Asheville: America's Mountain Melting Pot, Part II

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday November 26, 2014

A Place for Historical and Literary Name-Dropping

With the exception of a few periods of economic strife, Asheville has been pretty damned fabulous since its inception. Founded in 1797 as a backwoods hamlet though which passed frontier heroes like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, it soon grew into the preferred resort destination for wealthy southerners. This trend exploded in 1880 when the railroad came to town, bringing with it tycoon George W. Vanderbilt.

Within five years Vanderbilt had constructed the Biltmore Estate, replete with a 250-room mansion that is still American's largest privately owned home. Today, the Chateauesque-style house and its surrounding grounds are open for tours, wowing a million visitors annually. While the home no longer hosts overnight guests as it once did, the Inn on Biltmore Estate offers one of the area's most luxurious lodging options.

The town where novelist Thomas Wolfe was born and Zelda Fitzgerald died, Asheville has managed to retain many of its historic structures. Some of the loveliest include Victorian and Arts and Crafts residences and Art Deco public buildings (more are found in Asheville than anywhere in the South, except Miami Beach). The Reynolds Mansion, built in 1847 and once home to the Hope Diamond, also still stands proudly. Meticulously restored by Michael Griffith and Billy Sanders in 2009, it's now an opulent B&B that the couple plans to turn into a museum someday.

How the Arts (and Gays) Saved Asheville

But even boomtowns occasionally encounter hard times, and by the late 1960s Asheville was no exception. Most storefronts were either boarded up or filled with cheap, unsightly goods. And then in 1972, gay businessman John Cram arrived. In short order he opened New Morning Gallery in Biltmore Village, eventually launching a women's clothing boutique Bellagio Art to Wear just down the street and the gallery Blue Spiral 1 and Bellagio Everyday downtown. In 1996, Cram renovated an old Asheville Art Deco movie house, reopening it as the Fine Arts Theatre, dedicated to screening independent films.

"John really started the downtown revitalization," declares Frank Salvo with a nod. I'm sitting in the living room of Salvo's luxurious B&B, the 1889 WhiteGate Inn & Cottage, which he owns with his partner, Ralph Coffey. They've been running WhiteGate for 16 years, and Salvo seems to know Asheville's LGBTQ scene better than anyone. "So," he continues with an impish grin, "you talk about a city that's based on the vision of a gay man that came into town ... this whole city is based on his idea of what we needed to do!"

In addition to Cram's businesses, Asheville offers plenty of other LGBTQ-owned shops in which to browse, from Malaprop's, universally regarded as one of the country's best independent bookstores, to Magnolia Beauregard's, an antique emporium specializing in hats and textiles that helped attire the casts of "Boardwalk Empire" and "Last of the Mohicans."

With 32 downtown galleries, 180-some studios in the River Arts District and 50 performance groups, there is plenty on which to feast the eyes in Asheville proper. The Fine Arts Theatre regularly shows LGBTQ-themed films, such as the acclaimed French thriller "Stranger by the Lake," which Cram gleefully informed me had "more cock than I've seen in anything!" Even more fun is the demented LaZoom Tours. Within its purple motor coach, where all are encouraged to BYOB, guests are given a firsthand tour by fictitious local characters like Earlene Hooch, a housecoat-wearing hillbilly created by the gifted lesbian comedienne Delina Hensley.

Get Pampered Before Your Adventure

Long a center for holistic and alternative medicine, Asheville takes seriously wellness in all its forms. Day spas dedicated to posh pampering, like downtown's Spa Theology, abound, but more serious practitioners are plentiful too. The most intriguing of them is Still Point Wellness, which features not only Esalen massages but also a sensory-deprivation tank almost guaranteed to bring on peace and contentment. Also gay-owned in part is Asheville Salt Cave, a family enterprise that promotes respiratory health through supremely relaxing salt therapy.

For fans of fresh air, sunshine and working up a sweat, some of the planet's most breathtaking wilderness is located on Asheville's doorstep. Hiking, biking, whitewater rafting, zip lining, horseback riding and fishing are all available in the surrounding area.

Hikers who want to focus on magical vistas have nearly unlimited options, according to Cheryl DeCristofaro, who owns the bucolic Honey Hill Inn & Cabins with her partner, Gretchen Huffsmith. Honey Hill, situated on a verdant 12-acre estate just 15 minutes from downtown, makes an ideal starting point for exploring the area's trails. DeCristofaro suggests hiking Mount Pisgah for a peek at the views from 5,000-foot elevation before heading to Graveyard Fields, which rewards visitors with waterfalls and wading pools. Movie buffs shouldn't miss DuPont State Forest, filming site for "The Hunger Games" and "Last of the Mohicans."

For LGBTQ visitors, Asheville has just about everything the heart could desire. Except, I guess, for rainbow flags - in all my rambles I never spotted one. Of course, in a town so joyously diverse, there really is no need for them. As Salvo notes, "The gay and lesbian community is everywhere in this city! There's no gay ghetto. And that is so refreshing. That's the best thing about Asheville."

Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.