AK Monthly Recap: June 2017

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It feels like my first real summer in New York this year. Last year I spent a lot of time away — big trips to South Africa and Colombia, plus I left for the Fourth of July and Labor Day. But this year I’m determined to fully experience the city in the summer.

The verdict?

Summer in New York sucks.

Don’t get me wrong, I still adore this city — but summer is not when it’s at its best. The scent of urine in the air is particularly pungent. Standing on a subway platform is like being in a furnace. Layers upon layers of grime and sweat build up on your face. And the only way to truly cool off is to go somewhere inside with air conditioning.

Still, I’d rather be here than anywhere else.

Destinations Visited

New York, New York

Reading, Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Chelsea, Massachusetts

Asheville, North Carolina

Favorite Destination

Asheville is one of my new favorite getaways in the United States!

Highlights

Getting named one of Forbes‘ Top 10 Travel Influencers. A huge honor, a big surprise, and easily the highlight of my month.

Asheville was a fabulous trip. I fell in love with the city, its food scene and the lovely people who call Asheville home. I won’t get too into it because I just wrote the whole post about it, but it was lovely. I’d really like to go back and experience more.

Celebrating my dad’s birthday and Father’s Day on a beer tour of Boston. My sister arranged for the three of us to do a tour with City Brew Tours, which took us to four breweries around the area. It was a lot of fun! If you’re into beer, I would definitely recommend checking them out. They’re in several cities.

We finished with dinner at Myers and Chang, a favorite Boston restaurant of my sister’s and one I shockingly had never been to. They serve fusion Chinese-Thai-Vietnamese-Taiwanese fare and definitely lived up to the hype.

Seeing Allison Janney on Broadway in Six Degrees of Separation. Unfortunately, the play recently closed, but it was SO good! Hilarious and weird in all the right ways. Allison Janney elevates every project she’s in, but she’s almost always in supporting roles, so it was so nice to see her as the lead.

Exploring some new parts of New York. I did a trip to Little Italy in the Bronx and I know I’m going to be making more trips for the outstanding bocconcini (bite-sized mozzarella) at Casa della Mozzarella! I also checked out Coney Island, but it was rainy and a bit depressing.

Lots of visits from British friends. Three sets of blogger and travel industry friends from the UK came to New York this month! I was happy to see them. Sometimes it feels like the European travel bloggers don’t come to the States at all, so I was thrilled to spend time with them here.

I chopped my hair off. Not too too much, but I did lose a good six inches! I also re-colored it. I’ve been wrestling with whether or not to return to my dark natural color — has the blonde run its course?

Getting my first Stitch Fix and Trunk Club boxes. I’ve been wanting to change up my fashion lately and I was curious about the online services that choose clothes for you, so I decided to try out Stitch Fix and Trunk Club.

They’re similar. Stitch Fix sends you five items; Trunk Club sends you ten. Both charge a styling fee ($20 at Stitch Fix, $25 at Trunk Club) which you can put toward your purchase. Also, Stitch Fix gives you a 25% discount if you buy all five items. Stitch Fix sends you styling ideas with the items; Trunk Club pairs you with a personal stylist you use each time.

Between the two services I definitely prefer Trunk Club. The clothes were much higher quality and fit me better. I like building a relationship with one stylist, and the clothes are all from Nordstrom, which I love. If I had a bigger budget, I would have bought more of the items (but I can’t justify spending $147 on a flannel, even if it looks awesome on me).

I did end up with two pieces I love — cool distressed skinny jeans with a fringed hem from Stitch Fix and a fabulous coral lace dress from Trunk Club. I’m definitely going to continue with Trunk Club.

Challenges

I got stuck in delay hell in Charlotte. There were storms in New York when I was due to fly back from Asheville, and my flight kept getting delayed and re-delayed every hour, then cancelled, then I got booked on the last seat on another flight home. I was supposed to be home by 4:00 PM; I didn’t get home until 1:30 AM.

It would have been so much better if the delay had been all at once, not an hour at a time!

Also, my phone has started to fall apart, but I really don’t want to get a new one when the new update is a few months away…it’s running on borrowed time.

There were also a few setbacks this month that I’d rather not go into. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a viewing of Dead Man On Campus.

Most Popular Post

On Influence, and Using It Wisely — We have an obligation to our followers to do as much good as we can.

Other Posts

14 Reasons Why I’m Smitten with Asheville, North Carolina — 4,000 words about my weekend in Asheville.

In Odessa, Romance and Grandeur — I seriously fell hard for the Ukrainian city of Odessa.

Six Ways to Travel More Sustainably — We could all stand to do better.

Bucharest is Fabulous and Fun — All the best things I enjoyed in this cool city.

Most Popular Instagram Photo

People love a good door. This shot from Cartagena did well. For more updates from my travels, follow me on Instagram at @adventurouskate. I am soooo close to hitting 100k…

Fitness Update

I had the most unlucky week at the gym this month. On Tuesday, I had to quit a fitness class halfway through for the first time ever. It was Tabata (a series of drills where you do 20 seconds of exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest) and though there isn’t much I can’t do for 20 seconds, it was so exhausting that I was seeing stars and felt like I was going to faint. Leaving the room and sitting down made me feel better, but I didn’t go back.

Also, fuck burpees. I hate them so much.

Then on Wednesday my Zumba instructor was a no-show (first time that’s ever happened), so I decided to attempt running on the treadmill instead, and though I was doing a modest two minutes of running at 6 mph followed by one minute of walking at 4 mph, I felt a twinge in my knee and had to stop. I couldn’t do stairs without pain (not fun in NYC).

Then on Friday I mixed up the times, again for the first time ever, and was late to Zumba. Oh well. At least I had my personal training session right after and I’m lifting more weight than I was last month!

What I Read This Month

We’re officially halfway through the year and I’m 36 books into the 52-book 2017 Popsugar Reading Challenge! I actually read eight books this month, four of them from Book of the Month (where you can get a new book for three months for $9.99 each — US only). Here we go.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (2017) — This is my favorite novel of the year so far. Lillian Boxfish is based on the life of Margaret Fishback, America’s highest paid female copywriter of the 1930s. Lillian takes a walk through gritty Manhattan on New Year’s Eve 1984, meets characters along the way, and reminisces about her life. It was as much of a love letter to a transforming New York as it was a story of an incredible life. I absolutely loved the author’s use of language.

If you are an independent woman, a writer, or a New Yorker, you must read this book. If you like smart books and memorable characters, you’ll adore this book. As the book ended, I felt so sad — I wish I could go for a walk with Lillian in real life! Category: a book set around a holiday other than Christmas.

The Explorer and Other Stories by Jyrki Vainonen (2013) — Did you know that “Finnish weird” is a genre of literature? They don’t use literary agents in Finland, so they’re less commercially minded and thus publish a lot of strange literature. I love Finland, so I was eager to jump in!

These stories are weird. “The Explorer” is about a man who decided to journey into his wife’s thigh. That kind of stuff. I found this collection of Vainonen’s stories similar to Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World, but not as repulsive. At 92 pages, it’s a quick read. If you’re planning a trip to Finland, pick this book up! Category: a book from a genre/subgenre you’ve never heard of.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett (2016) — Three teenagers growing up in an evangelical black church in San Diego make a decision that haunts them for years after and throws them into turmoil. The book centers on motherhood — characters’ mothers, how they mother each other, and the book is narrated by a chorus of mothers in the congregation.

I loved this book — and at the same time, it made me so sad for each of the characters. I wanted to take care of all of them in the end. The book is also a study on how evangelical communities too often blame the woman when anything goes wrong in a family. Category: a book with a family-member term in the title.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016) — What a magnificent book. Lush, cinematic, and beautiful. Count Rostov, a 30-year-old aristocrat, is sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life in the grand Metropol hotel in Moscow. Through this predicament he tries to find beauty and meaning however he can as Russia changes exponentially — and the results are deeply moving.

I want this book to become a movie SO badly! It sounds a lot like The Grand Budapest Hotel, but so many of the scenes are described so beautifully, and the dialogue is incredibly witty. I definitely had a crush on the Count at one point. This book will leave you with the biggest smile on your face. Category: a book set in a hotel.

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (1825) — This was my book club’s pick of the month — a Russian novel written in verse! Eugene Onegin is a man sent from the city to the country following a relative’s death, and he has a number of adventures in life and love. The entire book is written in verse, and I was very impressed with the translation.

It’s funny, it’s light, it’s delightful, and it’s something different. It did help to go through Wikipedia after reading each chapter and seeing what I missed, though. Between this and A Gentleman in Moscow, I’ve awakened a new interest in Russian literature and culture. My friends and I want to celebrate this book in Russian style at our next meetup — so we might go to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn (a.k.a. Little Odessa) or just hit up a vodka bar with a walk-in freezer! Category: a book with a title that’s a character’s name.

