A Weekend in Asheville
Every few months, we get the urge to go out into nature, get away from the quotidian and lean into new experiences. This month's craving led my husband and I to head 420 miles west into North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. Nestled against them, in what seems like a perpetually indigo horizon, is Asheville, a destination that had long piqued my interest and most recently cemented itself on my domestic bucket list, thanks to a delectable feature in Condé Nast Traveler that sparked my taste buds' curiosity. Now, I had to go! After doing some research, booking a charming little cottage (more on that later) and staying true to our traveling style, we packed up the Honda Fit with plentiful water bottles and an excited golden retriever and got on the road at 4 a.m. (the sunrise alone was well worth it). The majesty of the Blue Ridge was the first to greet us, setting the tone for our mountainside adventure. The rest would be a pleasant, progressive and pet-friendly discovery: a mix of hikes, vibrant arts, rich history, storied architecture, local beers, quirky shops and bookstores (a must) and so much good food! Here, a 36-hour highlight reel of my top Asheville picks. One quick tip? Be sure to plan for more than 36 hours, or no doubt, you’ll leave wanting to experience way more.
We maximized our short stay by arriving as early as possible and ready to hit the trails, so we passed Asheville by 40 miles and followed the Blue Ridge Parkway (a stunning drive on its own) to the Graveyard Fields Loop. Don’t let the name mislead you; the trail provides a beautiful and invigorating 3.2-mile hike at an elevation of nearly 6,000 ft. that includes everything from moderate to strenuous mountainside climbs and stone-bottom pristine streams to beautiful (and pet-friendly!) waterfalls and meadows (we were too early for blueberry season, but photos show it to be a stunning sight!). Why is the spot called graveyard fields, you ask? The tree stumps that were left behind after years of logging and fire provided the once-forested landscape with its distinct characteristic.
Our bellies were growling post-hike, so we headed into town with our eyes set on some local, fresh and nourishing bites and found that and so much more at Homegrown, where they take their “slow food right quick” approach to heart, serving up a delicious menu that’s as creative as it is fulfilling. You’ll definitely want to order the Redneck Cuban (take it from this Miamian; this is as good of a Cuban – with a twist – as sandwiches come!); pair it with a local beer to seal the deal. You may think you don’t have room for that brownie, when offered, but note that this is not just a brownie. The Coconut Marshmallow Brownie must be experienced – whether at the restaurant, served with ice cream, or back at your cottage. Your choice!
We checked into our cozy little vintage cottage at The Pines, located just six miles from downtown but seemingly a world away, with the charm and warmth of a mountain lodge but the quirk and character of a 1950s cabin court. It was the perfect two-night home for our four feet and four paws, complete with a wood fireplace that got a lot of use during this chilly early March weekend. The simplicity was sheer perfection – a much-needed escape from an otherwise hustle-and-bustle-filled month. After seven hours on the road, the ultimate luxury was making ourselves at home in our flannel, cracking open a bottle of wine, cooking some pasta and basking in the enjoyment of a quiet evening – and yes, indulging in that Homegrown brownie to-go, the perfect pairing for a chilly Asheville night in.
Browsing Instagram a few weeks before our trip, I stumbled upon OWL Bakery and decided we had to pay it a visit. Located within the eclectic West Asheville neighborhood, this cozy artisan bakeshop, which opened last May, specializes in naturally leavened breads and European-inspired pastries, using locally sourced ingredients and an aesthetically sensible approach to serve up creative – and beautiful – breakfast and lunch items. Our picks? A lavender latte for me, a vanilla cardamom latte for him. Need I say more? Add to the order a tartine with caramelized onions, brie, roasted apples and sage compote and the best quiche we have ever had (seriously, we had to ask the baker to sneak out from the kitchen so that we could thank her), and our bellies, hearts and design-loving eyes were full and ready to take on the day.
