When one thinks of gay destinations, immediately San Francisco, Calif. and Key West, Fla. are two places that come to mind. The excellent food, the funky neighborhoods and the welcoming atmosphere have made them places to get away and make memories.
But as both cities are becoming more gentrified and losing much of the charm that made people want to visit, a new city is becoming a top place for LGBT people to visit: Asheville, N.C.
Only a few hours away, the fresh air and beautiful mountain landscapes beckon gay travelers to come and explore an area that greets the LGBT community with open arms.
Traditionally, people think of Asheville as a good place to visit for two reasons: viewing fall foliage and touring the iconic Biltmore House and estate. But Asheville is also one of the best places to get away for a weekend of romance and fun.
Asheville offers in the downtown area more than 45 dining establishments, eight of which are James Beard-nominated restaurants for their excellent cuisine. For the theatre and concert lovers, there are eight performing arts venues, one of which was just doing the famous gay play “La Cage Aux Folles.” For those who love to drink beer, there are now 24 microbreweries in town with a wide range of offerings.
But first and foremost, a great visit starts with great lodging. If you are looking for an unforgettable place to stay, skip the boring hotels and go to one of the more than 24 bed-and-breakfasts in the Asheville area. The B&Bs offer incredible breakfasts, exquisite accommodations and at the same time privacy for those wanting a break from the rat race or for those who want to share intimate moments that will provide memories forever.
For those wanting to stay close to the downtown area, the Carolina Bed & Breakfast is a great choice. Along with elegant and well-appointed rooms, it offers the chance to walk through a historic neighborhood to the restaurants and attractions of the downtown area. Along with a delicious breakfast, inn owners James and Susan Murray also offer a cocktail hour with Biltmore wine and scrumptious finger foods. This provides a chance to meet a diverse group of people there, or a chance to grab something to go back to your room for some more intimate sharing of hors d’oeuvres.
For those who want breathtaking views and luxurious rooms in a historic mansion, the Reynolds House Bed and Breakfast is just the ticket. Gay partners Billy Sanders and Michael Griffith bought the place in 2009 and have restored this brick antebellum home to its former grandeur. The house was once the home of the owner of the famous Hope Diamond, the Star of India and the Star of the East, and is a worth a visit simply because of its rich history. But the inn has much more, including 16 bedrooms, the largest dining room in the county (seating 34), a 1919 spring-fed pool and even two secret passageways. At sunset and fall, the views of Mount Pisgah and Cold Mountain (from book and movie fame) are spectacular. The breakfasts are sumptuous and one offering is delicious honey from Sanders’ own beehives. No wonder this gay-owned home has won the Trip Advisor Award as the second best bed and breakfast in the U.S. and twelfth in the world.
Equally spectacular but lesser-known is the gay-owned Engadine Bed and Breakfast. Situated in Candler, N.C., Rick Bell and his longtime partner Tom Watson bought the inn 18 months ago and are in the process of updating the home built in 1885 by Confederate Navy Captain John Hoyt. This B&B is unique in that it has a wonderful mix of historical and modern accommodations. Fireplaces and classic clawfeet bathtubs adapted to showers for a wonderful intimate experience can be found in the five gorgeous bedrooms. The top floor is modern and has wonderful furnishings from Florida, where Bell and Watson used to live. But the truly unique part of Engadine is that dotting the areas where the vineyards used to be are wonderful well-appointed cabins that include kitchens and allow those wanting complete privacy and intimacy to have a wonderful romantic experience. The largest cabin, the Cherokee, boasts a wonderful king-sized bed and a two-person spa bath. It is a wonderful place to begin or renew romance.
Engadine is also in the process of becoming a great venue for weddings and other events and is a wonderful place for those who just want to get away from it all, yet is only 15 minutes west of all of the attractions of Asheville. And the food is also good (make sure to ask about the Applewood smoked pecan bacon!).
Both Reynolds and Engadine are ideal locations for couples, friends or groups who want to get away to memorable locations which are gay-owned.
For those on a tighter budget and who want a small-town getaway, the Dry Ridge B&B in Weaverville, N.C., offers a lot of amenities. Only 15 to 20 minutes north of the city, the inn offers lower prices than many other B&Bs while not skimping on the quality. The 1888 home has eight bedrooms and is a good place for couples, families or singles. Bikers will find Howard Kristen Dusenbery a wealth of information about places to ride in the area, and will especially love the Harley bedroom and Davidson bedroom on the top floor along with the motorcycle art. The breakfasts are quite good, especially the breads and the blueberry pancakes, and the seating allows people to sit by themselves or in a way to meet others. Howard also plays bagpipes and is known to frequently serve breakfast in a kilt!
The greater benefit of staying at Dry Ridge is that you can walk a few blocks into downtown Weaverville and find several great places to eat, including Blue Mountain Pizza and Brew Pub. This is one of the friendliest restaurants you will find anywhere around, and the food is very good. The restaurant is known for brewing its own beer downstairs, and the light, dry Saison and the aggressively hoppy North Main beers are quite delicious. Also you will hear great live music here, especially on weekends. A few minutes away by car also is the Stony Knob Café, which has wonderful food and a great Sunday brunch.
