Imagine a place where the suburbs are only fifteen minutes away from a thriving downtown filled with street performers, booming restaurants, blaring music, drunk peddlers and captivating architecture all while having the vivid awareness that you are surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. On any day you can hike an abundance of beautiful trails within a forty five minute drive or swim in fresh watering holes and rivers and then end the day with a delicious meal downtown. This is Asheville.
We rented a house through Airbnb, called "The Nest". I strongly recommend families to consider renting this centrally located and spacious home when in town. The kids were enthralled by the indoor game room, most magical tree house and engaging back yard with swings and even a zip line! Grownups will equally be delighted by the house, helpful hostess and how well stocked and spotless it is.
A four and a half hour drive from Kiawah Island, where we were surrounded by beaches, completely transported us to a mountainous terrain with waterfalls, rivers, creeks and the best weather we could ever hope for. The mornings and evenings are in the sixties and made us nostalgic for those perfect, sunny, Fall NYC days. Below is a glimpse of what you can expect if you ever choose to visit too.
Asheville Urban Trail
The best way to thoroughly familiarize yourself with a city is to walk its' sidewalks as much as possible. The Asheville Urban Trail takes you through downtown as you search for thirty art sculptures, historic landmarks and notable buildings. It takes about an hour and a half to walk the trail and it ensures you cover almost all of downtown while nudging you to notice little details you may miss otherwise.
Downtown Asheville is vibrant and magnetic offering an eclectic mix of stores, a booming culinary scene, a mix of architectural designs, a plethora of street performers, live music on many corners, a rainbow of people from every race, gender, creed and age, and only has one notably negative aspect: a lot of homeless people who are both mentally ill and also clearly using drugs. They take up many corners and parks in down town and often walk up to people attempting to engage them. There is a major drug usage problem here and the city doesn't seem to care enough to attend to it. Our kids have been exposed to homelessness as NYC natives. The homeless population here is drastically different and scarier. This problematic situation along with the city's not-so-great public school system removed Asheville from first choice on our list of possible places to make a permanent move to.
Tupelo Honey (Downtown Location)
This well-known restaurant did not disappoint! Their unique southern menu made it difficult for us to choose so we just ordered a bunch of different things so we can taste everything that caught our eye! My son went for the Shoo Mercy Griddle which in true southern fashion included brioche french toast, buttermilk fried chicken, spiced pecans, powdered sugar and two fried eggs. He LOVED it. I devoured my blackened seared catfish and its' side of mac & cheese. The best dishes were the macaroni and cheese bites and fried cauliflower starter. The friendly service exceeded our expectations and the food was outstanding.
Mable Slab Creamery
Upon entering this neighborhood ice cream shop you suddenly begin to feel anxious- there are soooo many delicious flavors that you will become overwhelmed by all the options and which to choose. Adding to that, they can add toppings into your ice cream and mix them into your flavor choice for an even greater sugar high. The kids loved this place so much, they chose it over Ben & Jerry's twice!
Social Distancing in Downtown Asheville
Before I move on to some of the more nature related activities we enjoyed, I wanted to share with you some scenes from downtown. This was by far the busiest place we have visited since hitting the road in early July. There were swarms of people and very few of them were wearing masks. No social distancing guidelines were in place. We were extremely surprised by the scene. Asheville is known to be a very liberal city. The media has painted a USA where blue states wear masks and red states do not. Clearly someone has this message wrong.
Historic Biltmore Village
This charming village is approximately two miles outside downtown Asheville. It's filled with restaurants, people and shops and has quaint English-manor influenced architecture at the entrance to the former Vanderbilt's mammoth 8,000 acre complex ; The Biltmore. We had a delicious Mexican lunch in Cantina's outdoor patio followed by a stroll through the small village admiring its' unique personality.
This is a moderate, one mile hike that leads to a majestic look out point which has an elevation of 6,000 feet. We were literally over the clouds. Simply put, Craggy took our breath away.
Blue Ridge Parkway
An added bonus to visiting Craggy, and a few other sites highlighted below, is driving through the spectacularly windy roads of the Blue Ridge Parkway. No words can describe how exhilarating it was to share the drives with those who I love most in the world, with the sunroof fully open, radio cranked to some seriously good 80s tunes and a huge smile plastered on my face. There are hundreds of look out stops throughout the parkway and each of them promises a memorable perspective.
