For Southern city dwellers, the urge to escape to the Great Smoky or Blue Ridge Mountains is undeniable. A trip into the Appalachians, as I’m embarking on today in a Volkswagen Golf R, isn’t all about nature, though. Asheville, North Carolina, with its vibrant art and culinary scene, is just as alluring as the surrounding mountains.
Seeking out the scenic route from my home in Atlanta, I detour from I-85 and onto I-985, toward Tallulah Gorge State Park. It’s still early in the morning when I arrive, meaning the trails along the rim of the two-mile-long, 1,000-foot-deep gorge aren’t crowded yet. I have many miles to travel, so I keep my walk short, enjoying a peaceful stroll through the woods to the first overlook, where I marvel at the sight of rushing waterfalls.
I may not have broken a sweat, but I have worked up an appetite, so I head straight north, over the state line and into Franklin, North Carolina, for a stop at Bent Willow Bakeshop. Set in a 1922 home, the bakery is renowned for its breads—made in small batches with wild yeast—and the many other tempting treats that line the pastry case. After a good deal of indecision, I finally land on a savory polenta biscuit stuffed with whipped ricotta and roasted red pepper.
Recharged, I take a spontaneous side trip along rolling, twisting roads toward the town of Hot Springs. About 25 miles northwest of Asheville, I stop for gas at Trust General Store & Cafe, which features a quaint shop full of tchotchkes (everything from local honey to motor-themed apparel) and a cute restaurant. Figuring that the Golf isn’t the only thing that could use a top-off, I snag a house-made buttercream cookie.
I’m ready for a little downtime when I finally arrive in Asheville, so I head to the Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, a downtown fixture that offers exactly what it advertises. I sip a Kir royale while I flip through a secondhand copy of Asheville-born author Gail Godwin’s Evensong, and then I go for a walk around town to take in the varying architecture, ranging from Gothic to Neoclassical.
One of the city’s jewels is The S&W Market, a 1929 Art Deco cafeteria that was recently converted into a modern food hall and taproom. It’s hard to choose among the stalls, so I try a veggie bao from Bun Intended and a grass-fed, all-beef hot dog from Farm Dogs. A Highland Brewing Gaelic Ale rounds out my locavore meal.
Today’s finish line is The Foundry Hotel Asheville, located in a historic neighborhood known as The Block, just a few minutes from downtown. The hotel’s decor is replete with homages to the building’s origins as a steel foundry, including exposed brick walls and a pulley elevator. It’s a nice counterpoint to the scenery I enjoyed today—and what I plan to see tomorrow, when I greet the day with a sunrise drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway. With that in mind, I’m off to bed.
2022 Volkswagen Golf R
Driving on the curvaceous roads through the Smokies can be hair-raising, but any fear immediately dissipates when I’m behind the wheel of the new Volkswagen Golf R, which uses a torque-vectoring system and all-wheel drive to guarantee maximum control through any corner. The interior, meanwhile, is plush and comfortable, with heated Top Sport seats and steering wheel to keep me warm despite the chilly mountain air. Don’t think that the Golf is a snooze, though: The 315-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine can growl like any black bear that roams these woods.
From $43,645, vw.com