A Million Junes by Emily Henry (2017) — This is the closest I get to a summer read — a bright and fun book best enjoyed if you let go a little bit. Two teenagers in a rural Michigan town are the surviving progeny of two feuding families — and they’re cursed. Of course, they fall in love and try to undo the curse with the help of several ghosts.

At first I was rolling my eyes and thought the teenagers were too witty for their own good, Gilmore Girls-style, but once I let go, I began to enjoy the book a lot more. The book isn’t just an adventure, it’s also about dealing with grief and how you move on and live your life while honoring those you’ve lost. To my surprise, it’s one of the highest rated Book of the Month selections this year. Category: a book with a month or day of the week in the title.

The Gift: Poems by Hafiz, the Great Sufi Master, translated by Daniel Ladinsky (1999) — I’ve been curious about Persian poetry for awhile, so when I found a shelf devoted to Persian poetry at Malaprop’s in Asheville, I decided to pick up this volume. And what a surprising treasure it was.

Hafiz’s poetry is about celebrating the love of God — a funny, compassionate, deeply loving and giving God. The kind of God who is on your side, your best friend, cheering for you and helping you. I actually found out later that this is one of Elizabeth Gilbert’s all-time favorite books; knowing her brand of spirituality, I’m not surprised at all! If you want more poetry in your life, I highly recommend picking up this book or any of Hafiz’s poetry. Category: a book by an author who uses a pseudonym.

Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2016) — I was recently putting together a list of my all-time favorite memoirs and was shocked to realize that almost none were written by women of color. I read a lot of books by women of color, but they tend to be fiction, so I’m making an effort to add some more memoirs to my list. If you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them; Roxane Gay’s Hunger is next.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha grew up in Worcester, Mass., and this book is about her emigration to Canada, her discovery and celebration of her queer, brown, working class identity; her difficulties with disability; her struggles through severe poverty; and her coming to terms with her sexual abuse. This book covers so many perspectives that aren’t featured in mainstream literature, and for that reason alone this book is worth a read. She tells her story frankly and apologetically, and the scenes are richly painted (especially the South Asian queer events in Toronto). Category: a book by or about a person with a disability.

What I Watched This Month

It was time for my annual House of Cards binge, and it was awesome. It wasn’t my favorite season (that’s a tie between Season 1 and Season 4), but House of Cards on an off season is still better than most shows on television.

Just one thing — without revealing any spoilers, they mentioned a possibility related to the election that would have been SO cool to see play out, so unusual and dramatic that I was certain they were going to do it — and then they didn’t do it. It felt like Chekhov’s gun to me, and they ultimately did nothing with it.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was nice, if a bit off, this season. Of course, I loved the addition of Hamilton‘s Daveed Diggs to the cast! (And the “Boobs of California” song has yet to leave my head.)

Also — I saw Wonder Woman. SO good. It amazed me how remarkable and yet ordinary it felt to watch a feminist superhero movie with the male gaze removed.

Coming Up in July 2017

I’m heading back to the Keys! Florida Keys Tourism invited me to come back and try out some things I didn’t get to experience on my February trip. The Keys are one of my favorite new discoveries in the States lately; I’m glad I get to go back so soon. What am I most excited for? The Hemingway lookalike contest in Key West! I’ll be concentrating on Key Largo and Key West this time around.

And now I’m even more glad that I didn’t end up writing a post on where to find the best key lime pies in the Keys because I have time to do more research! Delicious, delicious research…

Other than that, I’m likely staying put in New York the rest of the month, but I’d love to get in some day trips around the region. There are boats that go direct to Jersey shore towns from Manhattan, and I’d love to get to City Island in the Bronx as well.

What are you up to this summer? Share away!

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14 Reasons Why I’m Smitten with Asheville, North Carolina

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I’ve been wanting to go to Asheville, North Carolina, for quite a long time. I’d heard that it was a beautiful town with a cool arts scene nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains. And I’d heard that it was a little drop of blue in a sea of red — or “the blueberry in the tomato soup,” as one local told me — a liberal enclave within a strongly conservative region, not unlike Austin, Texas.

The Obamas took a weekend getaway to Asheville in 2010; in 2013, President Obama said he had thought about retiring there. That further intrigued me — I had to get to this town.

Earlier this year, the team at Explore Asheville invited me to come visit for a few days and I happily accepted. When planning my itinerary, I told them I wanted it to be local, local, local. I wanted to focus on cool small businesses. I wanted to eat local food. I wanted to spend my money close to the ground. I wanted to see how nature integrated into the city.

I knew I’d have a great time — but I underestimated just how much I would enjoy this city.

Here are the reasons why I fell so hard for Asheville.

Image courtesy of Asheville Farm to Table Tours.

1. Because Asheville has the most amazing people.

I want to get that out of the way first — Asheville is home to some of the nicest people I have ever met, anywhere. And that goes for the U.S. and abroad.

These days I don’t usually like to say things like that these days — even though I’ve written posts on that topic in the past. Truthfully, most places are filled with 98% nice people with a few jerks thrown in.

But Asheville is special. People aren’t just polite or welcoming — it’s a genuine, honest, open kindness on the level of which I’ve never seen elsewhere. And it’s not necessarily southern hospitality. While I appreciate it, as a native New Englander I sometimes find southern hospitality a bit much — almost insincere.

“Asheville is different — it’s ‘mountain south,’” a local told me. Hmm. Mountain south. All of the kindness but none of the cloying sweetness. I could definitely get on board with that.

The crazy thing is that Asheville is a city of transplants — I met people from Chicago, California, Florida, Michigan, New Orleans, elsewhere in North Carolina. And they all ended up in Asheville because they saw something special in the city.

I find it uncanny but wonderful that in a city of transplants, everyone seems to have such a sunny personality.

2. Because it’s got quirks in all the right places.

Asheville has a population of roughly 87,000, making it more like a large town than a small city, but it runs high in the weirdness department.

On Friday nights from April through October, Asheville erupts into a drum circle. From 6:00 PM until 10:00 PM, people bang on the drums like mad as an audience dances to the beats. Feel free to join in the dancing — or even the drumming.

On Biltmore Street, you’ll fine a “Before I Die” chalkboard with spaces to write out your life goals. It made me smile that most of them were people saying who they wanted to marry.

In Asheville, it’s totally normal to see a dude juggling while balancing on a board, dog on his head. (Also, how great is that dog’s smile?)

Impromptu van sales down by the River Arts District? Also totally normal.

Lavender lemon soda? Absolutely! I rarely drink soda, but I loved this stuff. The Waynesville Soda Jerks are headquartered not too far from Asheville and have other soda flavors like strawberry rhubarb, apple rosemary, and blueberry basil. You can buy them in downtown Asheville at The Rhu.

And a surprising amount of Art Deco architecture is in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We all know Miami is the top Art Deco city in the United States, but who would have guessed Asheville would be a runner-up? This is at the Grove Arcade, a collection of shops downtown. It reminded me of the arcades of Melbourne, Australia.

One of the shops at the arcade is the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, which is exactly what it sounds like. Used books. Champagne. A place to chill out.

Considering how much I adore books and champagne, you’d think I’d move in and never leave — but I actually liked another bookstore better. Stay tuned.

 

3. Because it’s got a literal CHEESE TRAIL.

Asheville is home to several spots on the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail, a new collection of creameries scattered throughout the region.

You know my feelings on cheese.

I got to experience a stop on the trail on a tour with Asheville Farm to Table Tours. These tours seek to educate visitors on how food is grown at the source and used to supply businesses and feed people throughout Asheville.

We started with a visit to Looking Glass Creamery where we learned about several of the kinds of cheeses that are made here and were served the prettiest cheese board I’ve ever seen. I mean, let’s take a closer look:

Yes. Without a doubt, the loveliest cheese plate I’ve ever seen.

In addition to cheese, they also served blindingly hot mustard, an indulgent dulce de leche spread, and strawberry basil “fruit paste,” a term I hadn’t heard before. Their fruit paste was like a thick preserves, but it’s usually even thicker than that — almost like a brick of fruit!

4. Because the farm stands run on an honor system.

Want to buy some produce? Just pick out what you’d like and put some money in the box!

And not just that — they’ve modernized for the present day. You can also pay via Paypal. How amazing is that?!

Our second stop on the tour was Flying Cloud Farm, which was home to fresh produce, flowers, and an adorable puppy keeping watch.

And what better way to finish your day of farm-hopping with a chance to ogle baby goats and pigs at Hickory Nut Gap Farm? We had a lunch with sandwiches made with home-cured capicola and a salad made with astoundingly fresh feta and topped with purple flowers.

A day out at these beautiful farms, getting to know the farmers and the pride they take in the work they do, was a perfect introduction to the food scene in Asheville.

5. Because I went on a blind date with a book.

I always like to check out independent bookstores on my travels, and Malaprop’s in Asheville is one of my new favorites. The best feature? You can go on a blind date with a book.

