What you'll find in this story: Asheville, North Carolina travel, Asheville favorites, Asheville restaurants, local Asheville secrets
1. Candy by the bucket
Who said the five-and-dime is extinct? There are seven Mast General Stores in North and South Carolina, where under one roof you can find coonskin caps, birdhouses, Radio Flyer wagons, and grape Nehis in glass bottles. The highlight is plucking peanut clusters and Atomic FireBalls out of barrels to fill up a one-pound bucket of mixed candy ($5.50). Built in 1882, the original Mast Store is two hours north of Asheville in Valle Crucis. It's right out of Little House on the Prairie, with sloping floors, creaky stairs, and a monstrous potbellied stove. A location opened in downtown Asheville five years ago. Hwy. 194, Valle Crucis, 828/963-6511; 15 Biltmore Ave., Asheville, 828/232-1883.
2. Transplants and wanderers
Asheville is full of characters who stopped by for a visit--while taking a road trip, perhaps, or hiking the Appalachian Trail--and liked the place so much that they never left. This explains the scarcity of southern accents: The city is in--but doesn't seem entirely of--the South. It's become a gathering place for outdoorsy, community-minded folks who love the quick access to nature but aren't willing to give up movie theaters, quality restaurants, and other trappings of a small city.
3. "The Beer Guy"
The newspaper of record--the Asheville Citizen-Times--has a regular column devoted to ales, stouts, and porters. "You can't make a bad beer and expect to sell it in this town," says columnist Tony Kiss, also the paper's entertainment editor, who started covering the beer scene when the Highland Brewing Company, the first of the city's four breweries, opened 10 years ago. "A lot of people are interested in something more than a six-pack of Bud." Highland Brewing Company, 42 Biltmore Ave., 828/255-8240, tours available.
4. Lincoln Log sleepover
The Pines Cottages, an old-fashioned motor court of 15 one- and two-bedroom cabins, is in a woodsy area just 10 minutes from downtown. Dating to the 1940s, the cabins were renovated when new owners took over in 2001. Most have kitchens and porches, and a few even have fireplaces, which can come in handy on chilly mountain nights. 346 Weaverville Hwy., 828/645-9661, ashevillepines.com, from $80.
5. Knowing where the sausage is from
Down-home favorites at the Early Girl Eatery include eggs with country ham, fried catfish, and biscuits positively drenched in gravy. If that's a little too southern for you, there are also plenty of healthier options, like multigrain pancakes and sesame tofu salad. The Early Girl makes its own breakfast breads, gravy, and sausage, and whatever wasn't made from scratch on-site probably came from a local farm or river. Simple wooden tables and chairs line a long row of second-story windows overlooking downtown's Pritchard Park. The coffee mugs are big, and the young, bright-eyed waitstaff keeps them full. 8 Wall St., 828/259-9292, biscuits with gravy $2.25.
6. The banned-book list at Malaprop's
In addition to titles of gay, lesbian, and transgender interest--and separate sections for graphic novels and local writers and poets--this very independent bookstore has several shelves of books currently banned by schools and libraries around the country. Gone With the Wind, Lord of the Flies, Hamlet, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and a few of the Harry Potter titles are all on someone's no-no list. Several times a week, the bookstore-and-café hosts author readings and live music. The bulletin board where locals post events, jobs, and solicitations is absolutely worth a look. One recent flyer read: 2chix lawn care--support the women's movement. 55 Haywood St., 828/254-6734.
7. Nobody wears a tie
Instead, there are lots of baggy shorts, fleece vests, cargo pants, Birkenstocks, and sundresses. Everything is casual--including the typical career path. Jobs take a backseat to leisure, not vice versa.
8. Thanksgiving dinner every Thursday
Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and all the other trimmings are served weekly at Asheville's favorite spot for home cooking, Picnics Restaurant and Bake Shop. The mom-and-son operation--owned and run by Ron Smith and his mother, Minnie--has a menu that changes only a little from day to day: wood-roasted chicken, collard greens, cucumber salad, mac-and-cheese. "I'll just never understand restaurants that don't use real butter," Ron says. There are a couple tables for sit-down meals, but the shop brings in a mostly to-go crowd ($27 buys a picnic basket for four with drinks, utensils, plates, and a tablecloth). It's impossible to escape without scooping up a slice of death-by-chocolate cake or blackberry cobbler from the dessert counter by the door. 371 Merrimon Ave., 828/258-2858.
9. Hazy days and quiet nights on the parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway snakes up, around, and over the Appalachians for 469 miles, connecting the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks. On the parkway, at 5,000 feet above sea level and 20 minutes south of Asheville, is the Pisgah Inn, where all of the 51 units look out over miles and miles of hazy mountain peaks. 828/235-8228, pisgahinn.com, doubles from $80.
