Up in the hills, it's cool, artsy and diverse

Downtown Asheville is so cool that the bend in Interstate 240 can't contain all the fun things to see and do in the hilly Western North Carolina city. On its walkable streets, you'll find a fantastic array of informal eateries, a bookstore known throughout the Southeast (Malaprop's, on Haywood Street), craft stores, eclectic art galleries ( www.ashevilledowntown ), coffee shops, micro-breweries and more.

Good weekend spots near the Flat Iron sculpture at Battery Park Avenue and Wall Street include The Laughing Seed Café ( for vegetarian cuisine, or Jack of the Wood ( www.jackof ) for a glass of ale or live evening music - from bluegrass to Celtic to Cajun. Check the craft shops within the Grove Arcade - an Art Deco classic at Page and Battery Park avenues ( www.grove ) - especially the nonprofit Mountain Made ( for mountain crafts. (Similarly, try The Appalachian Craft Center - www - also downtown on Spruce Street.)

Eagle Street has funky Ophelia's World Cafe (burgers, plus a choice array of suds) and Limones (upscale Baja Mexican/California fare at mid-range prices).

A few minutes away? The Western N.C. Farmers Market (; the River Arts District, where potters, sculptors and textile artists thrive near the French Broad River ( www.river ); and - filled with stunning circa-1910 Queen Anne homes - the Montford Historic District.

Time for an elegant beer? Hard to top The Thirsty Monk ( on Patton Avenue. The main floor offers draft beer from superlative American breweries; the basement has only Belgian and Belgian-style beer on tap - plus more than 150 bottled brews. Oh, yes: The staffers wear cassocks.

Oct. 9 will be Asheville's first Oktoberfest, downtown on Wall Street, with beer tastings from local breweries including Highland Brewing, Asheville Brewing Company, Pisgah Brewing, Green Man Brewery, Craggie Brewing and French Broad Brewing Company. Many brewers are featuring seasonal ales for Oktoberfest, and will be on hand to discuss their beers. Tickets - $25 - are now on sale at

There's great live music to be found around town. Check the schedule in the weekly Mountain Xpress ( www ).

Need to get away from the crowds? 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. Its Baker Exhibit Center holds a demonstration greenhouse and rotating indoor and outdoor exhibits.

Elegant relaxation

Asheville is a magnet for high-rollers in need of elegant relaxation: North of downtown is the Grove Park Inn, where historic lodgings, fine dining and a spa pull in national awards with regularity ( South of downtown is the stately Biltmore House ( - considered the largest privately owned residence in America (tours: $60 and up). Its Inn on Biltmore Estate is a repeat winner on the Conde Nast Traveler "Gold List." Special-event weekends are featured throughout the year. Also on the grounds: the most visited winery in America.