Asheville is the shit. Let’s just get that out of the way real quick. Because Asheville, for whatever reason, is one of those places that has flown completely under my radar. It wasn’t until I was trying to think of interesting places to visit on the last half of my pre-Christmas vacation that my pal Shane suggested it to me, since it’s so dang close to Gatlinburg (less than a two-hour drive). He said his parents make the trek every year to see the Biltmore, and that when he visited the city many moons ago, he had a good time. Asheville, huh?
So I set about doing a bit of research and enlisting more of my very savvy, very awesome, very well-traveled friends for their input and suggestions. Saraclark sent me this amazing list of places to eat and visit and I set about, Lesley-style, making a spreadsheet of sorts. Of course, when we actually got there and started walking around the neighborhood where our hotel was, the spreadsheet went more or less out the window but its spirit lived on.
We stayed in the Downtown Inn, which is this giant former Days Inn just barely notched into the cusp of an adorable and super walkable area of Downtown where — happily — much of what I had put on the spreadsheet resides. Downtown Inn, I can say without guilt, looks sort of sketchy and run down, even when you get into the lobby and elevator, the latter of which is lined in ancient pink Formica. When we arrived on Wednesday evening, we pulled into a parking lot so empty we wondered if the hotel was even open. I think that night we were the only people there (the clerk said that time of year, in the days leading up to Christmas, they are pretty dead). Based on some hotel reviews I’d read, I requested a room on a high floor facing the mountains and not the street. The hotel people were super accommodating, and you can see what our view was below, at left.
Despite the not-so-swanky nature of the hotel’s exterior and lobby, our room was clean and well-appointed, with a little coffee maker and a blowdryer and a mini-fridge and microwave — all the things you’d expect from a modern hotel. But the absolute selling point of the place is the location. We walked everywhere and just kept stumbling upon cool stuff to do and see.
Our first evening, we did a little exploring and ended up at the Thirsty Monk, which was just across the street from the hotel. This place was pretty cool, and they had a ton of interesting craft beers on tap that they kept track of with a wall of placards, each one bearing a beer’s name. Once that keg was tapped, the placard would come off the wall and you’d have to move on to the others. I settled down with a Sweetwater Festive, which was delicious. I can’t remember what the boyfriend had. Both of us were pretty buzzed off of one high-alcohol beer, though, and hungry. But the Monk menu just wasn’t doing it for us, so we set off on foot to see what else we could see. We stumbled upon a Mellow Mushroom, and both of us instantly wanted to share some of their pizza. Also it was cold and we wanted to get inside. We walked in and realized that trivia night was about to kick off, and in a grand spectacle of spontaneity, we decided we’d play, since there was cash money at stake. Ray went to the bathroom and I sat down with the quizmaster to get the details, and while he explained the answering/scoring procedure to me, I think I had a mild stroke. Because I could not fucking pick up what the man was putting down. He was not even speaking English anymore. It was just clicks and buzzes and beeps and farts. I don’t know. I nodded brightly and acted like I knew exactly what he meant by “TAP” (do you quizmeisters know this system?) and I went back to our table with an answer sheet and a stricken look on my face. You can imagine how it went down when Ray returned and I had to explain to him that, while I had just sat through a detailed explanation of the entire trivia procedure, I had no fucking clue what we were supposed to do. So he had to go back to the quizmaster and have a little man-to-man, during which many crises were solved, including the one of our team being fucked from the get-go.
So we snarfed down pizza and beer and kicked a lot of ass at the questions (I’m telling you, knowing the American presidents in order is the most useful thing I have ever learned). We were running tied for third out of 10 or 12 for a while (which was especially good, I thought, because at least two of those teams had eight people on them!) but we got a little cocky and wagered too many points on the final question, which we got wrong. So we dropped down out of the top three and left the place drunk and with less money than we’d had when we went in. But you know what? We felt like kings. Motherfucking Michelob Kings, which was our team name, for whatever reason.
The next day brought more exploration by foot. We checked out the Asheville Art Museum, which had a visiting exhibition of Sewell Sillman‘s line drawings, which are these super repetitive studies in spatial relationships and patterns. At first they seem sort of simple and pointless but if you give it some time and really trace those pencil markings with your eyes, and try to imagine not just planning a composition like that but executing it without having to erase and re-trace, well, the skill becomes quickly evident. Ray was bored by most of the sketches but I really was sort of taken with them. Maybe it’s a graphic designer thing, who knows.
We are giant museum nerds, so when we happened upon the Thomas Wolfe homestead and museum, we kind of had to check it out, even though neither of us had read anything by Wolfe. Getting a tour of the giant homestead was ridiculously cheap, like a $1 a head or so, and for some reason I didn’t take a single picture inside the house, even though we were the only two on the tour. That big yellow house is 29 rooms huge, and the story of Wolfe’s childhood as a little boy living in a big, swingin’ boarding house was fairly interesting, although — here is where my inner asshole is going to shine like a polished nickel — I don’t quite understand the pain and anguish that Wolfe apparently felt as a result of living in a boarding house. Yes, yes, he didn’t have his own room and his mother tended to him after the guests were taken care of, but as far as I can tell, he had it pretty good, all things considered. I mean, there was crazy shit going on in that house, but crazy shit happens so that people can write books about it, right? I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t pay very good attention on the tour. I was too busy trying to count all 29 rooms.
Anyway, there’s this cool little statue thing downtown showing the landscape and layout of Wolfe-era Asheville. It’s a neat visual trick.
Hm, what else did we do? We walked around the Pack Square area, which is pretty swanky, and we witnessed what looked like the aftermath of a horrible Santa tragedy.
We had absolutely delicious meals at Tupelo Honey Café and Fioré’s.
There are some outstanding food options in Asheville. I’m sad that I lost my wallet one night and we ended up eating two-for-one chicken sandwiches at Burger King out of fear that we wouldn’t have enough cash to get back home if we ate anything fancier. That’s a whole meal lost to the gods of My Absentmindedness. (Happy ending! I found the wallet; the good people at Bruisin’ Ales hung onto it for me until I could come pick it up the next day.) The entire city seems to have a nicely developed palate. Between the surfeit of local breweries and all the chef-curated eateries, you could spend a lot of time and money tasting your way through Asheville. Which, if I continue to go with the family to Gatlinburg every year, sounds like the kind of thing I just might do.
We sampled several local beers (many of which we picked up at Bruisin’ Ales) and, on Friday night, walked down just south of our hotel to Craggie Brewing Co. and Green Man Brewery, both of which have little bars in them where you can get their brews on tap. Boyfriend tried Craggie’s Antebellum Ale and found it to be offensively sprucey on first sip, and then spent the remainder of the trip wistfully wishing he had more of the stuff, because it was the best beer ever in the history of the world. I had Craggie’s Herkulean IPA, which is a dark beer, and quite tasty. Over at Green Man, I had their porter, which ended up being my favorite of the trip, I think. (We had a lot of beer.) Green Man was hopping that night, and there were lots of middle-aged people dancing to Michael Jackson songs, which were the only tunes playing that night for whatever reason.
We had so much fun in our little pocket of downtown that we didn’t even bother driving out to the Biltmore. Even though I do want to see it some day, I just couldn’t justify the price vs. all the cool stuff we could do for much cheaper. Asheville’s a good time, and we barely even scratched the surface. I definitely want to go back and get to know it a little better.
Full Flickr set here.