Ecotourism in Asheville, North Carolina: Day One

Reader Contribution by John Ivanko

Surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Pisgah National Forest, with the Great Smoky Mountains to the southwest, Asheville, North Carolina, is the perfect basecamp for an ecotour, cultural trip and culinary adventure. Experiencing the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Fair held here this past April was just the start for my wife and me.

Because of the abundance of activities and diversity of experiences, don’t even try to cover the city in a day.  Why would you, anyway?  Whether you’re already penciling in the Fair date for next year or plotting a trip to this vibrant and eco-minded city this summer or fall, this blog offers some adventures not to be missed, broken into three distinct days.

Each day comes with a unifying theme:
Day 1: Culture and Nature
Day 2: Eco High Adventure
Day 3: Wellness and Health

Tied to each day, we discovered unique restaurants and accommodations that, each in their own way, set the bar on convivial and eco-minded hospitality.

The Biltmore Blooms, on Foot and Segway 

Since Asheville is perhaps most well known for America’s largest private residence, the Biltmore Estate, we started here on Day 1. With the famed Biltmore House, 8,000 acres of forests, splendid gardens and even a winery, leave time to explore.  Much of the grounds were designed by acclaimed Frederick Law Olmstead, the “father of American landscape architecture.”  Due to the size and magnificence of this estate, we broke our visit into three distinct stops.

First up, a tour of George W. Vanderbilt’s French chateau-inspired home, completed in 1895.  Weaving through most of the 250 rooms, our self-guided tour revealed the fascinating history, remarkable furnishings and architectural splendor of the place.  Grab their audio tour for your walk, but leave yourself at least three hours, if you want time to take in the vistas possible from various balconies or windows.

A leisurely stroll through the Shrub Garden to the Walled and Rose Gardens followed our tour of the house.  In early spring, grab a seat in a section of the Walled Gardens containing thousands tulips in bloom.  Not to miss is Vanderbilt’s Conservatory, nurturing exotic orchids, palms and ferns.

Our final stop, a scenic half hour drive away (but still on the estate), is the Antler Hill Village and Winery.  After about forty minutes of instruction and some practice, we departed with our guides, Bob Jackson and Bistra Hristova, on a three-hour Segway tour.  We visited the less accessible western parts of the estate around the vineyards, crossed the French Broad River, and sped through 50 acres of non-GMO canola that gets converted to biodiesel every year for use as fuel for various machinery on the estate.

“Gentle, fluid and slow,” Jackson reminds us, every time we moved along to our next stop.  The Segways, a first for us, provided a motorized and autonomous way to zip around.  Steering them involves leaning forward and backward, or tilting the handle left or right. Completely recharged by a 9-acre photovoltaic array, the Biltmore’s fleet of solar-powered Segways is the largest in North America.

Walking Asheville

Intersected by the Blue Ridge Parkway and the French Broad River, Asheville hosts a cornucopia of culinary destinations – more than 250 independent restaurants at last count – and a thriving artist community where you can visit their working studios or cooperatively operated galleries. The River Art District features more than 165 artists and the Downtown Asheville Art District has 30 galleries within a half-mile radius.  Second only to Miami, the city also proudly preserves its Art Deco architecture from the 1920s and early 1930s.  Time travel at the Grove Arcade, one of the country’s premier public markets from 1929 through World War II; it’s back as a boutique mercantile since 2002. Hop on the 1.7-mile-long “Asheville Urban Trail” for a ramble past various public sculptures, artwork and landmarks.

As America’s first Green Dining Destination, with more restaurants certified by the Green Restaurant Association in one city than any other city in the nation, Asheville’s “foodtopia,” among other things, showcases farm-to-table cuisine long before it became hip and mainstream. 

Leaning toward eating as low on the food chain as possible, we grabbed a seat outside at the Laughing Seed Café for some vegetarian dishes with a fusion of global flavors, like their Asian Fusion, with its organic whole wheat udon noodles tossed in sweet chili-peanut sauce and served over a salad of mixed greens, grated carrots, red cabbage, blanched broccoli, and daikon radish; it’s topped with organic pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Plenty of vegan and gluten-free options here, too.

Across from the entrance to the Biltmore, down a side street, pick up a feast of local goodies from Katuah Market for a picnic. If you’re working up a thrist after all the walking around, grab a nice cold one.  There’s plenty from which to choose.  With eighteen craft breweries in Asheville, this medium-sized city earns the distinction of having more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the country!  Katuah Market stocks most, if not all, of the beers.

Garden Oasis Awaits at Hawk & Ivy Bed and Breakfast

Tucked into the hillside with abundant organic gardens spilling over with fresh product that owners, Eve and James Davis, turn into scrumptious, homemade gourmet breakfasts served in the dining room of the 1910 home, is Hawk & Ivy.  “I don’t use a recipe,” laughs Eve Davis, as we chatted before breakfast. Could have fooled us, with her savory scones and egg omelette adorned with homegrown edible flowers.

The centerpiece of the quaint and peaceful country estate is a lovingly cared for and productive organic garden.  Annual crops and perennials flowers are interspersed by hundreds of gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries and the like. No wonder birds are everywhere. “I have four or five difference kinds of everything,” says Eve.  “I’m a berry nut.”

While a bit of a journey out of town, it’s worth it. The attraction of this twenty-four acre private nature preserve becomes clear when we perched ourselves on the meadow above the rural retreat. To cool off in the summer, splash about in their pond.  Newlyweds come here to share their vows up on the hill; innkeeper James Davis even officiates some of the ceremonies.

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authoredRural Renaissance, the award-winningECOpreneuringand Farmstead Chefalong with operatingInn Serendipity B&Band Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer andphotographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.