Country Roads (Take me away from home, please ...)

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By the end of August, my friend Michelle is ready to chuck summer and her kids right into a school building and slam the door behind them. The smell of sunscreen triggers migraines for her after nine weeks of running unofficial “Camp Mommy” as a stay-at-home mom.

Michelle told me she needed a girls’ weekend “far away” from her kids. I suggested a few local destinations: Washington, D.C. or the Eastern Shore.

“Not far enough,” she said into the phone, as her daughters shrieked in the background.

“What are they yelling about?” I asked.

“I don’t care,” she said. “When can you leave?”

Picking the date helped us pick the destination. The second weekend in October was later than Michelle wanted to wait, but I couldn’t go sooner and argued it would be peak leaf-turning season south of Baltimore. Her aunt told us that would be the perfect time to visit Asheville, North Carolina, a destination known for its Blue Ridge location and thriving food and arts culture.

Asheville, North Carolina

are flights to Asheville from all the airports in the Baltimore-Washington area, but nonstops from BWI were rare. Most flights had layovers in Atlanta, making the air-travel process about as lengthy as the eight-hour drive between Baltimore and Asheville.

So, we removed the car seats from her minivan and took a road trip south on I-81, tracing the spine of the Shenandoah Mountains. Only a few trees had unsheathed their summer green to shine yellow and gold, but the contrast seemed to deliver us out of a summer spent caring for others and into a fall weekend that was all ours.

The town, tucked into a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains, has become a regional hub for artists, foodies and even beer enthusiasts. Asheville offered something for both of us. I’d never been this far south in the Appalachians and wanted to hike in the beautiful fall foliage. Michelle wanted to shop at artsy boutiques, eat and sleep.

We met up with my cousin Deb, who lives in Durham and could sneak away to join us for a couple of days. Deb asked if we’d be visiting Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s late 1800s-era country home on the southern edge of town.

We hadn’t decided. “It’s a big historical house,” said Deb, sending me a meaningful look. Deb and I share childhood memories of being marched through airless, sweltering, historical mansions that absolutely delighted our parents.

“It’s educational,” our parents cajoled.

“It’s not air-conditioned,” we protested. I’ve worked to overcome this aversion and was willing to try Biltmore, if Michelle wanted to go. But Michelle balked at the admission price. “I’m interested, but not $75 interested,” she said. I was secretly relieved, even though, I’m told, it had air-conditioning.

We stayed at the Radisson west of town, a 10- to 15-minute drive into Asheville’s downtown area, which is packed with shops, restaurants and heavy traffic. Although Asheville proper is a town of around 90,000 people, the metro area is home to around 500,000. Fall brings swarms of tourists and competition for parking spots.

For the Foodie
The night we arrived, we allowed ourselves a leisurely wander down Biltmore Avenue, the heart of downtown, which is lined with bakeries, wine shops, yoga studios, art galleries, boutiques, haute Southern restaurants and lots of buskers.

We stopped at White Duck Taco Shop for dinner, which was recommended by a friend. There, Michelle enjoyed a giant chicken taco for $3. My dinner was $6 because I ordered a local microbrew. My fish taco was delicious and so was the beer. Even though we’d agreed to try out all the haute Southern cuisine in Asheville, we went back to White Duck Taco Shop twice more for the best super-cheap dinner we’d ever had.

Double D’s Coffee & Desserts

After all, we had to save our money dessert. At the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, named for the French Broad River that runs through town, the line wound out the door and around the block. Waiting among the dressed-up tourists felt like waiting in line to get into a club in New York City. (But better: I’ll take spicy chocolate mousse over electronic music any day.)

We weren’t yet privy to the knowledge that Asheville boasts more breweries per capita than most American cities, but a stroll downtown hinted this might be the case. More than a dozen breweries and brewpubs can be found within walking distance: Burial Beer Company, One World Brewing, Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria, Wicked Weed Brewing Pub, Green Man Brewery, Twin Leaf Brewery, Bhramari Brewing Company, Hi Wire Brewing, Thirsty Monk, Lexington Avenue Brewery, Foggy Mountain Brew Pub and more — many more.

We speculated that The Amazing Pubcycle, the group-pedal-powered moving bar, was always full because people wanted to drink before they had to choose which brewpub to visit first. Beer culture has even seeped into the food culture: Vortex Doughnuts offers a beer-glazed doughnut among its nonconformist offerings.

For lunch on Saturday, Michelle wanted to try Farm Burger, a burger shop that offered local grass-fed beef and organic, locally sourced seasonal sides. The wait was long but worthwhile: It wasn’t the first grass-fed burger I’ve had, but it was the best I’ve had so far.

Afterward, we hit Double D’s Coffee & Desserts, housed in a genuine British double-decker bus. The red behemoth is now retired, restored and parked on Biltmore Avenue’s sidewalk. You can drink your latte in the shaded courtyard adjacent or sit at a table on the top floor of the bus.

For the Hiker
Asheville’s culture — casual about dogs in pubs, serious about doughnuts, art, coffee and drum circles — reminded me a little of Portland, Oregon. And just like Portland, Asheville is surrounded by mountains that provide hiking, biking and camping opportunities.

We hopped on the Blue Ridge Parkway to head north through the Appalachians to Mount Mitchell, which, rising to 6,683 feet, holds the distinction of being the highest peak in North America east of the Mississippi. We hiked the summit trail, taking in the spectacular views of the fall foliage. Michelle kept stopping to remark on the quiet, a rarity in her daily world. We spoke little as we watched hawks circle the treetops and listened to the sound of the wind in the trees.

Chimney Rock State Park

The next day we drove east out of town to check out Chimney Rock State Park, stopping in a town called Bat Cave to buy apples. Instead of taking us up the side of the mountains, the drive wound along a scenic river valley to Chimney Rock State Park. Like Yosemite Valley, most of the hiking at Chimney Rock is of the straight-up and straight-down variety. That is, unless you’d like to take the elevator, which connects a lower-level visitor center to a gift shop and snack bar on top of the rock. The trail up the rock is, in many parts, hiked on a staircase attached to the cliff. This triggered Michelle’s fear of heights, and she and Deb rested while I climbed higher, taking in stunning views of the sunset over the Appalachian Mountains to the west.

For the Shopper
We reserved our last day for shopping, picking up coffee at the double-decker bus and hitting the weekly Saturday craft market in North Park Square. From there, we found the Woolworth Walk, a former Woolworth’s with its space divided into artist booths and its original soda fountain intact. I loved the rare, old books at the Battery Park Book Exchange, next door to a cute champagne bar. Our favorite boutique in an entire town of them was Southern Expressions, which we visited twice for its reasonable prices and unique selection of handmade jewelry. When the owner saw us come back, he spontaneously offered us a 15-percent discount on the earrings for which we returned.

Asheville is the kind of town where you can find something unexpected around every corner and can build a weekend around any interest you may have. On Biltmore Avenue, there’s a chalkboard-like wall called the Before I Die Wall, where visitors can leave their resolutions. Without hesitation, I picked up a stylus and wrote: “Return to Asheville.”

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