Written by Emily Glaser
On a sunny summer day in downtown Asheville, they’re everywhere. They laugh raucously from the windows of a purple bus and balance steadily on the heavy wheels of Segways on Pack Square. They peddle the chained mechanics of an oversized bike with comradely zeal and trip along the cracked sidewalks between South Slope’s breweries.
Sunglasses-adorned locals perched on picnic tables outside neighborhood haunts roll their eyes in condescending derision and mutter a knowing aside: “Tourists.”
But these aren’t just tourists, they’re tours. And they’re a booming biz for the scenic region we call home.
With a trusty local at the helm, thousands of visitors explore the ales, cuisine, and culture of Western North Carolina through guided tours every year, in automobiles and on foot. Despite the industry’s affiliations with credulous rubbernecks, with a growing and diverse spectrum of specialized guided tours, it’s a business that’s increasingly suited to local residents, too. Whether you’re a native Carolinian or a recent transplant, guided tours and their informed leaders will impart you with new knowledge of your hometown—and a good time, too.
If you want to dig deep into a local niche—from our literary history to foraging for indigenous plants to the ghostly archives of the city’s landmarks—there’s likely a tour to help you do so. They’ll lead you down trails both figurative and literal, take you behind-the-scenes of our cultural stalwarts, and vest you with a library of esoteric trivia sure to make you the star of your next cocktail party.
No Taste Like Home
Ours is a region regularly hailed as a foodtopia rife with farm-to-table fare, creative fusion, and James Beard-nominated chefs. It’s a food scene that draws tourists in swarms to a bevy of guided restaurant and brewery tours, but small plates and samples lose their allure when you’re a full or part-time resident of the region. Instead, mountainous urbanites might turn to local guided tours, not for a look at the restaurant scene, but at the scenes from which they source, which often means the mountains themselves.
When Alan Muskat founded No Taste Like Home in 1995, tours (and tourism) were scarce around here, but the longtime forager still found a market to flex his knowledge of native edibles. “I had been gathering wild foods for about 100 different restaurants over the course of 15 years when I began to shift into teaching,” he recalls. “I found this to be more sustainable (that is, dependable, especially with climate change) and more rewarding. With the growth of tourism to Asheville, my ‘classes’ became ‘tours.’”
Muskat’s venture has since evolved to include two guided ecotour options, a 3.5-hour Foraging Tour and 1.5-hour Wild Food Stroll. On the Foraging Tour, novice gatherers explore an area outside of Asheville and pluck over a dozen wild edibles, then savor the fruits—literally—of their labors in an appetizer prepped at one of the city’s award-winning restaurants. Attendees of the Stroll, which takes place on the grounds of the Grove Park Inn, don’t gather the plants they find, but they do taste them in an appetizer prepared at the hotel. Both tours are led by seasoned couriers who share a passion for the gifts of the land. “Our guides have several hundred hours of training, and then years of experience,” Muskat says. “For them, this is first and foremost a way of life.”
No Taste Like Home is one of only a handful of forage-to-table tours worldwide, and arguably the most renowned: The business is ranked number one in the world in its category on TripAdvisor. Though he admits that his demographic these days is largely tourists, the things that draw customers to Muskat’s tours are universal and particularly applicable to we citizens. “People interested in foraging almost always fall into at least one of these six categories, people wanting to either: save money, eat healthier, eat more interesting food, be more sustainable, be independent, and/or be more connected with the earth,” he says. Whatever sparks their interest, Muskat’s mission and intention for the business is clear: “Foraging is not just a fun ‘survival’ challenge. It represents a viable and necessary alternative to the very basis of civilization,” he explains, adding that he believes foraging is the solution to our unsustainable dependence on destructive agriculture. (Muskat is currently writing a book on the topic.) “I’d like to see foraging become a regional sustainable economy for WNC. We can solve the hunger problem here and be a model for communities across the region.”
Asheville Farm To Table Tours
Though Muskat’s idyllic vision of a culinary economy sustained by foraging is a laudable aspiration, for now, our restaurants and markets rely on its antithesis: agriculture. But Western North Carolina’s farms are a far cry from the sprawling, near-apocalyptic corporate plantations of documentaries, instead approximating the arcadian plots of James Herriot’s pages. Tucked into valleys and gulches across the mountains, local farmers produce marbled cheeses, buckets of berries, and a rainbowed spectrum of vegetables for the hungry palates of regional eaters—and attendees of Ann Stauss’ Asheville Farm to Table Tours.
