Life Travel Is this town the best-kept secret in the US?
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Is this town the best-kept secret in the US?

Asheville-NC
Asheville, in North Carolina, just might be the best town in the US Photo: ExploreAsheville.com
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Asheville is a small city with a big reputation among local travellers, but to international visitors it might be the one of the US’s better-kept secrets.

It took my partner and I three months of quizzing locals in our north-to-south tour of the States before hearing of the North Carolina hipster haven.

In hindsight, this was ironic, because the people of Asheville know how to spruik the best of their idyllic home.

Set against the scenic eastern fringe of the Great Smoky Mountains, a range famous for its vivid autumn foliage, Asheville is already a popular destination for adventurous Americans.

Outdoorsy types might know the North Carolina hub as a stop on the Appalachian Trail, the 3500-kilometre eastern cousin of the Pacific Crest Trail hiking route.

Asheville-cycling
Outdoorsy types already know the Asheville secret. Photo: ExploreAsheville.com

The city’s scenic surrounds house countless waterfalls, including the magnificent Looking Glass Falls, as well as walking and mountain-biking trails.

Indeed, the Smoky Mountains National Park is the US’s most visited national park.

The much-hyped Blue Ridge Parkway is a highway that bends through mountainous vistas before descending into the heart of Asheville.

We’ve tried to list the best of the city on the encouraging advice of local business owners and patrons – all quick to reel off eating, drinking or sightseeing activities.

Bursting with top-notch coffee shops, tattoo parlours and vintage wares, in many ways, the city seems more Portland than Portland. It even has more breweries.

A post-industrial town formerly on the ropes, it has a prolific art deco and warehouse architecture that have melded into its stylish rebirth as a culinary and cultural mecca in the South.

The Wicked Weed brewery and the Rankin Vault (named so because of the bank vault separating rooms) are lively dining spots.

Down by the French Broad River, the Smoky Park Supper Club serves up high-end contemporary American food in a restaurant built from shipping containers. In summer, patrons can watch river tubers drift by from the ample lawn space.

Wedge Brewing is more reminiscent of an East Berlin hangout. Nestled in the grungy River Arts District, it makes up part of a 1600-metre stretch of historical and industrial buildings repurposed into creative studios.

Asheville-Wedge-Brewing
Wedge Brewing, in the River Arts District, is a perennial favourite.Photo: ExploreAsheville.com

Phil Mechanic Studios is one shabby building in which tourists can witness resident visual artists working in their chosen mediums.

This large precinct dedicated to the arts is one of the things that sets Asheville apart as a boho bubble in the US South, attracting a mass migration of politically progressive urbanites to set up digs.

Asheville’s extroverted nature also propels its quirkier pastimes, like touring the Pinball Museum, where you can play 75 of these flashing neon relics for about A$19.

Nearby, the operators of the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar have seen fit to combine two great indulgences in one luxurious setting.

Stay

Staying at the ritzy Grand Bohemian Hotel will make you feel as though you have come home to a hunting cabin with modern frills. The Tudor-inspired venue is next to the chateau-esque Biltmore Estate tourist attraction, about five kilometres from downtown Asheville.

The Cedar Crest Inn is a smaller-scale bed and breakfast with plush timber interiors. In town, the more affordable Sweet Pea Hostel offers travellers slick budget accommodation in a converted warehouse space.

Eat and drink

Early Girl Eatery doles out comfort food in a homely setting on Wall Street, a narrow but vibrant thoroughfare behind the main streets of Asheville. Go there for an easy introduction to hearty Southern staples.

Down the road, coffee shop Trade and Lore is where the hipsters hang. You can order drinks street-side through a small window at the Rankin Vault, on Rankin Avenue, and people-watch from footpath seats.

The cuisine at Smoky Park Supper Club will blow you away, as will the reasonable bill that arrives at the end. Before the sun goes down, head to the Montford Rooftop Bar for Asheville’s most charming vistas.

Do

Cruise the shopping area huddled around Lexington Avenue in downtown Asheville, and stretching along Haywood Road in West Asheville. Twice Round, on Haywood Road, has an on-point vintage clothing at great prices.

Hire an inner tube from Zen Tubing and float down the French Broad River during summer, or discover waterfalls in the nearby national and state parks. During autumn, take a scenic drive beneath blazing-red foliage in the Smoky Mountains.