Favorite books of Malaprop’s employees are wrapped up in brown paper and labeled with words that describe them. You choose a book based on the words. They can’t be unwrapped before purchase, nor can they be returned.

I wanted something from a local author, so I picked up a book labeled, “Clear-sighted, graceful, illuminating, tender, mesmerizing, chilling, local!” I also grabbed a volume of Hafiz poetry from their Persian Poetry section. (Yes, a small local bookstore has a Persian poetry section. I love it.)

I couldn’t wait to tear off the wrapping as soon as I bought it.

The book was A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash, a native of western North Carolina. The Richmond Times-Dispatch said, “Reads as if Cormac McCarthy decided to rewrite Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” Well, I’ve never been a big To Kill a Mockingbird fan, and I’m still scarred years after reading McCarthy’s The Road, so it’s fair to say I never would have chosen this on my own.

I look forward to reading it!

6. Because I had some of the best Spanish tapas of my life.

Asheville’s culinary scene has really picked up in the past several years, and one of the standouts is Cúrate Tapas Bar (pronounced Kyuh-RAH-tay), a Spanish tapas restaurant.

I expected the food to be decent but not extraordinary. Was I ever wrong. This was my first meal in Asheville and it remained the best, as well as the best tapas I have ever had outside Spain.

Jamon ibérico, because of course.

Crostini with morcilla blood sausage.

Cold almond and garlic soup with crab and flower petals.

Also served: pork and mushrooms, two different plates that were tasty on their own but positively sang when consumed together.

Here’s a hint for you — it’s not listed on the menu, but get the fried eggplant with rosemary ice cream for dessert. It may not sound like a traditional dessert, but trust me, you’ll be smitten.

And just in case, a gin and tonic meringue: tonic-flavored snow, gin-soaked berries, and torched meringue.

Cúrate blew my mind and I would leap tall buildings to have that same meal all over again. They’re also famous for their vermouth selection and I discovered how much I love white vermouth with a twist of lemon.

7. Because it’s a city of cool, welcoming artists.

After all you’ve read, would you be surprised to hear that Asheville is a major arts destination as well? Asheville is home to more than 200 artists, many of whom are clustered in the River Arts District, a little more than a mile from downtown.

You can walk around and explore the neighborhood on your own, but I recommend taking a two-hour Asheville Art Studio Tour. Led by John Miguel Almaguer, an accomplished glass artist who even apprenticed in Murano in Venice (!!), this tour took us to visit four studios in the neighborhood.

John has more personality in a fingernail than most people I’ve ever met. The man isn’t just a visual artist — he has the most wonderful presence. You’ll love him.

Here’s John posing with one of his works at his studio, the North Carolina Glass Center. (Also, I told him he totally reminded me of Bruno Mars. Maybe it was the hat.)

Stephen St. Claire, along with his wife Joy, create masterpieces of oil paint, metal leaf, and resin at St. Claire Art. He’s still tweaking his method, Stephen told us.

Daniel McClendon creates bright, primitive, abstract paintings inspired by all kinds of animals. I showed him my quokka selfies from Western Australia and suggested he visit WA to be inspired by the quokka for a future subject!

Andrea Kulisch at Studio A creates traditional Ukrainian eggs — and puts a modern spin on them as well with polka dots, trees, and even unicorns! Andrea is of Ukrainian heritage and I encouraged her to go to Ukraine and experience the country for herself.

I know I keep going on about how friendly everyone is in Asheville, but I was so impressed at how each of the artists talked to our group like they were telling their stories for the first time ever, not like they’d done the spiel a million times.

8. Because I got to frolic at the Richie Rich house.

If there’s any one attraction you should visit in Asheville, it’s the Biltmore Estate. This massive French-style chateau was built by George Vanderbilt in 1889 and it’s since become one of the symbols of Asheville.

As soon as I saw the mansion, I knew it looked familiar — but how? Then the answer came from a follower on Snapchat — it was the Richie Rich house! Of course it was! I used to watch that movie all the time when I was a kid!

Seriously, how is this place in North Carolina?!

The inside is spectacular — I can only imagine how beautiful it is decorated for Christmas.

George Vanderbilt was an avid reader — he averaged 81 books per year, which puts me to shame — so there’s currently a display of costumes from literary movies like Anna Karenina and Finding Neverland. Above is Uma Thurman’s peacock costume from The Golden Bowl.

If you want to see even more of the mansion, the rooftop tour is pretty cool. I can’t believe those gargoyles!

The Biltmore is such a cool place, and there are plenty more grounds to discover, including a winery and some gardens. And if you’re looking for the ultimate Asheville selfie, throw on your favorite red dress and pose in front of the building!

9. Because I found a brewery that was just right for me.

Asheville is home to more breweries per capita than any city in the United States — so if you love beer, you need to come here at least once in your life.

I like beer, but I’m not a hardcore beer fan — I’ll go to breweries in the company of my beer-loving dad and sister, but not on my own. Still, I liked the look of the Wedge Brewing Company, down in the River Arts District, and decided to give it a whirl on my way back from the Biltmore Estate. I couldn’t go to Asheville and not hit up a brewery.

Like everywhere else in Asheville, the Wedge is casual and welcoming. And it’s a family-friendly brewery, with games for kids and space for them to run around during the day. (It becomes adults-only after 8:00 PM.)

I tried four beers and especially liked their Hefeweizen and porter. But it was so nice to just sit outside in the shade, enjoying a few beer samples, and watching the freight trains go by. Chill breweries are the best breweries.

10. Because Southern cuisine is the sweetest of cuisines.

Blackbird is one of the signature restaurants in Asheville, and if you’re looking for something southern with a twist, this is a place to visit. I adore southern food and go for it whenever I can, but it’s always best at the source.

I started with a local peach and brie salad. Peach and brie is a heavenly combination — how have I never had that in my life?

Next up was trout with a peanut romesco and zucchini watercress salad. Owner Jesson Gil told me that he considered this dish his “death row meal.” It was fabulous — and also light, which is great considering how much heavy food you’ll be eating in Asheville.

Of course I had to order their award-winning coconut cake. (“Don’t worry, I’ll bring you a box,” my waitress told me. “Just how big is this cake?!” I thought. The answer? Pretty damn big, and yes, I did use the box.)

OH MY GOD, THIS CAKE. SERIOUSLY, THIS CAKE. It is so decadent.

11. Because creative small businesses thrive here.

One of my favorite shops I visited was the Asheville Bee Charmer, a beautiful store devoted to honey and related products.

Owners Kim and Jill came to Asheville from Chicago and envisioned their business out of “a passion for honey, a curiosity for bees, a love of cooking, and a yearning for connection to community.”

“What do you wish people knew about honey?” I asked Kim. “That honey is not just one basic product,” she told me. “There are 350 kinds of honey. Tasting honey is like tasting wine.”

And I tasted a lot of honey. Dark buckwheat honey that could substitute molasses. Chai infused honey that would be fantastic in green tea. And I even tried ghost pepper honey, which was certainly hot but not nearly as bad as I feared.

Since moving into my apartment, I’ve tried to pick up something for my home on most of my trips. In Asheville everyone recommended I check out Horse & Hero, a store filled with prints, cards, and creations by local artists.

This is a cool store, and you can find original art for fairly cheap. I picked up a print that reads LOVE IS OVER TAKING ME upward and downward.

Biscuit Head came highly recommended by my friend Amy, a former Ashevillian. In my experience, one recommendation trumps several recommendations, so I had to go. What are they famous for? BISCUIT AND GRAVY FLIGHTS. (Not the best picture, but I was so hungry I dove in and forgot to photograph it first. I apologize for what I did when I was hungry.)

You get to choose three kinds of gravy with your biscuits. I chose fried chicken, sweet potato coconut, and espresso red bean. Sweet potato coconut was simply outstanding. They also have several gluten-free varieties, which is nice, because biscuits and gravy are normally an extremely glutenous dish.

And this has to be the coolest — a red double-decker London bus turned into a coffeeshop! It’s technically called Double D’s Coffee and Desserts, but most people in Asheville just call in the double-decker bus.

The bus doesn’t drive anywhere, but it’s parked in a lovely little lot where you can sit outside at a picnic table underneath an umbrella.

 

12. Because local food can be twisted into something new and different.

For my last dinner in Asheville, I ate at Rhubarb. Rhubarb specializes in local ingredients but with very sophisticated twists, and it was the restaurant I found most akin to a high-end restaurant in a city like New York.

I go crazy for charcuterie in any form, but Rhubarb’s offering took it to the next level. Look at all those various meats packed into gel! Including headcheese! A lot of people might blanche at this plate, but I was in heaven.

Ever had goat cheese burrata before? I had not. (The goat cheese is in the center; mozzarella still forms the outside.) It was served with pickled strawberries, stewed rhubarb, and crispy shallots.