“I have enjoyed many a delicious farm-to-table meal in Asheville and knew most of the food came from nearby, but I had only been able to visit a few local farms,” Stauss says, of her business’ origins. “Although the farm-to-table movement was vibrant in our area, there was little opportunity to experience this at its source: the farms.” Inspired by ASAP’s (Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project) popular annual Farm Tour, Stauss founded Asheville Farm To Table Tours in order to offer foodies a behind-the-scenes look at where their food is grown and an opportunity to meet the people growing it.
On her three tours, six to 12 curious gastronomes pile into a van (loaded with local snacks and an icy cooler for goodies picked up along the way) and trek the winding roads around Asheville, visiting two or three farms or creameries hidden in the hillsides, like Blue Ridge Mountain Creamery, Carolina Bison Farm, and Flying Cloud Farm. The tours, which run Wednesday through Friday, and soon, Saturday, are themed and dependent on the day, like Friday’s Cheese, Glass, Flower Blast tour. At each stop, farmers offer visitors a personal tour of their turf, weaving through crop rows or cheese vats to divulge the inner workings of their trade. “Many of the farms I visit are not normally open to the public, so guests can see operations they would be unable to experience on their own,” Stauss adds.
Though her demographic is largely tourists, many of them are part-time residents or repeat customers. The impetus for attending such a tour, particularly as a hometowner, is tenfold: to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the farmers who make our food; to learn about Western North Carolina’s rich agricultural heritage; to study current farm methods and practices; to research local CSAs; to meet the farmers from whom you already buy at tailgate and farmers markets; or, for home gardeners, to tap into an insider’s know-how on topics like seed sourcing, organic pest and weed control, planting practices, and appropriate seasonal planting. Not to mention there’s nothing quite so sweet as a fresh-picked strawberry still warm from the sun, or so indulgently piquant as cave-aged cheese still cool from the stones.
As a Carolinian, you likely know of the Brown Mountain Lights; the spectral orbs, tinged crimson and silver, are known to float in ghostly synchronicity along the ridge of Brown Mountain (located about a half-hour north of Morganton) and are purported to be the lost souls of Cherokee and Catawba warriors’ womenfolk. It’s a well-known Appalachian legend, but it’s not just in the lonesome hills that you’ll feel the eerie chill of the paranormal. The cobblestone streets and art deco architecture of Asheville also harbor a host of spirit-centric secrets—secrets revealed on the city’s original ghost tour, Haunted Asheville.
Founder Joshua P. Warren’s mind is steeped in local lore, an interest piqued by his family’s lengthy heritage in the area (both sides have called the region home since the late 1700s). “I grew up with a passion for our history and finding the rarest lore about my hometown,” says the Asheville native, who wrote the book Haunted Asheville at just 18 years old and founded his tour business soon after, in 1996. More than two decades later, Warren is an authority in the paranormal field, with features on shows like Ghost Adventures and In Search Of, but it’s still Asheville that holds his attention: “My curiosity has driven me to explore and investigate all over the world, and Asheville stands out as a beacon of the strange, spooky, and mysterious things I’ve discovered.”
On Haunted Asheville tours, intrepid attendees are led through the streets of the city by Warren or one of his team of true paranormal investigators as they share stories historic and haunting. The company offers three experiences: Asheville’s original Classic Ghost Tour, which explores the stories behind macabre monuments, like a murder at the Battery Park Hotel and a body entombed Poe-style in a wall of the Basilica of Saint Lawrence; the Supernatural Tour, an investigation into other eerie affairs, like witches, ghouls, and vampires; and the Biltmore Village Mystery Tour, available to groups of 10 or more, which trips along the bricked walks and tall tales of Vanderbilt’s legacy. Guests end their traipse at the Asheville Mystery Museum in the Masonic Temple, a collection of odd relics collected by Warren on his travels and artifacts from Asheville’s more mysterious histories. Though Haunted Asheville is, perhaps unsurprisingly, busiest around the Halloween season, the walking tours operate on weekends year-round.
