An Anniversary in Asheville
Max and I have always been a big fan of celebrating special moments. We’re not big present people, but we love celebrating a milestone with a special dinner or trip and our first wedding anniversary was no exception! Having just returned from Utah, we had limited vacation days to spare so focused on choosing a new US city for both of us which was only a quick plane ride away, could be explored in just a couple of days and had good recreational activities, (e.g., food, beer and hiking). Enter Asheville!
An up and coming destination in the last couple of years, Asheville has consistently climbed the list of best US cities to visit. After visiting, it is easy to see why. Its designation as “Beer City USA” thoroughly intrigued Max and the high concentration of award-winning restaurants convinced us we wouldn’t have a bad meal. Additionally to satisfy our new love of all things national parks, Asheville’s location just under two hours from Great Smoky Mountains National Park sealed the deal.
Unlike some of its southern counterparts of Charleston and Savannah, Asheville does not rely on being charming. Instead it is more artsy and quirky, eclectic and homegrown. The downtown area is compact (and very dog friendly!) and surrounding areas are easy to access, but they usually do require a car since Asheville does not have an extensive transportation system. There is plenty to do to fill a long weekend, but you don’t need much more than two days in city. So if you find yourself near Asheville in the near future, definitely stop in to do some of our favorite things!
Where to Eat
It is no surprise that the James Beard finalist, Cúrate, was high on our list to try and was hands-down our favorite meal of the trip. (Max went as far as to call it the best dining experience of his life!). The restaurant was a former bus depot and is unassuming on the outside; however, the instant you enter you will be transformed into Spain. The all Spanish wine list is a plus and we enjoyed the most delicious bottle which complemented some of our favorite dishes – the rossejat negro which similar to paella but made with thin noodles in a squid ink as well as the esquiexada de montaña, a classic Catalan dish of sunburst trout with tomato fresco and a lemon vinaigrette – so simple yet so delicious! Make sure you make reservations far in advance to snag a table.
Rhubarb was the place we celebrated our actual anniversary dinner and we were able to sit facing the open kitchen – one of Max’s favorite things! The chef at Rhubarb used to work at Blackberry Farm and the menu is innovative while using simple and local ingredients. They highlight the local farms they work with to create delicious plates such as the heirloom tomato salad – one of our favorites!
Outside the downtown area in West Asheville stands a cinder block building which houses the Admiral. If you walk in you will think you are in a dive bar – the lighting is dark, the patrons look like regulars and most of the people are sitting at or near the bar. But after slipping into the back booth after a long day of hiking the Great Smoky Mountains, we could not have been happier with our dinner at the Admiral – PEI mussels, blackened halibut with an eggplant risotto and a lemon pepper gnocchi with a mushroom ragu – all stellar!
White Duck Taco
Anyone who knows my husband knows that Mexican food is always his pick – every.single.time. So it was the obvious choice when we arrived at Asheville at lunch time to stop at the River Arts District location for the wait-in-line, grab a picnic table type of spot that has you wishing this place was in your neighborhood so you could return every Saturday!
Tupelo Honey Café
With the exception of Cúrate, Tupelo Honey Café was the most highly recommended restaurant of our trip. It is very rare that we sit down for a leisurely breakfast, but our first anniversary was certainly the time to do that and we couldn’t have picked a better spot. For starters you are greeted with homemade biscuits, blackberry jam and their very own tupelo honey. The menu is classic breakfast meets southern twist, in the best way possible. A must for anyone visiting Asheville!
Early Girl Eatery
Another great breakfast / lunch spot in the downtown area – we stopped in here before heading to the airport. The menu was intriguing with interesting southern twists on typical sandwiches like pimento grilled cheese!
Where to Drink
Asheville is named “Beer City USA” for good reason! It boasts more breweries per capita than any US city with fourteen breweries in the downtown area alone. Whatever beer you fancy, Asheville has it from hoppy IPAs to sours to dark stouts.
Max voted this his favorite brewery of the trip – it reminded him of one of his favorite breweries at home, Trillium. Their beers were citrusy and hoppy, and particular favorites were the Massacre of the Innocents and Gang of Blades (the single and double IPAs). Can you tell the name of the beers go with the theme of Burial?
A close second was Sierra Nevada, the first IPA Max loved. The brewery chose to open an east coast outpost in Asheville to complement its Chico, California brewery because of the passion this area has for its beer. The brewery is massive and employs over 400 people and while many people originally come for the beer, they stay for the food. The brewpub is massive and on a Monday afternoon was packed – we couldn’t get over how busy it was! They had a great Oktoberfest beer which I was a fan of.
Another relatively new opening in Asheville, this is an outpost of the Colorado location and offers a wide selection of beers for any type of palate. New Belgium is 100% employee owned and the third largest craft brewery in the US. They have a gorgeous patio which overlooks the river and was a fun way to spend part of our Saturday afternoon. New Belgium has a real community atmosphere with food trucks, bean bags and people making an afternoon of trying their delicious beers.
Wedge Brewing Co.
This was the first stop on our beer tour and was a great introduction to the Asheville beer scene. Housed in an old warehouse, you may miss this place at first if you don’t know what you are looking for (we did!). It is located in the River Arts District underneath the Wedge Studios and has an earthy and rustic feel to it.
