Felicia Feaster

Ashevile
Beautiful downtown Asheville, a North Carolina town that blends big city shopping and art with back-to-nature and garden attractions. Image courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com

Asheville, North Carolina is known for a lot of things. Hosting President Obama for a mountain vacay. Thriving food and art scenes. A four-time winner in the suds-off online Beer City USA competition. As testament to its robust craft brewery scene, two big ones — California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing and Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing — will soon open outposts in Asheville. Top it all off with a gorgeous location nestled in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains and Asheville is one of the Southeast’s go-to vacation spots.

What may not come to mind for visitors are gardens, but Asheville also has those in spades, most prominently, the sumptuous grounds at the city’s essential tourist destination.  The Biltmore Estate features acres of vegetable plots and flower gardens, French and British-style gardens and the kind of groomed and manicured forests that make nature look like an expensively designed Barney’s window. Though the Biltmore Estate may be known for its spring Festival of Flowers (May 19-21, 2013), the fall and winter months offer their own nature-centric pleasures.
Among the garden thrills to check out in Asheville, a few of our favorites:

1. Forage for Wild Mushrooms

One of the nation’s premiere authorities on foraging, Alan Muskat — featured on the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods — runs his own foraging field trips in which visitors go into the field  to spot and select wild mushrooms in what Muskat calls “find dining.” Muskat also teams up with local restaurants that will prepare his guests’ foraged finds.  Muskat’s tours are the kind of esoteric fun that define this increasingly food and growing-centric town. And there’s more foodie touring on the way, with an Artisan Cheese Trail in the works featuring self-guided stops at local creameries and farms.

2. Visit a Garden Supplier

From the indie to the elegant, there are plenty of opportunities to buy some plant-able souvenir of your visit. The Biltmore grounds feature an on-site garden store A Gardener’s Place in the Walled Garden where you can take home a little slice of America’s grandest private home for your own garden, from home decor to plants featured within the Frederick Law Olstead designed Walled Garden. A kind of Whole Foods for the gardening crowd,  B.B. Barns is an exceptionally well-appointed full-scale nursery with an array of high-end items including a nook devoted just to glass and metal terrariums to display your world-under-glass. The plants are equally seductive — beautifully arranged and with enough unusual varieties to keep even experienced gardeners engaged. It is virtually impossible to leave this shop without something in hand. Those looking for a more curated and boutique approach to the homestead and gardening beats should stop by Small Terrain, a newly opened multipurpose shop with the ambiance of a gallery for growers. Owner Natalie Pollard has assembled a clever collection of gardening tools, chicken and bee-keeping supplies, herbal medicines and a collection of garden books for Asheville’s urban homesteaders. Play your cards right and you could visit when Pollard is hosting one of many workshops on topics from beginning beekeeping to fall fruit tree care.

3. Slumber at a Working Farm

Most people know the Biltmore Estate as the luxurious private home — the largest in America — of the George W. Vanderbilt family. But the 8,000-acre grounds are also home to a productive, working farm that supplies Biltmore’s kitchens. The four star, sumptuous but never intimidating Inn on Biltmore Estate overlooks the on-site vineyards and the majestic stride of the Great Smoky Mountains. Staying at the inn affords up close and personal access to Biltmore’s immaculate grounds and facilities and includes the opportunity to bike and horseback ride your way around this gorgeous estate. Within walking distance of the inn at Antler Hill Village is lingering evidence of Vanderbilt’s self-sustaining vision including a kitchen garden to inspire your own garden back home, a barn filled with chickens and goats (available for petting). Also calling the Biltmore grounds home — besides descendents of the Vanderbilt clan — are beehives, chickens, Angus and Wagyu cattle and South African White Dorper sheep.

4. Go Native

The North Carolina Arboretum is a public garden defined by Asheville’s astounding botanical diversity. In addition to the splendor of nature on perpetual display on the 434-acre grounds, visitors can enjoy traveling exhibits and a nationally-renowned collection of bonsai trees so immaculate you’ll think you’ve wandered into a Tolkien forest. In addition to traditional bonsai Japanese maples and Chinese elms, the garden has made an effort to highlight indigenous plants in the bonsai collection, like eastern white pine and American hornbeam.

5. Enjoy an Al Fresco Farm Feast

Several times each season Biltmore hosts a drama-infused al fresco dinner A Moveable Feast within view of the Biltmore Estate. In colder months (including the next Moveable Feast November 10) portable heaters and spirited conversation keep guests warm.  Your fellow diners could include a supermarket magnate, lawyers, bankers, nurses, chefs and golf pros. Seasonal fare is prepared by chef Damian Cavicchi — duck and venison were highlights of a recent fall dinner. Something about eating outdoors in such a romantic location — as well as plenty of Biltmore-sourced wine — loosens the tongue. By the end of the night you will have made some new best friends and experienced the meal of a lifetime in an absurdly beautiful setting.

6. Take a Culinary World Tour

Why restrict yourself to the ho-hum dinnertime narrative of appetizer, main and dessert? At the exceptional tapas spot Cúrate in downtown Asheville (whose chef Katie Button trained with Spanish superchef Ferran Adria at his El Bulli restaurant), belly up to the bar and watch the chefs at work as a succession of dishes fly from the grill to dinner tables. With your front row seat you’ll know just what to try. In keeping with the Spanish theme, cocktails are given an Iberian spin and the small plates of patatas bravas, piquillo peppers stuffed with cana de cabra cheese and sauteed shrimp with sliced garlic are just the beginning of an incredibly diverse menu.

7. Catch Your Mouth on Fire

When foodie president Obama was in town he made a beeline for some of the best BBQ in the South. 12 Bones is barbeque with a twist.  This down home restaurant in Asheville’s thriving creative hub — the River Arts District isn’t fancy: You may sit elbow to elbow with a man sporting a beard threaded with potato salad. But you won’t care once your fork hits the jalapeno cheese grits, corn pudding, mashed sweet potatoes and other esoteric sides. Baby back ribs come with seasonal flavors like pumpkin or blueberry on a menu that celebrates all things locavore.

8. Load Your Biscuit with Local Flavors

You’ll have to wait for a table at the popular retro-hippie Asheville breakfast spot Early Girl Eatery specializing in farm-fresh fare. But you won’t mind since the fluffy biscuits, quick breads, multigrain pancakes, shrimp and grits and locally-made jams are the living end in cozy, creative comfort food.

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