In town during the day you will also find wonderful places to view and buy art. A must stop is Mangum Pottery which mixes heritage and contemporary designs, and is known for its heron sculptures.
Indeed, the growing arts community in Asheville is one of the hallmarks of the city. Artists from all over the country are moving to Asheville and offer something to visitors that can be rarely experienced: a visit to studios where the artists are actually producing their work.
The best place to experience this is the River Arts district, home to more than 200 studios and 300 artists. The area is an old warehouse district that continues to be transformed into the home of one of the most vibrant arts communities in the United States. It is worth a trip to drive down to this district (don’t try to walk it). From ceramics to oil painting to welding art to glass blowing, this district has something for everyone. The artists alone are fascinating to meet, and the work is simply spectacular.
There are so many interesting studios that it can be overwhelming, so make sure you hop on one of the trolleys and get one of the Artists 2016 Studio Guides to help orient yourself. Nonetheless, several artists are definitely worth a visit: Michael Hofman, whose handcrafted plates and tableware using lace are spectacular; Stephen St. Claire and his “dialuminism” technique in which metal leaf and oil paint are embedded within layers of resin, making it appear that light is shining through the back of the painting; and the Asheville Glass Company where various glassblowers are creating fabulous pieces of glass (this is a great place to get something to take home!). Also, a visit down to the Wedge brewery is a good stop on a hot day. Make sure you ask and see the metal dinosaur sculpture welded by late artist John Payne.
For those looking for more traditional mountain arts and crafts, there are a number of stores in downtown Asheville to visit, and local people often sell their crafts outside the historic Grove Arcade. There are several good shops inside the wonderfully restored arcade, an architectural jewel worth visiting just for its structure and design. Do visit the Mountain Made shop and the Asheville NC Homecrafts store.
Any time of the week, but especially Sunday morning, there are several wonderful places to visit in downtown Asheville. For a unique experience, you must imbibe at the gay-owned and operated Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar at the Grove Arcade. With two floors of used books to peruse and purchase, you are encouraged to browse, find a book you love, and settle down to read while sipping on one of the three champagnes you can order by glass or 10 others that you can order by half bottle. Do check out the literary drinks such as the Great Gatsby, which is a classic champagne cocktail, or their delicious mimosas. They also offer draft beer and very good coffee.
LGBT people will also want to know that many restaurants, shops and B&Bs are friendly to their four-footed children. It is not uncommon to see people in outside seating in restaurants and in many indoor establishments for their dogs, and to see the dogs greeted warmly by the owners and workers in the establishments.
Another don’t miss place for coffee, juice and a good read is the Malaprops Bookstore. Known throughout the Southeast, the gay-owned shop offers a good variety of books, including eclectic books and a great section of LGBT books and novels. It definitely has one of the best selections of lesbian fiction in the South.
One of the more unique places to visit in Asheville is the Carolina Bee Charmer. Asheville was certified as the first Bee City as being a pollinator-friendly location. This small store offers information on honey and even a honey tasting bar before you take home one of the many varieties of honey and bee-related products. Definitely try the buckwheat, the cranberry and the light wildflower honeys, and check out the other many varieties they offer.
Talking about honey probably makes you hungry and there is no shortage of places to eat in downtown Asheville. There are few chain restaurants, meaning that there is a wide range of quality places to eat with cuisine for every palate. And another wonderful quality is the number of restaurants with outdoor seating.
A few of the great restaurants to visit are Carmel’s Kitchen and Bar (burgers and salads to delicious locally sourced steaks), Salsas (a wonderful mix of Mexican and Caribbean food), the Tupelo Honey Café (soul food) and Rosetta’s Kitchen (flavorful vegetarian food). There are truly too many good places to eat to go into more detail here, and it is worth walking around a bit to explore and find that unique dining experience you are looking for.
One place that cannot be skipped is the French Broad Chocolate Factory and Tasting Room. You will know where it is because of the line of people waiting to get one of the rich chocolate drinks. The place is also known for its wonderfully decadent chocolate-based desserts and especially the truffles. You must indulge here!
Another good restaurant ,which is as funky as the area in which it is located, is the Universal Joint. Created out an old gas station, it has delicious sandwiches and is located in West Asheville. That area is attracting a large number of LGBT couples and singles who are moving into the area for its eclectic feel and for the inexpensive housing. Another good place worth visiting there is the Asheville Sandwich Company.
For nightlife, check out Tressa’s Downtown Jazz and Blues, a lesbian-owned bar with wonderful live music. For the younger crowd, the gay bar of choice is Scandals, and the traditional choice for a good bar and drag show is O’Henry’s, which includes a separate venue for dancing and has themed dance nights and events.
And for healthier activities, one cannot forget the original and best draw of Asheville: the mountains. It is an easy drive to jump on the Blue Ridge Parkway and see the mountains or to go rafting, kayaking, tubing, hiking, biking and so many more outdoor activities.
In short, there is so much to do in Asheville that one weekend does not suffice. Being such a short drive away from the Charlotte, N.C. area, there is no question: the best place to get away and enjoy a weekend in a community which embraces diversity and where LGBT people are warmly welcomed is Asheville.
The weekend is coming and you don’t have anything to do. What are you waiting for? Asheville is waiting for you.