The pickled beets and cucumbers were perfect counterparts, but the highlight was the pickled ramps! Ramps grow wild in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Rhubarb is the only place besides The Spotted Pig in New York that I’ve seen serve gnudi — it’s like gnocchi, only made with ricotta instead of potato.

I have to say that no meal delighted me more intellectually than the spread I enjoyed at Rhubarb.

13. Because the cocktail scene is loads of fun.

Asheville might be most famous for beer, but I’m a cocktail girl — and there are plenty of places to enjoy cocktails around the city.

I stayed at the Hyatt Place in downtown Asheville and they’re known for their rooftop bar, The Montford. I ordered a Last Word cocktail made with Bombay gin, green chartreuse, maraschino, and lime. You should go for the view, especially during sunset.

For the cool factor, there are two spots I recommend you check out: Top of the Monk, where they serve each cocktail with a key to a tiny mailbox (what’s inside is a surprise!), and the Crow and Quill, a Victorian gothic lounge that looks like something Edgar Allen Poe dreamed up. (The door is unmarked; go by its address. Also, ask for a cocktail infused with tobacco smoke — it’s quite a show.)

But the absolute best cocktails, in my opinion, were made at Sovereign Remedies. I had the most fabulous gin cocktail — light and citrusy and delicate, the perfect beverage on a hot summer night. I never go to bars alone, but I did in Asheville for research purposes — and I actually made a friend! A cool girl who works in the hospitality industry in Asheville who was also enjoying a cocktail solo.

“It doesn’t look like it, but I’m at work right now,” she said, holding her glass up to toast.

I raised my glass in return. “So am I.” We burst out laughing.

I might have returned for a second night in a row.

14. Because there is SO much more I want to do!!

A weekend is not enough time to experience the best of Asheville. I think something like five days would be perfect.

At one point I gazed over the French Broad river and saw people floating along in tubes and thought, “I want to be there.”

I didn’t get to do too much outdoorsy stuff, and I definitely want to go rafting and do some hikes to waterfalls.

I want to visit the Sierra Nevada Brewery, which is a LEED-certified building and a beacon of environmental sustainability in architecture.

Oh yeah, and I need to hit up the French Broad Chocolate Lounge for dessert. I was fed such amazing desserts this weekend that I couldn’t justify going!

But most of all, I want to get into the mountains during the foliage season. The best foliage in Asheville is in mid-October, by the way.

This all sounds good — but did anything negative happen?

No, not really! Part of that was because the Explore Asheville team and I planned the trip to be closely tailored to my interests and what I thought you, dear reader, would enjoy reading the most.

I will say one thing, though — remember how I said that in most places, 98% of people are awesome? Well, I did meet part of the 2% as well. I was photographing a street with my wide-angle lens and a saxophonist who thought I was photographing him yelled, “You know it’s rude to take a photo of a musician and not give him a dollar!”

Oh ho ho. You’re talking to the girl who constantly yells at her friends, If a street musician made you stop in your tracks, you owe him a dollar!

Yeah. I wanted to say that. But you always think up your best comebacks a few seconds too late. (“Dude. I just gave a dollar to that guy juggling on a board with a dog on his head. You were literally playing Old McDonald Had a Farm.”) Anyway, long story short, he wouldn’t stop yelling at me and people were staring. So I gave him a dollar while grumbling, “This is just to prove I’m not a jerk.”

You guys know I always write about the bad experiences along with the good ones. And if that’s as bad as it got for me in Asheville, well, it was a pretty awesome weekend.

The Takeaway

Asheville is one of my new favorite U.S. getaways. And I feel like it would be great for all kinds of travelers — solo travelers, couples, groups of friends, families. But there are a few types of people who I think would especially enjoy Asheville:

Couples where one partner loves the city and the other loves the outdoors. I know a lot of couples like that and Asheville is the best of both worlds.

People into local, farm-to-table cuisine. There are so many options to get into local fare here.

Art lovers and collectors who like to chat with artists. I found the art scene here to be very open and friendly.

Beer fans. I mean, if you’re into beer, this is the place to come.

And even if you don’t fit any of that criteria, keep Asheville in mind. If you’re looking for a nice destination in the US that isn’t too overdone, where you can eat great food and visit cool businesses and spend time with some of the friendliest people in the world, I bet you’ll enjoy Asheville for sure.

Essential Info: In Asheville I stayed at the Hyatt Place and highly recommend it. It’s modern with artistic twists (they also bought some local Asheville glass art, I noticed!). My room was huge and had beautiful views of the mountains. Rates from $161. There’s an indoor pool. The hotel offers valet parking or self-parking at the same price: $16 per day.

I had hoped I could do Asheville without renting a car, but I soon learned it was best to have a car. If you’re visiting the Biltmore Estate, you absolutely need a car, unless you’re booking a tour that picks you up and drops you off at your accommodation. Plus, the airport is about a 14.5-mile, 20-minute drive from downtown. Other than that, you can get by walking and using Lyft.

The Biltmore

Asheville Farm to Table Tours start at $89 per person, start in the morning, and include a late lunch. My tour was in Fairview County, but the specific itinerary can vary each day. See more tours here.

Asheville Art Studio Tours last two hours and cost $32 per person.

I never travel anywhere without travel insurance — it could save your life (or finances). For this trip to Asheville, I used World Nomads and highly recommend them.

Many thanks to Explore Asheville for hosting my stay in the city and helping me plan an itinerary filled with things I loved. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to Asheville? Or does it look like your kind of city? Share away!

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14 Reasons Why I’m Smitten with Asheville, North Carolina

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I’ve been wanting to go to Asheville, North Carolina, for quite a long time. I’d heard that it was a beautiful town with a cool arts scene nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains. And I’d heard that it was a little drop of blue in a sea of red — or “the blueberry in the tomato soup,” as one local told me — a liberal enclave within a strongly conservative region, not unlike Austin, Texas.

The Obamas took a weekend getaway to Asheville in 2010; in 2013, President Obama said he had thought about retiring there. That further intrigued me — I had to get to this town.

Earlier this year, the team at Explore Asheville invited me to come visit for a few days and I happily accepted. When planning my itinerary, I told them I wanted it to be local, local, local. I wanted to focus on cool small businesses. I wanted to eat local food. I wanted to spend my money close to the ground. I wanted to see how nature integrated into the city.

I knew I’d have a great time — but I underestimated just how much I would enjoy this city.

Here are the reasons why I fell so hard for Asheville.

Image courtesy of Asheville Farm to Table Tours.

1. Because Asheville has the most amazing people.

I want to get that out of the way first — Asheville is home to some of the nicest people I have ever met, anywhere. And that goes for the U.S. and abroad.

These days I don’t usually like to say things like that these days — even though I’ve written posts on that topic in the past. Truthfully, most places are filled with 98% nice people with a few jerks thrown in.

But Asheville is special. People aren’t just polite or welcoming — it’s a genuine, honest, open kindness on the level of which I’ve never seen elsewhere. And it’s not necessarily southern hospitality. While I appreciate it, as a native New Englander I sometimes find southern hospitality a bit much — almost insincere.

“Asheville is different — it’s ‘mountain south,’” a local told me. Hmm. Mountain south. All of the kindness but none of the cloying sweetness. I could definitely get on board with that.

The crazy thing is that Asheville is a city of transplants — I met people from Chicago, California, Florida, Michigan, New Orleans, elsewhere in North Carolina. And they all ended up in Asheville because they saw something special in the city.

I find it uncanny but wonderful that in a city of transplants, everyone seems to have such a sunny personality.

2. Because it’s got quirks in all the right places.

Asheville has a population of roughly 87,000, making it more like a large town than a small city, but it runs high in the weirdness department.

On Friday nights from April through October, Asheville erupts into a drum circle. From 6:00 PM until 10:00 PM, people bang on the drums like mad as an audience dances to the beats. Feel free to join in the dancing — or even the drumming.

On Biltmore Street, you’ll fine a “Before I Die” chalkboard with spaces to write out your life goals. It made me smile that most of them were people saying who they wanted to marry.

In Asheville, it’s totally normal to see a dude juggling while balancing on a board, dog on his head. (Also, how great is that dog’s smile?)

Impromptu van sales down by the River Arts District? Also totally normal.

Lavender lemon soda? Absolutely! I rarely drink soda, but I loved this stuff. The Waynesville Soda Jerks are headquartered not too far from Asheville and have other soda flavors like strawberry rhubarb, apple rosemary, and blueberry basil. You can buy them in downtown Asheville at The Rhu.

And a surprising amount of Art Deco architecture is in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We all know Miami is the top Art Deco city in the United States, but who would have guessed Asheville would be a runner-up? This is at the Grove Arcade, a collection of shops downtown. It reminded me of the arcades of Melbourne, Australia.

