Travel through the Blue Ridge Mountains to folksy, sophisticated Asheville, North Carolina.
By Kimberly Button
Asheville, North Carolina, is a town where bohemians and businessmen walk side by side on city streets. The rich and famous flock here, as they have done for more than a century, and are joined by the rugged hikers who arrive via the Appalachian Trail. Towering mountains made of rock and clay hide extravagant structures of gold and marble. The contrasts will delight all who visit.
The largest city in western North Carolina, Asheville is beautifully situated among the Blue Ridge Mountains, one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. These lush, cool peaks have drawn people to the area for hundreds of years, from the Cherokee Indians who once sought fertile farmland to present-day visitors seeking rest and relaxation. But among the city’s millions of visitors, one in particular will never be forgotten.
The railroad came to town in 1880, and eventually brought with it a man whose tremendous influence changed the spirit of the area forever. Aristocrat George W. Vanderbilt, the youngest son in a family famous for its wealth, decided that Asheville was the most beautiful place on earth. He purchased 125,000 acres on which to build a retreat and put into practice his own ideas about forestry and farming. The gracious home he planned is now the largest privately owned domicile in America: the Biltmore Estate.
Built in 1895, Vanderbilt’s massive hideaway changed the cityscape forever. Celebrities, dignitaries, and tycoons all traveled to Asheville as guests of the Vanderbilt family. Soon the city was one of the social centers of the East. With so many notables arriving and living in the city, Vanderbilt wanted to ensure that all of Asheville was well equipped for his friends, so he financed improvements to the city’s facilities that not only benefited him and his guests, but all of Asheville’s residents.
If you have ever wanted to know what it is like to be king or queen for a day, the Biltmore Estate will feel like an American palace. It is incredibly easy to get swept away in the magnitude and extravagance of this grand home. Strolling through the French Renaissance chateau and grounds gives you the feeling that you have stepped back in time to a more elegant era.
More than 60 of the chateau’s 250 rooms have been preserved and are open to the public. Art by Renoir, Whistler, and Sargent graces the walls of the period rooms, combined with the priceless antiques that the Vanderbilts used to furnish their living spaces. Cases on walls throughout the home hold a collection of 23,000 books; on chilly days, 65 fireplaces were used to heat the house. Not only will you delight in seeing the richly furnished living areas, but the maid’s quarters, bowling alley, indoor swimming pool, and pantry are all intriguing testaments to the extravagant lifestyle enjoyed by George Vanderbilt; his wife, Edith; and their daughter, Cornelia.
Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York City’s Central Park, drew the plans for Vanderbilt’s sprawling, 8,000-acre backyard. Today walking trails on the property lead through shaded woodlands filled with mountain wildflowers. Landscaped garden areas show off the season’s most magnificent hues, and the glass conservatory harbors a colorful display of exotic plants and flowers.
By the end of the day, your head will be swimming with the unimaginable opulence that the Vanderbilts enjoyed at the Biltmore Estate. Take time to unwind and come back down to earth with a stop at the Biltmore Estate Winery, the nation’s most visited winery. After a self-guided tour of the cellars and the production area of the estate’s award-winning wines, you can enjoy a complimentary wine tasting.
The Biltmore Estate is open daily (except for Thanksgiving and Christmas) from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. From January through March the estate opens at 9:00 a.m. Plan to arrive early in the day so you have plenty of time (and energy) to see all you can. Meals are available on the premises at a restaurant next to the winery. A single admission ticket ($36 adults, $18 for youth 6 to 16, free for children 5 and under) admits visitors to the house, gardens, and winery. Admission tickets can be purchased at www.biltmore.com; by phone at (800) 624-1575; or at the estate’s ticket center.
The house of another famed Asheville resident is also open for touring, but don’t expect the extravagance of the Biltmore Estate. In fact, this house is just the opposite. Author Thomas Wolfe was born in Asheville in 1900, the same year as Cornelia Vanderbilt. His family owned and lived in a boardinghouse, where Wolfe would often have to share his bed with a paying guest.
Wolfe’s classic novel Look Homeward, Angel was greatly influenced by growing up in Asheville and by the people he met there. In fact, his memorable characters were so realistic that residents banned his novel from the local public library for more than seven years. Wolfe was forced to leave the area during that time until tempers died down. He eventually returned to his beloved city, but died a year later. These days, Asheville embraces and celebrates one of its most famous residents. Wolfe’s house has been converted into the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site, a National Historic Landmark, where visitors can learn more about his life and literature.
Unfortunately, the home was seriously damaged by an arsonist in 1998, but restoration work is nearly complete. Re-dedication of the house is scheduled to take place over Memorial Day weekend (May 28 through 31). Festivities will include a sound and light program featuring readings from Wolfe’s books, living history tours of the home, and guided trolley tours of Wolfe’s Asheville. The property also contains an informative visitors center, which is open daily. Admission is $1 for adults and 50 cents for students. Visit www.wolfememorial.com or phone (828) 253-8304 for more information.
