Spring in the Smoky Mountains was calling my name. We were coming off a long, brutal winter, capped off by two blizzards in late March & early April — the New York winter I was gravely warned about was wearing on my patience.
I decided I wanted to head south, to North Carolina, a state I had grown up visiting but had not experienced in over a decade. My boyfriend and I booked a long weekend in Asheville, NC in late April. What began as a desperate escape of the elements turned into a completely rejuvenating, true vacation — the kind where there’s a meticulous itinerary that isn’t followed, dinner reservations that are pushed back several times, and lazy conversations about what hike to do are had while sipping beer in a hammock.
We took a 6am flight from JFK non-stop to Charlotte where we rented a car and IMMEDIATELY pulled into the first Chick-Fil-A we saw for breakfast. (We've been eating avocado toast in Williamsburg for too long.) The two hour drive west from Charlotte took us through the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills, eventually depositing us right into downtown Asheville.
Our gait slowed from a frenetic New York rush to a North Carolina stroll as we moseyed around stopping in the multiple bookstores that dot the downtown Asheville map. Malaprops Bookstore is Asheville’s independent pride & joy while the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, combining two of my favorite things, was a delightful, endless maze of used books. We strolled through the downtown area, basking in the warmth. Being a blue dot in a very red state, it’s not uncommon to see stickers, pins, and signage endorsing local farmers & supporting progressive politicians, earning that "Y’all Means All" inclusivity that makes this Southern city so unique.
Tupelo Honey was our first stop of what quickly became a three day food & drink tour. Right in the heart of downtown, Tupelo Honey was packed at midday so luckily our reservation had us seated promptly. Crispy brussel sprouts, a side of fried okra, a burrata and fried green tomato sandwich with sriracha honey in the side, biscuits with tupelo honey and classic Bloody Marys made for a gracious welcome.
Asheville is known for it's many breweries, having more per capita than any other US city. Knowing there was no way to hit them all, we stopped at Wicked Weed Brewery, (which sits within walking distance of downtown) and ordered beers while watching both locals and tourists casually sipping their brews in the sun and chatting with other patrons.
Our Airbnb was located about 15 minutes outside of Asheville and our wonderful hosts, Jeanne & Patrick, made our stay unforgettable from start to finish. Guests have a separate entrance and are welcome to use the patio, hot tub, hammock and common kitchen area. Anything we needed was accommodated from a toaster for breakfast to detailed recommendations for exploring the city and national park. Black bears are so common in the area that visitors are warned that you’re more likely to see one than not — according to Jeanne, they’ve been known to come on to their property, inquiring about kitchen smells and even once, destroying their brand new hot tub cover. However, given the sheer number of black bears that roam the area and their generally docile behavior (except for one ill-fated hot tub cover), residents have learned how to manage sharing a turf with these native creatures.
After getting the bear protocol run down and resting up, we decided on dinner in the River Arts District, a burgeoning area of converted warehouses that house studios and galleries for independent artists that runs along the French Broad River. We ate at White Duck Taco Shop, sipping margaritas outside as the sun set. Though fatigue began to set in the from day, we stopped at The Wedge, an outdoor watering hole with a locals only vibe at the suggestion of our hosts.
The next morning, thanks to help from Jeanne & Patrick, we planned our journey to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, driving the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs from Georgia to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Equipped with a Johnny Cash-heavy Spotify playlist and a misguided sense of optimism given our late start in the morning, we set off with an ambitious itinerary of an 8 mile hike along the Appalachian Trail. Our first stop was right off the Parkway, a short hike down to the crystal clear Skinny Dip Falls. We shimmied over the boulders alongside the falls, relishing in being the only two souls in sight.
Our drive towards Great Smoky Mountain National Park brought us through the Eastern Cherokee Native American reservation where, at a stoplight, a massive elk ambled across the street, oblivious to the line of cars behind it. We stopped at the Ocanaluftee Visitor Center for mugs and postcards, pausing to listen to a local band strum their banjos.
Our hike began at the Newfound Gap, at the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. Here we slipped onto the Appalachian Trail, heading towards Charlie’s Bunion, a roundtrip hike of 8 miles that leads to a panoramic view of the park. Our tennis shoes, 8 ounce water bottles, and chirpy, breathless conversations were quickly to put to shame as we passed through-hikers with tent-packs strapped to their backs, hiking poles in tow and the faces of determination found only on those hiking over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine.
One man we encountered was well over 70 years old and had been hiking the trail from Georgia for almost a month then, only taking time off for bad knees and inclement weather. We asked several hikers seated at a shelter for directions, learning that one person’s “yeah, it’s just a quick couple miles up” is another’s “you’ll be hiking till midnight”.
Opting for a shorter route, we stopped at a lookout point called The Jumpoff that overlooked the rolling Smokies and deep green of the park below.
We caught the tailend of dusk at the famed Grove Park Inn. Teeming with bachelorette parties and loaded with men whose unofficial uniform seemed to be a button-down under a Patagonia vest, the River Arts district this was not. We dodged the basic, yet overpriced menu and ordered just wine to take in the admittedly romantic locale, while discreetly browsing Yelp for a alternative dinner plan.
Jargon, a restaurant located in West Asheville, opened late last year. With an extensive menu, live jazz and an intimate setting, this was the gem we had set out to find, the perfect foil to the white tablecloth stuffiness of the Grove Park Inn. We ordered a deconstructed beet salad, salmon tartare wrapped in smoked salmon, and fried deviled eggs, paired with a blood orange margarita and an “Ice Breaker” — bourbon served inside a ice sphere to be cracked tableside with a tiny mallet.
We had a nightcap at The Double Crown, a few blocks from the restaurant. Cover is $2 for “non-members” but the live music and the crowd are both inviting, the cheap drinks an added bonus.
The following morning at the recommendation of quite literally everyone we spoke to prior to this trip, we headed to Biscuithead. As the name implies, biscuits and a variety of gravies are their specialty. After waiting nearly an hour in a line we told ourselves we would never wait in and working through the 5 stages of hanger together, we ordered our biscuits, mine, a fried catfish biscuit with spicy slaw, tomato, poached egg and creole gravy. We promptly headed to the Biltmore only to fall asleep in the parking lot, the biscuits and gravy coursing through our bloodstream like heroin, rendering us immobile for 45 minutes.
Mustering the remaining energy we had, we walked through the iconic Biltmore, Asheville’s largest and most notable attraction. Built in the late 19th century, the Biltmore is still owned by George Vanderbilt’s descendants. Exploring the massive mansion and the grounds is an undertaking — we devoted the majority of our day to this, absent-mindedly strolling through the never-ending variety of rooms, the expansive gardens bursting with late-April tulips, and finding quiet corners to sit in stillness.
We flew out of Charlotte the next day, well-fed, well-rested and rejuvenated. No beach resort or spa treatments in sight but we walked away feeling like we hit a reset button, shaking off our winter blues with sunshine, comfort food, and the sweet sound of silence.