A Summer Retreat

Asheville cools down climatically and heats up musically every summer.
Mark G. Stith

Asheville makes a marvelous destination any time of year, but summers are especially wonderful. How this city in the mountains conveys the feeling of a haven for the senses and yet is so stimulating remains a paradox to which Asheville has exclusive title. That's why it's the perfect weekend getaway, for you can do everything or you can do nothing. My suggestion? How about a medley of pretty music, terrific food, great lodging, and much-needed "me" time.

Friday's Finds
July brings lots of people to this area-- people looking both to escape the heat and to attend all the festivals taking place this month. I'll present several lodging options, just in case there are no rooms at the inn(s), so to speak.

First is the Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa (rates start at $195; 1-800-438-0050), a Southern Living Readers' Choice favorite for several years. This legendary hotel debuted its fabulous $40 million spa earlier this year. Three words describe the spa: "Oh my goodness." I'll talk more about the spa in a minute.

The newly opened, posh Inn on Biltmore Estate (rates start at $229; 1-800-922-0084) has become a bright star in the galaxy of Asheville accommodations. You can't beat the majestic location on a hillside of the picture-perfect estate, just up from Biltmore's Winery and the Bistro restaurant.

One of the best country inns is the Richmond Hill Inn (rates start at $195; 1-888-742-4536), which sits on a hill close to downtown. Another Southern Living Readers' Choice winner, this inn is surrounded by sumptuous gardens.

Now that you're settled in, head downtown for dinner at Pack Place. If you're lucky, you can get an outdoor table at La Caterina Trattoria, a great little Italian cafe on the square. Sit out, sip wine, catch a cool evening breeze, and watch the world go by. Life is good.

Sweet Music and Shopping On Saturday
Horseback riding? The Biltmore Estate Equestrian Center takes you on guided tours through the woodsy trails that crisscross the property ($35 for a one-hour ride). A new program, Explore Biltmore Estate, takes guests on nature hikes and float trips down the French Broad River, rents bicycles, trots out carriage rides, and offers other activities. For more information on Explore Biltmore Estate, call 1-888-428-8260.

Shopping in Asheville is a delight. Favorite places include the shops at Biltmore Village, just outside the entrance to Biltmore Estate, and downtown Asheville, with all manner of antiques, art, outdoor equipment, and other shops.

Musically, Asheville is a happening place. From July to early September 2002 be sure to check out the Shindig on the Green from 7 to 10 p.m. at City/County Plaza. This free outdoor music and dance event showcases bluegrass and traditional music. You're even welcome to audition backstage before the concert. The event will be held every Saturday night during this period, except July 28, when Bele Chere, North Carolina's largest street festival takes place, and August 4, when the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival will be held.

Asheville puts out quite a spread when it comes to fine restaurants. The Grove Park Inn and the Inn on Biltmore Estate have excellent upscale dining in romantic settings. On the outskirts of the city is the Savoy, a favorite with locals who love great Italian food. However, some of the best and most unusual meals I've ever enjoyed have been at Salsa's, near Pack Place. This restaurant, a bit on the Bohemian side, serves a quirky mix of Caribbean and South American flavors. Like nothing else you've ever eaten before, your meal is a miniature botanical garden of crunchy, chewy, and delicious exotica.

Sunday's Solace
Sunday is a day for rest and relaxation, right? Sounds like a perfect justification for a visit to Grove Park's spa. How much pampering can you stand?

You'll know you've entered a true refuge when you step inside the cavelike entry, which reveals a view of the dramatic waterfalls outside the spa. Indoors, treatments range from champagne and caviar facials to Sanctuary of the Senses body treatments. Be sure to visit the main pool, with waterfalls, spa baths, and starry lights set into the massive boulders. The spa is also open to guests not staying at the inn.

If you can't swing the spa, there's a natural, low-cost alternative--The North Carolina Arboretum on the Blue Ridge Parkway. You can enjoy miles of nature trails that wind past this impressive botanical collection of more than 2,000 kinds of plants. Cultivated gardens feature Appalachian plants and a "quilt" garden as well as a state-of-the-art greenhouse complex.

Speaking of the Blue Ridge Parkway, take a drive along this idyllic two-lane through the panoramic mountains. If you're a morning person, few sights can compare to the first rays of the fiery sun igniting the rumpled landscape. Unless, of course, it's the sun setting, washing the slopes with the colors of gold, previewing the onset of autumn. But if you stay here to catch the sunset, you might as well spend another night. Asheville won't mind.

For more information: Contact Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, 151 Haywood Street, Asheville, NC 28801; (828) 258-6101, 1-800-257-5583, or www.ashevillechamber.org.

This article is from the July 2001 issue of Southern Living.Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.