3 mindful ways to experience Asheville, NC
It’s undeniable that Asheville, North Carolina, has made a name for itself — as a hippie haven for the outdoors, a colorful town set within the Blue Ridge Mountains, brimming with eclectic restaurants and award-winning breweries, mountainside trails and world-class rivers, plentiful Art Deco architecture and vibrant storefronts. (And one French Renaissance castle, of course.)
The roll call of attractions delivered by this city of fewer than 100,000 is unparalleled. Such that, it pays to be mindful of how you spend your time when you visit. Mindful travel — isn’t that what so many of us are yearning for in 2021? When you come to Asheville, focus on supporting local, minority-owned businesses; explore wild trails in the area where it’s easy to Leave No Trace; and seek out the genuine mom-and-pop shops that deserve your patronage. When you make the journey to Asheville, here’s how to make it count.
Check out the historic Black business district known as “The Block” and you’ll see how Asheville fuses art with style. Noir Collective AVL, a Black-owned boutique, features artwork by Black artists as well as books, jewelry, and other thoughtful, curated gifts made by Black artisans, authors, and entrepreneurs. Sole82, a downtown boutique managed by Black women, showcases walls of rare sneakers framed by work from local artists, and they even do direct-to-garment printing.
Beyond talking with your wallet, make time to step inside the YMI Cultural Center and check out their featured exhibits on local African American history and African culture. It also hosts the annual Goombay Festival, where everything African-Caribbean takes over the senses for one free weekend each fall.
Instead of hopping on a brewery tour covering Asheville’s most-visited stops, create your own itinerary of minority-owned establishments:
- Black Mountain Ciderworks + Meadery is something of a specialty brewery and taproom — the Black brewmasters use local fruits and honey to make their dry ciders and session meads. There’s apple, of course, but you’ll also taste strawberry, peach, and pomegranate, and even notes of coffee, watermelon, mint, and sage.
- Ginger’s Revenge is another hotspot of creativity, this time with ginger beer. The majority woman-owned brewery makes a mean classic recipe, but definitely try the cranberry with rosemary, sage and thyme, and hibiscus-lavender varieties.
- The Getaway River Bar, LGBTQ+ owned, is an ultra-popular watering hole. It’s set right on the French Broad River, and the bar holds all kinds of fun events, like Turntable Tuesdays and Sunday drag shows.
Getting your eat on
If enjoying a sweet treat with an afternoon cup of coffee is more your speed, drop in at GRIND AVL. The fire-engine-red storefront leads to a bright coworking space that doubles as an incubator for Asheville’s Black Wall Street. Pair a cuppa with any decadent treat from the Black- and female-owned AVL Cake Lady. Expect the city’s best cake by the slice, cupcakes, cookies, and more — like their signature Strawberry Crunch Cake (three layers with cheesecake in the center).
For lunch and dinner options, scope out the work of James Beard-nominated chef and Indian immigrant Meherwan Irani. He’s one of the driving forces behind popular Buxton Hall Barbecue and the co-founder and owner of Chai Pani, along with his wife, Molly. Chai Pani serves up Indian street snacks, or chaat, which make for a wonderful light lunch, as well as platters known as thalis. And, just for the record, he hasn’t been nominated once — he’s been nominated four times.
Hiking the trails
Start your experience at a local visitor center, like the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center or the WNC Nature Center. That way, before your boots hit the ground, you’ll learn a little bit about how this is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, as well as what you can do to help protect it.
From there, hundreds of trail miles snake through the area, though those that wend off the Blue Ridge Parkway offer a two-fer on the bucket list. For something quick and ultra accessible, check out the Craggy Gardens Trail. Easy-to-moderate and just under two miles long, its high elevation leads to a stunning forested landscape of wildflowers and rock-studded terrain. Peak baggers, meanwhile, will want to tackle Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River — it’s roughly two miles to the top (from the state park office). And anyone looking for a signature North Carolina waterfall should visit Catawba Falls, south of Mount Mitchell. This moderately difficult hike is three miles round-trip, but the cascading falls make the journey seem all too short and sweet.
Spinning those wheels
Asheville is arguably the best cycling city in the South. Here’s why:
- Road cyclists can take to the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, a massive linear park managed by the US National Park Service that’s one of the most scenic stretches of pavement in the country. Expect breathtaking views, and not because of the grade. The moderate climbs fall right in the pocket — challenging, yes, but nothing that isn’t too forgiving.
