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Vacation this summer was different than the previous 16 years. Normally, Labor Day weekend, I head to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for an adult beach week with usually about a dozen friends. But that group is switching it up this year – in a pool-side discussion during OBX 2017, the team decided to trade margaritas for wine and are headed to Italy in September. And I, unfortunately, don’t have Italy money this year…
Sitting around the dinner table with my brother Julien and sister-in-law Mallory during their yearly visit to Washington, DC, we discuss the situation: Matt and I need a budget-friendly place that we can reach by road trip. Mallory: “Y’all ever been to Asheville?”
I didn’t know much about Asheville: I knew where it was, I knew it was a small town and I also knew that everyone I had ever heard talk about it LOVES it. Oh, and I knew it was a beer town. Good idea Mal! I’m in.
This may come as a surprise, but I don’t like to do too much planning when I embark on visiting a new city. I like going with the flow, seeing where the moment takes me. The only research I did for Asheville is a “looking for recommendations” Facebook post. My friends raved about lots of breweries, as I expected; a couple restaurants, which I figured I should get a reservation for; and the Biltmore Estate, which I got tickets for ahead of time. And I found an affordable AirBnB located a $7 Uber ride from downtown. Planning, done.
We traded margaritas for beers, the usual beach bar hang outs for the discovery of new restaurants and the beach for the mountains. By way of a weekend in Lexington, Kentucky to visit with the Blackwelders to attend Julien and Mallory’s baby gender reveal party (it’s a girl!), we headed down to Asheville in the Tundra.
First priority: visit Wicked Weed’s Funkatorium, a place Jeff Scott, Jared Limberg and Tom Hoover recommended for me. They know how I like my beer: sour, tart, funky and well, interesting. I must have tasted at least 20 different sours, gose, ciders, farmhouse, wine and American barrel-aged styles. The Funkatorium exceeded my expectations. In fact, in a place Forbes lists as 3rd for the most breweries per capita in the United States, we visited the Funkatorium twice. That’s my spot.
Albeit commercial, in contrast to the microbreweries, it’s quite an impressive operation. As of 2016, the 7th largest brewing company in the US. That Pale Ale moves! Built and operated sustainably at the foot of the Great Smokey Mountains, the scene is remarkable.
- During the week, places close early and downtown is pretty quiet after 10PM. Start your day-drinking early and shut it down when the sun goes down.
- Don’t overthink the brewery selection. You can’t do them all, but you absolutely can’t go wrong, anywhere. Here is Yelp’s top 10 list.
“It’s Wednesday night! Where are all these people coming from?!”
Food is definitely part of the Asheville culture. People eat out, tourists for sure, but locals alike. With lots of highly-rated restaurants to pick from and really good, healthy and locally-sourced selections at practically all of the breweries, we definitely ate well.
On Kate Sullivan and Mal’s recommendation, I made a reservation at Cúrate, a traditional Spanish cuisine hip spot right in the middle of historic downtown. When we got seated, I got transported for a moment to a night in Barcelona with the Jelepis family. See that’s the magic of travel: it moves you beyond its present experiences, creates a seductive dance with memories and lingers with you for a lifetime. I can’t get enough.
I observed once again that people are more alike than different: we all like taking pictures of our food. Let’s eat!
- For breakfast, get to your place early. By the time we got to the Sunny Point Café, the wait was already more than an hour. We did good at nearby Biscuit Head instead.
- Plan for a couple of meals at local hot spots ahead of time and build a day around your reservation. With more time, we would have tried Limones and Nine Mile.
- Call ahead to make sure everything is on time – the later the reservation, the more likely things will fall behind. No one is stressing out about food in this town.
- Ask for and take the locals’ restaurant recommendations.
While we focused on beer and food for this short vacation, the magnificent presence of the mountainous outdoors is everywhere. Almost every place we frequented has fabulous convertible garage doors that open up to patios and gardens. There is a sensible integration of indoor and outdoor living in Asheville.
We took the long way back to town from Sierra Nevada to experience driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway, known to some as America’s Favorite Drive, and stopped at every lookout to soak in the mountain views, tapestried with greenery. Fall must be incredible here.
We chose to visit the Biltmore Estate, America’s largest privately-owned home mostly because I wanted to see the Chihuly glass exhibit. Many friends recommended it. Snaking through the 250-room home, I couldn’t help but compare to my recent visit to Chateau Versailles. The opulent lifestyle well-displayed on the self-guided tour seemed almost too grandiose for America; I wondered: what kind of party did the Vanderbuilts throw to require 33 guest rooms!? It was like being transported in time, to another place. Totally worth it.
The gardens and Chihuly did not disappoint.
- If hiking is in your plans, decide what you want to experience before getting there: views, waterfalls, wooded treks are abundant within and outside the city limits.
- Like in any touristing situation, select good walking footwear – in town, you can reach pretty much anything by foot. Plus, parking is expensive and really hard to find.
The people of Asheville are really lovely. Everyone we spoke to was friendly and super helpful, genuinely interested in helping us discover the wonders of the city. Even the hippies and homeless people, which I wasn’t expecting in such high numbers, were nice:
“Excuse me Miss, do you have a dollar you can spare?”
“Oh I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash.” (the truth)
“Well God bless you honey, you look real pretty.”
My favorite person we met was Adam, head of security at the Funkatorium – he turned us on to our Tuesday night Funk Jam at the One Stop, also known as the Asheville Music Hall. Real life. Upstairs: a live jazz band jamming; downstairs: a trio of DJs spinning the beats. It could have happened in any city in the world, but this is Asheville.
In the end, getting out of town and vacationing “locally” was a great idea. Traveling by car made me, once again, see a different side of America and Americans – living in this DC bubble where the population is some of the most educated in the country, I tend to forget how vast and varied this country’s landscape and its people are. I don’t need to go that far to scratch my itch to experience travel.