Looking for an escape from the stifling Charlotte weather, thick with humidity and South Park pretension? You don't have to be a bongo-beating, hula-hooping, freak-flag-flying frolfer to enjoy all that Asheville has to offer (but I won't lie, it helps). The perfect distance for day tripping or a long weekend, there's so much going on during the summer months that you might want to plan more than one getaway to what some folks refer to as "the San Francisco of the South." Here are just a few of the cultural and bacchanalian highlights.
River Arts District Studio Stroll: Twice a year, the artists in Asheville's NoDa-esque River Arts District open their studios to the public for two days, giving you the unique opportunity to meet the makers, see demonstrations, and possibly start or add to your own collection. This year, more than 110 artists will participate, with most of their studios in walking distance of one another and plenty of parking for easy access. In between art hopping, cool off with a beer or two (or three) on the deck at The Wedge Brewery, or take a lunch break at 12 Bones, arguably the area's best barbecue joint (Obama stopped there last year on the campaign trail). Usually closed on weekends, they're making an exception, opening their doors that Saturday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. You can download a Studio Guide to help strategize your stroll at riverdistrictartists.com. Did I mention it's free? June 13 and 14, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Shindig on the Green: On Saturdays at sundown, bring your blankets and chairs to Martin Luther King Jr. Park in downtown Asheville. A local mountain tradition, this free concert series features traditional Appalachian dancing, storytelling, and bluegrass music, and has been voted No. 1 Local Outdoor Concert for three years running in Mountain Xpress' "Best of WNC." Concessions are available, but feel free to bring your own refreshments. You can even take your dog as long as she's well behaved and on-leash. Things usually get underway around 7 p.m. and go 'til 10 p.m. 2009 Season dates: July 4, 11, 18; Aug. 8, 15, 22, 29; Sept. 5. More info: folkheritage.org, 828-258-6101 ext. 345.
Bele Chere: There's something for everyone at this three-day downtown arts and music festival. Bele Chere is getting back to its roots this year with all four stages of entertainment absolutely free. A new, smaller layout (mostly due to Pack Square construction) features an indoor area at the Asheville Civic Center with children's activities and a Senior Oasis, offering a place for young and old to beat the heat. Arts and crafts are scattered throughout the festival along with street performers and local artist demonstrations. Foodies and beer buffs, don't miss the Taste of Asheville food court, serving up local fare and microbrews. July 24-26. More info: belecherefestival.com, 828-259-5800.
The Biltmore: It's more than just a ginormous house. Biltmore House is more insane than anything you'll see on MTV's Cribs (we're talking 34 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms, people), but there's so much more to experience beyond the Vanderbilts' ostentatious digs. The Outdoor Center offers several ways to see the estate grounds, from float trips and fly fishing to biking and Segway tours. Be sure to plan ahead for these activities, as they cost extra and require reservations. Their Summer Evening Concerts bring an eclectic series of talented musicians to the South Terrace of Biltmore House (talk about a venue with a view). Performances of note include Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers on July 25 ($44), and bluegrass legend Doc Watson along with David Holt and The Oak Ridge Boys on Aug. 1 ($43-$58). If you plan on making a day of it, purchase your concert ticket along with your daytime ticket to save some dough. Daytime ticket rates are higher in the summer ($45 online/$50 gate) and at their most expensive on Saturdays ($50 online/$55 gate), but there's good news -- children ages 16 and younger are free. More info: biltmore.com, 800-411-3812.