Mountain Mecca

An easy 151-mile drive into the mountains will take you to Asheville, N.C., a place that brings author James Salter’s words to mind: “There is a feeling. That somewhere the good life is being lived but not where you are.” Well, you won’t feel that way in Asheville. Whether its cloudscapes, art deco architecture or upscale cafes, you’ll feel very much alive “where altitude equals attitude.” There’s a timeless quality here as well as a curious mingling of the old and new. Take art deco architecture, for instance. There’s more here than any other Southeastern city except Miami.

History too. In 1888, George Vanderbilt, grandson of railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt and one of America’s wealthiest men visited Asheville with his mother. Smitten, he purchased 125,000 acres, and soaring dreams of a palatial estate took flight, one modeled after 16th century chateaux in France’s Loire Valley. We know it as the Biltmore House & Gardens.

In 1913, the Grove Park Inn, raised from granite quarried from Sunset Mountain, opens. Set like a jewel in Sunset Mountain at 3,100 feet, the resort overlooks the Asheville skyline and guests feast on sumptuous mountainscapes. Notables Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Will Rogers stayed here, as did Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Thomas Wolfe, of course, lived here. Born in 1900, Wolfe spent 10 childhood years in his mother’s boarding house, the “Old Kentucky Home.” Wolfe’s epic autobiographical novel, “Look Homeward, Angel,” depicted life in a turn-of-the-century Altamont, a thinly disguised Asheville. It didn’t sit well with many residents. Wolfe, however, did go home again in 1937. Though his book was officially banned there, Asheville gave him a warm welcome. Wolfe drew other writers to the area. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in Asheville a smidgen (Grove Park Inn, Suite 441), but his memories perchance may not have been the best. Wife Zelda died in an Asheville sanitarium fire in 1948. Sherwood Anderson dwelled nearby. A short walk from downtown to 53 Birch Street, the Riverside Cemetery slopes steeply to the French Broad River. Thomas Wolfe sleeps at the hilltop not far from O. Henry.

Wolfe today is a favorite son, part of the charm that beguiles visitors. You see them sitting in bistros, standing in galleries, strolling through craft and antique shops and admiring the art deco architecture. They gravitate to the newly renovated Grove Arcade. Luxury apartments top its 50 shops and restaurants.

Biltmore Estate is the number one attraction, but once in Asheville you’ll see so much else you like . . . eclectic shops, specialty stores, an art deco skyline and historic trolley tours. The Grove Park Inn, Biltmore Village, the Grove Arcade, the Montford Historic District’s bed and breakfasts, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Asheville Museum and art galleries add allure. There’s so much to see, I suggest you start at the Visitors Center. Make this a two-day trip. You’ll be glad you did.

If You Go …

• GPS: Visitors Center, 36 Montford Ave., Asheville, N.C. 28801

• 828-258-6101

• www.exploreasheville.com

Learn more about Tom Poland, a southern writer, and his work at www.tompoland.net. Email day-trip ideas to him at [email protected]