As a rarefied and genuine local, Warren enjoys the opportunity to share little-known folklore with other citizens. “Though most of our guests are from out of town, we pride ourselves on impressing locals,” he says. “As a native, my goal is to amaze another native with things he or she never knew about our home.” Hesitant to sign up for a haunting? Don’t be. “Our tour is not a ‘jump-out-and-scare-you’ experience,” Warren explains, “but an authentic exploration of what makes Asheville such a rare and magnetic location in these mysterious, scenic, and often creepy mountains.”
AVL Lit Tours
Asheville’s mythologies aren’t all occult or clandestine; in fact, the city’s literary history and the writers who populate it are positively legendary. Most local bibliophiles have stood before the yellow clapboard of Thomas Wolfe’s childhood home or wondered which room was Fitzgerald’s at the Grove Park Inn. Yet these stories of Asheville’s great American novelists, as well worn as the pages of their books, are only the beginning.
The city’s newest guided excursion, AVL Lit Tour, offers an expansive surveillance of Asheville’s lengthy cultural legacy, chronicling both the well-known and unsung. The artistic trek serves as evidence that the city’s literary history isn’t a speed read, but a veritable tome.
“For 90 minutes, our inquisitive guests adventure downtown and into the past where they encounter literary giants, bookish literati, and lesser-known writers, as well,” explains Sarah Giavedoni, who co-founded the tour last year with her business partner Jimmy MacKenzie. “Of course we talk about Thomas Wolfe and Carl Sandburg and Charles Frazier, but this city’s literary history is so much deeper and wider than that. We namedrop everyone from pioneering women in medicine to notorious serial killers.”
The tour, which the duo hosts on Wednesday evenings and Saturday and Sunday afternoons, draws back the curtain (or rather, turns the page) on the city’s more erudite lore, featuring footnotes on lesser-known names like Wilma Dykeman and John Ehle, as well as literary giants not often associated with Asheville like Ernest Hemingway. MacKenzie and Giavedoni, both graduates of UNC-Asheville’s mass communications program, combined their shared passion for local (and not-so-local) lit with their individual talents—Giavedoni in marketing and design, MacKenzie in journalism—to found the unique venture. “I guess the tour really just emerged after we read a miniature library of local tales,” recalls MacKenzie. “We possessed information we were passionate about and talents that could be utilized, and the question, ‘What do we do with all this?’ Suddenly, we were putting together the AVL Lit Tour.”
Like most guided tour businesses, attendees of the AVL Lit Tour are, more often than not, tourists, but locals could stand to learn a thing or two about our bookish mythos, too. “We’ve had many locals take our tour—locals who are very knowledgeable about the area—and they’ve all told us they learned something new on the AVL Lit Tour,” MacKenzie reports. “It’s always beneficial to have a deeper understanding of the city you live in.” (That’s why they offer a 20 percent discount for locals using the code LOCALLOVE.)
The derivative of such a tour, Giavedoni argues, isn’t just the acquisition of a personal library of interesting and localized lit facts; it’s a deeper understanding of both Asheville’s history and modern cultural currency. “Over the last few years,” he says, “Asheville has become a bigger and bigger attraction on the national stage. For many people unfamiliar with our history, that can feel like a new and foreign phenomenon, but it’s not,” she says. “We hope that after people take the AVL Lit Tour and are asked what’s interesting about our city, they’ll have dozens more talking points and anecdotes than they had before. Culture is not new to this area. We’ve had a rich literary history during the good times, down times, and today.”
Leap Frog Tours
Most guided tour companies capitalize on a specialty, using hard-won expertise as a springboard for a business that appeals to a unique, niche community of customers. And then there’s Leap Frog Tours, a venture that has turned our region’s multifarious diversions into a ranging, well-rounded selection of attractions.
“Most of the tour companies in the area focus on one thing, like beer, food, or art tours,” points out Ann Smith, who co-founded the venture with her business partner, Kim Turpin, back in 2016. “We are a full-service provider. We offer all different kinds of tours, custom tours, and transportation.”
Leap Frog’s lineup is sweeping in both its listings and territory, with selections indoors and out scattered across the region. Click-and-book tours, regularly scheduled and frequently hosted, range from the conventional, like brewery and winery tours, to more unusual offerings like mountaintop yoga, to the emphatically special, like their Cataloochee Valley Elk Adventure. Their diverse selection of tours provides unparalleled opportunity for we mountain dwellers to dabble in something new, whether that be en plein air painting, the science of pollinators, or the flavors of one of the Blue Ridge’s small towns, like Sylva or Waynesville.
