Seeing is believing in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains - particularly in autumn - and these past two years have been some of the most gorgeous fall colors ever.
But what was even more surprising, after a long absence, is how Asheville, NC, has become a rich brew of regional art, food and culture - on par with Charleston, Tucson or Seattle as most "flavorful" destinations for the South, Southwest and Northwest U.S. And a surprising fact: Asheville boasts more Art Deco buildings than any U.S. city except Miami Beach.
Long known for the regal Biltmore House and Gardens, George Vanderbilt's 8,000-acre estate presiding over the region, Asheville today is much more than an early 20th century history lesson. Home to the University of North Carolina-Asheville, the city is a lively, downright funky, college town with the best of what comes with that - youth and energy, tradition and experimentation and a community of all ages who foster and thrive in the exploration of artistic, intellectual and physical health. (Which is to say, if you're not into hiking and mountain trails, downtown Asheville will keep you happily stimulated.)
Here in the Southeast U.S., hospitality is a baseline expectation, and the Carolina B&B, with its six guest rooms including a separate cottage, one of many charming bed and breakfast options, set the right tone - warm, welcoming and carefully appointed "Southern Victorian" decor (artfully mixed with memorabilia of the hosts' world journeys), interesting guests and extra touches that gently compete for distinctiveness. Innkeepers Susan and James Murray enriched our visit by blending their worldly horizons with attention to the finest details of their guests' experience. Beyond the ample and varied breakfast, not to miss is the late-afternoon social hour gathering the handful of guests from across the globe for wine and Susan's tasty craft, featuring different treats daily, such as cheese puffs, smoked salmon tartar, stuffed mushrooms and friend green tomatoes.
You must explore Asheville on your own, and your B&B hosts are always a great start, as there is something for everybody. Here are our featured finds:
Double D's Coffee Bus: Just one of many fun stops along gallery row, the picture tells the story. Note "today's special" on the website - "free hugs."
Mast General Store: You need one of these for every trip - from chic to every day, for gifts to simple entertainment, this mercantile, built in the 1940s, prides itself in having "everything you need for life." Dipping back into time, it also is reminiscent of the old-time "five and dimes" and the nostalgia of the widely assorted candy counters of Baby Boomer (and older) youth. There are several Mast stores in the region, each with their own personality, plus its online presence.
Battery Park Book Exchange & Wine Bar: Itself a destination, this rambling space attracts bibliophiles and oenophiles, who are welcomed at the upscale wine bar and among the lounge chairs, sofas and reading nooks. You can disappear on your own after you've plucked a used book treasure you've not seen since childhood, or join friends around the coffee table. Over 22,000 books. The only rule for behavior is to be an appreciative afficionado and get lost in the serious pleasure.
Limones: Coming from California, I'm used to inventive Mexican cuisine - and Limones' Mexican cuisine infused with the chef's experience in San Francisco kitchens is worth traveling across country to enjoy. I'm dying for the ceviche sampler, the endive-jicama salad with pomegranate and roquefort and the tequila-lime beef tacos with cannellini bean and chorizo ragout, smoked chile crema and jicama-ancho chile salsa. Reserve early - it won a 2014 Open Table Diners Choice seal of approval.
Curate: Scientist-turned-chef Katie Button is amazing to watch on the kitchen line in the authentic Spanish tapas bar Curate. Button is a three-time James Beard Award Rising Chef Semi-Finalist - and we found out why, by ordering, and ordering more, and ordering more again. See what the New York Times has to say as well. A seat at the counter is as absorbing as the complex flavors, magnified by the choicest olive oils and smoky paprikas. In this busy scene, the cooks deliver inspiration honed into a science over and over again. Be sure to sample a wide range, from small bite starters to charcuterie, cheeses,soups, grills and sweets - and also the selective Spanish wines and beverage specialties.