A half-hour’s drive south of the clipped lawns of George Vanderbilt’s mansion, out of the shadows of the towering deco relics of downtown Asheville, rests the town of Hendersonville, with many of the charms of its more-visited mountain neighbor minus the traffic.
Hendersonville is the seat of Henderson County, the state’s “Apple Capital,” home to some 200 apple growers and 5,000 acres of Red and Golden Delicious, Roma Beauty and Gala varieties, all celebrated during the annual N.C. Apple Festival. This year’s commemoration of malus domestica will be held over Labor Day weekend in September, when the apples are getting ripe.
But Hendersonville has long welcomed visitors at other times of the year, especially in summer. Easy to reach by intersecting highways – U.S. 74 and U.S. 64 – Hendersonville also seems always in the path of a cool breeze. That sweet air has served since the mid-1800s as a siren song to suffering lowlanders hoping to escape the heat; by the 1920s, the town’s population of 10,000 quadrupled each summer. Hendersonville, and the hills that nearly encircle it, are full of homes built for seasonal respite. Many are now occupied year-round by retirees.
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There is plenty to occupy a traveler for a day, or a couple of days, or a tranquil summer, and much of it is low-cost or provided by organizations that ask only for donations. Many highlight the area’s natural beauty, enticing visitors to kick off their shoes and splash in the cool waters of a mountain stream; to wander down a quiet forest path through rhododendron, redolent spruce and cedar; or to sweep in the panoramic view of the surrounding peaks from a high perch above town.
If a thunderstorm threatens, simply step inside one of the 19th- or early-20th-century buildings of the National Register-listed Main Street Historic District downtown, which now house boutiques and eateries.
Sample sweets from a bakery where the cinnamon buns are still made from the same recipe as when the shop started in 1930. Go treasure-hunting in one of several antique malls. A few blocks from downtown, you can gaze into the face of author Thomas Wolfe’s muse for his novel, “Look Homeward Angel,” whose namesake sits above a monument in a city cemetery. A short drive further, you can see 19 other winged creatures: rare, vintage aircraft on display at a museum that recalls when air travel was a marvel, not an inconvenience.
As the sun sets behind the mountains, have dinner at one of several restaurants whose menus rival some of those in Asheville, but whose prices are a little closer to earth. Afterward, catch a live show performed by the same theater company that fills the seats at the renowned Flat Rock Playhouse. On Monday nights through summer, step out for a street dance to live music, a tradition that gives a nod to the town’s 1918 welcome home to its military service members at the end of World War I.
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Greet the day the way the blooming flowers at Bullington Gardens do, with the sun and the fresh air in your face. This 12-acre preserve was started by retired New York City police officer Bob Bullington, who with his wife, Sally, ran an ornamental nursery from 1979 until he died a decade later. Their home and land are now owned by the Henderson County Education Foundation and leased to the county school system. The property includes a native woodland garden, a rain garden, dahlia garden, perennial borders, a pollinator garden, a therapy garden and one dedicated to Sally Bullington. The public is welcome to walk the grounds, which also feature meandering paths that disappear into quiet woods, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. No admission is charged, but donations are appreciated. 95 Upper Red Oak Trail, Hendersonville, 828-698-6104 and at bullingtongardens.org.
Jump Off Rock
Get a more panoramic view of indigenous foliage from Jump Off Rock, a scenic overlook whose name comes from a legend about a Cherokee maiden who promised to meet her great love at this spot when he returned from war. The story says he was killed in battle, and she flung herself off the rock’s ledge to join him. Similar stories linger around other jagged geological formations in the state, so the only thing we can say for certain is that this is a spectacular place to ponder the vastness of earth and sky, or to take one of several short hikes. The legend says you might see the maiden’s ghost on moonlit nights, but the park is only open from sunrise to sunset. No admission charge. Directions: From downtown Hendersonville, take Fifth Avenue West; it becomes Laurel Park Highway; the road dead ends at Jump Off Rock and a short walkway leads to the pinnacle.
Thomas Wolfe’s Angel
On the way into downtown Hendersonville, pull into Oakdale Cemetery, the burial ground owned and maintained by the city. Small signs will direct you toward the graveyard’s most notable resident, the marble angel that sat in the Asheville funeral monument shop window of W.O. Wolfe until a Hendersonville family, the Johnsons, bought it in 1906. Though the elder Wolfe had several angel monuments over the years, historians say this is the one his son, Thomas Wolfe, described in a short story and again in his career-launching 1929 novel, “Look Homeward, Angel,” a largely autobiographical story. They know it’s the right angel because, as Wolfe wrote in the novel, “it held a stone lily delicately in one hand. The other hand was lifted in benediction; it was poised delicately upon the ball of one phthisic foot…” “Phthisic,” or wasted by tuberculosis, is a reference to the disease that once brought so many people to Asheville sanitariums for treatment. The price of a plot in Oakdale Cemetery today is $500 for city residents, $1,000 for county residents. Visiting is free. At the intersection of U.S. 64 and Valley Street.
