Some of the tallest mountains in the Eastern U.S. are within hours of Charlotte. Just head west -- and watch the horizon.
This mountain metropolis feels like the biggest college town in the Carolinas, even though its UNC campus has an enrollment a sixth the size of UNC Charlotte.
Just stroll Asheville's compact, mountain-ringed downtown: You'll find restaurants serving everything from French to vegetarian fare; a bookstore known throughout the Southeast (Malaprop's, on Haywood Street), craft stores and artists' studios (try North Lexington Avenue), coffee shops, four micro-breweries and an art-house cinema (the Fine Arts Theatre, on Biltmore Avenue).
New Age-y shops and periodicals abound; yet Modern Maturity magazine placed Asheville among the "50 Most Alive Places to Be."
Asheville is also a magnet for high-rollers: Just north of downtown is Grove Park Inn, where historic lodgings ($245 and up), fine dining and a spa pull in national awards with regularity (www.groveparkinn.com). South of downtown is the stately Biltmore, considered the largest privately owned residence in America (tours: $39 and up). Its Inn on Biltmore Estate ($259 and up) is a repeat winner on the Conde Nast Traveler "Gold List" (www.biltmore.com). Also on the grounds: the most visited winery in America.
Asheville has always been a tourist-magnet -- its Class-A baseball team, based in a near-downtown 1924 ballpark, is even called the Tourists.
A century ago, people suffering from lung diseases sought clean, thin air found at higher elevations. Throw in gorgeous Blue Ridge vistas and the result was a resort community.
New York millionaire George Washington Vanderbilt took a fancy to the area and in the 1890s ordered his 250-room Biltmore chateaux constructed. The luxurious Grove Park Inn opened in 1913.
In recent years, rising rents and zoning restrictions pushed many artisans from their downtown digs. The cultural cachet of Asheville simply expanded west of downtown toward the French Broad River, now the River Arts District, where potters, sculptors and textile artists thrive in a still-growing community (www.riverdistrictartists.com).
See 70-plus studios during official strolls in June and November; most any weekend is prime for enjoying Asheville, but Bele Chere -- the last weekend in July -- is a huge outdoor event.
A Growing Attraction
Where the Blue Ridge Parkway brushes Asheville, you'll find the N.C. Arboretum, a 435-acre part of the UNC system that offers trails through a prime Southern Appalachian woodland. Also here: The National Native Azalea Repository, with hundreds of plants that point up azaleas' incredible variety, and an exhibition garden that features more than 100 carefully greened Asian-style bonsai trees (grown and pruned to remain miniature). The Baker Exhibit Center, which opened last year, holds a demonstration greenhouse and rotating indoor as well as outdoor exhibits. Free admission; $6 to park.
CHIMNEY ROCK/GRANDFATHER MOUNTAIN
A pair of great natural attractions in Western North Carolina continue to preserve the natural beauty (and man-made flourishes) at both.
Grandfather Mountain, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, sits on the highest peak in the Blue Ridge (elevation: 5,964 feet). The vistas are tremendous. It also holds 16 ecological communities and seven wildlife habitats (everything from bears to eagles). See endangered flora, like Gray's lily. Walk the Mile-High Swinging Bridge -- which is actually a suspension bridge 80 feet above a gorge. Walking trails are abundant ($14, $6 for kids; www.grandfather.com).
The park's MacRae Meadows is the longtime home of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games -- a huge celebration of Scottish clans, music and athletics (July 10-13; admission charged; www.gmhg.org).
Chimney Rock Park, in western Rutherford County, was developed in the early 1900s around its 315-foot-high monolith. The grounds include 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls and hiking trails where you might spy 36 rare plant and 14 rare animal species. The 996-acre spread was purchased in 2006 by North Carolina's Parks and Recreation department. The state has the site operated by a company formed by old Chimney Rock hands.
Among the many things that haven't changed at Chimney Rock: Admission is still charged ($14, $6 for kids). www.chimneyrockpark.com
What about the lights?
People have watched the Brown Mountain Lights for centuries and still can't explain them to the satisfaction of all. The mysterious gleams are on a ridge along the Burke-Caldwell county line about 10 miles south of Grandfather Mountain in Pisgah National Forest. Look around dusk on N.C. 181; northbound, they'd be at right or straight ahead.
When gold fever hit westernmost North Carolina in the 1830s, the government seized the homeland of the Cherokees and forced natives on the "Trail of Tears" to the far side of Arkansas.
Those who stayed in the impenetrable Smoky Mountains eventually won reservation status for an 82-square-mile tract adjoining Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Year-round, the reservation now draws visitors with weekend fever.
The Cherokee-owned Harrah's casino is going great guns, and its video gambling is directly responsible for expanding and upgrading the four-season tourism infrastructure.
A hotel tower opened five years ago, a second in 2005; a gaming floor and convention center expansion began in April. A recent re-do at Harrah's brought fine dining to town: Sycamores on the Creek has after-5 fare with a menu tilted toward steaks (6 to 22 ounces).
The casino end of Cherokee is flush with motels and eateries these days.
A little-known byproduct of casino-era Cherokee: fine folk art. The casino boasts one of the largest permanent collections of contemporary Cherokee art in the world.
There are originals and copies in the tower rooms, the corridors and elsewhere. (Great place to shop for Cherokee crafts: Qualla Arts and Crafts Center on U.S. 441.
You'll also see bears on Cherokee's streets -- life-size fiberglass bruins painted by area artists; 13 of the eventual 25 outdoor artworks are in place.
More traditional attractions continue to thrive, like the Museum of the Cherokee Indian ($9, $6 for kids), the "Unto These Hills" outdoor drama (June 13-Aug. 30; $18, $8 for kids) and the Oconolufte Indian Village (through Oct 18; $15, $6 for kids).
Ask some folks what North Carolina brings to mind, and they'll say "Andy Griffith."
They need to make an Aunt Bee-line to Mount Airy -- hometown of the star of the legendary '60s TV show and the model for Mayberry, where sage Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith) and inept Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts) kept the peace. Kinda.
The town's just east of I-77, near the Virginia line; head for the visitor center on Main Street for directions to actual places that turned up in "Andy Griffith" episodes, like Floyd's Barber Shop and the Snappy Lunch cafe ("Home of the World Famous Pork Chop Sandwich"). Around noon, lines get long outside Snappy Lunch. Try the Blue Bird Diner, just up the street at 244 N. Main. In fact, picturesque Main Street is great for strolling.
Also in town: A re-creation of the Mayberry jail, and the Andy Griffith Playhouse (once the grade-school the star attended; there's a bronze statue of Sheriff Taylor and son Opie outside).
Mayberry Days -- a pilgrimage for show fans -- is Sept. 25-28 this year. Area info? The aptly titled www.visitmayberry.com.
Hear It Live, See It Free
The "WPAQ Merry-Go-Round" is an old-fashioned live radio show staged and aired at 11 a.m. Saturdays from the Downtown Cinema Theatre in Surry County. There are 438 seats, and it's free. It broadcasts 90 minutes of bluegrass and old-time performers; your host since the '40s is Clyde Johnson. Within 10 miles of town on I-77, you can listen on 740 AM.
Before, during and after the radio show, fantastic musicians jam in the theater's upstairs lobby and main entrance and spill out onto the pavement.