The world has discovered Asheville, anointing it the next Portland or Austin.
It’s easy to see why. This beautiful city ringed by mountains is surrounded by natural beauty and filled with breweries and a vibrant local food scene.
Plus, it’s artsy, with dreadlocked kids playing drums downtown, a great indie bookstore and a literary history that includes Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And it possesses an easy Southern charm, where you can tube down the French Broad River with several hundred friends while enjoying a cold beer.
I’ve been visiting the area for twenty years, ever since friends of mine moved from Florida to the mountains. (If you live in Florida, you retire to western NC for something different.) I’ve seen Asheville develop from a sleepy downtown lined with empty art deco buildings to a booming mountain city with a hotel rates that rival New York.
Now that city has been discovered, and overwhelmed, what’s the “next Asheville.”
To find that, go thirty minutes west. Up and over the mountains and into a valley framed by peaks. It’s Waynesville, NC.
The county seat, it’s a busy little town with a real Main Street lined with art galleries, restaurants and an old-timey Mast General Store. It’s the kind of place that you might run into your neighbors or the publisher of the local paper.
Unbelievably, the once-sleepy burg now has two indie coffee shops. Panacea in the delightfully-named Frog Level neighborhood (on the banks of the Pigeon River) and Orchard Coffee just off Main Street.
This part of the country used to be dry. Now it’s thoroughly wet and soaked in breweries. Best known is Boojum, which is named after the local Bigfoot. Down on Frog Level, you will find Frog Level Brewing. And a great place to sample beers from around Western NC (and get some good chicken wings) is Mad Anthony’s Taproom.
Waynesville is a great hub to explore the Smoky Mountains. The Blue Ridge Parkway is located just outside of town, offering opportunities to hike and take in grand vistas.
If you like the squiggly bits on the map, then Western NC is for you. My favorite drive is to take NC-276 up into Pisgah National Forest, a lovely winding road that passes Looking Glass Falls and other waterfalls. On the way back, I like NC-215, which is another serpentine route. Fun if you’re driving; less so if you’re a passenger.
The downside of being the next Asheville is growth and traffic. Publix and Chik-fil-A arrived recently, drawing crowds from around the region. During the summer and fall, Waynesville strains under the weight of visitors. Even during non-peak times, it can be tough to get a table at Boojum.
But if you’re looking for the next Asheville, you need to go just a little west. Thirty minutes outside the city, and over the mountains. Waynesville. A little colder, a little foggier, a little higher up. Not quite Asheville and no longer undiscovered, Waynesville waits for its moment.