“Good morning! How are ya today?” a fleece-clad stranger called out to me, grinning and waving feverishly. It was 8:00 a.m. and I was sitting on my porch in Asheville, North Carolina, drinking a cup of coffee and watching people pass by. Coming from New York City (i.e., the land where strangers do not speak to you unless they’re mentally unstable or asking for directions), I was taken aback by this random act of kindness, yet pleasantly surprised to learn this was just the “Asheville way.” While the flight to Austin takes the cake for the “friendliest flight” that I have been on, Asheville is, without a doubt, the friendliest city I have visited.
With a population of 83,400, Asheville sits in the lap of the fogbound Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. Best known for its climate, artsy culture, and unassuming southern charm, the city has positioned itself as one of America’s best-kept cosmopolitan secrets. Home to several colleges, a growing number of retirees, and a fair share of hippies, artists, and antique lovers, it boasts an eclectic feel all its own.
The Cherokee were the first to be charmed. The land was little more than a quiet valley surrounded by sweeping mountain vistas and rivers until the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s. This transformed Asheville into a resort town for the wealthy and a therapeutic refuge for the sick. By 1890, there were nearly 30,000 seasonal residents.
The largest souvenir left behind by this boom was the Biltmore Estate. On Christmas Eve in 1895, after six years of construction, George Vanderbilt opened the largest private residence in the United States to his friends and family. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, this 250-room home features four acres of floor space, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. The basement alone houses a swimming pool, gymnasium and changing rooms, bowling alley, servants’ quarters, and kitchens. Vanderbilt also employed famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (who also designed New York City’s Central Park) to design the 125,000 acres of grounds. Today the Biltmore receives almost a million visitors per year.
Asheville was hit particularly hard during the Great Depression. Rather than default, the city decided to pay back its debt over a 50-year period. As a result, little was invested in new infrastructure, leaving Asheville with its impressive and elegant art deco skyline of today.
Labeled one of the most scenic routes in America, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469-mile road connecting the Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. Perfect for leaf viewing, hikes, and roadside picnics, this is a wonderful way to experience Asheville’s breathtaking beauty. There are many stops to check out along the way.
The French Broad River runs through the city and is the perfect venue for kayaking, canoeing, and, a personal favorite, lazy river tubing. Open through mid-October, Zen Tubing is located 10 minutes outside Asheville. For $20, they’ll take you up river and you’ll spend a couple of hours floating back to the starting point. Zen Tubing just opened this season, so all equipment is brand new. And with a logo featuring a yoga frog balancing on an inner tube, what’s not to love?
If you’re in downtown Asheville, be sure to check out Pack Square Park. This 100-year-old park underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation and reopened in 2009. It features fountains, a stage with handmade tiles, a Veterans’ Memorial, and lush green grass.