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Asheville, N.C.: Bright Lights, Small City

By Carolyn Spencer Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 1999; Page E08
   


WHAT/WHERE: A metropolis of 67,000 in mostly rural western North Carolina, Asheville is a small city that satisfies large appetites: It's home to the 250-room, chateaulike Biltmore Estate, the nation's largest private house open to the public. Surrounded by the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountain ranges, it's also got Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. And downtown Asheville has one of America's largest still-intact collections of art deco architecture. On a smaller scale, Asheville is known for its fine arts and crafts and as a magnet for New Age aficionados and soft-adventure-seekers headed for nearby mountain biking, rafting, golfing and kayaking spots.

SURF-REPLACEMENT RATING: **

This isn't one of those let's-hit-the-beach-with-a-beer-cooler kind of places. There's just too much going on. The biggest surf you're likely to come across are the little white wavelets under the Route 40 bridge while you're kayaking on the French Broad River (except in spring and fall, during white-water "season"). Most of Asheville's action is geared more to adults than kids, which makes this city in the country a terrific summer retreat for couples.

BEING THERE: Alternately worldly and rough-edged, Asheville's an intriguing amalgam of styles--and the locals like it that way. "Asheville is the most bizarre assortment of conservative Appalachian folks mixed with transplants from everywhere to the largest lesbian community per capita in the United States to . . . hippiedom extraordinaire to unbelievable creativity and talent in the arts," says arts administrator Kate Fisher, a transplant from the Washington area. "It's a crazy place."

Touring the Biltmore Estate (1-800-543-2961), a veritable Victorian-era theme park, is one of those must-do sightseeing excursions. The $29.95 entrance fee, which includes a self-guided tour of the mansion, access to the gardens and a stroll through the winery, seems breathtaking at first. And the empty-your-wallet syndrome only escalates (though guides explain that admission is costly because Biltmore, uniquely, relies on no public funding to operate and, in fact, paid $5.6 million in taxes last year!). A guided audio tour is $4. A paperback copy of "A Guide to Biltmore Estate" is $10. Tours are self-propeled, sort of--on the Friday I visited, the pedestrian gridlock was on a par with winter holiday season at Disney. If you want a guide, you guessed it, you can pay extra.

There are numerous "boutiques"; at the house there's a general store, by the greenhouses there's a garden emporium, at the winery is, um, a wine shop. There are several on-site restaurants. Of these, the Stable (casual fare) and Bistro (nouvelle cuisine) are excellent; my meal at the Bistro was the best part of the day. On your way out, stop at the Biltmore Village, a onetime residential neighborhood whose architecture replicates the estate's. Now it's got shops and cafes.

A crowd claustrophobe, I veered the next morning in the opposite direction, heading down the French Broad River on a solitary kayaking expedition. The river was calm, the breeze mostly gentle, and my only companions were tortoiseshell-colored ducks that occasionally paddled past. The river winds through the Biltmore Estate, offering largely pastoral views.

Downtown Asheville is a real working city with a funky edge. Chic couples dine at sidewalk cafes along Pack Place while a guy wearing a tatty backpack picks through a trash can. Three kids with dreadlocks sit, cross-legged, on the sidewalk; one holds the chain-link leash of a scruffy sheepdog. Downtown is clustered into neighborhoods, all within easy walking distance. Art and craft boutiques are omnipresent. In Battery Hill, don't miss the boutiques tucked into tiny Wall Street--and New Market, the city's best restaurant. North Lexington is for hip, cutting-edge shoppers; highlights there include Instant Karma, an emporium selling slinky wear, patchouli and Lay's potato chips; Downtown Books, for secondhand stuff; and Heiwa Shokudo for sushi.

The town's center square, where Pack Place crosses Biltmore Avenue, is also restaurant central; Salsa's, with Mexican-Caribbean fare, is eccentric (try the wild boar empanadas). Locals rave about the pizza at Barley's Taproom & Pizzeria. There are also some terrific shops along this stretch of Biltmore Avenue; Ad-Lib Body & Soul has trendy women's fashions and the merchandise hanging at the Junior League's secondhand store (most priced no higher than $12) features so many designer labels it could very well be a "gently worn Macy's." A cool stop is the recently restored Fine Arts Theatre, an art house cinema whose concession stand sells cappuccino and Guinness on draft. There's also an interesting music scene, and clubs to try include Be Here Now and Tressa's.

LODGING/BUDGET: Asheville is 480 miles from Washington, a daunting 10-hour drive. (I was able to snare a $216.50 round-trip ticket on US Airways.) For couples, it's an ideal long-weekend, under-$1,000 destination (more if you fly, and minus much of the crowds if you arrange a midweek stay). Motoring travelers may want to combine a visit to Asheville with a few days at one of the region's lake resorts, such as Lake Lure or Lake Toxaway.

Lodging choices vary wildly--plenty of chain hotels and motels on the outskirts--but the best way to soak up the atmosphere is to stay at a bed-and-breakfast in Montford, a turn-of-the-century historic residential neighborhood. I chose the Lion & the Rose (1-800-546-6988, doubles start at $135), a five-room inn that was charming and centrally located. If you want a full-service hotel, try Grove Park Inn (1-800-438-0050; doubles start at $220). To arrange kayaking or rafting trips, call Southern Waterways (1-800-849-1970). For general information, call 1-800-280-0005 or try www.ashevillechamber.org.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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