is on the right side of grungy. Biscuits (aka scones) with choices of breakfast accompaniments (sausage, eggs, bacon etc etc) with or without gravy, or something a bit different (catfish, fried chicken, fried green tomatoes). Or a different take on eggs benny: an open faced biscuit topped with charred scallion cream cheese, fresh tomatoes, 2 poached eggs, hollandaise, roasted red peppers, and a tossed kale salad. All with freshly roasted Egyptian Goat Head coffee (very cool name) and the lightest carbon footprint as possible.
Mid morning coffee at Old Europe in downtown Asheville. Pretend that you’re there for coffee but really it’s because the coconut macaroon cookies are the best.
F.W. Woolworths. It’s not a five-and-dime store anymore but the lunch counter is the same – red vinyl stools, burgers, club sandwiches, coffee and old fashioned ice cream sodas.
Afternoon coffee at World Coffee Cafe in the historic Flatiron Building. Independent, ecofriendly coffee, nice NY cheesecake (but sadly no wifi).
For dinner, do like I did and take the advice of those who know. Try one of the specials at Sunny Point Cafe: shrimp & grits – a bowl of creamy chipotle cheese grits topped with blackened shrimp, roasted tomatoes, white wine Dijon cream sauce and crisp bacon was a.m.a.z.i.n.g.
The Sunny Point cafe is an institution (check it out on trip advisor). This is where you go for southern comfort food with a twist and craft beers on tap. You can have breakfast for dinner, dessert for breakfast or lunch any time you want.
A writer’s city. There are plenty of laptop tappers in cafes and on sunny park benches in Asheville and a few celebrated (dead) writers who spent some time there. F. Scott Fitzgerald mentioned Asheville briefly in The Great Gatsby and then went to Asheville to overcome his alcoholism. He returned with Zelda who was very ill by then and living in a psychiatric hospital. She later died in a fire in the hospital.
Asheville’s other most famous literary son is Thomas Wolfe. He was born in a 29-room boarding house that his mother ran which is now preserved as a historic site. But there are others. The author of Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier, is an Asheville native. His story is drawn from family and local histories and set in the Civil War and the North Carolina mountains.
So there’s Asheville in a nutshell. But don’t just take my word for it. There is so much more to love (and eat) in Asheville, go and see it for yourself.
Categories: An American Adventure