"Staycation" sounded smart and savvy and almost fun when we were all faced with economic demise. Not to belittle that terrifying year: A vacation seemed like crazy-talk when banks were collapsing. But now that the dust is settling and the tourist droves are, once again, returning to Asheville's streets, it's hard not to be in the vacation frame of mind. After all, these people — the ones who are strolling through downtown, shopping in the boutiques, riding the tour busses, lingering over outside lunches, making reservations for whitewater raft trips and looking generally rested and refreshed after a good night's sleep in a B&B — they're on vacation. So where's our sleep-in-dine-out-all-inclusive-non-stop-fun itinerary?
Good news: We live in a tourist town, which means, even if we're not on vacation, we can still take advantage of the happenings geared toward those with copious free time. Take a picnic lunch to a downtown park (there are snazzy new food carts to sweeten the deal), hail a rickshaw, sign up for a dance lesson, shop at a tailgate market (those are always celebratory, what with the good food and live music) or take in a movie — and not just any movie, something scary/funny/arty/noir. But we'll get to that.
For film nights, outdoor music and all sorts of other offbeat entertainment — the sort that makes you feel like you're on holiday, even if only for a few hours — read on:
See Shakespeare under the stars
While "North Carolina's Longest Running Shakespeare Festival" is not exactly a well-guarded secret, it's still a little bit off the beaten path. In fact, it's off the path that leads downhill from the Montford Rec. Center, past the ball field, and around the corner to the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre. Montford Park Players' offerings are — I suppose this goes without saying — the works of the Bard. They vary between comedies and tragedies, including, for the 2010 season, A Midsummer Night's Dream, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida and Twelfth Night. Performances are Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.
What you need to know: Bring a picnic, blanket, friends and lawn chairs. The shows are kid-friendly but demand for grade-school attention spans. (Kind of long for dogs, too. Just sayin'.) Bring rain gear if precipitation is in the forecast; only a torrential downpour will delay these shows. And bring some bug spray if rain isn't in the forecast. Finally, bring a few bucks — shows are free but a hat is passed and donations are what keep this production running. montfordparkplayers.org.
Catch the action at Pritchard Park
That wedge of landscaping where Patton Avenue and College Street meet? Turns out it's not just for chess games and drum circles (though Asheville Friday night drum circles are epic and otherworldly. If you haven't been in a while, or ever, you might consider stopping by to listen, dance or try your hand at percussion). Enter the Pritchard Park Cultural Arts Program, which hosts a number of events throughout the week.
• Hoop Jam Tuesdays (Tuesdays, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.): Master hula hooper Melanie MacNeil offers instruction. Hoop for fun or exercise (or both); bring your own hoop or buy one, on the spot. All ages are welcome; George Pond DJs.
• Grab Lunch & Unwind (Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m.): Buy a park-friendly lunch from a participating restaurant, or pack your own, and take it down to the park for a lunchtime performance. Restaurants offering picnic lunches are listed at ashevilledowntown.org.
• After-Work Perk (Thursdays, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.): "Thursday night is almost the weekend and time to perk up a bit with lively and explosive music and dance performance after work," says the Pritchard Park Cultural Arts Program's Web site.
• Saturday Umbrella Market (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.): "This newly-themed Umbrella Market will feature vendors of handmade or homegrown products that might include art, crafts, jewelry, photography, flowers, tomatoes, herbs or … whatever. You are likely to find a different mix of items every Saturday, plus a variety of entertainers as well. One thing's for sure, Saturday at Pritchard Park will always offer a great experience."
• Funday Sunday (noon to 4 p.m.): "Sunday is Funday in Pritchard Park with family-friendly entertainment." Live music, such as gospel, is followed by a variety of children's entertainment.
Pack a picnic, listen to music
Here's how you beat a case of the Mondays. Concerts on the Quad run through July 12. Gather the fam and a picnic (or purchase ice cream at Café a la Quad from 6-8 p.m.), bring a blanket or lawn chairs (but leave Fido at home) and head to the quad — the grassy stretch of lawn near Ramsey Library and Lipinsky Auditorium — for a variety of concerts. Still to come: steel drum band Pan Jive on June 28, folk/bluegrass artist April Verch on July 5 and Gypsy-jazz collective One Leg Up on July 12. unca.edu/summerquad.
