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DISTANCE: About 2 1/4 hours (130 miles), one way.
APPEAL: Laid-back fun in compact downtown.
GOTTA SEE: Tour Biltmore Estate, famed mansion/grounds of Vanderbilt family (assorted tours, $42 and up; www.bilt more.com); poke around River Arts District west of downtown where artists and artisans – even a flute maker – create and sell wares (www.riverdistrictartists.com).
TOTALLY FREE: The 435-acre N.C. Arboretum (www.nc arboretum.org) holds gardens, a greenhouse and great woodland trails. $6 to park (free parking Tuesdays). 8 a.m.-9 p.m. through October; shorter hours fall-spring.
GOTTA TRY: Malaprop's bookstore and coffee shop on Haywood Street; Asheville's superb and eclectic music scene – check entertainment schedules in weekly Mountain Xpress (www.mountainx.com): great bluegrass abounds (Steep Canyon Rangers, Buncombe Turnpike, Balsam Range); try to see One Leg Up (1930s Paris-swing jazz).
PRIME TIMES: Sept. 22 (Brewgrass Festival, downtown; 828-258-6101); Oct. 17-19 in Black Mountain (Lake Eden Arts Festival; www.lakeedenartsfestival.org).
DETAILS: 800-257-1300; www.exploreasheville.com.
DISTANCE: About two hours (115 miles), one way.
APPEAL: Gorgeous vistas, minutes off I-26.
GOTTA SEE: Americana poet Carl Sandburg spent his last years at his Connemara retreat; tour his home and his wife's goat farm ($5; www.nps.gov/carl); catch a performance at Flat Rock Playhouse (Agatha Christie classic whodunit “And Then There Were None” runs through Sept. 7; $29; 866-732-8008; www.flatrockplayhouse.org).
TOTALLY FREE: DuPont State Forest, a 15.6-square-mile state-owned preserve. Explore trails (on foot, mountain bike or horseback); walk along the Little River there to view Hooker Falls, Triple Falls and High Falls (with pretty covered bridge for Buck Forest Road). Info: 828-877-6527; www.dupontforest. com.
PRIME TIMES: Aug. 29-Sept 1 in Hendersonville (N.C. Apple Festival; www.ncapplefestival.org) ; Sept. 13 in Brevard (Mountain Song Festival; bluegrass; www.mountainsongfestival.com); Sept. 26-28 in Flat Rock (Flat Rock Music Festival; www.flat rockmusicfestival.com).
DETAILS: 800-828-4244; www.historichendersonville.org.
DISTANCE: About two hours (100 miles), one way.
APPEAL: Just 8 miles between college town and resort burg.
GOTTA SEE: Gentle getaway of Blowing Rock has cool shops and restaurants downtown. Have a football weekend in Boone, where remarkable ASU Mountaineers' home games are at Kidd Brewer Stadium (tickets: 800-919-2777; www.go asu.com, click “Buy Tickets Here”). Between the towns, Tweetsie Railroad (Wild West amusement park) has 30-minute train trips around mountain. Open daily through Labor Day, then Friday-Sunday to Nov. 2 ($30; $22 for kids; 877-893-3874; www.tweetsie.com.
TOTALLY FREE: Moses H. Cone Memorial Park on Blue Ridge Parkway, boasts great trails and 20-room mansion of tycoon who lived here (www.blueridgeparkway.org/moses_h.htm).
PRIME TIMES: Saturday in Boone (Music on the Mountain festival, accent on bluegrass; www.musiconthemountain.net); Sept. 6-7 at Tweetsie (Railfan weekend); Sept. 13 and Oct. 4 in Blowing Rock (Art in the Park; www.blowingrock.com/art inthepark.php).
DETAILS: 800-852-9506; www.visitboonenc.com; 877-750- 4636; www.blowingrock.com.
DISTANCE: About three hours (about 180 miles), one way.
APPEAL: Odd bedfellows – Harrah's casino and Cherokee history – work together.
GOTTA SEE: Try your luck at Harrah's ever-expanding video-gaming casino – 3,500-plus machines (www.harrahs. com); its Sycamores on the Creek. restaurant offers fine dining delivered really fast. Get some fun education: Visit Museum of the Cherokee Indian ($9; $6 for kids) and Oconaluftee Indian Village (through Oct. 18; $15; $6 for kids); attend “Unto These Hills” outdoor drama about the Cherokee Nation (season ends Aug. 30; $18-$22; discounts available). Info on all three: www.cherokee-nc.com.
TOTALLY FREE: Friday and Aug. 29, evening concerts on patio of casino's Selu Garden Café. Browse fine contemporary Cherokee art found throughout the casino. On outskirts of town, hike to Mingo Falls tribal park to see exquisite waterfall.
PRIME TIMES: Sept. 20 (Cultural Arts Celebration); Oct. 7-11 (96th Annual Cherokee Indian Fair)
DETAILS: 800-438-1601; www.cherokee-nc.com.
DISTANCE: Close to 3 1/2 hours (193 miles), one way.
APPEAL: Unusual attractions in picture-perfect village.
GOTTA SEE: Town is main depot for the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and its various excursion trains. Views are especially choice on the daily runs through the Nantahala Gorge. Rates: $49-$69; $29-$35 for kids. Fall is peak season – book ASAP (800-872-4681; www.gsmr.com). Stroll downtown; visit Gil's Book Sale: GSMR has Thomas the Tank Engine events periodically, so Gil's stocks extremely large inventory of Thomas items. Also on shelves: the Jan Karon-esque “Bryson City” novels by Dr. Walt Larimore, which are set here.
TOTALLY FREE: Check out the bluegrass or country played outside the GSMR depot for those waiting for the train. Through Oct. 25, free depot concerts Saturday nights. First and third Thursday nights of the month, community jams on library lawn.
PRIME TIMES: Aug. 30-31 (gospel music fest at Inspiration Park, www.theinspirations.com); Sept. 19-21 (Railfest); Sept. 26-28 at Nantahala Outdoor Center (Guest Appreciation Festival; www.noc.com).
DETAILS: 800-867-9246; www.greatsmokies.com.
DISTANCE: About four hours (225 miles), one way.
APPEAL: Looks like Norway – but with the heat turned up.
GOTTA SEE: In the 1940s, TVA dammed the Tennessee River here, south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Along with resulting Fontana Lake – more than 18 square miles, nestled in mountain sides – came Fontana Village, which housed construction workers then and now is TVA-owned resort (100 cottages, 84-room hotel). Lodge rooms and cabins start at $99 (heavy discounts after Oct. 31). One of two restaurants, Mountainview Bistro, has fine dining. At boat ramp, rent anything from canoes to houseboats. From village, 20 miles of hiking/biking trails wind into adjacent Nantahala National Forest.
TOTALLY FREE: Check out the dam – tallest one in Eastern U.S. is still a marvel of American engineering know-how. Visit lookout anytime; tour visitor center (open daily until end of October).
PRIME TIMES: Aug. 29-31 (Fall Fling weekend of square dancing); Oct. 2-5 (Smoky Mountain Bike Week for motorcyclists).
DETAILS: 800-849-2258; www.fontanavillage.com.