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Hiking, booze and vinyl

Mountain college towns in North Carolina offer chance for recreation and record-shopping



Asheville, N.C., gets called a hippie town, and with good reason: There are a lot of hippies there stinking up the streets with their dogs and patchouli. But this was of little concern when my girlfriend and I pulled out a map to look for a weekend getaway last summer. At less than four hours from Atlanta, up Interstates 85 and 26, Asheville is perfect for a short road trip to the North Carolina mountains.

Our ideas of the perfect vacation are always at odds. While my girlfriend scoured the Internet looking for parks, waterfalls and restaurants, I researched record stores. Smaller towns like Asheville are full of amazing scores because there aren't as many record buyers hitting up the new-arrival bins every day, competing for the goods. There are also at least five colleges in the area, which means a lot of poor college kids selling off their record collections to stay alive – and buy beer. East Asheville's Harvest (415 Haywood Road, 828-258-2999, www.harvest-records.com) is the undisputed king of indie titles and obscure finds. Inventory here ranges from avant-garde, noise and the weirdo pressings of Nurse with Wound Records, to a large selection of vinyl that caters to the collegiate rock palette.

Two other LP merchants, Static Age and Voltage, sit just a few doors away from each other downtown. Any record store named after a Misfits song is cool in my book, but the selection of used CDs and LPs at Static Age (82-A N. Lexington Ave., 828-254-3232, www.staticagerecords.com), while wide, is only so-so. Voltage (90 N. Lexington Ave., 828-255-9333), on the other hand, is packed with a ton of hard-bop jazz odds and ends, classic rock, punk and indie stuff. You'll also find Grateful Dead, and a slew of reissues of everything from the Jazz Messengers to X-Ray Specs. Refuel after shopping at Izzy's Coffee (74 N. Lexington Ave., 828-258-2004, www.izzyscoffeeden.com) just up the hill. The coffee's good, and when the barista rings you up at $4 for two large mochas, you'll know you're not in Atlanta anymore.

With your record shopping completed, it's time to venture onto the Blue Ridge Parkway (www.blueridgeparkway.org). If you're the kind of outdoorsman who likes to take in the scenery from the comfort of an air-conditioned car, look no further. This 469-mile road snakes through the Blue Ridge Mountains and offers stunning views of pure, unadulterated green space, trees, rolling hills and smoky mountain tops. (Remember the opening scenes from Evil Dead II, when Ash and his lady friend were driving along the mountains en route to their weekend getaway, blissfully unaware of their fate in the cabin? That was filmed on the Blue Ridge Parkway.)

Start driving in any direction and you'll encounter waterfall upon waterfall. The next day, drive in the opposite direction for more of the same, along with plenty of hiking trails to even more spectacular waterfalls. On our hikes, we crossed paths with deer, wild turkeys, birds and a ton of butterflies, but not many people, which really is the point, isn't it?

Tunnel Road, just around the mountain from downtown Asheville, is the hotel district, where you'll find a good mix the usual suspect chains along with a few locally owned places to lay your weary head. The Mountaineer Inn (155 Tunnel Road, 828-254-5331, www.mtinnasheville.homestead.com) has an unavoidable lure with its larger-than-life hillbilly mascot waving you in, but you'll get the most bang for your buck further down the road at the Days Inn (201 Tunnel Road, 828-252-4000, www.daysinn.com), which boasts a bad-ass breakfast bar.

When it comes to chow, being in rural Appalachia means seemingly unlimited greasy spoons (read: all meat, all fried, all the time), or chains (Cracker Barrel, etc.). I'd recommend packing a picnic to devour after a hike or to enjoy while overlooking any number of scenic roadside vistas. Back in Asheville, the options are infinitely better. Vegetarians listen up: Visit the Laughing Seed Café (40 Wall St., 828-252-3445, www.laughingseed.com). Do yourself a favor and try the artichoke dip and omega hempnut burger. The raw lasagna shouldn't be ignored, either. Breakfast is an Asheville institution. Plan on starting the day at Tupelo Honey Café (12 College St., 828-255-4863, www.tupelohoneycafe.com) or Sunny Point Café (626 Haywood Road, 828-252-0055, www.sunnypointcafe.com).

In the evening, if you're in a drinking mood (which you should be, since you're in Asheville) there's the Admiral (400 Haywood Road, 828-252-2541, www.theadmiralnc.com). On the right night, you can even catch a DJ set by Reigning Sound singer and guitarist Greg Cartwright.

Hippies be damned! Asheville's got the goods worth a road trip.

Don't leave home without ... Bring CDs for the drive, and if you're heading out on the Blue Ridge Parkway, bring something pretty and bucolic for the soundtrack. My Bloody Valentine's Loveless worked for me. Trail mix or Doritos are always a good bet, too, and make sure you have plenty to drink. You're bound to find a place to pull over and go exploring in the woods. Bug spray is always a good idea.

Don't miss ... The Biltmore Estate (1 Approach Road, 828-225-1333, www.biltmore.com) is the kind of place where your aunt and/or grandma will say, "You have to go there!" The house is a big, fancy, ridiculously extravagant fairy-tale palace. But the real draw is the 8,000-acre estate surrounding the house. You can hang out with farm animals or just get lost on the grounds and have your own little Walt Whitman trip on the trails that snake through the countryside.

Recommended soundtrack for the drive ... "Panic" by the Smiths, "Gamma Ray" by Beck and "Your Phone's Off the Hook But You're Not" by X.

Souvenir ... I spent all of my money on records there. I found a nice used copy of the Reigning Sound album Time Bomb High School at Voltage, and every time I listen to it I think of Asheville.

Only a two-hour jaunt north from Atlanta on I-85, Greenville, S.C., is a small town with a modern mind-set, mountains and international cuisine. A nice detour on the way to Asheville, Greenville's known for its cycling community, die-hard outdoorsmen, and triathletes. Even famed American cyclist George Hincapie has set up shop here and can be seen training for the Tour de France along Greenville's roads.

In the summer months, you can join the locals on the killer hiking and mountain biking trails of Paris Mountain (2401 State Park Road, 864-244-5565, www.pmspf.org), where you can relax afterward in the mountain lake. Then head to the quaint downtown and grab a gourmet beer from Barley's Taproom (25 W. Washington St., 864-232-3706, www.barleystaproom.com), a much-loved local bar with hundreds of beers on tap and a knowledgeable staff. After your fill of espresso and blueberry beers, walk across Main Street to spend a lazy summer afternoon in Greenville the way the locals do it – lounging in the grass of Falls Park (601 S. Main St., 864-467-4355, www.fallspark.com) where the Reedy River tumbles over rocks and down a waterfall. Walk barefoot across stones to cross the river or take a stroll over the stunning Falls Park Bridge.

And vinyl fans won't want to miss Horizon Records (2 W. Stone Ave., 864-235-7922, www.horizonrecords.net), which is worth a side trip all by itself.

Don't leave home without ... Your mountain bike and jogging shoes.

Don't miss ... The Mediterranean food of simple eatery Pita House (495 S. Pleasantburg Drive, 864-271-9895, www.pita-house.com) or of the more upscale Lazy Goat (170 River Place, 864-679-5299, www.thelazygoat.com). There are culinary gems throughout Greenville offering well-done Greek, Brazilian, Peruvian and Indian cuisine.

Souvenir ... A six-pack of all the beers you conquered.

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