Tour local farms
Here's a tour that involves neither ghosts nor Segways nor purple busses, but does involve bison, llamas, lambs and bunnies. It's Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Procject's (ASAP) annual Family Farm Tour, a self-guided junket of 37 farms and gardens across six WNC counties. Purchase a button for $25 (per carload of people) and plan to see three or four farms per day. Sample food (artisan cheese!), purchase products (homemade soap!), watch demonstrations (border collie shepherding!) and learn skills (maple syrup tapping!). Tour buttons, itineraries and info are at asapconnections.org/thefamilyfarmtour.html. Tours are Saturday and Sunday, June 26 and 27, 1-6 p.m.
Put on your dancing shoes
There's a dance event for pretty much every day of the week. Many are free; many start with a lesson for beginners. So, skip Jimmy Kimmel Live! for one night and work on your Boot Scootin' Boogie.
• Monday: Contra dance at the Grey Eagle. 8 p.m., $6. thegreyeagle.com
• Tuesday: Swing dance at Eleven on Grove (11 Grove St., Asheville). Beginner lesson at 6 p.m., intermediate lesson at 7 p.m., $12. Dance starts at 8 p.m., $5 ($3 if you paid for a lesson). swingasheville.com.
• Wednesday: Cajun/zydeco dancing at Eleven on Grove every first and third Wednesday. Lesson at 7:30 p.m., $5. Dance 8:30-11 p.m., also $5. No partner required. Info: 778-4878. Also on Wednesdays: World folk dancing at Harvest House. "Traditional line and couple dances from many cultures, taught and reviewed by Erik Bendix and occasional guest teachers." Easy dances at 7 p.m., more difficult dances at 9 p.m. $6. Info: email@example.com.
• Thursday: Swing dance at Olive or Twist (81 Broadway St., Asheville), 8-11 p.m. Free.
• Friday: Salsa P'alante at Eleven on Grove. "Join us for an elegant, sexy, and fun night of Latin dance – DJ CHINO plays the best salsa, mambo, bachata, cumbia and merengue." Salseros 828 Dance School leads a free footwork lesson at 10:45 p.m.; dance begins at 10:30 p.m. $8. salseros828.com
• Sunday: Dances of Universal Peace are held the second Sunday of each month at the Asheville Arts Center (308 Merrimon Ave., Asheville). "Simple group dances in the round celebrating the world's many spiritual traditions. No prior experience necessary." 7 p.m. Suggested donation $5-10. Info: 225-0515 or 926-3544.
Sip on some wine
Nothing makes for a festive mood faster than a little wine — and wine tastings are a great way to try new varitals, meet new people and learn a little something. A partial list of local wine shops and bars that hold regular tastings includes: The Asheville Wine Market (65 Biltmore Ave.), free tastings most Saturdays from 1-4 p.m., check Web site at ashevillewine.com; The Wine Guy (55 Merrimon Ave. & 1200 Hendersonville Rd.), tastings on Wednesdays at 7 p.m., usually $20 per person, theashevillewineguy.com; Divine Wine (1011 Tunnel Rd.), free tastings Fridays, 6-8 p.m., divine-wine-asheville.com; Appalachian Vintner (2-B Huntsman Pl.), free wine tastings Wednesdays and Saturdays, 4-8 p.m., appalachianvintner.com; Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar (1 Battle Sq.), occasional wine tastings, batteryparkbookexchange.com; Sante Wine Bar (1 Page Ave., #146/152), "Get Your Taste On: 10 tastes for 10 bucks," Sundays, 4-6:30 p.m. santewinebarcom; The Wine Studio of Asheville (169 Charlotte St.), free tastings Saturdays, noon-6 p.m., winestudioasheville.com.
Rent a bike
Cruising around on two wheels is old school and yet it never goes out of style. Don't have your own? Rent one at BioWheels (81 Coxe Ave.) — they stock mountain bikes, street bikes and a tandem, $45 a day. Liberty Bicycles (1378 Hendersonville Road) also has rentals: Reserve at least a week in advance, prices range $40-$65 a day for road and mountain bikes.
