Bearfootin’ BearS in THEIR natural habitat. Photo by Sam Dean AND FROM Henderson County Tourism Development Authority.
Even as city-slickers bring amenities like duck pate, Hendersonville’s small-town charm shines through.
Nearly 100 years ago, my grandfather — a short-tempered carpenter named Hubert Stepp — bought 12 acres of red-clay farmland in Hendersonville, N.C. He and my meemaw reared a child for every acre they owned, and years later these aunts and uncles would reminisce of the town back then — a sleep-eyed community where tying strings to June bugs and watching ‘em buzz was prime entertainment.
Even when I was growing up in the 1990s, Hendersonville was still slow-paced. I spent most weekends wandering in Green River Game Lands, an 18,000-acre mountain wilderness not five minutes from where my daddy took his first breath. When that grew tiresome, I would read books in the backyard, smush pennies on the railroad tracks, or hole up in a big hemlock and watch cars pass by. There wasn’t much else to do.
But in recent years, the pace ‘round here has started to quicken. Thanks in part to the pandemic, big-city escapees have moved from far-flung places and brought big-city culture with them. These days, breweries are popping up like toadstools; you can’t throw a rock without hitting an artist; and downtown has so much traffic the city had to build a parking garage.
There’s also the nickname. Locals are in such a hurry that the four-syllable word Hen-der-son-ville simply takes too long. Now, my hometown goes by a shorter, trendier alias: Hendo.
All of this makes some natives uncomfortable. They roll their eyes when a new gastropub opens or when a highway gets an extra lane. I get it — change is scary. But personally, I’m loving this funkier spirit. Thanks to Hendo’s glow-up, I can spend my time doing things that grandpa Hubert Stepp couldn’t have imagined. For instance, this is how I spent a recent Saturday.
WE ♥︎ N.C. MAKERS
A spread at HenDough Chicken and Donuts. Photo courtesy of THE BUSINESS.
SWEET AND SALTY START
My wife, Ashley, and I normally dedicate Saturday mornings to mundane but necessary tasks: grocery shopping, folding laundry, scooping the litter box. But on this particular morn, we gave our responsibilities the middle finger, and instead of adulting, we went for a hot breakfast at HenDough Chicken and Donuts.
Nestled in a white, two-story farmhouse with folksy decor, HenDough is a quaint haunt that exudes loads of southern charm. Paul and Sarah Klaasen opened it back in 2016 after leaving the high-end restaurant industry to focus on their two favorite comfort foods: fried chicken and donuts. Since then, their early morning eatery has become a hit.
Whenever I visit (which, according to my waistline, is becoming frequent), I have two rules:
1) Always order the bear claw, which is a massive pastry stuffed with stewed apples and sprinkled with bacon. Lord bless.
2) Always order something salty like a Nashville hot chicken biscuit. In my mind, the savory item balances out the sugar jolt. It also offers some long-lasting protein for whatever is next on your itinerary. For us, that happened to be mountain biking.
If you’re like me, you tend to skip breakfast and go right for the strong stuff — coffee. Thankfully, Hendersonville has plenty of coffee houses to pick from. My personal favorite is Black Bear Coffee Co. A long-time fixture of Main Street, it partners with Counter Culture Coffee — a specialty roaster in Durham — to keep Hendo well-caffeinated. (Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.)
Cyclists at Ride Kanuga have a need for speed. Photo courtesy of THE BUSINESS.
MOUNTAIN BIKE TRAILS WORTH SHREDDING
With bellies full of donuts, Ashley and I then drove five minutes to Ride Kanuga, a 1,400-acre bike park with a robust system of professionally-built and meticulously-maintained trails. Admittedly, we tend to stick to the free DuPont Recreational State Forest when we have an itch to shred, but this Saturday, we treated ourselves.
We started by slogging our hardtails up Wolf Mountain and then sampled Rhodo Ruckus, a wily downhill flow trail with tight berms. From there, we ascended again and dropped into Hemlock Epoch — a black diamond with pucker-worthy jumps and gaps. On that trail, I remember soaring through the air and screaming in adrenaline-fueled pleasure. My cry sounded like a dying housecat, but I was too high on speed (no, not that kind) to care.
Long story short, we found the whole experience to be outrageously fun. And we’re not the only ones. Ride Kanuga has been such a hit its founders — professional downhill racer Neko Mulally and physician David LaMond — recently opened a second bike park in the southern reaches of the county. In a tiny community called Zirconia, Ride Rock Creek offers downhill-specific singletrack that I hear are unlike any on the East Coast. We considered making the 20-minute drive to see for ourselves, but lunch was calling.
If you prefer walking to cycling, head down to Holmes Educational State Forest for a quiet morning in the woods. Holmes offers a good mix of trails, ranging from short and easy to long and strenuous.(Photo by Holmes Educational State Forest.)
