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The many charms of Asheville, N.C., are readily available. With cheap two-hour flights from Minneapolis this fall, a visitor can take in natural beauty, go on a musical or literary pilgrimage, sample craft beers, and dine at a James Beard award-winning restaurant over the course of a long, laid-back weekend.

Wedged in the western part of the Tar Heel State, Asheville is closer to the Great Smoky Mountains than the Atlantic Ocean. It's home to a visitor center for the 469-mile scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. The drive through the region offers many overlooks and breathtaking vistas; jump on hiking and biking trails studded with picturesque waterfalls, and wander through the Folk Art Center to admire quilts, baskets, woodworking and other mountain crafts.

Asheville's other top tourist spot is the Biltmore, the Gilded Age estate constructed by robber baron George Vanderbilt. With 8,000 acres, a 250-room re-created French Renaissance castle and exquisite gardens, it's well worth setting aside a day — and $89 — to take in what's billed as America's largest private home.

I've had the chance to explore Asheville repeatedly since my son settled there six years ago — allowing me to hit the must-see spots and lesser-known attractions.

Citizen Vinyl is a vinyl pressing plant housed in the former offices of the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper.
Citizen Vinyl is a vinyl pressing plant housed in the former offices of the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper.

Kevyn Burger, Special to the Star Tribune, Star Tribune

Analog intrigue

I've listened to LPs all my life and my son embraced vinyl records in his teenage years, but neither of us had any idea what went into stamping the grooves in the discs. We were both eager to see the process through Citizen Vinyl, a bustling record-pressing startup.

The pressing floor is housed in a stunning Art Moderne building, former offices of the Asheville Citizen-Times. Three humming machines turn PVC pebbles into 12-inch vinyl discs in a place where presses once printed the newspaper.

The work is performed behind glass windows that look out on a two-level cafe and horseshoe-shaped cocktail bar occupying former editorial space. A shop offers new and used records; we found a mint copy of the Replacements' 1984 classic "Let It Be" for $75.

The tour starts in the lobby, where we walked over a terrazzo map of western North Carolina, inlaid in native granite. An elevator zips to the third floor, now a recording studio but the former studio of WWNC. The historic AM radio station signed on in 1927; country legends such as Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers sang live on the air.

Our guide took us onto the manufacturing floor, where we watched as vinyl "pucks" were flattened into discs. On the day of our tour, the finished products were baby blue instead of the traditional black.

Nearby Moog Music offers more aural inspiration. The store and free factory tour, showcasing the work of genius inventor, electronic music pioneer and Asheville resident Robert Moog, demonstrates vintage Moog synthesizers and other instruments. For another hands-on experience, visitors can play 35 pinball machines and 35 classic video games at the downtown Asheville Pinball Museum.

The Thomas Wolfe Memorial features the boyhood home of author Wolfe, also a one-time tuberculosis sanitarium in Asheville.
The Thomas Wolfe Memorial features the boyhood home of author Wolfe, also a one-time tuberculosis sanitarium in Asheville.

Kevyn Burger, Special to the Star Tribune, Star Tribune

Literary legends

In the late 19th century, Asheville's bracing mountain air was the big draw. The widely held but incorrect belief that higher altitudes could cure tuberculosis led to a boom in medical tourism. Asheville had two dozen TB sanitariums and 130 boardinghouses where patients and their families could rest and recover.

A 29-room boardinghouse with sleeping porches and a broad front veranda has been preserved from the era. Built in 1883, this boardinghouse was the boyhood home of author Thomas Wolfe, whose first book, "Look Homeward, Angel," was a sensation in 1929. Set in a boardinghouse, the epic fictionalized the colorful characters and situations Wolfe observed in Asheville.

The author's family donated the house, its tidy furnishings and hundreds of original artifacts following his death in 1938 from, yes, tuberculosis. Guided tours of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial provide a retrospective of the writer's life and times, even detailing his friendship with Minnesota native son F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald spent the summers of 1935 and 1936 living at Asheville's majestic Grove Park Inn, operating today as an Omni hotel. Struggling with alcoholism, Fitzgerald hoped the setting would inspire him and reinvigorate his flagging career. His estranged wife, Zelda, was committed in a nearby institution.

Fitzgerald left Asheville for Hollywood but Zelda remained and was in and out of the psychiatric hospital there. In 1943, she signed the guest book at the boardinghouse. Five years later she was reportedly undergoing electroshock therapy when a fire broke out at the hospital. Zelda Fitzgerald was one of nine women patients killed in the flames. A plaque marks the spot, with a quote from a letter from Zelda to Scott: "I don't need anything except hope, which I can't find by looking backwards or forwards, so I suppose the thing is to shut my eyes."

Where to eat and drink

Boasting more breweries per capita than any other U.S. city, Asheville is a popular destination for beer-cations. The region is home to dozens of outstanding and eccentric taprooms, brewpubs and craft breweries, with walking and bus tours escorting sippers.

My favorite is the Ashville outpost of Colorado-founded New Belgium Brewing Company, which happens to be where my son works. After a tour, visit the light-filled Liquid Center Tasting Room and sample a variety of creative beers. On warm days, lounge on the wide front lawn or patio overlooking the French Broad River. It's an easy stroll across the bridge to the River Arts District, where artisans sell their wares in studios transformed from historic mills and tanneries.

Biscuit Head is a casual favorite for breakfast, Southern-style. Options are both sweet and savory. Biscuits can be ordered as Benedicts or with fried green tomatoes and brie; traditionalists who select eggs, sausage, bacon or country ham can add fried chicken, a side of pimento cheese or a flight of gravy. A fixin's bar allows guests to douse those fluffy biscuits with novel temptations like sweet potato butter or peach rosemary jam.

At Chai Pani — winner of the 2022 James Beard Award for outstanding U.S. restaurant — the flavors are as bright as the colorful dining room, where small plates and entrees of Indian street food are shared. Chutneys, curries and wraps burst with tangy, crunchy, expertly spiced ingredients, with tasty options for vegans. A cocktail and an appetizer at a sidewalk table is a refreshing break after a busy day in Asheville.

If you go: Asheville, N.C.

Getting there: Sun Country, Allegiant Air and Delta have nonstop flights from Minneapolis to Asheville this fall, winter and spring, with some base fares on Sun Country and Allegiant as low as $47. It's also a 16-hour drive.

Tourist information:

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and broadcaster.