ANY GIVEN MORNING OF MY WEEK, the first few minutes involve some version of a simple ritual: open cabinet, grab a coffee cup, fill to the brim, sip and greet the day. It’s a mindless practice for many of us, but a recent addition in my growing collection of mugs is currently stealing the spotlight from others on the shelf. In fact, the first few weeks it was in my possession, I didn’t dare reach for it in the mornings for fear of letting it slip through my clumsy, not-yet-caffeinated fingers. I simply smiled at the speckled gray clay, its blue fern-like detail curving on its center like a sideways mouth grinning back.
More than an ode to my borderline-obsession with morning brew, this cup stirs memories of a trip along the artisan outskirts of Asheville, N.C. when I met the mug’s maker, the potter Matt Jones, and gained a widened outlook on the bohemian Southern city.
A NEW VIEW
It’s no secret – Asheville, N.C. is a world-class destination, just three and a half hours by car for spoiled Atlantans. But the timelessness of the Biltmore, hipness of the ever-growing breweries and rising culinary reverence of Chef Katie Button are just the tip of the, err, mountain. Set amid western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville has built a reputation for inspiring creativity among makers in town and country alike.
A visit with unparalleled insight from in-the-know locals begins with a stay at one of the area’s finer bed and breakfasts. In a world of Airbnb, when a search on TripAdvisor yields 40 results, how does the modern, discerning traveller sift through user reviews – or even have the time to do so? This is where the Asheville Bed and Breakfast Association (ABBA) comes into play. Booking a stay at one of 16 unique inns, ranging in price points, architectural styles, location, age requirement for guests, dietary interests and innkeepers‘ personalities, offers complimentary peace of mind from the peer-reviewed association’s high standards for hospitality – and of course, a gourmet breakfast.
Whether you prefer a Craftsmen, Victorian or antebellum home just minutes from the walkable downtown or a friendly farmhouse, cabin or cottage in more rural surroundings, you’ll find yourself in good company and among the area’s top tour guides, albeit unconventional concierges. Typically a junkie for hotels myself – the shinier, the better – the idea of an alternative getaway combined with the rustic charm of ASIA Bed and Breakfast Spa, backed by the association’s high praise, lured me in. Before I knew it, the scenic drive up mountainous windy roads was behind me and innkeeper Doniel Winter was leading me up the private entrance to ASIA’s Artisan Room.
Designed by Winter’s mother, a California artist, the quaint and cozy space is skillfully maximized for function and fashion. Above the handcrafted queen bed, a skylight in the vaulted ceiling offers views of the stars and moon; windows on the wall overlook the meditation garden and adjacent canopy, making the cabin-like room the most private of ASIA’s five. Couples that have romanticized the notion of tiny-house living may enjoy that the area consisting of seating by the gas stove, the boudoir and the extra large, en-suite jetted tub are one-in-the-same. For those that are imagining it as a little too cozy, remember the inn’s gardens, Tatami porch, library and living room are also intended for guests to relax, as well as to mingle.
Both are equal parts of the B&B experience, however the latter is particularly important for those eager to explore the roads less traveled. Equipped with maps and their unique network of fellow innkeepers, these hosts are skilled at tailoring your stay.
Occasionally, ABBA collectively offers a package intended to do just that. For example, this past fall, I joined the Farms and Artisan Tour, an independent, scavenger hunt by car that allowed visitors to see, sip and shop at working farms, a vineyard and artisan studios throughout the Sandy Mush community in nearby Leicester, N.C.
LAND OF LEGACIES
As the sun moves over the sky from morning to evening, handcrafted coffee cups are replaced by pint glasses of craft beer. Many tourists come to town to bounce from brewery to brewery, and while we too have happily sipped from one tap to the next, proceed with caution: those focused solely on beer risk overlooking a hidden gem like Addison Farms Vineyards.
Seventeen miles from downtown Asheville, the winery began in 2009 when husband-and-wife team Jeffery and Dianne Frisbee planted the first grapes on the family farm. Today, they produce more than 8 tons of fruit and six varieties of wine.