One of the shops at the arcade is the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, which is exactly what it sounds like. Used books. Champagne. A place to chill out.

Considering how much I adore books and champagne, you’d think I’d move in and never leave — but I actually liked another bookstore better. Stay tuned.

 

3. Because it’s got a literal CHEESE TRAIL.

Asheville is home to several spots on the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail, a new collection of creameries scattered throughout the region.

You know my feelings on cheese.

I got to experience a stop on the trail on a tour with Asheville Farm to Table Tours. These tours seek to educate visitors on how food is grown at the source and used to supply businesses and feed people throughout Asheville.

We started with a visit to Looking Glass Creamery where we learned about several of the kinds of cheeses that are made here and were served the prettiest cheese board I’ve ever seen. I mean, let’s take a closer look:

Yes. Without a doubt, the loveliest cheese plate I’ve ever seen.

In addition to cheese, they also served blindingly hot mustard, an indulgent dulce de leche spread, and strawberry basil “fruit paste,” a term I hadn’t heard before. Their fruit paste was like a thick preserves, but it’s usually even thicker than that — almost like a brick of fruit!

4. Because the farm stands run on an honor system.

Want to buy some produce? Just pick out what you’d like and put some money in the box!

And not just that — they’ve modernized for the present day. You can also pay via Paypal. How amazing is that?!

Our second stop on the tour was Flying Cloud Farm, which was home to fresh produce, flowers, and an adorable puppy keeping watch.

And what better way to finish your day of farm-hopping with a chance to ogle baby goats and pigs at Hickory Nut Gap Farm? We had a lunch with sandwiches made with home-cured capicola and a salad made with astoundingly fresh feta and topped with purple flowers.

A day out at these beautiful farms, getting to know the farmers and the pride they take in the work they do, was a perfect introduction to the food scene in Asheville.

5. Because I went on a blind date with a book.

I always like to check out independent bookstores on my travels, and Malaprop’s in Asheville is one of my new favorites. The best feature? You can go on a blind date with a book.

Favorite books of Malaprop’s employees are wrapped up in brown paper and labeled with words that describe them. You choose a book based on the words. They can’t be unwrapped before purchase, nor can they be returned.

I wanted something from a local author, so I picked up a book labeled, “Clear-sighted, graceful, illuminating, tender, mesmerizing, chilling, local!” I also grabbed a volume of Hafiz poetry from their Persian Poetry section. (Yes, a small local bookstore has a Persian poetry section. I love it.)

I couldn’t wait to tear off the wrapping as soon as I bought it.

The book was A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash, a native of western North Carolina. The Richmond Times-Dispatch said, “Reads as if Cormac McCarthy decided to rewrite Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” Well, I’ve never been a big To Kill a Mockingbird fan, and I’m still scarred years after reading McCarthy’s The Road, so it’s fair to say I never would have chosen this on my own.

I look forward to reading it!

6. Because I had some of the best Spanish tapas of my life.

Asheville’s culinary scene has really picked up in the past several years, and one of the standouts is Cúrate Tapas Bar (pronounced Kyuh-RAH-tay), a Spanish tapas restaurant.

I expected the food to be decent but not extraordinary. Was I ever wrong. This was my first meal in Asheville and it remained the best, as well as the best tapas I have ever had outside Spain.

Jamon ibérico, because of course.

Crostini with morcilla blood sausage.

Cold almond and garlic soup with crab and flower petals.

Also served: pork and mushrooms, two different plates that were tasty on their own but positively sang when consumed together.

Here’s a hint for you — it’s not listed on the menu, but get the fried eggplant with rosemary ice cream for dessert. It may not sound like a traditional dessert, but trust me, you’ll be smitten.

And just in case, a gin and tonic meringue: tonic-flavored snow, gin-soaked berries, and torched meringue.

Cúrate blew my mind and I would leap tall buildings to have that same meal all over again. They’re also famous for their vermouth selection and I discovered how much I love white vermouth with a twist of lemon.

7. Because it’s a city of cool, welcoming artists.

After all you’ve read, would you be surprised to hear that Asheville is a major arts destination as well? Asheville is home to more than 200 artists, many of whom are clustered in the River Arts District, a little more than a mile from downtown.

You can walk around and explore the neighborhood on your own, but I recommend taking a two-hour Asheville Art Studio Tour. Led by John Miguel Almaguer, an accomplished glass artist who even apprenticed in Murano in Venice (!!), this tour took us to visit four studios in the neighborhood.

John has more personality in a fingernail than most people I’ve ever met. The man isn’t just a visual artist — he has the most wonderful presence. You’ll love him.

Here’s John posing with one of his works at his studio, the North Carolina Glass Center. (Also, I told him he totally reminded me of Bruno Mars. Maybe it was the hat.)

Stephen St. Claire, along with his wife Joy, create masterpieces of oil paint, metal leaf, and resin at St. Claire Art. He’s still tweaking his method, Stephen told us.

Daniel McClendon creates bright, primitive, abstract paintings inspired by all kinds of animals. I showed him my quokka selfies from Western Australia and suggested he visit WA to be inspired by the quokka for a future subject!

Andrea Kulisch at Studio A creates traditional Ukrainian eggs — and puts a modern spin on them as well with polka dots, trees, and even unicorns! Andrea is of Ukrainian heritage and I encouraged her to go to Ukraine and experience the country for herself.

I know I keep going on about how friendly everyone is in Asheville, but I was so impressed at how each of the artists talked to our group like they were telling their stories for the first time ever, not like they’d done the spiel a million times.

8. Because I got to frolic at the Richie Rich house.

If there’s any one attraction you should visit in Asheville, it’s the Biltmore Estate. This massive French-style chateau was built by George Vanderbilt in 1889 and it’s since become one of the symbols of Asheville.

As soon as I saw the mansion, I knew it looked familiar — but how? Then the answer came from a follower on Snapchat — it was the Richie Rich house! Of course it was! I used to watch that movie all the time when I was a kid!

Seriously, how is this place in North Carolina?!

The inside is spectacular — I can only imagine how beautiful it is decorated for Christmas.

George Vanderbilt was an avid reader — he averaged 81 books per year, which puts me to shame — so there’s currently a display of costumes from literary movies like Anna Karenina and Finding Neverland. Above is Uma Thurman’s peacock costume from The Golden Bowl.

If you want to see even more of the mansion, the rooftop tour is pretty cool. I can’t believe those gargoyles!

The Biltmore is such a cool place, and there are plenty more grounds to discover, including a winery and some gardens. And if you’re looking for the ultimate Asheville selfie, throw on your favorite red dress and pose in front of the building!

9. Because I found a brewery that was just right for me.

Asheville is home to more breweries per capita than any city in the United States — so if you love beer, you need to come here at least once in your life.

I like beer, but I’m not a hardcore beer fan — I’ll go to breweries in the company of my beer-loving dad and sister, but not on my own. Still, I liked the look of the Wedge Brewing Company, down in the River Arts District, and decided to give it a whirl on my way back from the Biltmore Estate. I couldn’t go to Asheville and not hit up a brewery.

Like everywhere else in Asheville, the Wedge is casual and welcoming. And it’s a family-friendly brewery, with games for kids and space for them to run around during the day. (It becomes adults-only after 8:00 PM.)

I tried four beers and especially liked their Hefeweizen and porter. But it was so nice to just sit outside in the shade, enjoying a few beer samples, and watching the freight trains go by. Chill breweries are the best breweries.

10. Because Southern cuisine is the sweetest of cuisines.

Blackbird is one of the signature restaurants in Asheville, and if you’re looking for something southern with a twist, this is a place to visit. I adore southern food and go for it whenever I can, but it’s always best at the source.

I started with a local peach and brie salad. Peach and brie is a heavenly combination — how have I never had that in my life?

Next up was trout with a peanut romesco and zucchini watercress salad. Owner Jesson Gil told me that he considered this dish his “death row meal.” It was fabulous — and also light, which is great considering how much heavy food you’ll be eating in Asheville.

Of course I had to order their award-winning coconut cake. (“Don’t worry, I’ll bring you a box,” my waitress told me. “Just how big is this cake?!” I thought. The answer? Pretty damn big, and yes, I did use the box.)

OH MY GOD, THIS CAKE. SERIOUSLY, THIS CAKE. It is so decadent.

11. Because creative small businesses thrive here.

One of my favorite shops I visited was the Asheville Bee Charmer, a beautiful store devoted to honey and related products.

Owners Kim and Jill came to Asheville from Chicago and envisioned their business out of “a passion for honey, a curiosity for bees, a love of cooking, and a yearning for connection to community.”

“What do you wish people knew about honey?” I asked Kim. “That honey is not just one basic product,” she told me. “There are 350 kinds of honey. Tasting honey is like tasting wine.”

