North Carolina Mountain High: Asheville’s Eternal Yet Evolving Appeal

January 21, 2010 at 10:31 am | Posted in North Carolina, United States | 1 Comment
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by Marcia R. Levin

When you’ve lived most of your life in flat South Florida as I have, even driving over a moderately steep bridge can get you going. But if you are really drawn to high spots, I’ve found fewer more absolutely exhilarating than the wonderful green mountains and wooded hills of western North Carolina, and that’s one reason I’m constantly drawn back.

There are plenty of reasons why Asheville and the surrounding country have been getting such attention of late as a destination and even a fine place to move to. Besides those rolling hills, they include a mild climate, inviting mountain resorts, historic sites, world-class golf, and a funky, well-respected arts colony. The region appeals to families, singles, seniors, outdoorsy types, and a variety of lodging and dining at all price points make it doable on just about any budget. Folks from the Southeast states account for most visitors, but every year they see more from New York, Washington, DC, Chicago, and beyond.

I first visited North Carolina as a camp counselor fresh out of college, and reveled in the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains both then and a decade or so later when I returned with a husband and three young sons. The second time around, family-friendly resorts and attractions made it memorable for our crew. As the boys grew older, we sent them to camp here, and when we picked them up and dropped them off, we’d revisit popular attractions like Grandfather Mountain (now there’s a  famous mile-high swinging bridge); George and Edith Vanderbilt’s extravagant, Belle Époque Biltmore Estate; and the Penland School of Crafts, where I’d stock up on some amazing pottery.  We’d always have a ball at amusement parks like Tweetsie Railroad and loved the fact that the mountain air was refreshingly cool even in August.

On my last visit, this past summer, I spent several nights in some classic local inns. Grove Park Inn (doubles from $280), minutes away from downtown Asheville, has been popular with travelers since 1913, when it opened as a restaurant, then became a small seasonal hostelry; its illustrious guest list includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, Margaret Mitchell, Bela Bartok, Harry Houdini, Will Rogers,  Eleanor Roosevelt and various presidents (most recently Barack Obama).  Today Grove Park is open year round and sprawls, with 512 rooms, a $65 million, 18-hole golf course, and a battery of wonderful rockers stretched across the flagstone terrace out front. A half hour’s drive away in the Yancy County town of Burnsville (whose Mount Mitchell is claimed by locals to be the highest point in the eastern U.S.), I also spent a couple of days at lovely, posh, and much newer Mountain Air Lodge (from $200), with its gulp-inducing winding roads, outrageous views around every turn and beautiful private vacation homes in addition to the main lodge.

I also had a swell time in Banner Elk, a charmer of a town where golf clubs like Elk River and Hound’s Ear make it a duffer’s mecca (the former, popular with Americans from all over the country but especially from Florida, has as its centerpieces a Jack Nicklaus course and an equestrian center). The dining here is tops, too; I had a tasty dinner of mountain trout one night at lovely Jackelope’s, on the way up to Beech Mountain, and later enjoyed some mighty savory Spanish-style tapas at Duzda’s downtown. Lees-McRae College is chockablock with cultural offerings year-round – though you often need to book well ahead, especially during the warm season.

One of my favorite things to do in the Asheville area is the 80-year-old Penland School of Crafts, key to the lovely glasswork and pottery which have made the region famous.  Founded as an economic development project, Penland teaches crafts to more than 1,200 students a year, and its gallery sells work by area artists, students, and faculty; this last time around I was excited by the whimsically quirky pottery of Ronan Kyle Peterson from Chapel Hill and whimsical colored porcelain created and salt-fired by local Jane Peiser.

I even went back up Grandfather Mountain and eyed that swinging bridge, though I ultimately ckickened out of crossing. And I didn’t get back to the Biltmore Estate, unfortunately, which was too bad because I wanted to check out the Biltmore Winery — about quarter-century old and one of the most visited in the United States.

But no matter — I know I’ll be back here soon again. Because there’s just something about Asheville…

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photos: Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, Penland School of Crafts


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