Here’s an article I did recently for The Business Times about my trip to Asheville, North Carolina. It’s best known today as the main shooting location for The Hunger Games (2012), but there is a lot more to it than just that – roaring waterfalls, beautiful forests, great food and awesome beer.
“OUT in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Asheville is undiscovered country – at least for Singaporeans more enamoured of the big city lights of New York, Boston or Washington.
One link to the pop culture psyche would be that Asheville was the main shooting location for the hit movie, “The Hunger Games” (2012). But Asheville’s allure goes beyond the odd Hollywood connection.
New residents such as chiropractor Marty Hughes, 32, and his naturopathic physician wife Robyn, 33, settled here two years ago, drawn by the outdoor recreational activities such as hiking and cycling, the restaurants, food culture and climate. “Asheville is one of the few mountain towns in the US that has consistently good weather,” notes Mr Hughes.
Perhaps the most striking landmark in Asheville is the 3,240-hectare Biltmore Estate, once the largest home in America. Built by the railroad tycoon George W Vanderbilt with the help of architects Richard Morris Hunt and Frederick Law Olmsted, it opened in 1895 as a private getaway for Mr Vanderbilt’s family and friends. Today, it still belongs to the Vanderbilt family, and is maintained by some 1,800 employees. About a million people visit every year, and even during the off-peak season, admission is a costly US$49.
Reminiscent of the Gardens of Versailles – it was built to resemble a French chateau – Biltmore Estate is best described as a monument to opulence. Biltmore House, the main building on the estate, has 250 rooms. Its banquet hall alone is several stories high and adorned with 16th century Flemish tapestries. Its centrepiece is an oak table big enough for 38 people to have dinner at, replete with fine linens and china, family silver and crystal wine glasses. It feels very much like Downton Abbey, the acclaimed British TV series about an early 20th century aristocratic family.
Biltmore House was one of the first homes in the US to have a private bowling alley – although not the kind you’re thinking of. Automatic pinsetters hadn’t been invented at the time, so the servants had to manually set up the pins and retrieve the balls.
The house also had a 265,000 litre indoor swimming pool that’s now empty. An interesting anecdote on the audio guide hints at the reason: many years ago, the owners filled up the pool, not knowing that it was leaking. The next morning, the pool was empty, and the basement flooded.
Set aside half a day to traipse through the entire estate, which includes family rooms, guest rooms, servants’ quarters, themed gardens, a conservatory, winery and a vineyard – and there is still a lot more to be seen. By the time you leave the estate, the inevitable thought comes to mind: no one needs such a big house, but with that kind of money, wants obviously outweigh everything else.
Beyond the house, though, is what drew Mr Hughes and his wife to Asheville – the natural beauty of the region. There is an abundance of it in DuPont State Recreational Forest, a 40 sq km tract of land that is accessible by car, with friendly terrain that makes trekking for both families and dogs a breeze. A reward awaits you at the end of a four km trek to Triple Falls – the breathtaking sight of a three-tier waterfall that you can jump right into at certain points.
But Bridal Veil Falls, where the water cascades down a 37-metre-long, 45 degree granite slope, will easily top that experience. Standing at the foot of the falls as the water crashes towards you, you have to suppress the urge to run, as it feels as if it might overwhelm you. But you remain bone dry, and the view is magnificent.
Mrs Hughes says: “The best thing about Asheville is how such a small city of just 80,000 people can offer many of the amenities of a much larger city.”
That includes 12 Bones (www.12bones.com), a restaurant famous for its slow-smoked, baby back ribs that counts even US President Barack Obama as a regular patron. In four visits to Asheville, Mr Obama has reportedly eaten at 12 Bones three times.
In North Carolina, unlike its southern counterpart, the ribs are drier, with vinegar-infused sauces. It’s sometimes a subject of fierce debate with their regional neighbours: comedian Stephen Colbert jokingly referred to North Carolina as “those barbarians to the north”. He added: “I mean, who makes barbecue sauce with vinegar? That’s what you use to clean a toilet.”
But 12 Bones proves him wrong. Order a half rack of the brown sugar-rubbed ribs and a quarter chicken (light meat), accompanied by potato salad, corn pudding and cornbread, with a choice of sauces like blueberry chipotle and jalapeno. It’s easy to see why Mr Obama keeps going back: the meat is sweet and tender, the atmosphere convivial and the cost extremely affordable at US$23 (S$28.50).
Excellent food can also be found at Nine Mile (http://ninemileasheville.com/), a Caribbean-inspired eatery which does a mean More Fyah (US$10.55) – grilled jerk chicken with fire-roasted tomatoes served over linguine or basmati rice. You can choose your spice level, and portions are generous, accompanied by bread and a salad. The Raggy Road (US$12.55), or grilled cajun tilapia with peppers, squash and zucchini in a white wine, coconut sauce, is another good choice.
And of course, the Asheville experience isn’t complete without beer. After all, this is the craft beer capital of the US, producing tens of thousands of barrels of beer a year. Over at Wicked Weed (www.wickedweedbrewing.com), prices start from US$9 for four ounces. Interesting flavours include the Coolcumber – made with cucumber, basil and juniper berries – and the Impeached Wheat, a fruit beer made with peaches.
If you’ve already done the city route in the US, maybe it’s time to get off it. With good food and beer, and the rush of roaring waterfalls in your ears, Asheville will make you glad you did.”
Would you ever fancy going to Asheville? Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts!