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Asheville, N.C., offers lively culture, gorgeous landscapes, outdoor fun



4/19/2007 - Asheville, N.C., offers lively culture, gorgeous landscapes, outdoor fun

Blue Ridge Beauty, Asheville, NC  You cant go home again, Thomas Wolfe famously wrote in his lyrical, dishy novel Look Homeward Angel about his hometown of Asheville. But he did living out his last years in North Carolina even though some of the gossip revealed in his book (which was banned by the Asheville library for years) made him persona non grata among many of his old friends there. But heck, its not hard to understand why he returned. Picturesque (with those majestic mountains cutting into the horizon) and filled with eccentric, counter-culture characters, in a day youll get an inkling why Wolfe and dozens of other artists, would-be artists and people who like to hang with artsy types havent been able to resist the pull of this Blue Ridge beaut.

8 a.m. - 9 a.m.: Speaking of artsy, eccentric types, youll find many of them getting their kitsch fix first thing at Eaties Cereal Bar. The name says it all: you come here to munch on your choice of 25 different cereals, from the pure sugar pellets of Count Chocula and Lucky Charms, to a selection of multi-grain, multi-nutrient organic cereals and oatmeals. Local art covers the buttercup yellow walls, and the soundtrack often as not is slurps and giggles.

9 a.m. - 1 p.m.: Ascend into the upper class briefly with a visit to the Vanderbuilts illustrious Biltmore Estate. No expense was spared to make it the most innovative, high-style mansion in the U.S. when it was built in the 1890s (and it still holds the title of largest private residence in the U.S.) Renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt did the design; the founder of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted (of Central Park in New York City fame) oversaw the grounds; and the man himself, original owner George Washington Vanderbuilt, spent years combing the globe for magnificent stuff to fill the mansions 250 rooms. During his super-sized shopping spree, he purchased some of Edisons first lightbulbs, masterworks by Renior, Sargent and Whistler, 16th century Flemish tapestries, Chippendale furniture, priceless oriental carpets and 50,000 other objects. If you find you cant get your fill in just one day (a common occurrence), have your ticket stamped to come back the next day for $10.

Morning alternative
The Biltmore Estate is the big cheese among the citys attractions, but if youve already seen it, explore Central Asheville instead. Its a charmingly odd city which seems to change its outfit every block or so, thanks to the stupefying hodgepodge of architectural styles on display. There are arts-and-crafts-inspired homes, with expansive porches and drastically sloping roofs; Victorian townhouses; Neo-Tudor and Gothic Revival buildings complete with gargoyles; and an abundance of curvaceous, downright sexy Art Deco buildings. You can pick up a self-guided audio tour at the Asheville Art Museum to help you identify the homes and styles.

In the course of your wanderings, be sure to stop by the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, which includes the newly restored boarding house owned by Wolfes mother (it was burned by an arsonist, but has been repaired and reopened to the public); Malaprops Bookstore, a hub of intellectual life in the city and a great place to pick up an iced chai or get into a life-changing philosophical argument (its the only bookstore I know of that devotes one entire section to books banned elsewhere); and the impressive Romanesque and Gothic revival churches on Church Street.

1 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.: It's time to load up on carbs and cholesterol! Head to the Tupelo Honey Café for a lunch of updated, deep South classics, like shrimp and grits (here with goat cheese), collard greens made chic with soy sauce and toasted garlic, or crunchy fried chicken coated with crushed nuts. Breakfast is on the menu all day long, too, for those in need of a comfort food fix (or you can just go for Elvis favorite: a peanut butter, banana and mayo sandwich hey, youve crossed the Mason-Dixon line, after all).

2:30 - 6 p.m.: Enjoy a quick spin on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There are few drives that are as sublime, stately and gosh-darn gorgeous, with its ever changing panoram a of split-rail fences, vintage farmhouses, sun speckled woods and dusky cerulean mountains soaring up into the clouds. Break up your journey to nowhere with a stop at the Folk Art Center, at milepost 382, a non-profit organization selling and displaying Appalachian crafts.

Afternoon alternative
Go shopping. It certainly takes on a highbrow tone here, thanks to the historic, beautifully preserved enclaves devoted to this pursuit. You have a choice of bleeding your credit card dry at either the Biltmore Village the community that George Washington Vanderbuilt constructed as a baronial extension of the Biltmore Estate (it offers up about 25 stores, none of which are the usual yawn-inducing chains) or at The Grove Arcade Public Market. The latter has a Pikes Market-vibe (for those of you familiar with Seattle) and the setting is the fully refurbished, former roaring-20s arcade that was the citys first indoor shopping arcade. Youll find 50 stores here.

6 p.m. - 8:30 p.m. : Go all out with a meal where F. Scott Fitzgerald once feasted Horizons Restaurant, in the Grove Park Inn Resort. Continental cuisine, gracious, if formal, service and a stately setting this is where you go to propose, to celebrate a promotion, or perhaps just to cap off a perfect day in Asheville.

8:30 p.m. - on : You never know what sort of nightlife awaits in Asheville. Your evenings entertainment could consist of catching a drumming circle, political protest, concert or free film series in Pritchard Park. Or perhaps it will be a poetry reading or author talk at Malaprops Bookstore (see above). Somewhere in town theres likely to be music, with great mountain musicians often taking the stage at the Jack of the Woods Pub at the Gray Eagle Tavern. Just pull aside one of the fleece-and-flannel clad hipsters who live here and ask whats most interesting that evening (or if youre shy, pick up a copy of the local paper for listings).

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