Tourists crowding the streets, purple buses careening down Haywood, groups of helmeted people on motorized scooters jetting through the city. Welcome to summertime in Asheville. As the temperature soars, so does the population. But you don’t have to spend your days dodging tourists: I say, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. On a recent weekend, I looped my camera around my neck, tried to look clueless and discovered what Asheville is all about from an out-of-towner’s point of view.
LaZoom Tours: A quirky twist on a tourist classic
If you haven’t seen the big purple bus, you must not get out much. A truly Ashevillian addition to the neighborhood, La Zoom tours boast a comical, theatrical take on the humdrum guided tours that most cities offer. Hop on at the Asheville Brewing Company (throw back a cold one) and be prepared for entertainment from the fabulously costumed Violet LeFleur and Manly Mandrake (whose fake British accent added roll-your-eyes hilarity to the trip). The two presented a mix of facts and quirky skits on the 90-minute tour, which wound its way through the streets of downtown and the Montford and River Arts districts. A mid-tour stop at the Grove Arcade provides an opportunity for another drink — probably a ploy to keep the silliness level as high as possible for the remainder of the tour.
Altogether, LaZoom is a great idea that probably needs a little while to ripen. The skits are great, but the informational component isn’t quite there yet. Great for kids and families though, and I expect that in a year or so, LaZoom will take over as the best tour in the city.
The Verdict: Needs time to gel, but the better option for kids.
Asheville Historic Trolley Tours: The old standby
Think of this tour as LaZoom’s exact foil. The 80-minute Historic Trolley Tour starts at the Visitors Center in Montford and takes passengers on a comprehensive sightsee through most of Asheville’s major attractions — Montford, the Grove Arcade, downtown Asheville and Biltmore Forest. Though a little dry, the Trolley tour is the most informative, with a guide who knew the facts on just about everything (even pointing out his favorite donut shop). Even as a know-it-all local, I learned a lot — including details of Asheville’s only civil war battle.
Guests on the tour can get on and off throughout the day; stops include the Renaissance and Double Tree hotels, Pack Square, Chelsea’s Tea Room and the Grove Arcade. But be warned: on a Saturday afternoon in high summer, the bus was completely packed, and passengers trying to get on at stops beside the Visitor’s Center often had to wait for the next bus. But if you want a non-gimmicky look at Asheville, this is it.
The Verdict: Better for a mature crowd — and you might want to steer clear of Saturdays.
Haunted Ghost Tours: Investigating Asheville’s dark side
By far, the most fun hour-and-a-half of my tourist experience. Explore the ghoulish history of downtown Asheville with this after-dark walking tour (which starts at the centrally-located Haywood Hotel.) From the murder at the Biltmore Hotel to the city’s underground gallows, tour guides expertly relate tales that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. Throughout the walk, guides encourage patrons to try to capture paranormal phenomena on film, and tourists laden with digital cameras eagerly look for “orbs” (which allegedly represent ghost-like activity) and ghostly faces in the trees.
More like a ghost hunt than a conventional guided tour, this dark, spooky walk may be a little too graphic and scary for kids. Ghost Tours and its guides are the real deal — a collection of true believers, so skeptics beware. This tour might just prove you wrong.
The Verdict: Bring a camera, and probably leave younger kids at home.
Biltmore Estate Tours: Exploring America’s castle
No visit to Asheville would be complete without visiting the Biltmore Estate. If you’re local and you haven’t visited, you should. Built by George Vanderbilt in 1859, the Biltmore Estate was originally meant as a bachelor pad and is the closest thing you’ll get to a European castle on American soil. The most common option is the self-guided tour. Just don a pair of headphones and comfy shoes and you can explore the house at your own pace — that is, if you aren’t constantly jostled or elbowed out of the way by big crowds in the summer and on weekends. My personal favorite areas of the house were in the basement — the ancient bowling alley, a 20s-style indoor pool and the elaborate kitchens.
For a more in-depth look, try the Rooftop Tour, which takes you up to the unrestored attics and on several rooftop decks. The Behind-the-Scenes Tour takes you through the sub-basement to look at how all those electric lights are powered (and how central heat and refrigeration worked in the 1800s). You can also opt for guided tours through the house and garden, or jump on a motorcoach for the Legacy of the Land Tour where you’ll delve into the property’s history.
After viewing the house, take your ticket stub on over to the Winery, where you’ll get a free tour. That is, if you can get through the Winery without running directly to the free wine tasting that is included in all Biltmore House patrons’ tickets.
The Verdict: An absolute must. But don’t pay for a specialty tour unless you’re really interested.
There are many other tours in and around Asheville. Stop by the Visitors Center for pamphlets and staff suggestions. Pick up a brochure for the Urban Trail and follow the markers inlaid into the streets of Asheville that highlight architecture, people of interest and historic events in the city. For art aficionados, the Gallery Guide + Art Walks Tour takes you to 30 local galleries in downtown Asheville and the Studio Guide pamphlet highlights the major galleries of the River Arts District (www.riverartsdistrict.com). For a walking tour without the walking, try a Segway Tour, a guided tour around the city on a motorized stand-up scooter (www.movingsidewalktours.com). And for thrill seekers, several helicopter tours run in and around the Asheville area, including Falcon AirLink, Inc. (www.falconairlink.com).