Get away to Asheville

Asheville’s unique shops are the perfect antidote to Atlanta malls

Courtesy of Grove Park Inn

When the women in my family gather, there’d better be cake. And here it sat in front of us: a giant, dense wedge of cheesecake on a thick graham cracker crust. We also passed around a lavender crème brûlée, poking through its delicate sugar crust to ascertain the texture. Soufflélike or custardy? Debating such confections has brought us—my mom, my aunt, my cousin, and me—through most of life’s possible calamities.

At the Corner Kitchen, the desserts were larger than the entrees, which was the first reason we began our trip to Asheville there. Second was that the cheerful little cafe had recently hosted the Obamas. But, our penchants aside, the restaurant’s amusing cocktails, mismatched Fiestaware, and locally sourced brunch were pretty much guaranteed to show a girl a good time.

The restaurant is one of several in Biltmore Village, a turn-of-the-century, Tudor-style community designed by famed architect Richard Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. Nearby Fig has more foodie cred, though we opted for comfort food before strolling the village’s quaint, treelined streets. By the looks of the retail mix, our group embodied the target demographic: J. Jill, Chico’s, Lilly Pulitzer, Talbots. But we preferred getting lost in the multilevel New Morning Gallery, a sort of department store for fine crafts—where we unanimously adopted a crazy-haired tin angel named Ramona as our weekend totem (metaphorically speaking, given her $700-plus price tag).

As I discovered over the next two days, Asheville is the perfect destination for Atlantans who love to shop. We don’t need another Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, or Saks Fifth Avenue. What we’re lacking back home are quirky, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods full of handmade objects, vintage finds, and affordable art. Asheville practically invented the genre. Its famously bohemian culture has matured into a sophisticated milieu, with a gallery or sidewalk cafe seemingly on every corner. Just comparing chocolatiers—the Chocolate Fetish versus French Broad Chocolate Lounge—kept us happily entertained.

The culinary scene has likewise evolved from hippy to hipster. Our first night we visited the James Beard–nominated Table downtown. The industrial-style space—with its glass-block wall and cozy butcher-block tables—is designed for intimate dining. A beet and arugula salad, garnished with almonds, proved a cool start for flavorful goat stew with kale and flageolet beans. No surprise, we didn’t make it to dessert.

After dinner, we pulled up to the fabled Grove Park Inn. The majestic stacked-granite edifice—with a rolling clay-tile roof that drifts over dormers and eaves like thick butter frosting—celebrates its 100th birthday in 2013. The vast lobby’s mission-style lamps, Arts & Crafts furniture, and cavernous stone fireplaces appear just as they did when F. Scott Fitzgerald holed up here for a summer. It’s as close as the Blue Ridge gets to the monumental National Park lodges.

Unfortunately, on this night the lobby was so chaotic with conventioneers and a nondescript bar singer that my mother and I beat a quick retreat to our room. We had chosen not to stay in the relatively spartan historic section, but our comfortably decorated room had one great retro feature: screened windows that cranked open, helping us savor the panoramic mountain view.

The next morning, after lingering too long at the hotel’s indulgent breakfast buffet, we explored downtown’s Art Deco district. Jazz Age storefronts of glazed terra-cotta tiles, such as the S&W Cafeteria and the Kress Building, contrasted with the gargoyles and friezes of more classic beauties like the neo-Gothic Jackson Building, the region’s first skyscraper. A pair of winged stone lions welcomed us to Grove Arcade, circa 1929. Though the renovated mall had some vacant spaces, viewing its ornate arched doorways and iron spiral staircases was worth the visit. Daily street vendors were just gearing up outside as we exited.

By midafternoon we were finally hungry enough for grilled pimento cheese sandwiches at kitschy Early Girl Eatery, though the long list of vegetables and shelves of layer cakes were tempting distractions. This trip, we skipped the Cinderella Castle–like Biltmore House—though we might have relented had it been time for this spring’s Festival of Flowers (April 7 to May 20). Instead we explored Grovewood Gallery, an artisan community behind our hotel.

Never ones to miss a meal, that night our party headed over to gritty West Asheville to check out the Admiral for dinner. We’d read the buzz in Garden & Gun; how scruffy could it be? Yikes. With the attached barbed wire–enclosed auto lot and occasional drifter, I questioned the wisdom of bringing my mother here. But we were driving a rental car and found a parking spot beneath a streetlight—so we soldiered on.

Inside the tiny cinder block building, the seediness was more endearing. Vintage nautical plaques, a console TV–turned–planter, and a neon Budweiser sign with only three letters still illuminated created a vintage bowling-alley ambience. PBR, you’d expect, but Marcho Farms Veal Tomahawk Chop with Anson Mills farrotto, parsnip, maitake mushroom, thyme, prune-bacon chutney, and arugula? OMG!

Safely back at the Grove Park, I got a disappointing phone call. The facial I’d scheduled weeks in advance—the signature treatment that was supposed to make me look years younger—was cancelled. A clinician was sick and there was no sub. Sadly, this was just the most egregious of several service blunders, from distracted front desk attendants to careless housekeeping (dirty towel left on a bed) that marred our stay.

As compensation, the spa offered me free access, and the stunning underground facility covered a multitude of sins. Constructed of granite boulders, it felt like a magical blue lagoon inside Mammoth Cave—with skylights, waterfalls, and fireplaces to warm its hidden alcoves. I floated in a mineral pool, listening to underwater music, and watched faux stars twinkle in the rocks above. Stress melted away, and that afternoon, I headed home looking years younger.

This article originally appeared in our April 2012 issue.