Mention Asheville to anyone, and they’ll tell you some memory about The Biltmore Estate, which can make the stop seem cliché or overdone. For us, a tour was a must, having become fans of Richard Morris Hunt back when we first visited The Breakers (the other Vanderbilt estate), and this one did not disappoint. Per usual, we went for the full 90-minute audio-tour and walked every room open to the public. In addition to the stunning architecture, design and detail characteristic of America’s Gilded Age, what we found was a spectacular display of – and reverence for – art and literature. The 179,000-sq.-ft. home houses more than 22,000 books and a stunning array of works by the likes of Pellegrini and Dürer. Be sure to venture outside to walk the 2.5 miles within immaculately preserved gardens, designed by the legendary Frederick Law Olmsted. The estate’s extensive network of trails, open to visitors (and their pets), continue to serve as a century-old model for forest conservation, honoring the Vanderbilt family’s legacy of environmental protection – and hosting and entertainment, too. Fittingly, the grounds also boast a winery, plentiful outdoor activities, horseback riding, fly-fishing and SUP. Call a house tour passé, if you will, but we found this one to be two hours well spent.
Speaking of time well spent, the timing of our Asheville trip was perfect for dining – that is, we were able to squeeze in a last-minute reservation at Cúrate before it closed for construction until April! Housed in a historic downtown building that once served as the city’s bus depot, the restaurant’s expansion is not surprising, given the popularity of Chef Katie Button’s brick-and-mortar toast to Spanish cuisine (and the instant success of her first cookbook, Cúrate, published last year). The robust and authentic menu that includes Spanish must-haves like jamón Ibérico, patatas bravas and sangria by the pitcher will make your mouth water in anticipation. After careful deliberation over a cheese-and-charcuterie board (three-year-aged Serrano, need I say more?) and delicious cocktails (the “Nube de Miel” warmed me up on this snowy Saturday), we ordered the Tortilla Española with Chorizo (took me right back to my Catalan abuela’s kitchen), Pulpo a la Gallega and Rossejat Negro (traditional Spanish noodles with squid, cooked in its own ink, paella style) – the biggest and most delicious surprise of the day. ¡Salud to that!
After lunch, we met back up with our four-legged companion and set out to explore downtown Asheville, which, despite the wintry weather, warmed us up with its pet-friendliness, vibrant selection of shops and ample spots for sitting, sipping and soaking up the local scene. Our first stop was The Dog Door, a well-curated boutique (and official canine visitor center), where Summer (our golden retriever) quickly earned a treat and somehow persuaded us to buy her a gift (oh, the plight of the only fur child…). The pet-friendly theme continued throughout the rest of our afternoon, as there wasn’t a stop where she wasn’t welcomed. It didn’t take her long to determine she was on her best vacation ever! We sampled honeys at the Asheville Bee Charmer; browsed art and purchased homemade botanical soaps and local kombucha from the City Market; and sipped on literature-inspired champagne cocktails at Battery Park Book Exchange, while browsing one of the best Borges collections I’ve seen outside of Miami. We also browsed the spectacular Malaprop’s Bookstore & Cafe, where we picked up a couple of books, including a “blind date” purchase (turned out to be Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”). We closed out the afternoon with a flight at Wicked Weed Brewing, which appears to be downtown’s anchor with its lively pub-and-patio atmosphere, as fellow pet-lovers and explorers passed on by. And of course, Summer received lots of attention and house-made treats from the ladies at Three Dog Bakery before heading back to the cottage for the night.
We freshened up, layered up and headed to our dinner reservation at Nightbell, Cúrate’s sister restaurant, located just around the corner. Putting a spin on Chef Button’s love for tapas, Nightbell has mastered the art of small-plates in the style of American cuisine with a focus on local Appalachian ingredients. The dimly lit atmosphere and vintage décor creates an instant throwback romantic mood, which pairs all too well with its creative cocktails. The Lavanda made my taste buds dance and set the tone for our elegant – but not over-the-top – feast of regional cheeses, steak tartare, grilled squid and roasted beets. We’ll say, “Salud!’ to that too.
When we stepped outside to pack up the car the next day, we were greeted by a snow-covered porch and a nebulous snowy yet blue-tinted sky. Had we both not needed to head back to work the next day, I think we would’ve booked an extra night right then and there. We learned that 36 hours in Asheville just isn’t enough, but if you spend them wisely, the city will make a lasting impression that’ll have you dreaming up your next escape soon enough. Happy planning!