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The always-stunning view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the Omni Grove Park Inn -- Asheville, North Carolina. (Image: Sherry Lachelle Photography)

On the Road: Asheville, NC

Asheville, North Carolina was the first stop for me during a three-week solo road trip through some of America's southern states. This city, tucked in a particularly beautiful nook of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has a well-deserved reputation for being spellbinding on a number of levels. Culture, food, history, nature You name it, Asheville's got it!

Here are some of the most notable moments and experiences from a visit chock-full of standouts.

BILTMORE ESTATE

Simply put, you haven't done Asheville until you've toured Biltmore Estate. Dating back to 1895, the Biltmore Estate is situated on 8,000 acres (8,000!) of prime, picturesque real estate. The 250-room mega-mansion and its lavish gardens require 1800 employees to keep things in their famously sparkling and manicured condition.

Arriving early, I wandered through vast gardens overflowing with autumn color. Once inside the Vanderbilt family's grandiose residence (no pics allowed. Sorry!), I strolled from one resplendent room to the next, indulging in a fantasy of actually being a member of the Vanderbilt family. Oh, what that life must've been like!

I then took a peek at the on-site winery (now we're talkin'!), restaurants, shops, and spa. After one last look at those breathtaking grounds, it was time to head out.

DOWNTOWN

Back to reality, I drove 10 minutes to Downtown Asheville. Armed with an Urban Trail/ Public Art Map from the Visitor's Center, I parked and began my exploration of one of NC's most walkable cities. The funky street art -- colorful murals, charming buildings, and whimsical statues -- helps secure the city's artsy-hip vibe. (One of my personal favorite sculptures is "Giant Steps," which depicts a boy on stilts and honors the supervising architect of the Biltmore House, Richard Sharp Smith.)

Next on the list: Asheville Art Museum. In addition to its collections of 20th- and 21st-century American art, the museum displays work by Cherokee artists. This is great place to get a hint of the depth and color of North Carolina's cultural heritage.

Pack's Tavern, an Asheville favorite, offers a wide array of craft beers in addition to their eclectic lunch and dinner menus. Housed in the historic Hayes and Hopson building, the tavern is sitting on its own little slice of history. During the Prohibition years, a dark chamber in the basement led to adjacent buildings, supplying locals with a steady stream of illegal liquor. (Nothing like a good story to help you raise your glass!)

ARTS DISTRICT

My next stop was the River Arts District (think Pendleton Art Center). Before visiting this collection of studios, galleries, and restaurants along the French Broad River, I had to pause for a quick refuel. Clingman Café, located in the heart of the River Arts District, offers gourmet sandwiches and salads. (I highly recommend the Portobello & Goat Cheese Sandwich.)

After wandering through some of the studios and chatting with artists, I drove less than 10 minutes to the historic Omni Grove Park Inn. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- not to mention Travel & Leisure's list of the world's best hotel spas -- the 101-year-old historic resort hotel has unsurpassed views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. (But be warned: don't stay in Room 545. The Pink Lady Ghost, a documented phenomenon, may just pay you a visit!)

THE TAKE-AWAY

Located less than six hours from Cincinnati, Asheville delivers intriguing history, compelling art, and enchanting culture. (And all with the perfect amount of small town, southern charm.) Head on down!


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