Asheville: A New York Getaway
By Jessica and Pat Levy-Lavelle
In 1888, a famous New Yorker, George Vanderbilt, traveled to Asheville , North Carolina , with his ailing mother to get her fresh air. Glimpsing the verdant Blue Ridge Mountains extending into the distance, he knew, after having traveled the world, that he had found home. He constructed the now-famous Biltmore— America ’s largest private residence, set on 125,000 acres of land—and lived out his days in this rural getaway.
Over a century later, Asheville —as we discovered on a recent trip—remains a perfect getaway for New Yorkers. Just two hours away now by direct flight from JFK or LaGuardia, this town of 66,000 offers a beautiful natural setting amidst mountains, forests, and waterfalls; dining rooted in a strong movement toward locally-grown and organic food; a burgeoning arts scene with one foot in traditional crafts and one foot in contemporary arts; and distinctive and inviting accommodations.
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Our first stop was Biltmore, where we toured Vanderbilt’s palacial mansion. The self-guided walking tour (audio headset optional) gives visitors broad access to the 250-room French chateau-inspired home, revealing at once its immensity and its intimacy. The tour includes not only the most public rooms where the Vanderbilts entertained guests (replete with paintings from Monet and Napoleon Bonaparte’s chess set) and the functional rooms on which the house ran (such as the kitchens and pantries), but also the rooms where Vanderbilt and his family ate, slept, and bore children. The veranda from the back of the house gives visitors a breathtaking panorama of the rolling hills that won Vanderbilt’s heart.
Guests to Biltmore can also access many of the thousands of acres on the estate, by foot, horseback, or car. Much of the land remains preserved in its informal gardens dominated by native trees. Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park, oversaw Biltmore’s landscaping, turning portions of the estate into beautifully manicured Italian, walled, and azalea gardens that offer graceful expanses of color in the spring air. www.biltmore.com.
A trip to Asheville is not complete without visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains themselves. They are accessible along the Blue Ridge Parkway , a two-line highway created in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration to preserve the public’s access to this American treasure. A spring drive along the Parkway—just a few miles east of downtown Asheville —reveals scenic overlooks interspersed with winding forests splashed with white and pink dogwoods blooming.
At the nearby Folk Art Center (a joint project of the National Park Service and the esteemed Southern Appalachian Craft Guild), visitors can take in a small exhibit about traditional regional crafts (including quilting, chair caning, and weaving) and take home from the expansive gift shop high-quality crafts from local artisans.
While traditional crafts and music are part of Asheville ’s arts scene, the area also thrives with the contributions of a significant number of contemporary artists. Their work is visible in galleries and shops scattered through Asheville , particularly in the downtown area and in the River Arts District. This latter area has slowly transformed old industrial warehouses scattered in a several-block area along the French Broad River into artist studios and galleries, offering works in wood, clay, paint, fabric, and a variety of other media.
Another stop worth visiting is the Grove Park Inn. Built in 1913 by a pharmacologist from St. Louis , this stately rock-hewn rustic lodge in the suburban hills of Asheville has hosted ten U.S. presidents (most recently President Obama, in 2010) and boasts a tremendous view of downtown Asheville and the Blue Ridge Mountains from the back veranda You can log on to: www.groveparkinn.com.
One of the best ways to understand Asheville ’s history and its present is with a walking tour of the downtown area. Sharon Fahrer, a Long Island native who moved to Asheville in 1996, operates Asheville Historic Tours. We took her Family Store Tour, which provides an engaging look at Asheville’s history generally (through sites within a several-block area from Asheville’s Pack Square) and also, more particularly, the ways Asheville’s small but vibrant Jewish community have contributed to the city’s history. Sharon pointed out the community theater where Charlton Heston got his start, the architectural firm where Walt Disney once worked, a museum dedicated to Black Mountain College (an Asheville-area institute founded in the 1930s where many artists and intellectuals, including Buckminster Fuller and Albert Einstein, temporarily congregated after Hitler closed the Bauhaus), and businesses past and present founded by local Jewish families. Sharon was instrumental in helping establish an exhibit dedicated to the history of Jewish-owned businesses in Asheville , and signage around the downtown area commemorates them. After the tour, we stopped back by one such business, Tops for Shoes, which has been around since 1952 and has kept a large and loyal clientele by having a wide selection of footwear and friendly, knowledgeable salespeople. Sharon is reachable at 828-777-1014 or visit the website: www.history-at-hand.com
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Asheville boasts a diverse restaurant scene, influenced by a strong commitment among Western North Carolinians to local and organic foods.
