Asheville: A Guided Tour Through Appalachia’s Most Interesting Town Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 0 Comments
Where does a trekker turn for that ideal balance of seasonal glory, cultural genius and mad hilarity that defines the perfect three-day trip? Asheville, North Carolina arguably contains all the elements of just such a sublime ‘busman’s holiday.’ Follow along below for a packed-and-ready long weekend in one spectacular corner of the metropolitan ‘Land-of-the-Sky’s’ far-flung and verdant expanses, along a stretch of the French Broad Gorge than flows from Marshall to Hot Springs.
Technically, Friday’s not the weekend. So after checking in at the historic Iron Horse Station; dining from their four-star continental-menu; and a minimal nighttime tour, we settle easily on our pillows to ready ourselves for an unforgettable three-day adventure.
Early to bed is optional. Early to rise will appeal to those who want to pack in the pleasure and awe that is in store for anyone ready to dive in and swim. The Laurel River trail—whether we take the six hour round trip all the way to the French Broad and back, or amble along for half a mile or so of the five mile trail—conveys a sense of the glorious release that can attend the forest primeval. Waterfalls, gushing springs and magnificent vistas of water and mountains are everywhere. Of course, we might have elected to rent kayaks or tubes or buy a raft-bound guided tour of either the Laurel or the French Broad that drains it, but we’ll make that the plan for our return visit.
If we’ve completed the Laurel loop or if we just dipped our toe in the first couple of waterfalls, we’re about ready to freshen up and, remembering that ‘hunger is the best sauce,’ sit down to one of western North Carolina’s finest and sweetest feeding frenzies at Mountain Magnolia Inn. Executive chef Chris Brown not only fills our bellies with delicious fare, but also does so with exclusively organic, and largely local ingredients.
Hot Springs is not just a name here. When we combine the cool night air and chilly waters of Spring Creek as an aperitif, with the 102-degree magma-heated Jacuzzi of the healing waters that give the town its name, ecstasy is the likely result.
As the evening winds down, music beckons from nearby Marshall, at Good Stuff’s regular Saturday night folk fest.
Yesterday’s exertions, almost heroic, exact a cost and we have no choice but to sleep in amid the airy vistas and craggy aeries of Mountain Magnolia land. When we rise, a sumptuous brunch could start us out, but we probably elect to stuff the day even fuller of sights and adventures instead.
The rest of Hot Springs’ block-long business district invites a whirlwind crafts-and-local-products tour before we embark on the outdoors portion of the day. Bluff Mountain Outfitters, our final marketing stop, packs in lifetimes of local lore and outdoors wisdom, but the establishment also gives us reasonably priced edibles for both a breakfast on-the-go and a lunch by the river.
Checking into the Sunnybank Inn is always dangerous for those with a planned itinerary. Elmer Hall’s collection of oriental art, antique musical instruments, and the story behind family from whom Elmer bought the historic-register domicile in 1982, is enticing enough.
Assuming that we can extricate ourselves from the Zen treasures that Elmer’s place purveys, we’re now ready to experience the thrill of total immersion in the wild waters all around us. Just south of Hot Springs on Highway 209, climbing over 1,500 feet along Spring Creek’s cliffs and cascades lies the little town of Bluff.
When we turn left at the sign for the village, we find a bridge that invites us to park, which we do, and then follow the adjacent trail along the bubbling, gurgling maelstrom of Spring Creek to arrive at a complex series of pools, with four separate waterfalls and a 15-foot jump into 65-degree water. Spirits soar and childhood bliss is ours once more.
Amazingly enough—though not in the least amazing for those who trip the light fantastic regularly in these country corners—another minute and a half drive leads us to another incredible collection of art and community and culture. Azule offers guided tours of its crazy quilt facility, which serves as a teaching center, art production workshop, and community educational classroom. Camille Shafer’s French is still better than her English, even though she’s lived here for 41 years; nothing is superior to her heartfelt understanding of Appalachia and its unique crafts and culture, which she so willingly shares with those who visit.
After dinner, we could always hit the hot springs once again, or swim in the slumbers of the honestly tuckered out.
Why can’t we just stay? While such thinking is no more than childhood’s wishful thinking for the most part, we can at least leave with a flourish, before returning to the daily grind, refreshed and with our Zen batteries fully charged.
The Sunnybank breakfast will make sure that we have all the carbs and fiber necessary for the continued rigors of wild mountain wonders. Each meal at Sunnybank is a rite of community building and interpersonal bonding.
A dozen additional outdoor venues tantalize us with their alluring wares: from Dudley Falls on Paint Creek to additional sections of Spring Creek to multiple overlooks along the Appalachian Trail, which runs right through town, nature tells us that its spectacles are limitless. However, maybe we’re a little creaky. Who knew that walking really was aerobic exercise? Or maybe we just want to further fondle the hem of the local arts scene, with the uniquely authentic combination of roots culture and urbanity that inhabit these environs.
In that case, we’ll wend our way to Marshall, where Zuma coffee shop’s personally roasted blends make Starbucks seem pedestrian. We caffeinate to insure we obtain the warp speed necessary for the rest of our day.
The Island-of-Art in ‘River-City’ proves what locals and recent transplants alike say—“Art saved this town.” Passers-by will find working artists with whom to converse, each offers beauty and crafty ingenuity for sale as well. And downtown Marshall, with the brilliant designs of William Sharp Smith exemplified in the century-old neoclassical courthouse, contains several additional arts collectives along Main Street.
Time flies but we have just enough in the schedule for the quickest zip of a walking tour through downtown Asheville. We take in City Hall, the Mardi Gras-like energy of Walnut Street and end up with another cup of coffee at North Carolina’s largest independent bookstore, Malaprops.
A dinner to travel home on gives us another opportunity to revel in the local culture. We dine at the Laughing Seed Café, after the 57 beers and ales available at the Jack of the Wood Tavern whet our whistle.
The regular Sunday improvisational bluegrass session is in progress, and before we make sure that we’re sober and right in our hearts to leave, we’ll promise ourselves to come back again. ‘’The sooner the quicker,” the fiddlers, guitarists and cellists all say—these marvelous musicians welcome all and sundry to sit in and play too. Of course, we have ‘miles to go before we sleep,’ whether we exit with such a medley or not.
Even focusing our attentions as we’ve done in this rapid summation, we have barely defined the surface of the sweet and merry times that beckon to those who visit this particular portion of Asheville’s fairy-magic ‘never-never land.’ However, that itch to learn more and do it all again is what return visits are for.
James L. Hickey is a freelance journalist living in Marshall NC.