The company’s expansive list of tours is always in flux as Smith and Turpin adjust their agenda according to seasons, demand, and stroke-of-genius ideas. Their new tour, which will commence on Saturday, April 20 (ahem, 420, for those in the know), falls into that latter category: The Franny’s Farm CBD & Hemp Tour, Asheville’s first hemp excursion, will realize a new, unexplored avenue of the region’s flourishing industry. Attendees will get a behind-the-scenes look at the mountains’ preeminent hemp venture, including Franny’s Farmacy downtown and the Leicester farm itself.
It’s not just Leap Frog’s expanse of tour options that sets the company apart—it’s that they’re customizable. “We’re finding that we’re building quite a niche for ourselves creating custom experiences for couples, families, and groups,” Smith explains. That might mean rescheduling a click-and-book tour or creating a completely custom itinerary. As if that weren’t enough, Leap Frog also offers transportation services for events and parties across Western North Carolina; in 2018 alone, the company shepherded attendees of nearly 60 local weddings.
As the hub of the mountains, it’s no surprise that most local guided tours are stationed in Asheville, but it was in direct contrast to this that Leap Frog Tours got its start, and it’s still one of the predominant USPs of the business today. “My business partner, Kim, and I spent about six months researching business ideas,” remembers Smith. “We realized that although there were lots of tour and transportation options in Asheville, there weren’t many options outside of Asheville in the greater Western NC area. For example, there weren’t any beer tour companies taking people to the breweries in Brevard, Waynesville, or Sylva. So, we started what we call our ‘Outlier Brewery Tours.’” As a former freelance tech writer and psychological services company CFO, Smith and Turpin, respectively, also differ from most tour entrepreneurs in that they didn’t turn their passion into a business; instead, they’ve turned their business into a passion, pooling Turpin’s extensive knowledge of the area and Smith’s knack for logistics into an unparalleled resource for visitors and locals alike.
Whether you want to explore the towns in Asheville’s orbit, hike a new trail, or gain a better understand of the French Broad’s role in our city’s history, there’s a Leap Frog tour for that. The business stands as testament to the fact that, no matter how local we are, there’s still a whole lot to learn about this place we call home.
Local Yokel Perks
A mistaken belief common to we Appalachian denizens is that we are so immersed in our own locality, to explore it further is unwarranted or unworthy. But it’s in these tours that such a notion is debunked. Regardless of your tenure as an Ashevillian, or Western North Carolinian there’s something you don’t know about your city and region, and there’s likely a guided tour to help you learn about it.
With native experts at the helm and staffed by passionate and extensively trained chaperones, the specialized guided tours of our area offer opportunity for hometowners to deep dive into a niche that piques their interest. Rather than while away hours on websites or in library stacks researching your new obsession, you can let the existing experts do it for you and reap the benefits of their disciplined labors. As tours like No Place Like Home and Haunted Asheville prove, the word “expert” in this context is justifiably warranted; in Western North Carolina many of the tours and their founders are not just renowned locally, but worldwide, for their savvy mastery of their subjects. It would be foolish not to tap into such easily accessible resources.
Most of these tours also invest directly back into their community, both economically and philanthropically. No Place Like Home, for example, partners with local nonprofit SeekHealing, a bulwark against the opioid crisis here. Leap Frog Tours offers an experience in conjunction with RiverLink that illuminates the history of the French Broad River’s impact on our community and its future preservation. When you’re supporting these guided tours, you’re also supporting the dynamic organizations with which they partner.
Not to mention, if you stand behind the mantra “support local,” there are few industries so immersed in our regional culture and economy as guided tours. Tourism is the profit-pumping lifeblood of our financial system; in 2017 Buncombe County tourism provided for some 18,346 jobs and $2 billion in spending at local businesses such as guided tours. When the season slows down (and parking downtown de-escalates from a marathon sport to a spirited competition), it’s our responsibility as residents to sustain businesses dependent on seasonal tourism. These businesses keep our city thriving, and we should do the same for them—and maybe learn something really cool in the process.
And in the end, that’s what it’s all about. Western North Carolina’s guided tours, particularly those led by esoteric experts, showcase and promote the more riveting, novel, and sometimes wacky aspects of our home’s cultural legacy, strengthening and perpetuating those stories—both big and small—that make us, us.
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