MIKE’S ON MAIN STREET DISHES UP CHARM. PHOTO BY TIM ROBISON AND FROM HENDERSON COUNTY TOURISM DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY.
AMERICANA EATS AND TREATS
Mud covered, we headed to Mike’s On Main Street, knowing that, no matter your appearance, this ‘50’s-inspired soda fountain will accept you with open arms and a malted milkshake. It was jam-packed with apple farmers in overalls, business professionals in suits, and young families with wide-eyed whippersnappers. Apparently, pimento cheese is society’s grand unifier.
Craving a stick-to-your-ribs sort of meal, I ordered an Angus hamburger with a Coca-Cola and then spent the next half-hour admiring the joint’s mid-century style: the working jukebox, neon signs, antique advertisements, and painted copper ceiling. Even the servers dress in traditional soda-jerk uniforms with white button-ups and red bow ties. The ambiance at Mike’s On Main Street is spot-on, as are the flavors.
Since Ashley and I were a bit bedraggled after biking, we picked a laid-back eatery for lunch. If you want fancier fare, try Postero. Located in a former bank, Postero draws inspiration from “the great American melting pot” with dishes ranging from Nola BBQ shrimp toast to grilled baby bok choy to duck pate. (Photo by Tim Robison and from Henderson County Tourism Development Authority.)
PARTY LIKE ITS 1982 AT The Appalachian Pinball Museum. Photo by Jared Kay AND FROM Henderson County Tourism Development Authority.
MAIN STREET MUSINGS
Like Mike’s On Main Street, all of downtown Hendersonville looks like it belongs in a Norman Rockwell painting. It has planter boxes of tulips, quaint storefronts, and an historic, gold-domed courthouse designed by famed architect Richard Sharp Smith, who is best known for serving as the supervising architect of the Biltmore House.
You could easily lose an entire afternoon exploring Main Street, popping into curious fixtures like the Appalachian Pinball Museum, a quirky vault of vintage video games; Wag!, a unique pet boutique; and Narnia Studios, a storybook-inspired flower shop. From May to early October, the streets of Hendersonville are also lined with whimsically-adorned ceramic bears. As part of the Bearfootin’ Art Walk, these life-sized critters are painted by local artists and then auctioned off to raise money for area nonprofits.
Simply put, there's a lot to see in Hendo. Fueled by hamburgers and fries, Ashley and I spent a few hours leisurely strolling around downtown before hitting Mast General Store. Located in the historic Syndicate building, this old-timey retailer sells just about everything you could ever need — from cast iron pans to waterproof boots to Charleston Chews by the pound. I could’ve lingered there longer, playing with slingshots and sniffing goat milk soap, but Ashley was thirsty, and I knew just the cure.
NEW ON WOODSHED
THE IDYLLIC GROUNDS AT Sideways Farm and Brewery. Photo FROM Sideways Farm and Brewery.
Like I said, there are plenty of breweries in downtown Hendersonville, but here’s the thing: While Ashley is a beer fan, I hate the stuff. Alas, it’s always a struggle to find a place with spirited drinks that suit both our palates. That’s why we frequent Sideways Farm and Brewery.
Located on a 10-acre farm in Etowah — an unincorporated community about 15 minutes from Hendersonville proper — Sideways is the ideal spot to wind down at the end of the day. Come summertime, you can pick your own bouquets of dahlias and zinnias while listening to barn animals baa, mew, and quack. It’s quite the experience.
But even during cooler months, Sideways is one of our favorites because — in addition to a wide selection of beer — owners Carrieann and Jon Schneider serve hard jun kombucha. Made with local wildflower honey and green tea from Asheville Tea Company, this beverage is light, refreshing, and boozy (about 6% ABV). It’s perfect for folks who don’t like the taste of beer (i.e., me) or who have gluten sensitivity.
When Ashley and I visited, I nursed an herbaceous jun booch while she opted for an extra stout beer. The ale offered toothsome notes of roasted coffee and dark chocolate. That’s what she said anyway. All I know is that my adult bevy went down easy and paired well with my Mary Had a Little (Lamb) Gyro from the Feta Flav food truck. I also know that a few glasses of this variety of high-octane kombucha had me all teary-eyed thinking about my grandpa.
Hendersonville has come a long way since he bought his 12 acres. Hell, it’s changed a lot since I was a kid. Some folks argue that our little city is an entirely different place, but the small-town mountain culture is still here. You can taste it in hot french fries and bacon-covered bear claws. You can hear it in the honey-sweet drawl of craft beer brewers and the squeaky floors of old general stores. You can even see it in the curving switchbacks of a black diamond, so long as you slow down long enough to look.
If you’re an out-of-towner and need a place to rest your head, book a stay at The Treehouse at Edenwood. Tucked into the trees with long-range views of Jump Off Rock, a 3,100-foot lookout sporting panoramic views, this Hendersonville Airbnb is the perfect spot to recharge. (Photo by Tim Culberson of Aerial Photo Pros.)