Sleep in a teepee
Want to go camping, but only have one night? The KOA in Cherokee rents teepees, which they call the "original tent." The unique accommodations sleep up to six people and can have a campfire inside. Plus, you get the camping experience minus the hassle of lugging and setting up a tent. This particular campground offers indoor and outdoor pools, mini golf, outdoor movie screenings, fishing, live music on the weekends and planned activities. The site is surrounded by trout ponds and a river. koa.com/where/nc/33173.
Check out some art — for free
Every first Wednesday of the month, the Asheville Art Museum is free to the public from 3-5 p.m. Knock off work early or take a break and walk around in the AC, gazing at the latest exhibits and permanent collections. This summer's exhibitions include Sallie Middleton: A Life in the Forest, the works of one of the nation's top wildlife artists and Sewell Sillman: Pushing Limits, the works of a former Black Mountain College student and innovator in printmaking and color block painting. (Hint: Tourists would grab an iced coffee at a sidewalk cafe pre-art viewing and follow up the cultural enrichment with a handmade chocolate truffle or an ice cream cone. Just trying to help you out here.) ashevilleart.org.
Add a beer or three to this time-tested and endless amusing activity, and you've still got a budget-friendly way to pass an afternoon or evening. In fact, some people watchers would argue that an adult beverage makes the gawking all that much better, so here are a few suggestions (and this just tips the iceberg) for the best places to do both.
Top viewing: Fridays and Saturdays at Thirsty Monk or The Yacht Club, both of which overlook the highly-traversed intersection of Patton and Coxe Avenues and both have window seating. Catch a breeze and a gander at Asheville's celebrated diversity.
Next: The Flying Frog (outdoor seating at the corner of Haywood Street and Battery Park), Bier Garden (on Haywood Street across from busy Malaprop's — just make sure the on-the-street windows are open) and Carmel's (outside seating at the Grove Arcade; comes with its own colorful cliental).
For more laid-back people watching, try the outdoor rooftop of Sazarac (for fun, keep an eye on the Sean Pace Gallery where wacky/wonderful things are bound to happen). The newly-opened Wine Bar on Walnut Street, next to the aforementioned Sean Pace Gallery, has oversized windows and is likely to be prime people-spotting real estate.
In you're happy with watching the antics of your fellow imbibers, grab a seat at the LAB (Lexington Ave.), Asheville Pizza Company (Coxe Ave.) or the Wedge Brewery (River Arts District), all of which have ample outdoor seating and bustling atmospheres.
See a free movie
The Cinema Lounge at Carolina Cinemas hosts the Thursday Horror Picture Show — a weekly scary movie like Blood for Dracula or The Abominable Dr. Phibes. 8 p.m. Free. carolinacinemas.com/asheville/lounge.php. The lounge is full of couches, and you can grab a bite and a beer, too. The Asheville Film Society offers free films on Tuesday nights at the same location.
The New Courtyard Gallery (recently relocated to the Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., Asheville) holds its Foreign Film Series every Friday at 8 p.m. ashevillecourtyard.com.
Watch a ballgame
It may not be a gallery crawl or a music festival and it may not involve art cars or costumes, but Thirsty Thursday, is, nonetheless, a local institution. The idea is simple enough: Every Thursday night at the Asheville Tourists' home games (at McCormick Field), draft beers and sodas are a dollar. Games are at 7:05 p.m. $8. web.minorleaguebaseball.com/index.jsp?sid=t573.
Get some culture
Fun is often key to relaxation, but learning something doesn't have to be antithetic to the vacation frame of mind. After all, didn't most of us, at some point, get dragged along on a summertime family trip to Gettysburg or Williamsburg or, heck, even Epcot with the mission to spend our summers on something more than cartoon watching and belly flops? Smarten up (no pop quiz, we promise) at any of the free local culture programs highlighted on the RomanticAsheville.com Web site. Offerings include Pickin' and Poetry on the Porch at The Thomas Wolfe House, which takes place the first and third Fridays of each month, through October, at noon; movies and exhibits at the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center; and programs at The Great Smoky Mountain National Park — "One of the few major national parks that doesn't charge an entrance fee." romanticasheville.com/summer_cultural_events.htm