Views of the lushly forested, steeply ridged mountains are enough to draw anyone to this increasingly cosmopolitan corner of Appalachia.
BEST FOR: Lovers of fine arts and crafts
ALLURE: Although the quilts, baskets, pottery, and wood carving associated with Appalachia's Blue Ridge Mountains grew out of a need for home goods in isolated communities, the crafts quickly transcended their utilitarian origins. By the 1920s, schools began nurturing these traditional arts. "Artists strongly influenced by the mountain topography came [to study] and settled here," says Carole Summers, director of tourism for the nonprofit Handmade in America, which publishes a guide to craft communities in North Carolina. It's easy to see why: Views of the lushly forested, steeply ridged mountains are enough to draw anyone to this increasingly cosmopolitan corner of Appalachia.
Drive north from Asheville on I-26, exiting east at Route 19E to the gallery-filled town of Burnsville. Arranged around a gorgeous traditional center square, you'll find Burnsville easily navigable by foot. The Design Gallery (828-678-9869, www.the-design-gallery.com) represents the breadth of the region's output-from turned wood bowls, blown glass, and pottery to landscape paintings. Pick up picnic supplies at the adjacent gourmet food shop. Down Main Street, DK Puttyroot (828-678-9588, www.dkputtyroot.burnsville-nc.com) sells papers handmade from local plants. Highly textured sheets made from kudzu, the clingy, invasive vine that looms large in Southern culture, are a favorite. Dana McDowell and Karen Wyatt, the sisters who run DK Puttyroot, stock the Orchid Tearoom with 75 different tea varieties. Just up the street, the Lace Toadstool (828-682-2919, www.thelacetoadstool.com) produces charming ceramic birdfeeders imprinted with native wildflowers.
LOCAL FARE: Break for lunch under a willow tree on the patio of the Garden Deli (828-682-3946, www.garden-deli.com) for a house-smoked barbecue pork sandwich. Barbecue is a serious affair in North Carolina. Here, in the western half of the state, it's commonly made from roast pork shoulder and topped with a tomato-based sauce (versus the whole-hog style dressed with vinegar sauce that's found in eastern North Carolina).
After lunch, you can drive east and north (from Burnsville) on Route 80 to EnergyXchange (828-675-5541, www.energyxchange.org), where an environmentally conscious sensibility infuses not only the art but also the building in which it is produced. The studios use methane gases captured from decomposing trash in a neighboring landfill to power glass furnaces and a clay kiln. Visitors can observe artists at work and shop for their wares at the center's gallery.
WHERE TO STAY: Backtrack to Micaville, then head south on Route 80 to the South Toe Valley, home to the warm, timber-frame Celo Inn ($30-$70; 828-675-5132, www.celoinn.com). Be sure to leave enough time to wander the flower-festooned garden or curl up in one of the cozy reading nooks.
Take Route 226 to Bakersville for a look at the Asian-inspired work of Joe Comeau at Two Trees Pottery (828-688-9139). Nearby, potter Jann Welch runs the friendly Picket Fence Gallery (828-688-9192). Phone ahead, and she may let you throw a pot with her at her studio and classroom.
Leaving Bakersville, head down Route 226 to Penland, home of the famous Penland School of Crafts (828-765-6211, www.penland.org). Established in 1929 to encourage weaving among local women, the now 400-acre campus hosts teaching studios in 10 disciplines that range from bookmaking to woodworking. You can easily while away an entire afternoon exploring the Penland Gallery (guided tours of the campus are on Tuesdays and Thursdays). Plus, dozens of craftspeople operate studios in the hills near the school, including Barking Spider Studio (888-765-2670, www.penlandpottery.com), a good source for functional earth-toned bowls and tea sets as well as handmade ornaments.
WHERE TO STAY: Back on 226, continue to Little Switzerland to overnight at the Switzerland Inn ($110-$170; 800-654-4026, www.switzerlandinn.com). In 1909, a trio of travelers passed through what was then an open, grassy meadow, ringed in mountains, and they named it for the vista's similarity to the Alps. The inn, erected a year later, took its design cues from the name, in a now-sprawling compound that includes A-frame chalets as well as hotel rooms.
LOCAL FARE: Western North Carolina's pristine mountain streams have nurtured a culinary focus on trout. Most restaurants serve locally farmed rainbow trout, and the Switzerland Inn's popular Chalet Restaurant is no exception. You'll find flaky, white-fleshed trout as an appetizer (smoked trout dip), salad (Caesar with smoked trout), or entrée (pan-seared bourbon pecan trout).
Shop the Swiss village, beginning with Trillium Gallery (828-765-0024), located on the inn grounds. Among the offerings from local artisans, look for necklaces made from local river stones and watercolors of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Then, stroll into town to buy a book for the return trip home from the Little Switzerland Book Exchange (828-765-9070), which is stacked with three floors of used and rare books.
Leaving Little Switzerland, drive south and west along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and savor the views of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi, and the deep woods of the Pisgah National Forest on either side. Break at the century-old Orchard at Altapass (828-765-9531, www.altapassorchard.com), and pick up a bushel of Virginia Beauty apples to sustain you on the ride back to Asheville and beyond.
Just before reaching Asheville at mile marker 382, pull into the Southern Highland Craft Guild's Folk Art Center (828-298-7928, www.craftguild.org). Like the Penland School, the Southern Highland Craft Guild was founded to help preserve mountain arts. But in addition to education, the Guild focused on marketing those goods. Today it represents more than 900 craftspeople in nine southeastern states, who produce everything from hand-stitched quilts and split-oak baskets to high-art sculpture and furniture. If you happen to visit between October 19th and 22nd, allow extra time to explore the Guild's annual Craft Fair. Each year, several hundred Guild members set up shop in the Asheville Civic Center to showcase their wares.
LOCAL FARE: Ask any local chef or restaurant worker where to find the best food in town, and most point to Laurey's Catering and Gourmet To Go (828-252-1500, www.laureysyum.com). This modest downtown spot changes offerings daily but always features farm-fresh produce in dishes ranging from gazpacho to herb-roasted chicken and, of course, trout (here, grilled and served with gremolata pesto salad).
MORE INFO: 800-331-4154, www.handmadeinamerica.org