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Lively Asheville is ‘Berkeley of the Blue Ridge’

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The North Carolina coast took a hit from Irene, but the western part of the state was not affected, and Asheville is gearing up as usual for a lively fall season. The culture-packed city is a hilly oasis tucked in the state’s western corner and could easily be called the Berkeley of the Blue Ridge.

A thriving city of some 83,000, Asheville has something for everyone, from history and outdoor activities to a green, new-agey vibe. Attractions include lovely Art Deco buildings, scores of artsy shops, ethnic, locavore and vegetarian restaurants, craft breweries and music venues, and the Blue Ridge Mountains, where fall foliage often lasts well into November.

A California native, I discovered Asheville during tour of prospective colleges with my teen son. When he ultimately enrolled last year in Warren Wilson College, a tiny eco-focused liberal arts school in a utopian farm setting just outside of town, I became smitten.

Also home to one of several University of North Carolina campuses, Asheville has a distinctly college-town feel. But it’s also a destination retirement spot for Baby Boomers, drawn by the beautiful mountain setting, temperate climate, and bushels of activities.

The compact downtown area is a great place to explore on foot, whether shopping or just sightseeing. Cultural sites include the boardinghouse where author Thomas Wolfe lived; once run by his mother, the restored yellow Victorian building is open for tours daily except Monday.

The Asheville Art Museum, on the city’s expansive public square, houses a collection of 20th and 21st century art in a handsome Renaissance Revival-style building dating to 1922. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays, and Sunday afternoons..

The adjacent Pack Square Park is a lovely outdoor expanse with frequent festivals, concerts and other events.

Asheville stays lively at night, with colorful street performers and busking musicians along the sidewalks. Not to miss is the Friday night drum circle in Pritchard Park. Anyone can join in — and hundreds do, of all ages, with an amazing assortment of drums and spectators ranging from babies to toe-tapping grandmas who can’t resist the pulsing tribal rhythms; 4 College St.

Good dining options include Mela, an upscale Indian restaurant at 70 N. Lexington, 828-225-8880,  Early Girl Eatery, featuring tasty “farm-to-table” comfort food and open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Down the street at 40 Wall St. is Laughing Seed Cafe, an airy vegetarian favorite serving international food for lunch and dinner. Go downstairs inside the cafe to reach Jack of the Wood, a Celtic-style pub with hearty pub-fare ranging from burgers to shepherd’s pie, local brews, and great rootsy live music most nights, including Bluegrass and Irish sessions. The pub’s main entrance is on the street below.

Asheville is also home to several craft breweries, offering tastings or tours, including the Highland Brewing Co., 12 Old Charlotte Highway, 828-299-3370, Asheville Brewing Co., 77 Coxe Ave., 828-255-4077,  and the French Broad Brewery, 101-D Fairview Rd, 828-277-0222, which features live music Thursday through Saturday nights.

Beyond downtown, the Folk Art Center, about 6 miles east, up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, features galleries and a shop with works by southern Appalachian artists; Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 382. Visitors favoring opulence can take in the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate, the monumental chateau and retreat created by George Vanderbilt in 1895 and now a National Historic Landmark.

Self-guided tours of the mansion and gardens are available, open every day; 1 Lodge Street, about 6 miles south of downtown; 800-411-3812.

For outdoor enthusiasts, possibilities include rafting, canoeing or kayaking on the French Broad River, which snakes through town and beyond, and miles of nearby trails for hiking, cycling or mountain biking. The area is known for breathtaking fall foliage, typically from late September through early November. The area’s tourism website,  has links to tours, gear rental and suggested hikes and drives.

Asheville has many bed-and-breakfast inns and chain hotels on the outskirts; my favorite accommodations are downtown, close to shops and dining, at the Sheraton, with comfortable rooms starting under $200 and a huge outdoor pool, 22 Woodfin St., 828-253-1851. Slightly more expensive downtown options include the Renaissance Asheville, across the street at 31 Woodfin St., 828-252-8211,  and the Hotel Indigo, 151 Haywood St., 828-239-0239.

Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) is about 9 miles south of from downtown. Its airlines include Delta, United, and US Airways, some offering nonstop service from major cities. Car rentals are available at the airport.