As Jeffrey poured samples and offered tidbits behind the land’s history and each vintage’s inspiration inside the tasting room, we soon felt more like we’d been invited over to a friend’s home. The effect was amplified when Jeffrey shared his Atlanta roots.
“It may be more accurate to describe it as our Atlanta branches,” he said. “Dianne and I spent 17 years in metro Atlanta, but we were both raised here in Leicester. In fact, I grew up on the same piece of property on which we built our vineyard, and she grew up about 10 miles from us in the house in which her parents still live.”
In the wake of recent wildfires throughout the Southeast, I was relieved to hear that Addison Farms had not been directly impacted – although when I touched based with Frisbee in mid-November, he said there was a haziness from the smoke, clouding the normally long-range views at their elevation between 2,250 and 2,300 feet.
Susan Murray, the innkeeper at Carolina Bed and Breakfast, shared outdoor activities have continued in Asheville including a lovely afternoon wedding held at her inn. “Going to the Biltmore, walking around downtown are all still pleasant and good options,” Murray said. “Hiking depends on where you want to go. People traveling to the area should ask their innkeeper.”
Again, it was their perspicacity that introduced me to Jones Pottery, another stop along ABBA’s Farms and Artisan Tour. As a fan of the nearby East Fork Pottery, co-founded by Alex Matisse — yes, he is a descendant of Henri – I found a similar fascination viewing Jones’ work. The connection became more apparent when Jones revealed the younger Matisse was one of his former apprentices.
Other tour-goers found their own heart-stirring keepsake at Friendswoods, second-generation broommakers using techniques that date back to the 1790s.
A CLOSER LOOK
Touring and wine tasting sure work up an appetite, so next on the agenda was dinner. While ABBA may help you narrow your accommodations search, when it comes to placing a reservation at one of the hotspots on Asheville’s rising culinary scene, you’ve just got to go with your gut.
With reassuring affirmation from Winter, my stomach led me to Smoky Park Supper Club, located on nearly 2 acres in Asheville’s River Arts District along the French Broad River meaning customers can arrive by car, foot, bike or boat. I was just as intrigued by the menu highlighting local purveyors as its design. The restaurant is built from reclaimed shipping containers and set new records for a project of this scale when it debuted in 2015.
Back in town, Sovereign Remedies is another “hidden” gem. With the name only printed on the glass door, it’s easy to miss from the street; however, any hesitations you have as you approach are erased when you enter. Chic terrariums, a mirrored bar that reaches to the ceiling and a constantly rotating menu of farm-to-glass cocktails gave the notion that we had been let into another world within Asheville. Seems the city still has some secrets to discover, after all.
Determined to uncover as many as we could before leaving the mountains, we delved farther off the beaten path for lunch at Gàn Shan Station. Chef/owner Patrick O’Cain proved his chops at Button’s Cúrate and in McCrady’s kitchen in Charleston, S.C. before returning home to open a restaurant of his own, located in (and named for) the Sunset Mountain neighborhood, where he grew up. With each artfully presented course, it became harder to imagine leaving Asheville without returning again soon.
Although ABBA wasn’t yet able to confirm what and when the next package will be, many of the individual bed and breakfast members offer their own specials, especially around the holidays, for adventurous Atlantans to enjoy. Booking an entire B&B to fill with friends or family is another tempting option, but that means missing out on the serendipity that evolves from chatting with fellow guests. An easy icebreaker is the emphasis ABBA puts on supporting independent business owners – a notion that is echoed loudly throughout Asheville’s plates, glasses, products and people.
Whether you want to come down for breakfast in your pajamas, find a peaceful nook on the porch or settle in a common space where others might be, expect a friendly innkeeper like Winter to join you for conversation.
Even if your usual morning routine is out of sorts, I’ve found that sometimes all it takes to feel at home, even when you’re more than 140 miles away, is someone asking you with care, “How do you take your coffee?”
[a version of this story originally appeared in Points North Atlanta magazine | photography courtesy of ASHEVILLE BED AND BREAKFAST ASSOCIATION; ASIA BED AND BREAKFAST SPA; GAN SHAN STATION | ANDREW THOMAS LEE; ADDISON FARMS VINEYARD]