So that you don’t waste away, stop for a sandwich at Mountain Deli, a downtown diner that serves the flavors of a traditional Jewish deli, fitting since Jews were among the early arrivals in town around the turn of 20th century. This restaurant serves hot-carved roast beef on Tuesdays and Fridays, roast turkey breast on Mondays and Thursdays and smoked ham on Saturdays and Wednesdays. The pastrami Reuben on toasted marbled rye is gooey with warm cheese, and the sandwiches are piled plentifully high. Anything on the menu can be packed to take on a picnic. 343 N. Main St., Hendersonville. Open daily during summer, closed on Sundays in winter. 828-693-0093, mtndeli.com.
If you left room for something sweet, step a few doors down and a few years back in time at McFarlan Bakery, offering a staggering array of 160 items daily. Many of the cookies, pies, breads and cakes are made with recipes that date to the bakery’s earliest days, in the 1930s. One of those is for its cinnamon buns, which have such a loyal following, people drive up from Charleston, S.C., just to get them. They have to: McFarlan’s won’t ship. It also has no tables, so if you see people walking around town with white bakery boxes, you know that’s precious cargo they’re carrying. Open Tuesday-Saturday 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.. at 309 N. Main St., Hendersonville. 828-693-4256, mcfarlanbakery.com.
Western N.C. Air Museum
You might not want to think about loop-de-loops on such a full stomach, but the docents at the Western N.C. Air Museum love talking about the tricks the old aircraft in their collection used to do when they were on the wing. Founded in 1989 by three local flyers, the museum is dedicated to the days when “airports had grass strips and didn’t have fences … when flying was an event instead of a burden … and when every head turned at the sound of a motor buzzing overhead.” The museum’s collection includes replicas of a Wright Brothers’ flyer and a 1917 Curtiss, along with more than a dozen preserved or restored craft such as the 1936 Piper Cub and a 1928 Heath Parasol. No admission is charged, but donations are welcome. 1340 Gilbert Street, Hendersonville. Open noon to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. westernnorthcarolinaairmuseum.com and 828-698-2482.
North Mills River Campground and Recreation Area
It’s pleasant enough to admire the scenery, but there’s nothing like submerging yourself, or at least your feet, right in it. That’s easy to do at this Pisgah National Forest campground and recreation area on the North Mills River about 20 minutes from downtown Hendersonville. The campground is situated at an elevation of 2,200 feet with access to the national forest’s cascading waterfalls and hiking trails through dense woodlands. With fewer than 20 sites and no hookups, it’s a quiet, peaceful campground, but it also includes two parking areas for day-trippers who pay $3 per car and bring their own inner tubes for playing in the water. The river, a clear, narrow, shallow stream, is perfect for small children. Open through October. 5289 N. Mills River Road, Mills River. 828-890-3284, nando.com/millsriver.
Hendersonville homeboy Jason Reasoner is the executive chef of this new restaurant that offers “new American cuisine” in a circa-1922 bank building on Main Street. Current menu items include a loose interpretation of chicken and waffles and a play on shrimp and grits that instead features trout and a block of fried grits. Drinks include North Carolina beers, house-made vanilla bean lemonade and hibiscus-and-mint tea. The wine cellar is in the old bank vault. 401 N. Main Street, Hendersonville. Summer hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch. Dinner is served Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. 828-595-9676, postero-hvl.com.
Flat Rock Playhouse Downtown
With roots dating to 1937, the Flat Rock Playhouse is an institution in Western North Carolina and since 1961 has been the official State Theater by an act of the legislature. In addition to its performances on what it calls the Main Stage at the 506-seat theater in the town of Flat Rock, the nonprofit company also puts on shows in a more intimate 250-seat venue in downtown Hendersonville. “Driving Miss Daisy,” movingly performed with just three actors and an economical script and staging, finished in late July. “Crimes of the Heart” began Aug. 6, and the season ends with “Catfish Moon.” Tickets are $40 plus fees, with group and age discounts available. For reservations, 866-732-8008, flatrockplayhouse.org.
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