ASHEVILLE, N.C. —Look on the map, and it's indisputable. This place is the South. Confederate heritage, shrimp and grits, lilting accents — it's all here.
Except it's not the South. Amid the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and weathered brick architecture, this feels like the progressive West — lived in but not old; nicely aged but very much alive. Think Boulder, Santa Fe or, as the women marveling at the 25 beers on tap at Barley's Pizza on a Monday night argued, Portland, Ore.
"It's because this is not Southern," said Sally Whitney, 55, hoisting a local beer on a cool, clean fall night. She knew of what she spoke. Whitney has lived in North Carolina for 35 years. "It's artsy, creative," said her partner, Kathy Mulligan, 56. "People say it's bohemian." "That's because the Southerners don't appreciate it."
While I won't say that Southerners don't appreciate this progressive slice of their backyard, I will say that Asheville is curiously light on Southerners. I met transplants from Ann Arbor, Mich.; Berkeley, Calif.; and New York City who gushed about this place as if it was their own.
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"I hate to use this word, but it's cosmopolitan for a small town," said Matthew Bishop, 43, who moved from Berkeley five years ago. "After the first three restaurants I ate at, I knew I could live here."
Few places transcend their size and place on the map, but this town of 76,000 does it. It's in the gray ponytails, the pierced, tattooed kids and the artists. It boasts a lyric opera, a rich collection of art deco architecture and this curiosity: when rock band Smashing Pumpkins came out of retirement in 2007, it warmed up with a nine-night residency in, of all places, Asheville.
The progressiveness occasionally moves into a downright touchy-feely hippie vibe, as evidenced by a memorable downtown bulletin board advertising the Divine Feminine Mystery School, the Appalachian School of Holistic Herbalism and a "Be an Askable Parent" seminar about "how to answer your child's questions about sexuality."
"This is a small city, not a homogenous small town," said Cathy Sklar, 63, a former Manhattan attorney who moved here with her husband to buy the Albemarle Inn bed and breakfast. "We love the cultural underpinnings. We're New Yorkers."
Asheville toddled along as just another mountain stop until the late 19th century, when the railroads began bringing Eastern tourists craving mountain air. Among them was George W. Vanderbilt, who bought 120,000 acres and commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted to design the grounds around his Biltmore Estate, a sprawling, ornate mansion now one of the city's most popular tourist attractions. The town also has had a bit of good luck along the way; author Thomas Wolfe ("Look Homeward, Angel," not "The Bonfire of the Vanities") grew up in a boardinghouse that is another popular tourist destination.
Lest you think this place is purely progressive, it also is squarely the South. That's apparent in the ubiquitous biscuits and gravy, grits, Appalachian string bands and unabashed friendliness (a stranger passed me in the rain, smiled and said, "Staying wet?"). But it seemed that at its best Asheville split the difference between its Southern roots and creative flare. Like the charming old Woolworth's that has been restored into an art-gallery-meets-old-time-soda-fountain or the "Normandy meets Appalachian Chicken" dish at French restaurant Bouchon, more properly named Le Poulet au Cidre.
So is it more Southern or New Age progressive? Rather than the newer arrivals, I turned to the old-timers.
"It's still the South — I'm as hillbilly as they come," one woman said. "There's been a lot of change in the last 15 years, but it's been good."
"There's basically the new and the old," another said. "There are people here keeping the Appalachian traditions alive. It's just up to you which one you want to go with."
IF YOU GO:
EATING THERE: No shortage of great food in Asheville. Among the best bets:
—Tupelo Honey, modern Southern food (828-255-4863, tupelohoneycafe.com)
—Early Girl Eatery, inventive and veggie-friendly breakfasts (828-259-9292, earlygirleatery.com)
—Limones, zesty take on what they call French-influenced California Mexican food (828-252-2327, limonesrestaurant.com)
—The Market Place, "innovative farm-to-table cuisine" (828-252-4162, marketplace-restaurant.com)
—Barley's Taproom and Pizzeria, excellent pizza, even better beer menu (828-255-0504, barleystaproom.com)
—Sourwood Inn, cozy, warm and beautifully situated in the mountains (828-255-0690, sourwoodinn.com)
—Albemarle Inn, step into the old South (800-621-7435, albemarleinn.com)
—Inn on Biltmore Estate, maybe the most luxurious stay in town (800-411-3812, biltmore.com)