After finishing up a two-week program at the Penland School of Crafts in Bakersville, North Carolina, I ventured down the mountain with my sister to enjoy a weekend in Asheville. Known for its eclectic art scene, beautiful outdoors, and historic, architectural landmarks, I’d acquired a handful of recommendations from my peers at Penland, and, coupled with my sister’s extensive research on things to do in the city, I looked forward to a sun-kissed two days of hiking, eating home-grown food, and enjoying locally created art.
We began the weekend on Friday afternoon with a scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Amongst the winding, curving roads and shady greens overhead, I enjoyed the breeze flowing in open windows, singing (more like hollering) along to ‘Wonderland’ by CHVRCHES, our voices being carried away by the wind. We stopped off at some of the viewing points for photos before finally parking our car at the visitor centre, gearing up for a hike along Craggy Gardens. After spritzing ample amounts of bug spray and sun screen, we ventured south and down a slope just off the parking lot to begin.
Craggy Gardens hike proved to be a quiet, narrow journey that included many dead ends extending off the main path and concluding in thick hedge. It was slightly confusing, but my sister was determined to find the tunnel of rhododendrons she had so meticulously researched beforehand. I begrudgingly followed – exhausted from what felt like a two-week clay intensive where I had little time to eat, sleep, or rest. We trekked along, mostly following the description on Wikipedia, and tried several paths. Three ended in thick shrubbery or overgrown grass, while another two led to more difficult trails we were not trying to attempt. We backtracked to the shelter point we’d found beforehand and followed another trail until we found an opening of slightly overrun picnic tables. Moss covered the surfaces, and hedges and branches masked any layout that once might have existed. This was one possible stopping point my sister was aware of, and it became ours as we decided to head back to the car from there. While we never did find the rhododendrons (it was getting late, and I was not feeling venturing off the path and onto the highway, though we did for a hot minute), the hike allowed us to relish in some clean air and warm sunshine before heading to our Airbnb.
After dropping our stuff at the house and freshening up, we headed to White Duck, a taco shop on the outskirts of the River Arts District. The place reminded me of Rubio’s, a chain of ‘Fresh Mex’ food I used to love as a kid on the west coast back home. White Duck specialised in tacos but also had desserts, soups, and specialty beverages. I had two fish tacos, while my sister had a Banh Mi Tofu taco and Bangkok Shrimp one. It had an overall gritty, beachy vibe, awkwardly and unexpectedly situated smack dab in the middle of an off centre street. After dinner, we browsed at the neighbouring ceramic studio, where twenty potters shared a studio space and gallery for their predominantly wheel thrown pottery. I had the opportunity to meet a couple of friendly potters, who were busy glazing some mugs they had just taken out of the kiln!
On Saturday morning, my sister and I started the day off with breakfast and coffee at Ultrabar Coffee. We ordered a magic bar to take with us, comprising coconut, peanut butter, oats, chocolate and honey to go, and had their ‘brekkie wrap’ filled with eggs, sausage, cheese, peppers, and salsa. I also had one of the best cold brew coffees I’ve ever tried, with oat milk. In fact, it might have been the oat milk that made it, but it was good. My sister, meanwhile, was also enjoying her hot latte tremendously, so we vowed to come back here before we left the city. We took the remainder of our grub to go, and headed to our next stop: The North Carolina Arboretum.
The Arboretum proved to be a quiet, scenic and sunny spot. It boasts several attractions, including a greenhouse, a quilted flowers ‘exhibition’, a bonsai garden, and much more. There was also a museum exhibition that discussed the history of perfume and its role in history, discussing the creation processes and flowers used in several popular fragrances today. This, along with our food stop to follow, turned out to be my favourite part of the trip. My sister and I hiked for a few hours along trails including the Azalea Collection Trails, Bent Creek Trail, and a few other we happily stumbled upon! It was quiet, scenic, the perfect temperature (thanks to shady trees), and very leisurely. After our mini expedition, I visited the gift shop and purchased a couple packs of seeds to take home and grow.
