They're mere minutes from downtown -- but miles away from city life. Both The North Carolina Arboretum and the Bent Creek Recreation Area have loyal followings among trail riders, runners and walkers, producing a side-by-side tie (either that or they're not sure which is which). Once again our readers have pronounced this verdant valley in Pisgah National Forest the place to take in nature -- whether on two wheels or two feet. Boasting 20 miles of trails, Bent Creek offers mountain bikers and hikers alike any number of choices. And right next door, the Arboretum, with its stunning views and accessible paths, provides walkers with prime strolling options. Walk, run, ride -- do whatever it takes, but get out and visit these two jewels and you'll quickly understand why those in the know beat a path west of the city every weekend.
From Asheville, take I-240 west to I-26 east to exit 2 (N.C. 191). Turn left, pass the Biltmore Square Mall, and head south on 191 for two miles. Turn right at the stoplight onto Bent Creek Ranch Road, following the brown signs to the Lake Powhatan Recreation Area and The North Carolina Arboretum. The Arboretum entrance will be on your right. To access Bent Creek, bear left at the fork after 0.2 miles on this road. The paved parking area at the Hard Times trailhead is a little more than two miles down this road on the left. -- BS
This is where the Iraqis are hiding the weapons of mass destruction. I know this for a fact, because after our readers proclaimed the Blue Ridge Parkway the best place to engage in illicit or nefarious activities, I had to investigate for myself. At one isolated parking area, a strange man approached me and asked, "Is that a rocket in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?" Now, I'm no weapons expert, but I'm sure that was code for something nefarious. Think about it: Surely the Iraqis have learned about our remote forest lands and how well they hid fugitive Eric Rudolph. They must have figured that it'd be a primo place to hide their weapons -- right under our noses. The guy also winked at me -- further evidence that something sinister was afoot. I concluded that while countless tourists snap panoramic photos at Parkway pull-offs by day, at night those secluded parking areas become a hotbed of international intrigue and stealthy missile burying. Fear not, however: Xpress has contacted the Office of Homeland Security and informed them of our findings. God Bless America! -- BS
This place has more names than Elizabeth Taylor. Xpress voters variously referred to it as: the Racetrack Park, the old Racetrack, Amboy Road Park, or simply "the new big park by the river." Some astute voters actually called it by its proper name: The French Broad River Park. But by any name, this park is one popular place. According to the Asheville Parks and Recreation Department, this destination draws more than 20,000 visitors each year. And it's easy to understand why: With basketball courts, volleyball, a roller-hockey rink and a colossal play area for children, the French Broad River Park covers all the bases. -- BS
French Broad River Park
Amboy Road, Asheville
There's way too much traffic, narrow lanes, blind curves, reckless drivers who think they're on the Autobahn, and fast-food drive-throughs galore; what's not to love about Merrimon Avenue? Xpress readers, reflecting the growing contempt for this beast of a road, dubbed the gnarly thoroughfare the Best Place to Get Run Over. Personally, I avoid cruising down it even in the relative safety of my car -- and I pity those brave souls who still try to ride a bike there. It serves as a reminder that Asheville is capable of achieving Atlanta-like status in the very near future. Cars, congestion, nasty drivers -- ain't we big city now?
Merrimon Avenue; from downtown, just head north and follow the sounds of screeching tires, honking horns and the low, pitiful moans of maimed pedestrians and cyclists. -- BS
It runs right smack dab through the middle of Asheville, and local kayakers and canoeists agree that it's the Best Place to Paddle in Western North Carolina, bar none. The French Broad River may not match the madness of the Green or Nantahala, but for variety of paddling options, she has no peer. According to Michael Duncan, general manager of Diamond Brand Paddle Sports in Asheville, it's the river's ease of access and variety of water flow that have put the French Broad on the map. "Recreational kayaking has become the fastest-growing segment of the paddling industry, and the French Broad River has everything from mild water -- such as the section that runs by the Biltmore Estate -- to the class II and III sections of the river near Hot Springs in Madison County. More and more people are starting out on this type of water," he notes, adding, "It offers something for everyone." -- BS
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow -- so say those Xpress readers who voted Madison County's Wolf Laurel Resort the Best Place to Ski/Snowboard. And if it doesn't snow, never fear -- the good folks at Wolf Laurel will make their own (provided it's cold enough). With 54 acres, multiple trails, double and quad chair lifts, and night skiing, Wolf Laurel is a symphony of schussing and carving sounds during the winter months. And as a bonus, the newly opened stretch of I-26 promises to make the trip up there a whole lot easier.
Let it be known, though, that a fair number of snow snobs voted for places like Vail, Aspen or Switzerland. But this is like picking restaurants in Athens and Beijing for Best Greek and Best Chinese Food, folks. We get the point -- you're a really good skier, way too cool for Western North Carolina, and your trust fund lets you ski anywhere but here in Appalachia. Might I suggest that next year you take part in Conde Nast's reader survey, rather than our local vote? -- BS
Wolf Laurel Resort, (800) 817-4111, or check out www.skiwolflaurel.com.
When it's hot, there's nothing better than a butt-naked immersion in an icy cold mountain stream. Maybe that's why our readers chose Skinny Dip Falls as the area's best place to chase the heat with a frigid plunge. Located near Looking Glass Rock at mile marker 417 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skinny Dip is a short hike from the parking area near the mile marker. Due to its popularity, the U.S. Forest Service has built stairs and landings to help swimmers reach their destination. But be forewarned: The area is unsupervised, and swimmers are cautioned to exercise good judgment when swimming. There are waterfalls nearby -- and rocks hurt when you land on 'em. -- BS
Skinny Dip Falls, near Mile Marker 417 on the Blue Ridge Parkway (just follow the signs to the trailhead).
Duh? Where else are you going to watch people? This one is a no-brainer. But that didn't stop one voyeur from voting for "my neighbor's window," or the pathetic soul who voted for his or her television. When the fog had lifted, though, downtown Asheville had once again brought home the gold in this category. Personally, I love to watch the people downtown. Some of them are really weird -- I once saw a guy walk out of a bank wearing a necktie. Another time, I spied a married couple on the Urban Trail wearing matching Bermuda shorts. These freaks used to scare me. But now I know that they aren't all criminals and druggies, and that I shouldn't judge them by the way they dress. Some of them have no other choice than to behave the way they do. It's just that when they congregate in places like the Grove Arcade, they can be a bit intimidating. But let me pass along some sage advice that a center-city veteran recently gave me: Don't make eye contact with them; keep your wallet in your sock; and never, never give them money if they ask for it. They'll probably only spend it on stocks, Thomas Kincaid paintings, or sundry other bourgeois crack. -- BS