- The magnificent Biltmore Estate offers 20 miles of trails, giving riders a less-common avenue for exploring America’s largest home.
- Mountain biking doesn’t get much better than right here. Kolo Bike Park specializes in beginner-friendly singletrack with jump lines and solid challenge elements; the pros, though, head to Bent Creek.
Getting on the water
Surrounded by river systems that are some of the oldest on Earth, Asheville hits the water lottery. From Class V whitewater to quiet brook streams, let these ancient waterways show you a good time.
- The rivers and streams of Pisgah National Forest offer world-class fly fishing; outfitters like Asheville Fly Fishing Company or Brown Trout Fly Fishing can set you up for this serene adventure.
- Wai Mauna’s SUP tours stretch for four miles along the River Arts District. The sunrise tour (5:30am!) is excellent, but any time you go, the views will deliver.
- You could float down the French Broad River with Zen Tubing; hit up Asheville Outdoor Center for a kayaking trip; or go canyoneering, rafting, or even climbing with French Broad Adventures.
Where to stay
Tucked away in Claxton Community, the 1889 WhiteGate Inn dates back to that year — though it wasn’t always LGBTQ-owned. Luxurious rooms, suites, and private cottages make up the lodging options, and the grounds come with waterfalls, a koi pond, and breakfast served in the garden.
Reynolds Mansion rakes in similar accolades: Built in 1847 and LGBTQ-owned as well, this red-brick masterpiece offers spectacular views from its expansive porches, where guests can slowly sip coffee or enjoy a leisurely, Southern-style breakfast.
If you’re looking for something with a distinctly 21st-century flavor, check out the brand new Element Downtown Asheville. A Marriott property, it’s owned by local hotel-management firm Virtelle Hospitality, founded by the family of Indian immigrant and Asheville local Bhangwanji “Bob” Patel.
Where to shop
Start in the River Arts District, a bright neighborhood where many of the city’s creatives live and work. And that’s not just a generic claim — renovated mills now serve as studios and galleries for more than 200 working artists. Stroll through and you may even get a chance to meet the artists themselves.
In addition to Noir Collective AVL mentioned above, check out Lost Objects, Found Treasures, more affectionately known as L.O.F.T. You might call it a gift shop — it’s owned by Katie Skinner, a local with an eclectic taste for all kinds of items, from stickers and self-care products to chandeliers and clothing. Then there’s Asheville Bee Charmer, a downtown boutique selling small-batch honey, though you’ll probably wind up at the tasting bar (50+ varieties of the sweet stuff!). Similarly, Spice & Tea Merchants, a Black-owned shop, has a wonderful collection of teas, spices, and other gourmet items. The passionate staff can help you dream up custom mixes, too.
Where to dine
White Duck Taco Shop and John Fleer’s Rhubarb are legendary, but let’s talk a few lesser-known spots that still feel totally Asheville:
- Located in The Block, Benne on Eagle is another John Fleer brainchild, a sleek and modern Southern restaurant with Cleophus “Ophus” Hethington at the helm as the chef de cuisine.
- Vivian, in the River Arts District, creates stunning modern plates in an industrial-chic setting, serving up everything from roasted bone marrow to the classic chicken dinner. Josiah and Shannon McGaughey are the husband-and-wife team behind the scenes.
- Foothills Butcher Bar in Black Mountain — just east of Asheville — is a boutique butcher shop with a “whole animal philosophy.” Locally supplied and of the highest quality, the straightforward menu focuses on excellent deli sandwiches, juicy burgers, and next-level hot dogs. Bonus: Spot their food truck at Hi-Wire Brewing.
“Tours” can conjure up images of too-hot bus rides and microphone feedback. Not so in Asheville — hop on a tour and you’ll get a local’s perspective and a short-and-sweet dive into a topic bound to pique your curiosity.
- Sherry Masters, a former gallery manager and buyer, now runs Art Connections. She takes visitors inside the studios of metal, glass, clay, and wood artists, among others, for a behind-the-scenes look.
- No Taste Like Home Foraging Tours will teach you how to identify and harvest delicious wild foods from Asheville’s outdoors. You’ll then enjoy a cooking lesson plus tasting based on your harvest!
- A woman-owned business, Blue Ridge Hiking Company leads both day hikes and multi-day tours into the surrounding wilderness. This is a great option for solo travelers looking for like-minded company and serious time on the trail.
- Hood Huggers offers tours of Asheville’s Black history with an eye toward the city’s art scene. Nowhere else will you get this intimate of a portrait of “Affrilachia.”