And I tasted a lot of honey. Dark buckwheat honey that could substitute molasses. Chai infused honey that would be fantastic in green tea. And I even tried ghost pepper honey, which was certainly hot but not nearly as bad as I feared.

Since moving into my apartment, I’ve tried to pick up something for my home on most of my trips. In Asheville everyone recommended I check out Horse & Hero, a store filled with prints, cards, and creations by local artists.

This is a cool store, and you can find original art for fairly cheap. I picked up a print that reads LOVE IS OVER TAKING ME upward and downward.

Biscuit Head came highly recommended by my friend Amy, a former Ashevillian. In my experience, one recommendation trumps several recommendations, so I had to go. What are they famous for? BISCUIT AND GRAVY FLIGHTS. (Not the best picture, but I was so hungry I dove in and forgot to photograph it first. I apologize for what I did when I was hungry.)

You get to choose three kinds of gravy with your biscuits. I chose fried chicken, sweet potato coconut, and espresso red bean. Sweet potato coconut was simply outstanding. They also have several gluten-free varieties, which is nice, because biscuits and gravy are normally an extremely glutenous dish.

And this has to be the coolest — a red double-decker London bus turned into a coffeeshop! It’s technically called Double D’s Coffee and Desserts, but most people in Asheville just call in the double-decker bus.

The bus doesn’t drive anywhere, but it’s parked in a lovely little lot where you can sit outside at a picnic table underneath an umbrella.

 

12. Because local food can be twisted into something new and different.

For my last dinner in Asheville, I ate at Rhubarb. Rhubarb specializes in local ingredients but with very sophisticated twists, and it was the restaurant I found most akin to a high-end restaurant in a city like New York.

I go crazy for charcuterie in any form, but Rhubarb’s offering took it to the next level. Look at all those various meats packed into gel! Including headcheese! A lot of people might blanche at this plate, but I was in heaven.

Ever had goat cheese burrata before? I had not. (The goat cheese is in the center; mozzarella still forms the outside.) It was served with pickled strawberries, stewed rhubarb, and crispy shallots.

The pickled beets and cucumbers were perfect counterparts, but the highlight was the pickled ramps! Ramps grow wild in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Rhubarb is the only place besides The Spotted Pig in New York that I’ve seen serve gnudi — it’s like gnocchi, only made with ricotta instead of potato.

I have to say that no meal delighted me more intellectually than the spread I enjoyed at Rhubarb.

13. Because the cocktail scene is loads of fun.

Asheville might be most famous for beer, but I’m a cocktail girl — and there are plenty of places to enjoy cocktails around the city.

I stayed at the Hyatt Place in downtown Asheville and they’re known for their rooftop bar, The Montford. I ordered a Last Word cocktail made with Bombay gin, green chartreuse, maraschino, and lime. You should go for the view, especially during sunset.

For the cool factor, there are two spots I recommend you check out: Top of the Monk, where they serve each cocktail with a key to a tiny mailbox (what’s inside is a surprise!), and the Crow and Quill, a Victorian gothic lounge that looks like something Edgar Allen Poe dreamed up. (The door is unmarked; go by its address. Also, ask for a cocktail infused with tobacco smoke — it’s quite a show.)

But the absolute best cocktails, in my opinion, were made at Sovereign Remedies. I had the most fabulous gin cocktail — light and citrusy and delicate, the perfect beverage on a hot summer night. I never go to bars alone, but I did in Asheville for research purposes — and I actually made a friend! A cool girl who works in the hospitality industry in Asheville who was also enjoying a cocktail solo.

“It doesn’t look like it, but I’m at work right now,” she said, holding her glass up to toast.

I raised my glass in return. “So am I.” We burst out laughing.

I might have returned for a second night in a row.

14. Because there is SO much more I want to do!!

A weekend is not enough time to experience the best of Asheville. I think something like five days would be perfect.

At one point I gazed over the French Broad river and saw people floating along in tubes and thought, “I want to be there.”

I didn’t get to do too much outdoorsy stuff, and I definitely want to go rafting and do some hikes to waterfalls.

I want to visit the Sierra Nevada Brewery, which is a LEED-certified building and a beacon of environmental sustainability in architecture.

Oh yeah, and I need to hit up the French Broad Chocolate Lounge for dessert. I was fed such amazing desserts this weekend that I couldn’t justify going!

But most of all, I want to get into the mountains during the foliage season. The best foliage in Asheville is in mid-October, by the way.

This all sounds good — but did anything negative happen?

No, not really! Part of that was because the Explore Asheville team and I planned the trip to be closely tailored to my interests and what I thought you, dear reader, would enjoy reading the most.

I will say one thing, though — remember how I said that in most places, 98% of people are awesome? Well, I did meet part of the 2% as well. I was photographing a street with my wide-angle lens and a saxophonist who thought I was photographing him yelled, “You know it’s rude to take a photo of a musician and not give him a dollar!”

Oh ho ho. You’re talking to the girl who constantly yells at her friends, If a street musician made you stop in your tracks, you owe him a dollar!

Yeah. I wanted to say that. But you always think up your best comebacks a few seconds too late. (“Dude. I just gave a dollar to that guy juggling on a board with a dog on his head. You were literally playing Old McDonald Had a Farm.”) Anyway, long story short, he wouldn’t stop yelling at me and people were staring. So I gave him a dollar while grumbling, “This is just to prove I’m not a jerk.”

You guys know I always write about the bad experiences along with the good ones. And if that’s as bad as it got for me in Asheville, well, it was a pretty awesome weekend.

The Takeaway

Asheville is one of my new favorite U.S. getaways. And I feel like it would be great for all kinds of travelers — solo travelers, couples, groups of friends, families. But there are a few types of people who I think would especially enjoy Asheville:

Couples where one partner loves the city and the other loves the outdoors. I know a lot of couples like that and Asheville is the best of both worlds.

People into local, farm-to-table cuisine. There are so many options to get into local fare here.

Art lovers and collectors who like to chat with artists. I found the art scene here to be very open and friendly.

Beer fans. I mean, if you’re into beer, this is the place to come.

And even if you don’t fit any of that criteria, keep Asheville in mind. If you’re looking for a nice destination in the US that isn’t too overdone, where you can eat great food and visit cool businesses and spend time with some of the friendliest people in the world, I bet you’ll enjoy Asheville for sure.

Essential Info: In Asheville I stayed at the Hyatt Place and highly recommend it. It’s modern with artistic twists (they also bought some local Asheville glass art, I noticed!). My room was huge and had beautiful views of the mountains. Rates from $161. There’s an indoor pool. The hotel offers valet parking or self-parking at the same price: $16 per day.

I had hoped I could do Asheville without renting a car, but I soon learned it was best to have a car. If you’re visiting the Biltmore Estate, you absolutely need a car, unless you’re booking a tour that picks you up and drops you off at your accommodation. Plus, the airport is about a 14.5-mile, 20-minute drive from downtown. Other than that, you can get by walking and using Lyft.

The Biltmore

Asheville Farm to Table Tours start at $89 per person, start in the morning, and include a late lunch. My tour was in Fairview County, but the specific itinerary can vary each day. See more tours here.

Asheville Art Studio Tours last two hours and cost $32 per person.

I never travel anywhere without travel insurance — it could save your life (or finances). For this trip to Asheville, I used World Nomads and highly recommend them.

Many thanks to Explore Asheville for hosting my stay in the city and helping me plan an itinerary filled with things I loved. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to Asheville? Or does it look like your kind of city? Share away!

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On Influence, and Using It Wisely

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This week, Forbes named me one of their Top 10 Travel Influencers of 2017. You can also read CNN Travel’s piece about it here.

I’m deeply honored. After working so hard for so long, it’s gratifying to receive this kind of recognition, and all the sweeter to receive it alongside several of my friends.

And it got me thinking about the strange and wonderful industry in which I’ve been ensconced for the past seven years: professional travel blogging.

For those of us who are long-timers, dating back to 2010 or previously, we didn’t get into travel blogging for the money. There was very little money back then; if you made any money in 2010, it was probably from text link sales or a teeny bit of Google AdSense. Hell, when I started, I thought the only way you could make money as a travel blogger was through a book or TV deal.

We got into travel blogging because we wanted to tell our stories. Some of us started writing for our friends and family; some of us dreamed of writing for a wide audience from the beginning. We wanted to share the world with people, and for North Americans, we wanted to introduce our fellow citizens to the almost-unheard-of concept of long-term travel.

Me? I wanted to help women travel the world safely.

Of course I wanted to entertain strangers with my writing (I started blogging as a college freshman in 2002!) and share all my favorite travel stories. And once the money started rolling in, I wanted to keep my travels going as long as possible.

But helping women travel the world safely? Showing them that yes, it’s okay if you want to travel the world, you can do it alone if you want, and you’re not selfish or a horrible person for wanting that in your life? That has always been what drives me. That’s the audience I’m writing to with every word, including this sentence.

We all wanted to help — all us long-timers. We wanted to show people how to travel on a budget. How to hack points and miles. How to travel as a family. How to visit countries that were perceived as being too dangerous. Basically, we all wanted to change commonly held misconceptions about travel.

As the years passed — 2010, 2011, 2012 — more and more money entered our fledging industry. Freelance writing opportunities cropped up. Groundbreaking blogger campaigns took place in Costa Brava, Spain, and Emilia-Romagna, Italy. Sponsored content became a thing. Affiliates were no longer just for people with sky-high traffic. Bloggers proudly announced they were giving up text links. And then the holy grail arrived — the paid press trip.

It’s around then that the industry changed. In the early years, there had been plenty of bloggers who hoped to subsidize their travels and get some cool stays at swanky resorts; by 2014 or so, people were starting travel blogs specifically for the money.

When money is your biggest motivator, it affects everything — your travels, your content, and the industry as a whole.

I worry about the impact of other influencers entering the travel space.

As far as the travel blogging niche goes, it’s not as big or flush with cash as fashion, beauty, or home blogging. There are lots of reasons for that, but one is that travel is not an impulse buy. You see a pretty dress, a cool lipstick, or a cute set of placemats and it’s easy to rationalize buying it.

But planning a trip, especially an international, expensive, or complicated trip, can take years. You don’t just hit a button and randomly book a safari in South Africa for next week.

Case in point? I learned about the Sydney Bridgeclimb on season 2 of The Amazing Race when I was 17 and yearned to do it someday. I finally did it when I was 29. Travel ROI takes time.

There is money in the travel blogging industry, but it’s nowhere near the level of money for fashion bloggers. Travel blogging’s perks, however, are unbeatable. And that’s why lots of lifestyle bloggers, primarily fashion bloggers, have started to rebrand and add travel as a specialty. This mostly takes the form of posing in luxury hotels and in front of natural wonders in various outfits.

Some are quite good. Gary Pepper in one of the pink lakes of Western Australia is one pictorial that has always stunned me.

But to consider these bloggers and Instagrammers as travel influencers could potentially be dangerous. Why? Picture this. A luxury hotel invites a fashion blogger to Cartagena, Colombia. She gets picked up at the airport by a chauffeur, does several photo shoots in and around the hotel, and has a great time exploring the old city but doesn’t set foot outside it.

Predictably, her followers start asking her, “Is it safe to go to Colombia?”

And she replies, “Sure, it’s totally fine!”

Well.

For starters, Cartagena is by far the most touristy part of Colombia and isn’t anything like the rest of the country; walking around the old city of Cartagena at night is very different from other neighborhoods like Getsemaní, where non-luxury travelers are more likely to stay; the language barrier in Colombia is significant and you’ll struggle without knowing Spanish; much of Colombia is at a high altitude, which can lead to illness in some people; certain parts of the country are unsafe for overland travel; and Colombia at its core is a destination better for experienced international travelers, not newbies.

Colombia can be traveled safely — but it’s a challenging destination, even for experienced travelers. And a fashion blogger who waltzes in for a few days and doesn’t leave the old city of Cartagena doesn’t have the knowledge to advise her followers how to travel in Colombia safely.

That person should not be a travel influencer. But with lots of Instagram followers and partnerships with several gorgeous resorts across the globe, this person could be considered a top travel influencer. Even though she posed in the street with a designer handbag that didn’t zip up and are you kidding, this is Latin America, your wallet is going to be gone in ten seconds if you use that purse.

I worry that this is where the industry is going.

It’s time to stop ignoring politics.

One phrase you see frequently amongst popular influencers is, “I’m not a political person.”

Frankly, that’s bullshit. Are you breathing air in your lungs? Do you earn money and exchange it for goods and services? Do you cross borders and enter other nations? If so, your very existence is political.

I urge you to strike I’m not a political person from your vocabulary and replace it with one of the following options:

  1. I don’t care about people who aren’t as privileged as me.
  2. I do care about other people, but I’m afraid I’ll lose followers if I write about politics.

Boom. Honesty.

I’ve started writing more political content in the last year and a half or so. The ethics of attending a travel blogging conference funded by Robert Mugabe’s government. How to travel the world as an American without being embarrassed about Trump. Being the only white person to call out a racist travel blogger. Ways to travel more sustainablyThe overbearing whiteness of the wine tourism industry in Stellenbosch, South Africa. And in the aftermath of the 2016 election, why remote workers leaving the US can do more harm than good.

I started writing content like this because I wanted to go deeper. So much of the travel blogging industry had become increasingly shallow, the rise of Instagram no doubt being a factor, and I needed to plunge back in and bring something more meaningful to the table.

Did I lose followers? I sure did! Mostly people who called me unrepeatable names and told me I’d regret it when Trump’s army rose up. Which…yeah, I’ll let that speak for itself. But it wasn’t enough to derail my business. I also gained a lot of new followers at the same time.

Do you have to do the same thing? You don’t have to. But at the very least, you should take a look at your content with a critical eye and think about the greater political context in your travels.

One example is North Korea. I personally think there’s no way to travel to North Korea ethically at this point in time. And yet several top travel influencers have visited North Korea, often as a sponsored guest of a tour company.

Of the influencers who chose to visit, some of them did a ton of research beforehand, analyzed their options, and determined that visiting North Korea would do more good than harm (in the form of exposing North Koreans to outsiders, however briefly). While I disagree with their conclusions, I appreciate that they thought critically about this issue and did what they thought was ethical and right.

Others chose not to think critically at all. They ignore North Korea’s human rights violations and get hypnotized by the chance to visit North! Korea! And for free, too! and return with content about how awesome the trip was, and how North Koreans seemed happy, without examining any of the deeper issues.

But you know what’s worst of all? When people in the latter group come back and say they’re not going to discuss politics because they’re not a political person! Come on. You don’t get to have it both ways. All the videos of waving North Korean schoolchildren can’t make up for that.

People will always disagree on what is and isn’t ethical and on where people should and shouldn’t travel. Some will refuse to visit the U.A.E., Russia, or even the United States for ethical reasons. All I ask is that you do careful research, own your decision, and don’t let the allure of a comped trip or bragging rights cloud your judgement.

We can all do better as influencers — so let’s try to do better.

Nobody is going to be perfect. But all of us could stand to do a little bit better. Here are some ways:

Consider your purpose. Why are you blogging? What sets you on fire? Be honest with yourself.

If your reason is So I can continue my travels for as long as possible, I urge you to rethink your purpose. Even if it’s To inspire others to travel, I urge you to think a little deeper and see if you can come up with something that benefits others more than yourself.

Think beyond your personal experience. Did you manage a whole trip without getting robbed? Is that because you visited somewhere super safe like Japan or Iceland, or because you’ve had years of practicing travel safety to the point that you don’t even think about it anymore?

Not everyone is going to be as experienced a traveler as you, so share your knowledge. Put yourselves in the shoes of a less experienced traveler going through this for the first time. Your ultimate goal should be to do no harm.

Acknowledge that travel is not only for the most privileged. If you’re a straight, cis, white, able-bodied, English-speaking traveler with a first-world passport, you’ve won the global lottery. Travel is going to be much easier for you than literally anyone else in the world. Acknowledge that.

Talk to travelers of color, queer travelers, disabled travelers, Muslim travelers who wear hijabs. Read their blogs and share their narratives. The Philippines and India both have tons of excellent travel bloggers, along with eye-opening stories of jumping through legal and financial hoops in order to visit destinations you take for granted, like the EU.

Use your voice to amplify their voices as well.

Consider the impact that you have on the destinations you visit. Are you putting money into the local community or making a chain CEO richer? Are you causing harm to the environment or animals? Are you actually interacting with the people of your destination in a meaningful way or just using them for Instagram props?

Just doing a bit of research can make all the difference. Aim for sustainability — economically, environmentally, socially. When you’re an influencer, your actions are magnified by the travelers who follow in your footsteps.

Read as much as humanly possible. It always amazes me how many travel bloggers say they don’t read other travel blogs. How else are you supposed to stay up on the industry? But don’t limit your reading to just travel blogs. Read literature — fiction, nonfiction, travel-related and non-travel-related. Read the news from a wide variety of sources and stay up on issues of the world.

At the very least, reading will make you more knowledgeable and compassionate and turn you into a better writer.

Aim, always, to help people. And that is how you use influence wisely.

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In Odessa, Romance and Grandeur

9

Several years ago, I was in Paris and perusing the books at Shakespeare and Company. As I lost myself in the colorful aisles, I came across a modest paperback: Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslian Charles.

I was intrigued by this city I knew so little about, and after reading the back of the book, I decided to buy it. And while I liked the idea of the plot, about a twenty-something woman who tries to carve out a life for herself in Odessa and starts working part time at a mail-order bride company, it was the description of the city that won me over.

Odessa: a place where the streets were lined with candy-colored buildings, where people had conversations about classical music and art and literature, where cooking for friends and family was the greatest way to express your love, where women wore sky-high heels with miniskirts and clattered down the street. From that point on, I knew I had to visit.

Just as Bloodline brought me to the Florida Keys, it was Moonlight in Odessa that brought me to Odessa.

Did Odessa live up to my expectations? It went far and beyond. I fell madly in love with Odessa from the moment I arrived, and it’s one of my favorite destinations in years.

I arrived in Odessa on a bus from Chisinau, Moldova. After a quick stop at an ATM, I jumped in a taxi, agreed on a price that was likely far too much, and whirled down the pastel streets.

I was dumbfounded. I knew it would be beautiful, but how could Odessa be this beautiful?

I went out for a stroll with my camera and soon learned that Odessa is cheap. Ukraine is cheap overall. I knew it wouldn’t be too expensive, but I was shocked at just how low the prices were. Until this trip, I thought Albania and Macedonia had the cheapest prices in Europe; I soon realized Ukraine had them beat.

When Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea a few years ago (or as Russian loyalists would say, they took back what was rightfully theirs), Ukraine’s currency took a significant hit. What was already cheap became even more so.

Some examples of prices? I would regularly have a multi-course meal with wine for about $8.

A latte in a fancy cafe would cost around 95 cents.

The most expensive tickets at the opera? Around $10.

My boutique hotel room that would run for at least $250 if it were in New York? $42.

But on that note, there’s nothing to be worried about in terms of Russia and safety. There is no violence or military presence in Odessa. You wouldn’t know anything was happening.

You can’t travel to Crimea overland from Ukraine, and while Ukrainians now need a special permit in order to enter, non-Ukrainians can visit at their will. Flights from Moscow to Crimea are now considered domestic.

Today Odessa is just as safe as any other European city.

 

When I heard there was a bakery called Make My Cake, I had to stop by — there’s a Make My Cake in Harlem (and they make some of the absolute best cupcakes in the city, so if you’re in New York, you should come visit). Rather than cupcakes, though, this place was all about macarons.

Including black truffle macarons.

It sounds crazy, but trust me — they were amazing. Who knew that black truffles tasted so delicious with a bit of sugar? And each macaron cost less than a dollar, because why would you ever pay more than that in Ukraine?

On the more traditional end, I tried my first Ukrainian food at a restaurant called Kumanets. If you look for traditional food in Odessa, that’s the first restaurant that pops up, and you should go. It’s touristy as hell, with servers in traditional Ukrainian costumes, but the food is delicious and they have a lot of traditional Odessa dishes.

If you’re going to get the vareniki, or dumplings, get them with cabbage. Those are most traditional.

I also got my first taste of borscht — a new addiction that I would order nearly every day I was in Ukraine.

The next day, I met my guide Olga from JayWay Travel for a walking tour of Odessa with some food stops along the way.

I don’t often do private tours — it’s usually a group tour, a solo wander, or nothing — but I learned so much about Odessa from Olga that I was nearly bereft at how much I would have missed without her.

For starters, Odessa has been home to a multi-ethnic population for centuries. And if you’re Jewish and of Russian descent, chances are high that your family came from Odessa. Jewish culture is strong here to this day: I asked Olga what a traditional Odessa dish would be, and she replied, “Gefilte fish.”

Beyond the Jews, Odessa is home to Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Poles, Bulgarians, and of course Russians. All of these ethnicities melding together have made for some wild history — and some very interesting and surprisingly Mediterranean-influenced cuisine.

I had expected Odessa to be full of six foot tall blonde women, but it wasn’t like that at all. People were shorter, darker, and heavier than you might expect.

How amazing is this heart? I’m not a fan of love locks in general because they weaken bridges, destroy the look of architecture, and at this point, they’re such a cliché.

But Odessa has figured out the perfect solution. Instead of a bridge, they have a heart sculpture designated specifically for love locks. This way you can lock a symbol of your love to an icon in the city without destroying a bridge in the process!

Every city needs to do this.

Odessa is famous for its courtyards, Olga told me. She took me into several of them and pointed out wells that dated back generations, the only places where you could get fresh water in the city. Today many of them had old cars.

I loved this tiny house and its plants, just sitting in the middle of the courtyard!

And some courtyards are home to elegant restaurants.

The Potemkin Steps are one of the symbols of Odessa. The steps are actually an optical illusion — they’re much wider at the bottom than they are at the top. This was meant to give the appearance of a much larger staircase and intimidate any wayward sailor who found himself in the city!

The steps were actually under construction during my visit, but I was able to get this photo across the street from them.

There were happy yellow buses…

Teenagers out with their friends…

Poles covered in urgent advertisements…

Red brick houses topped with yellow…

Proud Ukrainians marching in the streets…

Outdoor restaurants with gauze-covered tents…

Indoor arcades lined in Baroque sculptures…

And picture-perfect street cafes.

I was so in love with Odessa. My heart swelled with every step I took.

And then a rogue hailstorm hit! I’ve never seen hail that big or loud in my life!

Roughly the size of canned hams, am I right?

Afterward I couldn’t believe that the walking street completely flooded! It was fine a few hours later, though.

Checking out the Catacombs

Also worth seeing are the catacombs. But unlike Paris and Rome, the catacombs are not filled with bones.

Here in Odessa, they were home to the resistance against the Nazis during World War II. The resistance lived down here, plotted and fought. People would stay underground for months at a time.

At one point, there were seven children living in the catacombs. This was their classroom.

Yes, that’s literal cave art about Hitler. This image is of a Nazi coming back injured. Translation: you’re losing the war!

The catacombs were also where Olga handled a mansplainer with aplomb. As we were waiting to go in, a tall hefty man in a navy blue pinstripe suit (with a royal purple pinstripe shirt…what?) said something to her in Ukrainian. She smiled weakly and ignored him. He then said a second thing to her, then a third. From the expression on her face I knew she was dealing with a mansplainer.

“What did he say to you?” I asked once we were inside.

“Oh, he said, ‘You can’t go in there, it’s locked.’ Then he said, ‘It’s too early for you to buy your tickets, they don’t have money.’ Then he said, ‘You’re not allowed to go in there.’ And I said, ‘I’m here five days a week,’ and walked in.” Of course. He didn’t believe she could possibly be a guide; he assumed he knew more than she did.

I sympathized with Olga and told her my own experience: on my flight from Bucharest to Chisinau, the man next to me kept explaining to me what happens when you fly on a small plane. I had given him the same weak smile while thinking, “I fly for a living, pal.

No matter how far you travel, some things stay the same.

The Takeaway

Odessa brought me so much joy. I felt so light and happy the whole time I was there, almost laughing for no reason. And as a result, I’m worried that this blog post didn’t convey enough information about Odessa itself. Does it make you actually want to visit? Or am I just a crazy lady distracted by pretty things that made her happy?

This shy balloon seller made me happy.

This orange bicycle made me happy.

This little pink car made me happy.

These little yellow chairs made me so happy.

Odessa, you were pure joy to me. Thank you for bringing such a big smile to my face.

Essential Info: In Ukraine I was a guest of JayWay Travel, a boutique Central and Eastern European travel company, for a custom itinerary they built for me with hotels, transfers, and tours. They do custom trips so whatever you’re looking for, reach out to them. It was so nice to not have to worry about transfers, and I was grateful that Olga went into the airport with me and found out where I was to depart (one terminal is currently under construction) — with the language barrier, I never would have been able to do that on my own. Contact them directly for tours or other bookings.

I stayed at the Hotel Milano, a brand new boutique hotel ideally located close to the walking street. I highly recommend it — it was extremely comfortable and modern, the staff were very helpful and spoke English well (a bit rare in Ukraine) and for $42 per night, it was a steal. (Olga pointed out that it’s a much louder neighborhood during the summer.) You can see more hotels in Odessa here.

There is a significant language barrier in Ukraine, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared. In central Odessa lots of people in restaurants and hotels speak a bit of English. I do recommend learning Cyrillic, which is pretty easy to do. It will make your life so much easier when you can read what’s in front of you, as many words are similar to English.

I visited Odessa in May, which was the perfect time. Odessa is a beach city and gets crazy in the summer months — which means it gets crowded, there are lots of late night parties with loud music, and older foreign men swarm the city searching for wives.

Moonlight in Odessa is out of print, but you can still get it for Kindle or secondhand.

Don’t visit Odessa without travel insurance. Whether you get appendicitis and need to be hospitalized, or your phone gets stolen, or an injury means you need to cancel all or part of your trip, travel insurance will help you out. I use and recommend World Nomads as travel insurance for trips to Ukraine.

Many thanks to JayWay Travel for hosting me throughout Ukraine. They paid for my hotels, airport transfers, and tours; I paid for flights, meals, and everything else. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to Odessa? Does it look like your kind of city?

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