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Enjoy a quick spin on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Really, is there any drive, anywhere that’s as sublime, as stately, as gosh-darn gorgeous, with its ever changing panorama of split rail fences, vintage farmhouses, sun speckled woods and dusky cerulean mountains soaring up into the clouds.
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Special to msnbc.com
updated 4/23/2007 12:03:56 PM ET 2007-04-23T16:03:56

“You can’t go home again,” Thomas Wolfe famously wrote in his lyrical, dishy novel “Look Homeward Angel” about his hometown of Asheville. But he did … living out his last years in North Carolina even though some of the gossip revealed in his book (which was banned by the Asheville library for years) made him persona non grata among many of his old friends there. But heck, it’s not hard to understand why he returned. Picturesque (with those majestic mountains cutting into the horizon) and filled with eccentric, counter-culture characters, in a day you’ll get an inkling why Wolfe — and dozens of other artists, would-be artists and people who like to hang with artsy types — haven’t been able to resist the pull of this Blue Ridge beaut.

8 a.m. - 9 a.m.: Speaking of artsy, eccentric types, you’ll find many of them getting their kitsch fix first thing at Eatie’s Cereal Bar . The name says it all: you come here to munch on your choice of 25 different cereals, from the pure sugar pellets of Count Chocula and Lucky Charms, to a selection of multi-grain, multi-nutrient organic cereals and oatmeals. Local art covers the buttercup yellow walls, and the soundtrack often as not is slurps and giggles.

9 a.m. - 1 p.m.: Ascend into the upper class — briefly — with a visit to the Vanderbuilt’s illustrious Biltmore Estate . No expense was spared to make it the most innovative, high-style mansion in the U.S. when it was built in the 1890’s (and it still holds the title of largest private residence in the U.S.) Renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt did the design; the founder of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted (of Central Park in New York City fame) oversaw the grounds; and the man himself, original owner George Washington Vanderbuilt, spent years combing the globe for magnificent stuff to fill the mansion’s 250 rooms. During his super-sized shopping spree, he purchased some of Edison’s first lightbulbs, masterworks by Renior, Sargent and Whistler, 16th century Flemish tapestries, Chippendale furniture, priceless oriental carpets and 50,000 other objects. If you find you can’t get your fill in just one day (a common occurrence), have your ticket stamped to come back the next day for $10.

Morning alternative
The Biltmore Estate is the big cheese among the city’s attractions, but if you’ve already seen it, explore Central Asheville instead. It’s a charmingly odd city which seems to change its outfit every block or so, thanks to the stupefying hodgepodge of architectural styles on display. There are arts-and-crafts-inspired homes, with expansive porches and drastically sloping roofs; Victorian townhouses; Neo-Tudor and Gothic Revival buildings complete with gargoyles; and an abundance of curvaceous, downright sexy Art Deco buildings. You can pick up a self-guided audio tour at the Asheville Art Museum to help you identify the homes and styles.

In the course of your wanderings, be sure to stop by the Thomas Wolfe Memorial ,which includes the newly restored boarding house owned by Wolfe’s mother (it was burned by an arsonist, but has been repaired and reopened to the public); Malaprop’s Bookstore ,a hub of intellectual life in the city and a great place to pick up an iced chai or get into a life-changing philosophical argument (it’s the only bookstore I know of that devotes one entire section to books banned elsewhere); and the impressive Romanesque and Gothic revival churches on Church Street.

1 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.: It's time to load up on carbs and cholesterol! Head to the Tupelo Honey Café for a lunch of updated, deep South classics, like shrimp and grits (here with goat cheese), collard greens made chic with soy sauce and toasted garlic, or crunchy fried chicken coated with crushed nuts. Breakfast is on the menu all day long, too, for those in need of a comfort food fix (or you can just go for Elvis’ favorite: a peanut butter, banana and mayo sandwich — hey, you’ve crossed the Mason-Dixon line, after all).

2:30 - 6 p.m.: Enjoy a quick spin on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There are few drives that are as sublime, stately and gosh-darn gorgeous, with its ever changing panorama of split-rail fences, vintage farmhouses, sun speckled woods and dusky cerulean mountains soaring up into the clouds. Break up your journey to nowhere with a stop at the Folk Art Center , at milepost 382, a non-profit organization selling and displaying Appalachian crafts.

Afternoon alternative
Go shopping. It certainly takes on a highbrow tone here, thanks to the historic, beautifully preserved enclaves devoted to this pursuit. You have a choice of bleeding your credit card dry at either the Biltmore Village the community that George Washington Vanderbuilt constructed as a baronial extension of the Biltmore Estate (it offers up about 25 stores, none of which are the usual yawn-inducing chains) — or at The Grove Arcade Public Market . The latter has a Pike’s Market-vibe (for those of you familiar with Seattle) and the setting is the fully refurbished, former roaring-20’s arcade that was the city’s first indoor shopping arcade. You’ll find 50 stores here.

6 p.m. - 8:30 p.m. : Go all out with a meal where F. Scott Fitzgerald once feasted — Horizons Restaurant ,in the Grove Park Inn Resort. Continental cuisine, gracious, if formal, service and a stately setting — this is where you go to propose, to celebrate a promotion, or perhaps just to cap off a perfect day in Asheville.

8:30 p.m. -  on : You never know what sort of nightlife awaits in Asheville. Your evening’s entertainment could consist of catching a drumming circle, political protest, concert or free film series in Pritchard Park. Or perhaps it will be a poetry reading or author talk at Malaprops Bookstore (see above). Somewhere in town there’s likely to be music, with great mountain musicians often taking the stage at the Jack of the Woods Pub at the Gray Eagle Tavern . Just pull aside one of the fleece-and-flannel clad hipsters who live here and ask what’s most interesting that evening (or if you’re shy, pick up a copy of the local paper for listings).

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommerguides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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Eaties Cereal Bar, 48 B Commerce Street (enter on Patton), phone 828/505-1851. Open daily 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Biltmore Estate, 1 N. Pack Square on U.S. 25, 2 blocks north of I-40, phone 800/543-2961, 828/225-1333;www.biltmore.com. Open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.. Prices vary by which tours you take but the basic admission to the house and gardens if $39 adults, $27 seniors, $20 children 6-16 (free for those 5 and under).

Asheville Art Museum, 2 South Pack Square, phone 828/253-3227; www.ashevilleart.org. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Fridays until 8 p.m.) and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m..

Thomas Wolfe Memorial and Boarding House, 48 Spruce Street, 45 minute tours occur every hour on the half hour, Tuesdays through Sundays. There are additional Thomas Wolfe items and a video at the Visitors Center, 52 N. Market Street, phone 828/253-8304, which is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9am to 5pm and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Malaprop’s Bookstore, 55 Haywood Street, phone 828/254-6734; www.malaprops.com.

Tupelo Honey Café, 14 College Street, 828/255-4404. Closed Mondays.

The Folk Art Center is located 5 miles east of Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile marker 382. Its phone number is 828/298-7928 and it’s open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Biltmore Villageis located on Swann Street off Biltmore Avenue just across the street from the entrance gates to the Biltmore Estate. Its phone number is 828/274-8788; www.biltmorevillage.com.

The Grove Arcade Public Market, 1 Page Avenue, phone 828/252-7799; www.grovearcade.com

Horizons Restaurant, 290 Macon Inn Avenue in the Grove Park Inn Resort, phone 828/252-2711.

Jack of the Woods Pub, 95 Patton Avenue

Grey Eagle Tavern, 185 Clingman Avenue, phone 828/232-5800; www.greyeagle.com

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommerguides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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