Visit to Asheville, N.C., an enriching experience

I was about to order a latte at a bookstore when the clerk informed me: "I'm sorry, but the coffee bar will be down. We can't run the machines while the program is on." Turns out, a lecture was about to begin at the bookstore, so the clerk silenced the whirring espresso machine out of courtesy. I noticed a collection of patrons sitting in fold-out chairs at tables with their fresh coffee and desserts. The lights in the cafe section of the bookstore went down, and the crowd was greeted by an English literature professor who was there to talk about his latest book of poetry. This is not your ordinary Borders. This is Malaprop's bookstore in downtown Asheville, N.C. Upon learning that I was to have a latte-less evening, one of the professor's assistants came over and handed me a glass of merlot. I have to say, nothing compares to an evening filled with intellectual stimulation and fine wine. "Only in Asheville," I told my wife. After that evening at Malaprop's and everything else I experienced that weekend in the city, a thought came to mind. I had made a huge mistake - the trip was too short. One weekend in Asheville is simply not enough.

A renaissance in the making

My last visit to Asheville was in the early 1990s, and I never would have imagined what it would become today: a breathtaking community filled with artists' studios, restaurants, bistros, shops, nightclubs and, of course, eclectic bookshops like Malaprop's. Who knew this once-hidden outpost in western North Carolina's landscape would be the center of a strong concentration of creativity and beauty? Nowhere in the Southeast can you find this much class, style and culture. Old buildings are restored to house art galleries and unique shops. In the renovated Grove Arcade, you can browse for exotic bath products at the Bath Junkie and fresh vegetables at the Grove Corner Market. Outside, vendors sell everything from jams to jewelry.

You can never go hungry in downtown Asheville

Shopping anywhere can make you hungry, but it seems especially true in Asheville. It's tough to pick from the range of dining offerings: Tupelo Honey Cafe, the Left Bank, Cafe on the Square and Salsa are just a snapshot of Asheville's culinary delights. At the Flying Frog Cafe, you can choose from French, Cajun and Indian. Southern Italy comes alive at La Caterina Trattoria, where menu changes with the seasons. We settled on the Early Girl eatery located on downtown's Wall Street. My wife had the delectable pan-fried mountain trout while I dined on a special dish offered up that evening - a scrumptious set of spinach potato cakes. My daughter gobbled up a fancy peanut butter and jelly sandwich and washed it down with homemade apple juice. I suggest ordering the juice early - it takes time for the staff to squeeze the apples.

The house that Vanderbilt built

Aside from being an artist's enclave and food haven, Asheville is known for its deep history. The Biltmore House is one of the area's well-known historical sites. A word of caution: If you decide to visit at this time of the year, go early. The crowds are enormous and for good reason.The Biltmore House is completely decked out in holiday regalia. Gaze at the 90-foot Tapestry Gallery featuring painted portraits of founder George Vanderbilt and his mother. Take in the Colonial-style decor of the Van Dyck Room, home to the artwork of 17th-century artist Anthony Van Dyck. Even the servant's bedrooms are elegant. They come complete with oak dressers, chests of drawers and wardrobes. At the end of the tour, we hit the back porch to take in the sights of North Carolina's mountains.This is also a kid-friendly attraction. A children's pamphlet is available at the start of your tour, and my daughter was amazed at the artwork on the basement walls and the private bowling alley. While we enjoyed the splendor of the house, we also loved the estate's farm. We got to hold baby border collies, view the horses and even watched a sheep demonstration.

Great-tasting food is just around the corner

After enjoying a full day at the Biltmore, we headed out to the Historic Biltmore Village to dine at the Corner Kitchen. Our meal was billed as a brunch, but the menu felt more like a commitment to either a breakfast or lunch - not that there's anything wrong with that. The menu choices were plentiful, including the F. S. carbon waffles, homemade corned beef hash, Boston-way fried chicken and house burger. I chose a vegetable omelet that was out of this world. The Corner Kitchen is in a turn-of-the-century Victorian home. Owners Kevin Westmoreland and Joe Scully spent two months renovating the 108-year-old home.

So much to do, so little time

While there are scores of unique places to stay in Asheville, we stayed at a new Homewood Suites only a few minutes from the downtown area. We stayed in a cozy suite with a full kitchen, and the property features an array of amenities including an indoor swimming pool.Too quickly, it was time to head back. Even though I wasn't ready to leave, I had to look on the bright side: There will be many return visits.

More infon Asheville Convention and Visitors

The Biltmore House:

The Grove Arcade:

Malaprop's Bookstore: http://

Fun facts

Asheville is the largest city in western North Carolina, with more than 67,000 city residents and more than 206,000 residents in Asheville and Buncombe County combined.n Education, arts and science all thrive in downtown Asheville's Pack Place.

The Asheville Art Museum, the Health Adventure and Diana Wortham Theater are all in the area.n The Biltmore Estate is the largest private residence in North America. It was completed by George Vanderbilt in 1895.

Vanderbilt's residence is a 250-room mansion that is modeled after the 16th century chateaux Blois, Chenonceaux and Chambord in France's Loire Valley.

George Vanderbilt was instrumental in founding the first forestry school in America when he hired Carl Schenck to manage the 100,000-acre forest on his estate.

Source: Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau


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