ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Spectacular views surround this place, but vision, not vistas, made it what it is today, a city of nearly 90,000 that is not only the largest in western North Carolina but a haven for tourists and home to a growing creative class. Not that visionaries ever ignored its natural wonder, nestled as it is in the confluence of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains — they built upon it. Take, for example, Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace, as well as the grounds of Biltmore, George Washington Vanderbilt II’s 125,000-acre estate here.
Never mind the majestic chateau with four acres and 250 rooms under its roof — the largest private residence in the United States and still owned by its builder’s heirs — Olmsted believed you better look out. “[T]he grandeur of the mountains, the beauty of the valley, the openness and tranquility of the park,” he wrote Vanderbilt before six years of construction began in 1889, “would be most effectively and even surprisingly present, from the windows, balconies, and terrace.” Open to the public since 1930, Biltmore Estate attracts more than a million visitors each year. One was Barack Obama. During a private tour with his family in 2010, he stepped onto that terrace and took in what Olmsted had described. “Now,” the president said, “that’s what I’m talking about!” Or words to that effect.
We had come to Asheville to get a glimpse at what Olmsted and other visionaries had seen, including the great-grandson of Henri Matisse, who is trying to produce mountain pottery as a commodity without sacrificing its tradition and artistry, and the Jamaican-born son of Chinese immigrants, a Notre Dame-trained engineer whose background was in nuclear-plant safety and waste disposal, who turned a tourist town into Beer City USA.
Arriving on a Wednesday, we checked in at Omni Grove Park Inn, a colossus of stone, mortar, and wood with 513 rooms and terraces that spill down the slope of Sunset Mountain to a subterranean spa and, beyond, a Donald Ross-designed golf course. Opened in 1913 by a patent-medicine magnate attracted to the city’s charms, this is where the Obamas stayed, as have nine other presidents, dating back to William Howard Taft. The guest register is a roster of a century’s celebrities. Some guests may have never left. Local lore holds the “Pink Lady” still haunts the fifth floor.
After a short drive to the North Carolina Arboretum — 65 acres of gardens, including one of the country’s finest bonsai collections, with 10 miles of hiking and biking trails, all watched over by a larger-than-life statue of Olmsted — we returned to toast the gorgeous sunset through windows of the inn’s Edison restaurant with a smoking Hickory Dickory cocktail (Bulleit bourbon, local honey syrup and a wood chip, $14), a flavorful Moroccan chick pea stew ($18) and robust shrimp and grits ($28). After a nightcap before the enormous, boulder-framed fireplace in the sprawling lobby, we were ready to call it a day.
I eased into the next morning at the inn’s 43,000-square foot spa, a monument to soothing of the senses. After touring the various pools, whirlpools, steam rooms, and saunas, I settled in for my “arnica and hot towel massage” ($219, plus gratuity, for 80 minutes). This exercise in self-indulgence featured muscle-release massage, steaming hot towels and extracts of arnica, eucalyptus, clove and peppermint to wash away my aches and pains. I emerged full of energy to take on the rest of the day.
That proved to be a good thing: We were spending the afternoon at Biltmore.
Like the rest of the world’s wonders — natural and manmade — Biltmore must be seen to be believed. The cavalcade of rooms in the mansion, a word inadequate in every way, displays its contents with aplomb: Flemish tapestries from the 1500s, Meissen porcelain, Renoirs in the breakfast room, Napoleon’s chess set from St. Helena in the library, a wall of prints by Albrecht Dürer, John Singer Sargent portraits of Vanderbilt, his mother, Olmsted and architect Richard Morris Hunt — the list goes on and on. Think the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (its namesake was an acquaintance and visitor here) to the power of 10.
The grounds — the estate retains an 8,000-acre “backyard” — are works of art unto themselves. We explored the rustic shrubbery garden, the elaborate walled garden and intricate rose garden before entering the hot house of the conservatory. Guiding us was Parker Andes, head of horticulture, who, with a full-time staff of 60, keeps Olmsted’s vision alive and evolving.
After putting in a full afternoon — and running out of time to visit the estate’s popular winery at Antler Hill Village — we checked into the modern/minimalist Hotel Indigo downtown. Having worked up a powerful appetite, we satisfied it at Smoky Park Supper Club, just across the French Broad River. Billed as the nation’s largest restaurant built of shipping containers, it offers wood-roasted and grilled entrees with a half-dozen $6 sides. The atmosphere was fun and funky, the briny North Carolina oysters were delectable, but the a la carte approach can boost a bill in a hurry.
The next morning, we drove 35 minutes north to the tiny, rural town of Marshall to meet Alexander Matisse, a Groton, Mass., native and descendent of the famous French artist. His East Fork Pottery is open to the public by appointment only, but what he, John Vigeland, and their apprentices produce in a huge wood-fired kiln — and a new gas-fired one — is worth the drive and advance work. The gas kiln gives Matisse, who apprenticed three years with traditional Tar Heel potters, the means to meet retailers’ demands, initially with hand-thrown and eventually molded pieces that don’t sacrifice craftsmanship. We left his rustic studio with shopping bags full.
Back in the city, we headed for a barbecue lunch at Buxton Hall in the heart of the South Slope Brewery District. The tasty pulled-pork sandwich with waffle fries ($10.97) provided the ballast to embark upon a sea of suds, cruising from one craft- or micro-brewery to the next. There are 27 in Buncombe County, 23 in Asheville — more per capita than any city in the nation — with three more soon to open. There were none in 1994, when Oscar Wong and a Charlotte brewmaster opened Highland Brewing Co. in the basement of a downtown bar. What attracted him was clean water and an abundance of well-heeled retirees, tourists, and hipsters willing to pay a premium for craft-brewed beer. Now ensconced in a former film studio, Highland, run by Wong’s daughter, is the Southeast’s third-largest craft brewer.
More than half a dozen of his disciples line this incline from downtown, breathing new life into buildings that once housed car dealerships, parts stores, and repair shops. After lunch, we sampled Mother Trucker Pale Ale at Catawba Brewing Co. next door, then crossed the street for a five-beer flight ($10.50) at Twin Leaf Brewery (highlighted by Craters of the Moon single-hop pale ale. A block away, sour Belgium-style beers at Wicked Weed Brewing’s nearby Funkatorium proved a too much for my palate, but I found the Pernicious IPA ($2.50 a half-pint) at Wicked Weed’s main brewpub, just up the hill, what the doctor ordered. In case you’re wondering, Wicked Weed takes its name not from a connection to cannabis but from a quote attributed to Henry VIII: “Hops are a wicked and pernicious weed.” Clearly a light-pilsner kind of guy.
That evening, after a nap, we walked to Pritchard Park for the Friday night drum circle, a warm-weather tradition. The long-running rhythms produced by a couple dozen drummers perched in a small amphitheater drew a crowd of dancers, hula hoopers and the curious. At Alexander Matisse’s suggestion, we walked to All Souls Pizza in the River Arts District for our final meal in town. The restaurant mills its own flour from organic grains and creates a delicious whole-wheat sourdough crust. We opted for a North Carolina soppressata pie with tomato, basil, oregano, garlic, and aged sheep cheese ($14), with a pitcher of Foothills Jade IPA, out of Winston-Salem. To our eyes, Asheville was looking good.