Asheville: the Charming Black Sheep of the South
Musician and flâneur Sami Basbous found himself in the most unlikely of US states basking in unheard-of Asheville, North Carolina. Castles, cafés, jacuzzis, and Southern charm made for a memorable gaycation we just had to share.
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Easy-going Asheville is anything but dormant. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, a region historically more lenient towards the liberal way of life, it is home to a homogenous population of roughly 80,000 souls. Its pièce de résistance is the massive gilded-aged Biltmore Estate, with its magnificent gardens and breathtaking vistas of forests and winery. Completed in 1895, the 250-room French style chateau was Anderson Cooper’s great-great-granduncle George Vanderbilt’s idea of a country cottage. It is said that his wife Edith slept in an adjoining room that only he could lock, while his gave to another occupied by a male artist “friend.” Closets run in this family.
The real showpiece is downtown. For starters,it turns out Asheville is the Art Deco capital of the U.S. – to the naughty chair, bragging Miami! Snaking the streets: art galleries as well as antique and vintage stores galore. There is also a shocking volume of Arts & Crafts, New Age and Wicca stores – this reminds you that you’re in hippie territory, and if crystals are your thing, you will find that precious gem or vulgar stone you’ve been looking for. Not to be outdone, artists, pseudo-punks, goths, and bohemians abound and congregate on Lexington Avenue. They’re friendly in a genuine way – not trying hard to act or be different. Their HQ is “Izzy,” a trashy coffee shop in the best possible sense that will make any Mile-End hipsters shriek. A tattooed hunk served me a fine cuppa, indecently smeared hummus on my bagel, and added, “Enjoy it my man.” I wished for a different smear, as vicious punk music further pounded this humus.
Nothing will prepare you for the depth and breadth of the local restaurant scene, from the traditional and fresh takes on Southern cooking to the inexpensive multi-culti cafés, healthy eateries, or upscale dining rooms. The term “Local beer” is derision; the town has more breweries per capita than any place in the U.S., which brings me to the nightlife.
This blue spot in a sea of red, the size of Drummondville, boasts no fewer than 7 gay bars. Not counting many straight joints where I’ve witnessed same-sex couples kissing freely. On a single night, my date and I hit 3 gay bars. Oh Henry is a whiter version of the chocolate bar, more suitable for your buddy truck driver than a Vanderbilt. Then it was off to Seven, a jazzed-up townhouse with questionable music, unless you think LMFAO rocks. As soon as we walked in, three young men, one flaunting a 90’s silk Versace shirt, rushed to greet us. Overheard conversation, – “Oh you’re from Montre-y’all? I hear it’s ex-squeeze-it!” – The accent alone gave me a tiny orgasm. Next thing you know, the whole ship knows your name and you’re sipping free Martinis. Later on, Club Hairspray, this fabulous LGBT niche is a high peak this side of the Appalachian Mountains, or any other plateau for that matter, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t due to my drunken state.
If you drool at watching great bands, and not just grass-root or folk, you’ll be slobbering a pond in Asheville. Many featured artists busk during the day informing you where they’ll play at night. It’s that honest.
If outdoor adventures beckon, there is plenty to do,from skiing, rafting, to healing and relaxation. I was taken to Hot Springs, a dreamy town located 40 minutes north of Asheville, and best known for what its name suggests avec minerals. We were seven gay fairies having fun in a large open jacuzzi and no one seemed to mind. And if and when it’s time to retire, consider Earthaven, a wonderful ecovillage in a mountain forest near Asheville. The folks there, and I quote from their website “…are dedicated to caring for people and the Earth by learning, living, and demonstrating a holistic, sustainable culture.” The day I spent there was probably the most memorable.
Possible Anderson Cooper sightings, geothermal baths, castles, and a homosexual oasis: you better believe I’ll be back!
You can visit Asheville year round (it’s always milder there!). Flowers start blooming in March, and there’s no real off season. Happy travels!