North Carolina Arboretum
This Arboretum has over four hundred acres of trails, bike paths, and stunning gardens designed by Frederick Olmsted, the same landscaper that designed Central Park and Prospect Park. We opted for the North Carolina Trail and the Bentwood Trail which took us about ninety minutes to complete and in return gave us a beautiful connection to nature. We passed by rolling brooks, beautiful butterflies, and endless trees that kept us shaded and comfortable. We spent approximately two hours here but you could easily spend a full day getting lost in the well marked trails throughout the property.
This hike is 2.4 miles and immediately teases you with small creeks along the way that build anticipation for what awaits you in the climb ahead. This was the most crowded trail we visited, although it was Labor Day so the crowds may not be indicative of what it is normally like. The trails are narrow and the majority of hikers did not wear masks. This was annoying as the steep inclines leave even the most fit breathing heavily. When we arrived at the falls we were greeted by a deluge of people who reached the peak before us. We were initially discouraged but we luckily spotted a small trail on the right that led us to the very top of the path, away from the crowds, where we were gifted with unobstructed views of this beautiful water fall. Mother Nature is so darn stunning. She never seizes to amaze us.
Looking Glass Falls
This waterfall is right off the road in the Pisgah National Forest and it does not require a hike to view its' alluring and roaring falls.
Skinny Dip Falls
These water falls were probably my favorite. First, the hike was very manageable at .9 miles. Secondly, we had the falls and the pools all to ourselves, no other souls in sight. Finally, the scene is just so stunning and the falls cascade into many crystal clear pool formations that would be so wonderful to swim in on a hot summer day. The water temperature was ice cold which deterred my crew from entering but we couldn't stop staring and climbing the boulders to access different vantage points of nature's wonderful creation.
We opted for the 3 mile hike to the Upper Falls. This was a pretty challenging trail with lots of climbing, muddy patches, rocks and the obvious challenges that come with a long hike. However, when we completed it I felt like a champion and left completely empowered. As soon as we began this adventure, we were greeted by a sign warning us of the many bears in the area. Our kids immediately went into freak out mode and I assured them that if we make some noise, which we do brilliantly on all occasions, that we would be safe. We did not encounter any bears. We did, however, walk along narrow pathways hugged by blueberry bushes. Sadly for us, it is not blueberry season but watching them prepare to ripen was exciting in itself! There are many trails to choose from here, at all levels.
Ninety minutes outside of Asheville awaits the most pristine lake tucked in the Great Smoky Mountains. The lake's waters are so clear and surprisingly warm; they were eighty two degrees on a slightly chilly morning. We rented kayaks from the Fontana Village Resort Marina and embarked on the most serene and spiritual journey feeling at one with nature and all her glory.
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 6,643 feet. The Appalachian trail also runs through it and many hiking enthusiasts explore the various trails here. The .5 mile hike to the observation tower is quite difficult as it is a continuous incline. Once you get to the top, you quickly forget about your efforts as you are distracted by sheer awe. You are literally in the clouds. After seeing some pretty spectacular clouds on this road trip our kids have recently expressed curiosity about how they feel like. They now know. Clingmans Dome is almost two hours away from Asheville but very close to the Great Smoky Mountain region of Tennessee which we are heading towards.
Asheville and its' surroundings are undoubtedly stunning and visitors will be instantly entranced by its' energy. We had the most incredible time here connecting with nature, being extremely active and enjoying the outdoors from morning till evening.
Speaking of time, I have another special memory in Asheville. I connected with a childhood friend that I have not seen for thirty years. When she mentioned how much "time flies", I thought "not really". There we were, thirty years later, talking like no time has passed. More and more I am learning that time is a construct created by humans to measure what should just be an unmeasured continuum that ends at different moments for different people. Yes, it unarguably expires. There is no timeline for when death occurs so why do we want to plot every detail of our life on a time line? Life is life until it is death. I am more determined than ever to live my best life, as the best version of me, and to see and share as much as I can.
The beauties and wonders of nature are humbling me in a way I never expected. I am also committed to continue to reach out to old friends in cities we visit along the way. If I am thinking of these old friends in reality they have never left my life at all. In the grand scheme of things time can actually stand still depending on how we look at it.