Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the beautiful town of Asheville has long been a haven for artists, poets, and visionaries. A rugged region of majestic terrain, the Paris of the South is a cultural epicentre with extensive displays of wonderfully preserved Art Deco, Beaux Arts, and Neoclassical architectural triumphs.
Merrill Lynch building, Asheville © Billy Hathorn
These structures hint at Asheville's fascinating history as an elite getaway during America's Gilded Age. One of its premier cultural attractions is the Biltmore Estate, one of the largest homes in the country, opened in 1895 by George Vanderbilt.
Today, its magnificent grounds boast a luxurious inn, stunning gardens, and an award-winning winery. Its 8,000 acres offer visitors an abundance of outdoor activities, including hiking, mountain biking, fly fishing, rafting, and golfing.
Downtown Asheville is a vibrant destination for both tourists and locals, with buzzing arts and music scenes. The Urban Trail offers visitors a comprehensive understanding of the town, with its 30 landmark sculptures, arranged along a lovely walk through downtown streets, revealing Asheville's legends and lore.
Countless galleries showcase hundreds of artists, from fine art to folk art and traditional mountain crafts. The music and performing arts scene include a symphony orchestra, an opera company, and dozens of venues for bluegrass, folk, jazz, and blues, as well as rock and alternative music.
The local writers' scene is thriving, and Asheville natives like Thomas Wolfe, whose boyhood home is now a historic site downtown, and Charles Frazier, who penned Cold Mountain have had significant impacts in the literary world.
Shoppers will delight in the many antique shops, funky boutiques, and farmers tailgate markets found throughout the area, as well as in historic Grove Arcade, another of Asheville's architectural gems, a bustling marketplace with unique shopping and dining options.
Asheville is the ideal gateway to the Magnificent North Carolina Mountains in the west of the state. These are an outdoor enthusiast's paradise, hiking and biking trails crisscrossing miles of national parks and forests, grand landscapes, and beautiful mountain roadways.
Blue Ridge Parkway © Ken Thomas
Blue Ridge ParkwayDesigned as a scenic drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469-mile (755km) road connecting the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Running through the Southern Appalachians, most of the roadway follows the spine of the Blue Ridge Range and providing stunning scenery and magnificent vistas of distant mountain peaks. It twists and turns through mountainous country that would otherwise be inaccessible. Created in 1935 to link the parks and also to provide employment during the Great Depression, today it attracts more than 20 million visitors annually. Its main attraction is the endless dramatic viewpoints overlooking forested mountains and valleys, and the rich autumn colours that blaze in October. The road also provides access to many hiking trails, including a section of the Appalachian Trail that follows the parkway from Mile 0 to Mile 103, as well as unusual rock formations, impressive waterfalls, wild flowers, lakes, and camping and picnic sites. Along the way are visitor centres, restaurants, food stalls, and modern lodgings nestled in striking mountain scenery. The parkway's highest elevation of 6,047ft (1,843m) at Richland Balsam Overlook has magnificent views.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park © USchick
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts many natural assets that have made this one of the most visited national parks in the United States.
The Smoky Mountains are named for the blue smoke-like mist that frequently hovers in the air, caused by the natural oils and water vapour released by the plants. The mountains are thought to be some of the oldest on the planet.
An unparalleled diversity of wildflowers, plants, and trees showers the mountainsides, and the park is renowned for its multitude of birds, fish, and mammals, particularly black bears. Within its vast wilderness are streams, rivers and waterfalls, acres of virgin forest, and miles of hiking paths.
The Appalachian Trail runs along the crest of the mountains through the park, with remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture found in numerous historic buildings around the park, many of them found isolated in the mountain valley of Cades Cove, featuring both cultural history and recreational opportunities.
The land was once sacred to the Cherokee who were brutally removed from their ancestral home in 1838 to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. But some remained hidden in the mountains and the Quall Indian Reservation later formed, sharing part of the park's southern border.
On the edge of the park, the towns of Cherokee and Gatlinburg offer extensive visitor facilities. The smaller towns of Bryson City and Townsend are arguably more atmospheric, but with more limited services. During summer and autumn, accommodation can be booked up for weeks, and roads leading to the park become jammed with traffic. The headquarters of the North Carolina side of the park is the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee.
Linville Caverns © Kolin Toney
Linville CavernsThe Linville Caverns are an underground labyrinth of rooms and passageways moulded out of the bedrock beneath Humpback Mountain by years of flowing water. The caverns were first discovered in the 19th century when locals thought they saw fish swimming out of the mountain. Informed professionals give guided tours of the caves, explaining the various natural phenomena found within. The caverns are home to bats, with the beasts an added excitement. The cave system is about an hour and a half's drive from Asheville, making it a fun excursion from the city, especially for families travelling with kids.