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Wonders of Western North Carolina
Just Off the Byway Lie Treasures of Culture, History and Heritage
By Lisa Halvorsen
Asheville Arts and Culture
Asheville, the region's largest city, has a long history as a tourist destination. As early as the 1800s, people were traveling here for the cool mountain air and the sulfur springs, both considered beneficial for good health. One early visitor, George Washington Vanderbilt, was so enamored with the area that he decided to build a country estate here in the 1890s.
Today, the opulent Biltmore Estate, a 250–room French Renaissance–style chateau on 8000 acres, is open for tours. You'll be amazed at the lavishly decorated rooms, original art by Renoir and other old masters, the indoor swimming pool and modern conveniences virtually unheard of at the time, including elevators, an intercom system and central heating.
After touring the house and estate gardens, which are still owned by the Vanderbilt family, visit River Bend Farm, where the estate workers lived, and the Biltmore Estate Winery for a wine tasting. Participate in carriage rides, horseback riding, float trips, fly–fishing lessons and other activities at the Outdoor Activity Center. Or enjoy an off–road adventure with the Land Rover Experience Driving School. Biltmore Village, located at the entrance of Biltmore Estate, has 50 boutiques and galleries housed in historic buildings that were constructed as part of a planned late 19th–century community.
The 426–acre North Carolina Arboretum, about eight miles from the estate, has 65 acres of gardens, 10 miles of walking trails and what is widely reputed to be the finest bonsai collection in the Southeast. The Botanical Gardens at Asheville include only plants native to southern Appalachia.
In downtown Asheville, Pack Place Education, Arts, and Science Center hosts a number of museums and galleries, along with the Diana Wortham Theatre, a venue for the performing arts and such special events as the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival held annually since 1928. Housed at the center is the YMI Cultural Center, which features African American art and cultural exhibits, and the Colburn Gem and Mineral Museum, with its extensive displays of geological specimens from North Carolina and around the world.
The center's other museums include The Health Adventure, offering an imaginative look at how the human body works, and the Asheville Art Museum, which displays 20th– and 21st–century American art.
Pack Place is the starting point for guided walking tours of the Urban Trail (Saturdays, April through October), a series of sculptures and plaques along a 1.7–mile route that mark significant events and places in the city's social history. Audiotapes for self–guided tours are available to rent from the Art Museum or the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber has information on other attractions, including Asheville's oldest house, an antebellum mansion built around 1840 that's now the Smith–McDowell House Museum. It's furnished with period furniture, clothing and household items, providing a glimpse into life in western North Carolina in the latter half of the 19th century.
Grove Arcade Public Market, built in 1929 and covering an entire city block, has more than five–dozen locally owned shops and restaurants, as well as the Grove Arcade Arts and Heritage Gallery, featuring the music, stories and crafts of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Or shop for crafts and farm–fresh products at the Portico Market, a permanent outdoor market located just outside the Arcade.
Visit novelist Thomas Wolfe's childhood home at 52 North Market Street. Once a boarding house run by his mother and now a state historic site, the house was the setting for the writer's Look Homeward, Angel, a semi–autobiographical novel. His gravesite is in Riverside Cemetery, where short story writer O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) also is buried.
Blowing Rock, Boone and Points North
As you leave Asheville, head north along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Milepost 382 to the Folk Art Center, a great place to purchase local crafts made by members of the Southern Highland Craft Guild. Stop in Linville to explore Linville Caverns and Grandfather Mountain, with its mile–high swinging footbridge and special habitat enclosures for viewing native wildlife.
To learn more about the area's birds and animals, as well as its early history, visit the Grandfather Mountain Nature Museum. This museum also displays Native American artifacts found locally and a collection of North Carolina gems and minerals. If visiting in July, you can watch the annual Highland Games, celebrating Scottish dance, music, and athletics.
Enjoy the vistas from Blowing Rock, a 4000–foot cliff overlooking the scenic Johns River Gorge. In the town of the same name, don't miss Mystery Hill, where you can explore science, optical illusions, and natural phenomena and visit the Appalachian Heritage Museum and Native American Artifacts Museum.
The town of Boone celebrates its namesake, Daniel Boone, through "Horn in the West." This outdoor drama, performed every summer since 1952, is considered "the nation's oldest Revolutionary War drama." It relates the story of the legendary frontiersman and other mountain people who fought for their freedom during the War for Independence. Arrive early to tour the Hickory Ridge Homestead, an eighteenth–century living history museum, on site.
Mast General Store, in the historic district of Valle Crucis, is an outstanding example of an old–time country store. Established in 1883, it sells everything from clothing, porch swings and camping gear to jams and jellies, homemade soap, and more than 500 kinds of old–fashioned candy at the original store and nearby 1909 annex.
You can dig for sapphires near Canton, at the Old Pressley Sapphire Mine, where one of the world's largest blue star sapphires, the 1445–carat "Star of the Carolinas," was found. In nearby Waynesville catch a performance at the Haywood Arts Repertory Theatre, open year–round, or a double feature at the single–screen Waynesville Drive–In, one of the few drive–in movie theaters left in the state.
The Museum of North Carolina Handicrafts, housed in an 1880 Charleston–style farmhouse, features pottery, quilts, needlework, children's toys and other hand–crafted items. You can also view local artifacts, including vintage woven baskets, dulcimers and furniture from as far back as the 1700s.
Head next to Maggie Valley to explore the Wheels Through Time Museum, where you'll find more than 250 vintage American–made cars and motorcycles on display. Enjoy the entertainment at the Maggie Valley Opry House, Carolina Nights Dinner Show as well as the Stompin' Ground, where Appalachian mountain clogging is featured.
Discover the town of Cherokee's rich Native American heritage at the Cherokee Heritage Museum and Gallery and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. At Oconaluftee Indian Village, a re–created 1750s village, Cherokee guides will share their history and culture as you tour traditional homes and a seven–sided Council House, and watch basket weavers, tribal mask makers and other artisans at work. Be sure to book seats for "Unto These Hills," a spectacular outdoor drama portraying the Cherokees' history through 1838 when they were relocated to Oklahoma's Indian Territory on the Trail of Tears.
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad departs from Bryson City, 20 minutes southwest of Cherokee, for a 4.5–hour excursion through scenic river gorges and mountain tunnels to Nantahala Gorge. Your ticket includes admission to the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum. The railroad also operates out of Dillsboro, offering Gourmet Dinner and Mystery Theatre Dinner Trains and other special excursions.
End your trip with a visit to Fontana Lake, to view the 480–foot–high Fontana Dam, the highest dam in the eastern United States. It was constructed during World War II to provide power to the aluminum plant in Knoxville and the top–secret atomic research plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Whether you focus on museums or shopping, nature or man–made wonders, you'll find that western North Carolina has more to offer than you ever
For More Information
Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce
36 Montford Ave..
Asheville, NC 28801
Asheville–Bear Creek RV Park and Campground
81 South Bear Creek Road
Asheville, NC 28806
North Carolina Division of Tourism
(800) VISIT NC – (800) 847–4862