This is the third in my series about my girlfriend getaway to Asheville, North Carolina.
Besides visiting the Biltmore, Asheville has plenty of things to do. My friend Kathryn and I were only there for two days, so we only time for an introduction to a city that reminded me a lot of Portland, Oregon, in its attitude and orientation.
Our first stop: The River Arts district on the south side of town. We grabbed a cup of coffee at the cute Clingman Coffee to immerse ourselves in the Asheville scene first. Whereas the people in Charlotte were remarkably well-groomed, Asheville residents dress more like you’d see in a hipster neighborhood in a large northern city – only with the requisite Southern charm.
On the second Saturday of each month, the galleries in the River Arts district have open houses where you can meet the artists. Talk about Southern hospitality: Many galleries had serious food spreads too.
We walked around the galleries, taking it all in. As befits a smaller town, the scene seemed very friendly with the artists eager to talk to us and each other.
The highlights included the colorful patterns at Jonas Gerard Fine Art and the community-oriented Odyssey Center for Ceramic Arts, where individual artists have their own mini-studio space. We came away without seeing anything we’d like to buy – unusual for us on a girlfriend trip, and perhaps representative of a smaller, more isolated market. But then again, both of us commented on how we’d been burned by buying artwork that our husbands didn’t like. Maybe we’re learning something in our old(er) age.
Thomas Wolfe: The Old Kentucky Home
In the afternoon, we headed to downtown Asheville to visit the Thomas Wolfe boardinghouse, known as the Old Kentucky Home. The author, who included thinly described descriptions of the boarders and neighbors in the book “Look Homeward, Angel,” grew up in the home (called Dixieland in the book).
The Old Kentucky Home tour is one of the best bargains in town: 90 minutes for just $1. Much of the furniture in the house is original. There’s also a small museum that gives more information about Wolfe’s life and career.
My grandmother rented out rooms to boarders when my father was young, so I found it interesting to do the tour. Asheville turned its back on Wolfe after the book was published, although as he won critical acclaim, being in the book became more of an honor than a disgrace. He died a few weeks before his 38th birthday (You Can’t Go Home Again was one of two books published after his death).
Besides literature and an artistic spirit, Asheville is gaining acclaim for its breweries. The city has more breweries per capita than any other, a fact that make its scruffy residents very proud (and the tourist nickname Beer City USA). On the sunny March day we visited, in the middle of college basketball playoffs, pubs were packed and plenty of beer was going down.
To get an idea of what kind of suds Asheville has brewing, we signed up for the Brews Cruise, a three-hour walking tour of four local breweries. The tours, which started in Asheville in 2006, have proved wildly popular; so much so that the founders have brought them to other cities, including Charleston, Atlanta and Denver.
Our tour started and ended at Asheville Pizza & Brewery, where Kathryn and I had the foresight to get something to eat (the tour does NOT serve food, so make sure you lay down a base before you start, or you will get tipsy quickly). Our guide, John, worked full-time at Green Man brewery, and he had lots of knowledge about both beer and Asheville’s brewing scene.
While the Brews Cruise costs a pricey $45, you do get plenty to drink. At each of the four breweries we visited, we received four generous samples – with no dump bucket. That’s a lot of beer. If you’re not a real hops fan, you won’t get your money’s worth.
Our tour started at Craggie, home of the jolly giant pictured at the top of this post. Our samples included a porter spiced with chipotle and an IPA flavored with mangoes. Some of the flavors were a little strong for me, but with no dump bucket. That’s when I realized that this tour would test my tolerance.
At our second stop, the Green Man ales, I got to know the other people on the tour. Most of them were couples, some of which had planned their trip to Asheville around the Brews Cruise. One Greenville woman bought the tour as a birthday surprise for her husband, who didn’t know where they were going until they hit the road. All of the other people on the tour loved beer far more than Kathryn and I did, with a few home brewers in the mix.
By our third brewery, the Lobster Trap, I was starting to get tipsy. We hadn’t checked into the hotel yet, so we bailed on the tour a little early. People were definitely showing their drink; we hoped that none of them were driving in the next hour or so.
For a city its size, Asheville has lots of independent restaurants. We had reservations at Cúrate, a tapas restaurant with an interesting backstory. Chef Katie Button had originally planned on getting a PhD in neuroscience from the NIH in Bethesda. Instead, she dropped out and got a job at Minibar, Jose Andres’s hot restaurant in Washington DC. From there, she became the first American server at El Bulli, the most famous restaurant in the world, and eventually did a seven-month culinary internship there. From Spain, she returned to Asheville and opened Cúrate with her husband and her parents.
The food at Cúrate is influenced by Barcelona, where I’ve had some amazing meals. My favorite dish at Cúrate had to be the garlic shrimp, which came highly recommended. Kathryn loved the beet salad. And we both scooped up every morsel of the espuma de chocolate. Katie Button was nominated in this year’s Rising Chef category of the James Beard awards. If you want to catch her before she’s famous, go to Cúrate and get the tasting menu.
Asheville has some great bars and lounges, but we were exhausted from our day so we didn’t go out. We had booked at the Princess Anne Bed & Breakfast, an inn in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood. Their master suite has a pullout sofa and a kitchenette, making a good choice for a family.
Like the luxury bed and breakfast properties I stayed at in Napa, the Princess Anne walked the line between historic and modern. The decor wasn’t too fussy, and the furniture definitely leaned more toward modern comfort than futzy Victorian. I’m really starting to enjoy these type of properties, especially when they come with staff as friendly as the people we met here. The trend has changed how I feel about bed and breakfasts.
A spa treatment at the famous Grove Park Inn would have been the capstone of our time in Asheville, but unfortunately, the historic hotel was already booked. Next time. But Asheville isn’t just for girls; I think my husband would have also enjoyed a weekend here, especially if more brewery hopping was on the agenda.
My trip was sponsored by the North Carolina Governor’s Conference on Tourism, but my opinions remain my own.