There is no better way to truly experience the eclectic vibe of the city than by rambling around the historic streets of Asheville, sometimes called the “Paris of the South.” The downtown area is home to the Asheville Urban Trail, a museum without walls that reveals the fascinating history of the city’s people and events. The self-guided walking tour is reminiscent of a treasure hunt, with sculptures appearing throughout the 1.7-mile loop through the city’s meandering streets. The whimsical artwork and plaques found along the trail interpret Asheville’s varied history. Explorers can learn about the city’s birth, the wealth that the railroad brought to the area, the life and times of Thomas Wolfe, and the importance of the symbolic architecture downtown.
During the Great Depression, Asheville retained the highest per capita debt of any city in the United States. However, its proud city managers refused to sell off property to reduce these financial obligations, as so many other cities in America were forced to do. Asheville vowed to pay back every cent, and though it took until 1977, the decision saved the city’s architectural wonders from destruction. Today Asheville boasts the most Art Deco architecture in the Southeast, outside of Miami Beach, Florida.
After seeing the city, try the country. Serenity awaits you along the Blue Ridge Parkway, with 469 miles of mountain views so spectacular you will have a hard time keeping your eyes on the road. The parkway cuts through Asheville, allowing visitors to spend a few minutes or a few hours exploring its unspoiled beauty. Each season brings a different type of visual drama, from the rhododendrons in the spring to the blazing red and gold colors of the fall. Along the way are pull-offs for picture-taking and picnics. Hiking trails allow you to stretch your legs along what has been designated as an All-American Road.
The Asheville area is also widely known for its remarkable array of handmade arts and crafts, which have been an integral part of the city’s culture and economy for many years.
In 1895 missionary Frances Louisa Goodrich accepted a hand-woven coverlet from an Asheville mountain woman. Inspired by the beauty of the gift, Goodrich had a vision to open a craft shop in which poor mountain families could sell their traditional Appalachian handicrafts and supplement their farm income. She opened Allanstand, the nation’s first craft shop, which still operates today at the Folk Art Center.
The Folk Art Center is as much a museum as a shop. It showcases specially selected artisans’ works that are symbolic of the region’s heritage. Inside, wooden chairs are arranged on the walls like artwork and a rainbow of quilts hang from the rafters. A permanent exhibition of Appalachian craft traditions is combined with rotating exhibits and daily demonstrations to educate visitors about the area’s crafts legacy. In the Allanstand Craft Shop, the handmade clothing, jewelry, toys, and pottery for sale are more reminiscent of museum pieces than items in a retail store. The Folk Art Center is located a few miles east of downtown Asheville along the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 382) and is open daily. Admission is free. Visit www.southernhighlandguild.org or phone (828) 298-7928 for more information.
With Asheville’s prime location in the highest mountains east of the Mississippi River, the city has more outdoor activities available to its visitors than nearly any other Southeast destination. Rock climbing, llama trekking, trout fishing, mountain biking, and hiking are all plentiful in the Asheville area. Whitewater rafting is also popular along the French Broad River, an ideal waterway for beginners and families with its gentle class I, II, and III rapids. A variety of outfitters in the area can supply all of the necessary gear and instruction for any outdoor sport.
If you’ve got a green thumb, or just wish you did, you’ll enjoy an outing to the North Carolina Arboretum. Originally envisioned by Frederick Law Olmsted, the 426-acre garden showcases the cultural and natural heritage of the Southern Appalachian region. Among the arboretum’s varied gardens and walking trails are the charming Quilt Garden, a floral representation of traditional quilt patterns that changes seasonally, and the Heritage Garden, which explores the area’s craft legacy through plants used in the traditional crafts of broom making, papermaking, dye making, and basket making. The arboretum is also home to one of the finest bonsai collections in the United States and one of the few in the Southeast. It is open daily from April to October from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and from November to March from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. The bonsai greenhouse is open Monday through Friday only and closes at 4:00 p.m. (2:00 p.m. on Wednesdays). Admission is free, but a parking fee of $6 per vehicle is charged; parking is free on Tuesdays.
If you want to go to the country for peace and relaxation, you’ll find it in Asheville. If you want interesting diversions with plenty of culture and history, you’ll find that in Asheville, too. And if you want an exciting vacation that’s sure to produce cherished memories, you’ll find yourself in Asheville soon.
Asheville Area Convention and Visitor Bureau
151 Haywood St.
Asheville, NC 28801
(828) 258-6101 (option 3, then 2)
The Asheville Area CVB provides a free visitors guide. The visitors center is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The center is located off of Interstate 240, exit 4C.
The following is not a complete list. Please refer to FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC magazine and online at FMCA.com, or your favorite campground directory, for additional listings.
Asheville East KOA
102 Highway 70 E.
Swannanoa, NC 28778
Bear Creek RV Park and Campground
81 S. Bear Creek Road
Asheville, NC 28806
7 Appalachian Village Road
Asheville, NC 28804
The French Broad River Campground
1030 Old Marshall Highway
Asheville, NC 28804
Travel through the Blue Ridge Mountains to folksy, sophisticated Asheville, North Carolina.