10/17/2011 - Art lovers, brew fans will fit right in.
by Kathleen Scott
From all over the country, good news about Asheville and Western North Carolina gets around fast!
ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- The forested hills rolled to misty gray mountains. I felt a release as I looked into the view. This is why I travel. The feeling, and on this trip, Christmas shopping.
Asheville is an eclectic town surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. My husband and I had given each other an early Christmas gift -- time away for romance and relaxation before the rush of holidays. We planned to sleep late, sample farm-to-table fare and walk the winding streets to discover local art and find unique Christmas gifts for our family. As a bonus, we found local craft-brews that won Asheville the title of BeerCity USA for the third year in a row.
Asheville is an art-lover's town, known for the fine and the cutting edge. During our rambles, we found pieces from local artists in a range of prices and media, something for everyone. Most galleries ship, so all we had to carry back were memories.
Even a week wasn't long enough to see everything, but we found high points in the Grove Park Inn, River Arts District, historic downtown and Biltmore Village.
Grove Park Inn
The stone walls of the historic Grove Park Inn, built in 1912, rise amid hundred-foot-tall trees on a hill north of downtown. The inn experience itself is enough for many guests, who come to be coddled and enjoy the hotel's cafés and restaurants, shops, golf course, gym and exceptional spa.
The hotel is also home to two special galleries. At Gallery of the Mountains, I couldn't decide where to look first -- green pottery bowls, painted silks or brown clay cats -- until I saw Amolia Willowsong's exquisite necklaces and earrings, gemstones held in a shimmering weave of tiny glass beads studded with pearls.
Next door, we walked past whirling Wind Forest sculptures to get to the Grovewood Gallery. Inside, we found gift heaven -- 9,000 square feet of North Carolina's finest art and craft. My husband claimed a carved hardwood rocker with spokes that curved to support the back, created by Joe Godfrey, a retired surgeon who makes the rockers one at a time and sells them almost exclusively through the gallery.
River Arts District
The River Arts District is a former industrial area now populated by artist studios. Some are open daily, many are open on Fridays and Saturdays. The Odyssey Center on Clingman Avenue houses art and studios of more than two dozen ceramic artists, including Asheville resident Silvia Sabaini. The emotions on the faces of her sculpted people reflected life's mix of joy and concern.
In The Wedge building on Roberts Street, we found the only piece I bought for myself, a singing bowl thrown by potter Marston Blow. The first singing bowls were made of metal by Tibetan monks who used them in meditation. Mine is ceramic, adorned with sculpted trees. The hidden treasure is the bowl's voice. Run a wooden rod around the rim, and a rich pure tone swirls up, vibrating through the chest and head until thought is tuned to tone.
Walk any downtown street and you'll find distinctive options. For a more concentrated experience, the Grove Arcade on Battery Park Avenue showcases a world of art in a single block. Artists sell bright paintings, carved wooden bowls, whimsical pillows and handmade jewelry from street-side stalls.
Inside, Mountain Made Gallery carries the work of more than 80 North Carolina artisans. Other galleries offer jewelry, paintings, specialty yarns and pottery.
Next to the Fine Arts Theatre on Biltmore Avenue, Blue Spiral 1 gallery is three floors and 15,000 square feet of Southeastern fine art and craft. On our visit, a singular basket blossomed gray and gleaming, woven of reed and stainless steel cable. It was hard not to touch Matt Moulthrop's red maple bowls with burnished markings telling the story of life. And on one wall hung Olena Nebuchadnezzar's art quilt of an autumn forest scene, stitched in the richness of a Renaissance painting.
We spent a few nights on the south side of town at the Grand Bohemian Hotel, where we were spoiled by caring service and a sumptuous room with a large spa tub big enough to share.
Nearby we found two notable galleries. New Morning Gallery on Boston Street displays decorative home arts with whimsical and nature themes -- chests with painted scenes of bluebirds and forests, wrought iron headboards with a tree-twig design, colorful folk-art paintings and more.
Bellagio on Biltmore Plaza specializes in art to wear. I'm talking about spectacular, make-an-entrance women's clothes and accessories. I loved the flowing jackets and pants, but my favorites were the colorful raincoats, too much fun to wait for rain.
Art to eat
Asheville is known for creative dining. We celebrated our anniversary at a farm-to-table restaurant, table Asheville, for fine dining with a sense of culinary adventure. Every mouthful of my salad delivered a smoky fruity bite of ripe peach, smoked duck and piquant greens, my Carolina sea bass was tart and sweet with currants vinette, and experienced staff suggested good wine pairings from the diverse list. To top it off, molten chocolate cake inspired sweet dreams.
If you've ever wanted to visit "a sacred space for chocophiles," French Broad Chocolate Lounge on South Lexington Avenue is the place to go. Owner and chocolatier Jael Rattigan and her staff make everything they serve except the ice cream and beer. Fresh French-press coffee, flourless chocolate cake, chocolate truffle torte, brownies and to-die-for chocolate truffles in flavors such as pomegranate ginger, canela picante of bittersweet chocolate spiced with cayenne and cinnamon, and lavender and honey. All organic, small-batch, made with local ingredients and love. Lucky for out-of-town chocophiles the Lounge ships in warm-weather packs.
We left Asheville wanting to come back. Who knew Christmas shopping could be so much fun?