It’s that time of year, when the days are long and the nights are cool. School is out, and work seems to get easier and easier to blow off when there is a good time to be had instead. There’s something about a long weekend enjoying the sights, sounds and even the smells of downtown Asheville that makes even the most bitter local proud to call this place his home.
But, if you pick just the wrong weekend, your dreams of casual summer stroll down the city sidewalks might be dashed by the reality of 100,000 people in search of funnel cake.
That’s right, I’m talking about Bele Chere weekend.
For those of us who have survived the city-dominating festival for a few years, getting away from the festival’s crowds, chaos and noise can hold a certain appeal. But with the whole of Western North Carolina seemingly caught in festival frenzy, what non-downtown options are there for those who want to opt out?
How about a nice round of miniature golf?
Located just under 3 miles from the heart of downtown, Tropical Gardens Mini Golf (956 Patton Ave., 252-2207) offers a faux-island atmosphere right in the middle of West Asheville. Complete with that summer staple, snow cones, to help weary Ashevillans forget their Bele Chere blues. Sure, it might not bring the same level of entertainment as catching Travis Tritt’s set, but watching the high drama of a fiercely fought putting match and the hit-and-miss entertainment of the on-site batting cages is more stimulating than you might suspect. With a round on the course costing a mere $5.25 (or $4.74 for kids), and 16 pitches at the batting cage a mere $1, it’s also a highly affordable outing.
If the nonstop action of miniature golf seems too tame for your taste, you might want to consider doing something more epic. How about a day of tubing on the Green River? Located in nearby Saluda, Green River Cove Tubing (www.greenrivercovetubing.com) offers a leisurely float through the Blue Ridge Mountains—as well as a few thrilling rapids—either of which is enough to make you forget about all the hustle and bustle you’ll be missing waiting in line for a lemonade at the festival. A 3-mile trip (which takes about 2 hours) is a mere $7 per person, and longer trips in tubes, canoes and Keowees are also available.
But what about the kids? Bele Chere is known for its massive Children’s Area, and once your offspring get a taste of the wild experience of the festival, convincing them that doing anything else with the weekend might seem impossible. What could possibly distract them from the chance to jump around in a giant inflatable castle? How about a chance to meet Thomas the Tank Engine? The Great Smokey Mountain Railroad (www.gsmr.com) in Dillsboro is offering a chance for kids to spend “A Day Out With Thomas” from Friday, July 25, through Sunday, Aug. 3. Although the ride is only 25 minutes long, the event includes photo ops with Sir Topham Hatt, storytelling and the LEGO-sponsored Imagination Station. Tickets are $18 for ages 2 and up. And even if you don’t have kids, riding around on an anthropomorphic train and playing with LEGOs could still beat getting a sunburn while waiting for a Porta-John to free up.
Of course, nothing says “authentic Asheville experience” like spending Bele Chere weekend in the traditional local way: staying at home and pretending there’s not a festival at all. It’s a great excuse to hang out on your porch (or someone else’s) with your like-minded festival-avoiding friends and neighbors. It’s easy, it’s free (or at least only as expensive as the beer you buy) and the worst thing that’s likely to happen is that someone will have to make a run to Ingles.
Failing all that, you could even muster up some courage and dip your toe into the festival, if only just for a moment. After all, the whole point of Bele Chere is share downtown’s charms with tourists and locals alike. You can’t “Bele Share” if you aren’t there, after all. Who knows, maybe you’ll see a few old friends, and perhaps the happy faces will remind you of why you bother to live here in the first place.
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville, and he’s actually going to Bele Chere this year.]