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  • Why West Asheville is the place to stay
  • Although if you can afford the Omni Grove Park Inn…
  • Best beer and biscuits in a town with many of both

My friend Bridget excels at a particular kind of 50-something research: finding the perfect city for retirement.  A place with, among other things, better winter weather than Minneapolis.  I know, low bar.  To this end, we’ve checked out Nashville, Savannah, Dallas, Denver and Austin.  And then came lovely Asheville, with her mountains, rivers and rich, buttery biscuits.  She sang to us in a high lonesome voice: “Come refugees of the North!  You don’t know what a real biscuit tastes like!”

We followed the scent of biscuits to West Asheville, a bohemian-tinged neighborhood. It’s trendy like SoCo in Austin, but still on the rise.  New construction IS happening (I mean, there’s a reason they call it “Ashvegas”) but not totally ruining neighborhoods like it is around Denver.  And unsurprisingly, WEST is cheaper than downtown Asheville and still close to most everything.

Bridget and I booked an Airbnb house within a few blocks of West Asheville restaurants, pubs, biscuit shops, ice cream joints, and vintage shops.  It’s a short drive to the River Arts District , on the east side of the French Broad River.  You can spend hours poking around the maze of halls inside 23 historic buildings in this old industrial district.

The outdoor deck of our rental, where I dreamt for one pickin’ moment I was taking a clawhammer to a banjo, overlooked a huge backyard.  That garden is where the freshest blueberries I’ve even eaten came from.  Our hosts picked a huge bowl for us.

At night, the yard twinkled under a veil of fireflies.  A million random lights in that heavy Southern air. But not too far away, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you can see something more gobsmackingly coordinated.  The Smokies are home to a species of “synchronous firefly”  , the only one in America that can synchronize its flashing light pattern.  The phenomenon happens for only a week or two, usually in June.  Bridget happened to be in the Smokies one June when it happened–and wasn’t expecting it.  I think seeing nature’s synchro-flash mob would flip my Dolly Parton wig.

Although the Smokies are also easy access from Asheville, on this trip we climbed into Blue Ridge Mountains. The Blue Ridge Parkway is 469 miles long and follows the backbone of the range.  It’s an old road built in the 1930s and meant for meandering.  You’ll want to slow down, pull over enjoy the view–and trailheads–around every turn.

Hiking in June, Bridget and I and were treated to wildflowers, sunshine, and views of mountains fading to the horizon.  Mt. Pisgah is the highest peak at 5722′; to access that trail, it’s just a 45 min. drive from Asheville and takes about 3 hrs. roundtrip to hike.

The other terrific mountain views came with dinner at a 4-diamond resort.  The Omni Grove Park Inn, built in 1913, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The view from Sunset Terrace is spectacular, and yep, there are a lot of weddings there.  The food is expensive

and you have to factor in the view, so largely worth it.  Bridget and I happened to be celebrating a “Friendversary” and I suggest you do too, if you want some complimentary macarons and aren’t actually celebrating anything.  You can always just go for a drink, walk the grounds and take it all in.  Check out the historic artifacts scattered throughout the resort.  Otherwise, you’d miss the fun fact that builder Edwin Wiley Grove made his fortune with “Chill Tonic.”  His elixir promised to make kids and adults “fat as pigs.”  His ad remains an elixir industry legend.

For cheap eats, open wide and heed Biscuit Head ‘s suggestion to “put some south in your mouth.” They specialize in “cat’s head” biscuits.  If you don’t know what that means, you’ve probably never tried to wrap your mouth around a kitty’s gourd.  Don’t, it just means they are big.

Craft brew lovers can hop from brewery to brewery around Asheville.  The scene is insane, especially when you consider the brewery per capita ratio.  Home brewers I spoke to put Wicked Weed at the tops of their must-quaff lists.  We visited the original brewery downtown at 91 Biltmore Ave.   And you gotta love a brewery with a separate “Funkatorium” dedicated to sours.  Get funky at 147 Coxe Ave.

For all the art, beer, music and food scenes, Asheville retains a whiff of its latter-day hippie weirdness.  Patchouli mixed with Chihuly.  It’s a place you want to visit because of the way it’s evolving.  But you leave wanting Asheville to not change too much.

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