10. Cloggers, hippies, and more
There's a drum circle, political rally, or concert happening somewhere all the time. The City/County Plaza is popular, as is Pritchard Park, in the center of town. It doesn't have flowers or grass. What it does have is gatherings--lots of them. Skinny dudes with dreadlocks and camouflage cutoffs mill about playing the bongos or reading poetry. In summer, the park hosts a series of old silent movies accompanied by live music.
11. Jugs that smile
The Appalachian Craft Center showcases work from dozens of regional artists. Particularly popular are the collectible "face jugs" (sculpted and glazed with quirky faces, $45 to $300), as well as brooms with specially carved and finished handles ($25 to $65). Kids, meanwhile, will love the simple wooden folk toys that were popular in Civil War times--and their parents will appreciate that they cost less than $5. 10 N. Spruce St., 828/253-8499.
12. Sliding Rock
First-timers worry about bruising their behinds on the natural 60-foot water slide that drops into a six-foot-deep pool. A more worthy concern: The water--runoff from the mountains in the Pisgah National Forest--usually hovers around 55 degrees. Once reachable only by a trail, Sliding Rock now has a parking lot and changing house, a metal railing to help people climb up, and even a lifeguard in summer. The ride doesn't hurt a bit--or maybe the frigid waters simply numb your nether regions. Pisgah Ranger District Information Center, 828/877-3265, visitwaterfalls.com, $1.
13. Too-cute Main Streets
With its large Victorian homes, concrete and art deco office buildings, quaint storefronts built in the World War II era, and even a modern, all-glass high-rise, Asheville's architecture is a mix of old and new that doesn't always jell. Within a half hour of the city, however, are a handful of small towns with historic districts--Black Mountain, Hendersonville, and Brevard, to name three--where buildings and the cast of characters seem little changed in half a century. In Brevard, Rocky's Grill & Soda Shop is covered in 1950s memorabilia and serves up standards like milk shakes, floats, hot dogs, and hamburgers. 36 S. Broad St., 828/877-5375, malt $3.80.
14. Fruit that sticks to the pit
Open seven days a week, the 36-acre Western North Carolina Farmers Market has a café, bakery, and ice cream parlor; a store stocked with crafts and preserves; a greenhouse with plants, trees, and a 45-foot-high waterfall; and, as you'd expect, an enormous selection of fresh produce. There's even an area set aside just for melons and peaches--the latter coming in clingstone (fruit sticks to the pit) and freestone (fruit separates easily from the seed) varieties. 570 Brevard Rd., 828/253-1691.
15. When your name gets called at Tupelo Honey
An Asheville institution right across from Pritchard Park, the Tupelo Honey Café certainly is eccentric. It doesn't take reservations, the hours are weird, and the line usually stretches out the door. The food is southern-with-a-twist, appealing to both sophisticates (spiced tuna with a rémoulade sauce) and classicists (peanut butter and banana on toast). Most dishes are $5 to $8, and everything oozes butter and spice. Closing time on Fridays and Saturdays doesn't come until midnight, and up to the last minute the place hops with folks treating themselves to late-night snacks of sweet potato pancakes, fried green tomatoes, and raspberry French toast. 12 College St., 828/255-4863.
16. The bowling alley in the basement
The mountains of North Carolina have embraced tourism for years--in fact, the local Minor League Baseball club is the Asheville Tourists. (Fanny packs and cameras are not part of the uniform.) The city's most famous attraction, the lavish Biltmore Estate, was designed as a primary residence but used mostly for escapes to the country by the Vanderbilt family. Styled after a French château, the 250-room Biltmore House opened on Christmas Eve 1895 with its own bowling alley, countless art treasures from Europe and Asia, and a banquet hall that has 70-foot ceilings. Many visitors make a day of checking out the main house as well as the 8,000-acre estate's expansive gardens, walking paths, and winery, with serene Smoky Mountain views all around. Self-guided rafting trips booked through the Biltmore are a reasonable $20. Reserve your ride for the day after you explore the estate--that way, your admission is valid for two full days. 1 Approach Rd., 877/324-5866, biltmore.com, $39.
17. The great barbecue debate
In these parts, barbecue means one thing: meat, usually pork, that's slowly smoked and seasoned over a fire, pulled off in shreds, placed in a bun, and served with coleslaw and deep-fried nuggets of cornmeal called hush puppies. But while chefs in the eastern Carolinas use a vinegar-based sauce, the prime ingredient in Asheville and the western Carolinas is tomato sauce. Naturally, both regions claim superiority. At the local mini-chain Little Pigs B-B-Q, you can order your barbecue either way. 1578 Hendersonville Rd., 828/277-7188.
18. The four-state view
An asphalt road twists up most of Mount Mitchell--at 6,684 feet, the highest peak east of the Mississippi--before ending in a parking lot that's a quarter-mile walk from the top. Hikers climb a lookout tower for views of four states (Tennessee, Virginia, and both Carolinas) and a look at the tomb of the mountain's namesake, Dr. Elisha Mitchell. A scientist and preacher, he died here from a fall in 1857. Mount Mitchell State Park, 2388 Hwy. 128, Burnsville, 828/675-4611, ncsparks.net.
