That interesting clay mug in a busy Asheville café? Definitely made by a local potter. The chair you’ve just slid into in Blowing Rock? Carved by hand in the wood shop down the road. As in few other places in America, handcraftsmanship is flourishing in the mountains of western North Carolina.
Once you set out to wander the mountain and valley towns, you’ll find craft markets with little effort. From eco-hip Asheville to art hubs in tiny Weaverville and lively Black Mountain, the unpretentious destinations are just right for an afternoon studio stroll or a full weekend of scenic touring. The smoky hues of the Blue Ridge Mountains are always on the horizon, and radio stations often play tunes filled with Appalachian banjo picking.
One of the prettiest off-the-highway routes is the famous Blue Ridge Parkway, a leafy 469-mile southern route where the speed limit tops out at 45 mph. Stop at Milepost 382 to visit the Folk Art Center’s Allanstand Craft Shop. Its inventory represents the finest in Southern clay, wood, fiber arts and glass—everything is exceptionally beautiful and authentic.
Whatever your route and destinations, you won’t be the only visitor browsing the pottery. Self-paced craft touring is welcomed in western North Carolina. In fact, it’s officially encouraged by groups like Handmade in America, a nonprofit that promotes the region’s craft heritage and compiles a growing online list of artisans, galleries and craft events. To get you started, here’s a touring sampler.
FOLLOW THE FRENCH BROAD
Yes, the French Broad is a river. Follow it north and west of Asheville on U.S. 25 and after about 20 miles you’ll arrive in the small town of Marshall. If you choose to take the river-hugging Old -Marshall Highway (N.C. 251) instead, the drive will take several minutes longer, but it’s worth it for the raw beauty. Rock faces line one side of the road, and undeveloped riverbanks decked with tall trees are on the other. Plein-air painters sometimes set up easels on the banks.
The heart of Marshall consists of one riverfront commercial street whose timeworn buildings have been revitalized by new shops and a community motto, The Creative Life on the River. Flow has the vibe of a lower-Manhattan boutique; it sells locally handmade knit hats, candles, jewelry and furniture. And just across a bridge to an island in the French Broad River, guests are welcome and saws are sometimes whirring in a wood-sculpting workshop at Marshall High Studios, an artisan enclave in a three-story former high school.
About 10 miles north, the wildly curving stretch of U.S. 25 that climbs through Pisgah National Forest is a ton of fun to drive. Here you’ll find the town of Hot Springs, mostly a row of wooden buildings that have a Wild West look and are bordered by railroad tracks and the French Broad. The small town is home to the ArtiSUN Gallery, rafting outfitters and a natural hot mineral springs. Visitors can reserve a private tub on the riverbank at the rustic Hot Springs Resort & Spa, a restorative destination since the 1800s.
As you head back toward Asheville, you’ll run into the colorful little town of Weaverville. Among its highlights are the chocolate éclairs at the Well-Bred Bakery and the organic clay designs at Mangum Pottery, open since 1989 and owned by local musicians. Potter Rob Mangum has even developed a clay banjo that many local pickers play.
At elevations of 3,000 to 4,000 feet and higher, points around Banner Elk, Valle Crucis, Boone and Blowing Rock have earned the region its High Country nickname. All the towns are within a 20-mile radius; in winter the communities attract carloads of Southern skiers and snowboarders. In all seasons, visitors can sample the high-elevation ice wines and other locally produced vintages at the Banner Elk Winery. Blowing Rock has many antiques stores and gift shops; at High Country Candles, shoppers can watch artisans carve wax into intricate, flowing designs.
Home to Appalachian State University, Boone gives off the creative energy of a college town. Its downtown stretch of craft markets is centered on West King Street. At the spacious Mark Read Studio in nearby Valle Crucis, an acclaimed metalsmith displays his elegant sculptures. (You can also see Read’s work in the Smithsonian Institution and New York City’s American Craft Museum.) At another stop in the idyllic valley, find everything from old-fashioned licorice and bottles of RC Cola to blue jeans and cowboy boots in the creaking wood-floored rooms of the 1880s Mast General Store.
URBAN ARTS RENEWAL
Near the railroad tracks and industrial riverside a few minutes from downtown Asheville, dozens of artisans have recently moved in and are giving once neglected warehouses and workshops new life and fresh coats of paint. In this revamped River Arts District, studios are open daily so guests can observe artists at work. Tabletop textiles can be found at Sutherland Handweaving Studio, and wooden clutch purses are made by S. Reynolds Design Gallery. And if hunger strikes, the district is also home to a lively food scene of cafés, a taqueria and one of the city’s many craft breweries. Also chock-full of art and craftsmanship is the town of Black Mountain, just 15 miles east of Asheville on U.S. 70. Mountain dulcimers from Song of the Wood are made and sold here along with local art and handicrafts in the lobby and bar at the refurbished Monte Vista Hotel. And after years of working with soft clay, North Carolina potter Mark Tomczak opened Fresh, a Black Mountain café popular with locals for its wood-fired pizzas, local ingredients and fresh dough—all made by hand, of course. But you could have guessed that.
Allanstand Craft Shop: 382 Blue Ridge Pkwy; 828.298.7928
Handmade in America: handmadeinamerica.org
Marshall High Studios: 115 Blannahasset Island; 828.649.0177; marshallhighstudios.com
Pisgah National Forest: Banner Elk; 828.257.4200
ArtiSUN Gallery: 16 Andrews Ave S; 828.622.3573; artisungallery.com
Hot Springs Resort & Spa: 315 Bridge St; 828.622.7676; nchotsprings.com
Well-Bred Bakery: 26 N Main St; 828.645.9300; wellbredbakery.com
Mangum Pottery: 16 N Main St; 828.645.4929; mangumpottery.com
Banner Elk Winery: 60 Deer Run; 828.898.9090; bannerelkwinery.com
High Country Candles: 1098 Main St; 828.295.9655; highcountrycandles.us
Mark Read Studio: markreadstudio.com
Mast General Store: N Carolina 194; 828.963.6511; mastgeneralstore.com
Sutherland Handweaving Studio: sutherlandhandweaving.com
S. Reynolds Design Gallery: 348 Depot St; 828.252.7779; samreynoldsdesign.com
Song of the Wood: 203 W State St; 828.669.7675; songofthewood.com
Monte Vista Hotel: 308 W State St; 828.669.8870; themontevistahotel.net
Fresh: 100 S Ridgeway Ave; 828.669.6999; freshwoodfiredpizza.com