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.
Across the street from Wolfe's old house is L.O.F.T (Lost Objects Found Treasures). There you will find a mix of funky antiques, kitschy furniture and handmade paper products. Walk past the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium (a concert hall that has attracted the likes of Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Wilco in recent years) and into the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar. This lavish bookstore allows you to thumb through leather-bound classics while savouring Old World wines.
Asheville natives also take great pride in their local food. Tupelo Honey Café, a popular spot for breakfast, lunch and dinner, gets much of its produce and meat from local farms. Try Tupelo's sweet potato pancakes or deep-fried apples. More tasty treats can be found at Salsa's, a Puerto Rican owned Mexican-Caribbean restaurant serving fresh, sustainable ingredients. Sip Salsa's housemade ginger beer soda or hibiscus-ginger tea while snacking on shrimp and cheese fritters with avocado salsa. For your main course, try the slow-roasted pork with orange fennel sauce, served in a hot molcajete (a bowl made of lava rock) or the jerk chicken with corn-pimiento relish.
Drinking locally is another great Ashevillian pastime. Craft beer is becoming a major industry for Asheville, which boasts ten microbreweries, five annual beer festivals and a craft beer store ranked the world's third best beer retailer by Rate Beer in 2010. Impressive for a town of only 83,000 residents. The craft store, Brusin' Ales, carries every local beer it can get its hands on, but it also offers a collection of 900 beers from around the globe, making beer geeks giddy.
Brewery tours worth checking out are held by French Broad Brewery, Pisgah Brewing Company and Highland Brewing Company, all three of which host free live music events. All of Pisgah's brews - yes, even its bacon stout - are certified Organic.
Out of town
Plenty of Asheville's transplants (who move from Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Florida, Washington DC, even Argentina) are drawn to the city by its many outdoor activities. Since Asheville sits between the Appalachian Trail's Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains, hiking, climbing and mountain biking are popular local sports.
For a nearby, relatively short hike, Mount Pisgah is just 25 miles south of Asheville. A wonderful jumping off point for longer hikes is Hot Springs, North Carolina, just 35 miles north of Asheville. True to its name, the area is famous for its natural mineral waters which rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot Springs has become a destination for weary hikers and tourists seeking a relaxing retreat. Hot Springs Resort and Spa offers everything from mineral bath treatments to massage therapy. Just south of the town, on the Appalachian Trail, is Max Patch Mountain, its summit at 4,629 feet. Farther south, Clingmans Dome, in the Smoky Mountains, peaks at 6,643 feet.
If man-made sights are more to your liking, one of Asheville's most famous attractions is a stunning work of architecture. The Biltmore Estate is a castle resembling something out of Disney (in a good way). Built in the 1890s by George Washington Vanderbilt, of the prominent 19th Century railroad Vanderbilts, the Biltmore is an 8,000-acre estate with a vineyard, gardens, restaurants, spa, inn and cottage. The space is sometimes used for luxury weddings and luxury vacations. Self-guided tours start at $40.
Like your favourite hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Asheville is one of those places you do not want anyone to know about. At the same time, it is too good not to share, especially since sharing is part of the town's ethos. Warm, laid-back and always friendly, the locals make you feel like you belong. That welcoming atmosphere is perhaps the best part of this quirky southern town. No matter where you are from or what your interests might be, chances are, you will fit right in.