19. 70,000 square feet of junk
In an industrial area between downtown and the Biltmore, the Antiques Tobacco Barn (the crop used to be processed here) hosts more than 70 vendors selling hand-carved headboards, rocking chairs, stained-glass windows, dining room sets, you name it. For that matter, the entire region is crazed for collectibles: There are 53 entries in the Asheville Yellow Pages under antiques--dealers. Downtown, secondhand stores around the corner of Walnut and Rankin Streets are filled with dusty old finds. Antiques Tobacco Barn, 75 Swannanoa River Rd., 828/252-7291.
20. Sons of Ralph
Asheville digs all kinds of music, and has more than two dozen venues for live tunes. No band is more beloved around here than Sons of Ralph. The lead vocalist, mandolin player, and inspiration for the band's name is 76-year-old Ralph Lewis, who's been playing "mountain music" in the region for seven decades. Ralph is accompanied by sons Marty (guitar) and Don (fiddle, banjo) and two "adopted children," Gary Wiley (bass) and Richard Foulk (drums). Their free-flowing mix of bluegrass, rock, and Cajun, with influences ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Hank Williams, has earned them best-band honors in an annual poll for four years running. "We don't rehearse, and we never have a set list," Ralph says with pride. They draw a good crowd for a regular gig at the Jack of the Wood, a smoke-free pub downtown. "I don't know if it's the acoustics, the audience, or what," Ralph says, "but whenever we play there, it's magic." 95 Patton Ave., 828/252-5445.
21. The hillbilly in the sky
Tunnel Road, looping through the outskirts of downtown, has a Red Lobster, Blockbuster, Applebee's, and a holdout from another time: the Mountaineer Inn. The welcome sign--which includes a giant neon bumpkin in overalls and a floppy cowboy hat, plus several letters in the motel name written backward--has been a city fixture for more than 50 years. There's a nine-foot-deep pool, and the low-maintenance clientele doesn't seem to mind that it's surrounded by blacktop and looks out over the traffic on Tunnel Road. Rooms are bigger than you'd expect for the price, a decent breakfast is included, the people are friendly, and guests are always welcome to grab a hot cup of coffee in the office. 155 Tunnel Rd., 800/255-4080, mtinnasheville.homestead.com, doubles from $40.
22. The really green grocers
Asheville's 70,000 residents are health-conscious enough to support two organic grocery stores--not tiny boutiques, but sprawling, where's-the-milk supermarkets, each taking up more than 20,000 square feet. Originally opened in a little storefront in 1980, Earth Fare now occupies a sizable chunk of strip mall in west Asheville, and it even has a sit-down buffet and a community room for health seminars and book signings. (A second Earth Fare debuted in Charleston, S.C., in 1997, and there are now about a dozen stores in the Southeast.) Greenlife Grocery, an all-natural supermarket from Chattanooga, Tenn., quickly gained a loyal following after opening a location last July in a former A&P just north of downtown Asheville. Earth Fare, 66 Westgate Pkwy., 828/253-7656; Greenlife Grocery, 70 Merrimon Ave., 828/254-5440.
24. Scenery made for the movies
Gorgeous Lake Lure, 30 miles to the southeast of Asheville, subbed in for the Catskills in Dirty Dancing. A few miles away from the lake is Chimney Rock, a towering spire with 75-mile views. For The Last of the Mohicans, Daniel Day-Lewis was filmed running through the surrounding park for the dramatic finale. Chimney Rock Park, 800/277-9611, chimneyrockpark.com, $14.
24. 100-year-old home base
A Bed of Roses, a B&B built in the late 1800s, sits on a quiet street in the Montford historic district, a 10-minute walk north of downtown. The innkeepers have decorated the five guest rooms with antiques they've been collecting for years. 135 Cumberland Ave., 828/258-8700, abedofroses.com, doubles from $119.
25. A pilgrimage to Pretty Place
Five miles off of Highway 276, near the South Carolina border, there's a YMCA camp with a chapel that even nonbelievers can appreciate. The Fred W. Symmes Chapel, an open-air building better known as Pretty Place, sits atop a rock ledge so that the congregation can find divine inspiration in a sweeping panorama of the green valley below, home to Jones Gap State Park. The chapel is sometimes rented out for weddings and other special events, but most weekdays anyone can drive up to admire the astounding view or say a prayer. "All kinds of folks come up here to reflect and enjoy the scenery," says Doug Gregory, associate executive director of the camp. "And every year it seems a couple of people who went to the camp years ago come back and get engaged at sunrise." YMCA Camp Greenville, Cedar Mountain, 864/836-3291, campgreenville.org.