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Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, along the Appalachian Trail, the city of Asheville, North Carolina is surprisingly unknown to most international backpackers. But with its colourful culture and close connection to the outdoors, they should be flocking to this small offbeat town.

On a typical morning, you might find fly fishermen along the French Broad River making soundless, acrobatic movements to catch the hefty trout native to these waters. In town, shops open as street market vendors lay out their wares and locals congregate outside popular brunch spots as aromas of freshly brewed coffee, baked bread and fried bacon waft through the air. As you wander about, you are likely to see a couple of old-timers deep into a chess game while a street musician plays a handsaw with a bow.

River Arts District
A walking tour can start on the west side of town in the River Arts District, flanked by the French Broad River. Here, the buildings are brightly painted and even the cafes double as galleries. What was once a strip of abandoned warehouses is now a collection of art studios and performance spaces, almost all of which are open to the public for free.

Curve Studios, transformed from a punk rock club in the early 1990s, now showcases the work of a dozen or so artists. Its eclectic sculptures, paintings and textiles are divided into mini exhibits. Resident sculptor Greg Vineyard relocated to Asheville a few years ago from Los Angeles where he was a commercial artist. "I miss the money, but I'm a lot happier now," he said, explaining that Asheville creates a nurturing environment for artists. Currently on display are Vineyard's ceramic works -- misshapen animals and bowls built around the idea of "wabi-sabi", a Japanese aesthetic celebrating the beauty of imperfection and impermanence. In the workshop upstairs, you can get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the artists' works-in-progress.

A stone's throw from Curve is 12 Bones Smokehouse, the best barbecue joint in Asheville. North Carolina is famous for its slow-smoked barbecue served in a vinegar sauce, but while 12 Bones' traditional pulled pork is delicious, its tender babyback ribs are what keep locals, tourists, and even President Barack Obama coming back. When Obama took the First Lady and their kids to Asheville last year for a family vacation, the first thing he did was stop at 12 Bones. Be sure to try the menagerie of BBQ sauces, from the creative -- blueberry chipotle and pineapple habanero -- to the traditional -- sweet tomato and spicy vinegar.

After filling up on Southern comfort food, head to the Old Wood Company. This workshop makes gorgeous furniture from reclaimed wood. Many of the rustic tables and stools, for instance, are made from recycled bourbon barrel tops.

Next, cross the train tracks to find The Wedge. The upper level is an artist collective. The lower level is a brewpub where young people, old people, families, kids, dogs, everyone comes out to play. The sunny patio is adorned with industrial art including massive, rusty metal sculptures of gears, screws, nuts and bolts. Inside, the microbrewery's operations are visible from the bar. For a rich, flavourful pint, try Wedge's Belgian Abbey Ale, a bit nutty with some caramel hints. For a lighter option, the brewery's Iron Rail IPA has a nice balance of hops and fruit flavours.

Just across the river from Wedge is the ever hip Harvest Records. This thriving record store not only houses various limited release LPs, new LPs and CDs, it also hosts live music events year-round.

Northeast of the arts district is Asheville's energetic downtown area. In Pritchard Park, at the intersection of Patton Avenue and College Street, the Friday evening drum circle,  provides a pleasant soundtrack for an afternoon stroll. First, head to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, the historic Victorian home of the literary legend and Asheville native. Wolfe's autobiographical novel, Look Homeward, Angel, was set in a fictionalized version of Asheville. Take the tour, which includes Wolfe's piano parlour, sleeping porch, dining room, and the rooms in which his father and brother died.

As you continue your walk downtown, window-shopping is compulsory. Everywhere you look, signs urge you to "Love Asheville, Buy Local". It is not hard to do since this is the land where independent businesses rule.

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