Our first dinner—at the Fig—remained our favorite. This sunny, cozy, and unassuming bistro not far from the gates of Biltmore offers stellar food and service without pretension. Our server, Sara, was both gracious and knowledgeable about the offerings, and guided us in making good choices from French-trained chef William Klein. We started with tender, breaded sweetbreads with braised celery and cashews, and crisp mesclun with a light, rich shallot-thyme-goat cheese vinaigrette. Mains included pan-sauteed North Carolina flounder over herbed butter, wilted greens, and white beans; Scottish salmon with cucumber and dill; and duck breast with Israeli couscous, zucchini, and almonds. All was excellent, although the flounder was an exceptional standout. Desserts included a decadent pots de cre`me (a velvet-smooth chocolate custard) that had us over the moon, as the sun set on our first day in Asheville . www.figbistro.com
Posana Cafe' is another recommended spot. This restaurant is a relatively new addition to Asheville ’s restaurant scene, and is a comfortable, contemporary green-certified space in a historic building just off Asheville ’s main Pack Square . Posana is focused on the local, organic, and sustainable, and with solid taste and presentation combined with good service, we were sold. We couldn’t resist the temptation to try some local beers (as Asheville was recently named America ’s top city for craft brewing) from Posana’s several selections, and loved the two that our waiter recommended. The crispy quail with grilled pineapple and peach-ginger glaze was tender and flavorful, and the herbed local goat cheese (paired with mixed greens and roasted beets) was fresh and earthy. Mains included local trout paired with sesame roasted broccolini and red jasmine rice, and blackened sea scallops over warm white cheddar polenta with roasted tomatoes. Their website is: www.posanacafe.com
Located on an atmospheric cobblestone street dotted with cafes and boutiques, Laughing Seed Cafe' offers an ecletic offering of internationally-inspired vegan and vegetarian dishes. We stopped by for lunch. We started with one of the specials, the Dream Roll – a sushi-style roll with cream cheese, asparagus, and tofu. It was absolutely delicious. For the main course, we had dishes ranging from the Havana Cuban (a sandwich piled high with marinated and breaded tofu, tomato, and carmelized onions) to the Harmony Bowl (a popular and hearty option of fresh stewed vegetables over rice) to an no-bake zucchini “manicotti” featuring rolled thin-sliced zucchini paired with cashew ricotta and roasted tomato marinara. All of the food was fresh and inventive, and the last – especially – comes recommended. The Mayan chocolate cake was moist and rich, with ancho chile adding a subtle and interesting edge. While Laughing Seed is a great option for vegetarians and vegans, its wide selection of dishes and friendly service offers something to please everyone. Here’s their website: www.laughingseed.jackofthewood.com
In some ways, Tupelo Honey Cafe'—a local favorite—was also the restaurant we most anticipated trying. However, it failed to live up to our expectations. It is approachable and certainly bustling, and our waitress aimed to please, but the food itself did not live up to the hype. www.tupelohoneycafe.com
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In addition to being a great place for sightseeing, the Biltmore grounds contain an Inn on Biltmore Estate that is an ideal place to splurge. The Inn boasts views of the blue ridge, a helpful staff, and all the amenities of a top notch hotel. Their website is: www.biltmore.com/stay/inn.
We also took the opportunity to stay at a local B&B, the Abbington Green, located in the historic district and close to downtown and run by the same inn keeper, Sharon, for nearly two decades. The B&B offers rooms in the main house and separate cottages. Sharon is a welcoming inn keeper who makes a local and thoughtful breakfast for her guests. We stayed in a private cottage that was roomy enough for four adults and one toddler, equipped with its own kitchen. The gardens are beautifuuly maintained and quite lovely. www.abbingtongreen.com.
Lastly, we stayed at the Inn at Biltmore Village which was ideal for two families. Newly renovated, the dwelling contained a modern kitchen, laundry facilities, multiple bedrooms, bathrooms, and living spaces. These condominiums are available for short-term rental, long-term rental, and for sale all at a surprisingly affordable rates. Log on to their website: rentals.greybeardrealty.com/category/Biltmore-Villas.
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Since the late 19th century, Asheville has had a vibrant and active Jewish community. It is the smallest city in the United States with a Jewish Community Center. www.jcc-asheville.org/ja. In addition each year in April there is a Jewish Film Festival and in October a Jewish Food Festival … HardLox. With two synagogues, there is an opportunity not only to worship but to enjoy all Jewish holidays.
We attended a Passover seder at Temple Beth HaTephila, hosted by a young and vibrant Rabbi who was very welcoming and accompanied by the cantor who led the congregation in singing along with her guitar. Since Asheville has such a strong Jewish community some people came from other states to attend. The congregants and guests were social and pleasant while indulging in the traditional foods of the three course feast. This reform synagogue was founded in 1891. www.bethhatephila.org. The conservative synagogues (which also hosted a communal Passover seder) is Beth Israel Synagogue: www.bethisraelnc.org.
Asheville is a wonderful destination for any season, and any reason. To learn more prior to planning your own excursion visit www.exploreasheville.com.
The Grove Arcade Public Market in downtown Asheville, NC.
Photo Courtesy of the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau
The most unique landmark in the Ashville, NC�s area: The Biltmore Estate, an architectural diamond, George W. Vanderbilt�s historic property in Asheville.
Photo courtesy The Biltmore Estate
Over 300,000 people attend the Bele Chere Festival in Asheville each July. Photo Courtesy of the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau