Where It’s At: Asheville, North Carolina

Surrounded by the beauty of the Blue Ridge and the Appalachian Mountains, Asheville, North Carolina, is a haven for artists. Among the city’s countless accolades, Asheville has been honored as one of the top 50 "smart cities" to live in (Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, May 2006), one of the top 25 art destinations (American Style, June 2006), the No. 1 whitewater rafting town in America (Outside Magazine, August 2006) and the country’s best vegetarian-friendly small city (www.GoVeg.com, March 2006).

But the real draw to Asheville is its flourishing arts community, which has resulted in an abundant number of galleries and museums that display a blend of artworks and crafts. Must-see galleries and art centers include the Black Mountain Center for the Arts, the Asheville Art Museum and Grove Arcade ARTS and Heritage Gallery, which can be found inside a historic building that houses arts and craft shops, restaurants from wine bars to trattorias and chocolatiers, offices and apartments. The Asheville Downtown Gallery Association’s art walks (5-8 p.m. on select Fridays) are a perfect opportunity to stroll the eclectic streets and peruse the 30-plus galleries. Events like the 35th annual Village Art & Craft Fair (August 4-5 at the Historic Biltmore Village) are enough to keep visitors busy, with 127 artists from 19 states working in various media. Exciting avant-garde items are what draw countless attendees to this event.

Also worth boasting about are the magnificent settings for Asheville’s artists. Painters can pick up their materials and, in no time at all, be isolated in the Blue Ridge Mountains, seated by a lake or set up smack in the middle of the city’s downtown Art-Deco neighborhood (in the "Lower Lex" area on Lexington Street). Also nearby is the Blue Ridge Parkway, a sprawling road that curves through the hills, beckoning painters to stop along the way and compose en plein air.

"There’s a plethora of opportunities here to be inspired," says Jackie Dobrinska, communications director for the Asheville Art Museum. "There’s always something going on in the River Arts District, where a lot of artists have studios. And you can go on a hike anywhere to get your juices flowing."

For music lovers, Triangle Park holds free Jazz and Gospel concerts throughout the summer on Saturdays and Sundays, 4-10 p.m. And save the last weekend in July for the Bele Chere Festival, the largest free street festival in the Southeast, according to organizers. Three days of music, arts and food, the festival won’t disappoint. Historic trolley tours make it easy for visitors to scope out galleries and spots around town to sit down and paint. The diversity of media in the city—from woodcarving to watercolor to metalwork—parallels the diversity of lifestyles in the area.

"Art is a part of the area’s history," says Jo Ridge Kelley, a North Carolina resident and owner of Wild Mountain Watercolors. "A lot of people here have made their livings creating art as part of a simple way of life. I think we’re seeing a return to that. Now the area has become a center for the arts."

Travel on the Web: www.ashevilledowntowngalleries.org, www.ashevillearts.com, www.exploreasheville.com, www.asheville.com, www.belecherefestival.com.

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