One of the older breweries in Asheville, Green Man has been brewing in the city since the late 90s and is still a popular and small operation. On a hot afternoon, it was a good place to stop and enjoy some of their fruitier beers (I was a big fan). It feels like you are walking into a friend’s garage and the door is just open, but you can tell it’s the type of place where Asheville locals have been coming for decades.
Omni Grove Park
Are you sick of beer yet? I can tell you at this point, I most certainly was. On our last night in Asheville, we headed over to Omni Grove Park for a glass of wine and a good sunset. While the sunset was partially obstructed, it still lit up the sky in a beautiful way. Easy to see why the place was so crowded. It is only about 10 minutes via cab from downtown Asheville and worth the ride to branch out a bit.
What to Do
We had mixed feelings going into the Biltmore due to the steep entry price ($65 per person without any additional tours, headsets, etc.). The first day we turned around because it seemed rather ridiculous, but on our last day in Asheville we had half a day left and figured, “When in Asheville” so gave it a shot. We were both pleasantly surprised! The grounds are beautiful and expansive, you can spend a whole day there. We wished we had given the estate longer. We spent a good amount of time doing the house and garden self-guided tour – with which 43 bedrooms, an indoor swimming pool, an old-school bowling alley and over six gardens, gives you plenty to see. I do not think you need to splurge on the headsets, the program for the self-guided tour gives you ample information about the rooms and gardens!
Interestingly enough, it took George Vanderbilt six years to build the Biltmore, which was completed in 1895 and still remains the largest single family residence in the US. It was the family home for the Vanderbilts for only thirty-five years, after which it was opened to the public starting in 1930. The interior has original pieces where possible and has meticulously maintained period pieces in other places. It felt like walking in an episode of Downton Abbey!
If you find yourself in Asheville and are interested in the Biltmore, give yourself the full day. Included in your ticket comes a free tasting at the winery (which we had to skip due to time) and there are plenty of restaurants as well as two hotels on the 8,000 acres of property.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The main activity for us was visiting the Great Smoky Mountain National Park – the most visited national park in the US spanning both Tennessee and North Carolina. Lush forests and plentiful creeks are the trademarks of the park which still manages to maintain its serenity despite the number of visitors which descend on it. One of the main reasons why GSMNP sees so many visitors each year is because it is free of charge – a great perk. However, once you are there, it is easy to see why people stay for longer. As you approach the park you really are greeted by the “Great Smoky Mountains” in a hazy blue outline in the sky. We spent much of our time pulling off at the pullouts in the miles leading up to the park – one turn was prettier than the next!
The park is expansive covering over 800 square miles with surrounding areas of the mountains and parkways adding to that area. As a result it can be tricky to backtrack out of the park to find lunch. I highly recommend bringing a small cooler in order to stop at one of the many picnic areas. We stopped at Greenlife Grocery in Asheville (which is a Whole Foods Market) to stock up before we left. This proved to be a very important decision as we ended up extending our stay to soak up more of the sunset and pushed back our dinner reservations!
If you have one day: Start by driving out to Clingman’s Dome for a steep but short 0.5 mile hike to the lookout tower at the top. You are supposed to be able to see for miles, but we seemed to have caught it on a foggy day (the theme of our travel year). It was still a nice quick hike to stretch our legs, reach the highest point of the park at an elevation of 6,643 feet and walk part of the Appalachian Trail. Continue on to Chimney Tops – a four-mile roundtrip hike which is steep, but covered within the forest allowing for cooler temperatures than being directly in the sun. In order to reach the actual “Chimney Top” you have to climb on the rocks along the side – something we did not try this time! The rocks were hot and we were not wearing the proper footwear to tackle this! For the last part of your day, head to Cades Cove, where natural and cultural treasures intersect for 11 miles. We were lucky enough to spot a black bear upon arriving here and also had a chance to see the original churches and historic log cabins which still remain today. Allow yourself some time to wander through here on the one way loop – it is pretty spectacular! When you leave the park, you will want to head toward Cherokee on the North Carolina side for one of the most epic sunsets – the pink, oranges and reds burn bright over the smoky gray mountains and we found ourselves back at the same pulloffs as the way in and pushing our dinner reservation back – it was too good to leave.
Where to Stay
Hotel Indigo always gets great reviews as a boutique hotel offering beautiful accommodations, but I had never tried any of their properties. Now seemed like a good time due to their prime location just a 3-minute walk to the main streets in downtown as well as only 2.5 miles away from the Biltmore Estate. The hotel was modern and furnished nicely with a great little restaurant in the lobby to get coffee, a quick breakfast or some appetizers. The best feature of all though is the views! We requested a higher floor so as to take in the sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which was just stunning (I can only imagine what the view is like in peak foliage). We really enjoyed our stay here and look forward to staying at some of their other properties in the future!
Transportation / Logistics
Finding good flights into Asheville was challenging as all flights from Boston required a layover which was either too short or inconveniently long. We opted to fly into Charlotte which was a quick and easy two hour flight, seamlessly picked up our rental car and continued onto Asheville which ended up being about an hour and fifty minutes in the car. Not a bad ride, and I would highly recommend as flights into Charlotte are much more reasonable as well.
Thanks for the happy memories, Asheville and the Smokies! We look back on our wedding day with the best memories and we are happy to add more good memories from our time in North Carolina!
For more photos from our trip, visit Max Holiver Photography