Next we ventured into downtown Asheville, first taking a stroll through the Grove Arcade, where several shops and boutiques sold organic and sustainably made products. We were making our way to a recommendation from a Penland friend of mine, and what turned out to be one of my favourite places of the trip: Well Played Café. As the name suggests, the café serves food and beverages, but also offers a wide range of board games to enjoy with your party. For just $5 per person, visitors could enjoy playing unlimited games at the air-conditioned, friendly and laidback café. I had a cider by a local brewery called the Appalachian Mountain Cidery, and a Rouletta grilled cheese that featured ham, pepperoni, pepper jack, mayo mustard, and tomato on sourdough. My sister and I played exploding kittens to get warmed up, and ended with Onitama, a two-player thinking game recommended to us by our ‘game master’ and waiter. Nearby, moms and dads played Settlers of Catan with their kids, and to my left, a long table had been converted into a tournament of some game. The games, good food and drink, and overall ambience of the people and place made Well Played Café an incredibly enjoyable afternoon excursion that lasted way longer than my sister and I had planned. I would recommend this to anyone, whether you are into games and grilled cheese or not!
Straight from one food adventure to the next, we piled back into the car and headed into the River Arts District, in search of Café Yuzu by Cynthia Pierce. The café was in ceramic artist Akira Satake’s gallery, as Ms Pierce is his wife, so having not done most of the planning for this trip, I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon even more ceramicware. Mr Satake’s gallery was minimalist in its aesthetic and blended Café Yuzu in perfectly, as it was discreetly nestled in a right-hand nook of the gallery. I ordered a citrus honey iced tea, and my sister and I split a green tea kakigori, or shaved ice dessert. We admired the hand built mugs, vases, dishes and goods before heading out to see more of the Arts District.
Wandering behind the row of art galleries that Café Yuzu was part of, we found ourselves in dirt parking lots amongst warehouses converted into art studios. It was hot and humid and whilst my sister admired the graffiti art and street art, I grimaced in the sunshine, looking around at a quiet, relatively abandoned situation. Finally, after she was satisfied with her photos, we wandered into Wedge Brewing Co, one of many famous breweries in Asheville. We took a mini break here to determine the evening’s plans; I had a cold, cherry cider and relished in the air-conditioning, my sister sad beside me reviewing the photos she’d taken.
We headed back into the centre of downtown to find some dinner, when I stopped at Ten Thousand Villages, a boutique store that sold accessories, home goods, food products and more created by international, artisanal partners from across the globe. After purchasing an item at Ten Thousand Villages, we were offered a 10% discount at the nearby Blue Dream Curry restaurant, so my sister and I settled for that. Here, the crowd was pleasant and the food sufficient, overall a satisfactory conclusion to the day.
Our final day in Asheville began with breakfast at Sunny Point Café, notorious for long wait times but well renowned for good brunch. After approximately a 45-minute wait, we were ushered inside. My sister and I had carrot pancakes to share, as well as an eggs, biscuits and ham dish. The pancakes were great and the restaurant was packed, but to be frank, I don’t think worth the wait (but then again, I am not a big fan of breakfast foods in general). We then headed into downtown for our final stop: Malaprops bookstore.
Downtown, we strolled along curved streets and nooks of boutiques and cafes, waiting for Malaprops to open. I enjoyed perusing the handcrafted soaps and beauty products that seemed to be available at nearly every other store, as well as the widespread rhetoric and merchandise that promoted the preservation of bees. At Malaprops, my sister and I perused their shelves of ‘mystery’ books, which were wrapped in brown paper with a list of adjectives taped on the front to describe them. It was up to you to pick out a book and go with what you get, without reading the summary or title. I was also excited to see the store had a section of ‘world literature’ translated, including a collection of Julio Cortázar’s short stories I had been planning to read this summer. I purchased a copy and with that, concluded my stay in kooky, beautiful Asheville.