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Retirement Road Trip Through the Mountains: Western North Carolina

Category: Best Retirement Towns and States

October 23, 2018 — For the longest time we have wanted to explore the western Carolinas and northern Georgia to get a better picture of this popular region for retirement. So for this year’s southern migration my wife and I decided to take the western route, starting out on Interstate 81. What a great trip it was. We will report on the towns we visited in western North Carolina (plus a list of the ones we didn’t to see). In a second installment we will continue with those we visited in northwestern Georgia. Don’t forget to see links to our other site visit articles in the “Further Reading” section at bottom.

Even if you are not considering retiring to this area you might find this travelogue a source of good ideas. You could use it for either a short vacation, or as a diversion if you are a snowbird hurtling to and from your summer and winter haunts.

The Planning Begins
We started planning the trip by going through the Topretirements State Directories, looking for towns in the western parts of Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. Our goal was to find towns that we know are popular retirement destinations but didn’t have much, if any, recent experience with. We wrote those names down and then tried to connect the dots – which ones were reasonable to hit on our drive without going too far out of the way? Which would be good towns to spend the night, and which places would have to wait for another visit.

The format for this article will be a description of the route travelled, and what the towns we visited were like. We include our opinions about what kind of person might like (or dislike) each one. Note this caution: Our opinions and impressions of these potential retirement towns were formed on the basis of short visits. My wife pointed out to me that is a lot like a visitor forming an impression of Key West from a 4 hour visit coming off a cruise ship, seeing only the bars and tee shirt shops on Duval Street. There is usually a lot more to a town that initially meets the eye, and we apologize in advance if we have missed the mark. The best advice is don’t take our word for it, go visit these places yourself and have some fun doing it!

Starting out on Interstate 81, we headed south, spending our first night on the road in Staunton, Virginia (pictured above, use link to find out more). We stayed at the Berkeley Bed & Breakfast, which we would recommend. Staunton was a town on the map that we knew nothing about, it had not been reviewed on Topretirements, and upon investigation seemed pretty interesting. Staunton (pronounced Stant’un) was the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson. Today you can tour his childhood home, visit the Presidential Library, and see his magnificent Pierce-Arrow sedan. The city, long the economic center of the region, has a very interesting downtown with a great collection of stores. One store is devoted to bass and other stringed instruments, another has an extensive selection of olive oils, and one (seriously) seems to concentrate on rubber ducks. We had a very sophisticated and tasty dinner at Zynodoa, a farm to table restaurant. In the hills above the downtown is the extensive campus of Mary Baldwin University and the Staunton Military Institute. The American Shakespeare Center and Blackfriars Theatre is a huge cultural and economic force in town. The Village at Staunton is a former mental hospital at the edge of town now converted to a large complex of condos for retirees. Our innkeeper reported that retirees are coming to Staunton from all over the country. Some buy stunning old homes in the beautiful hills around town, while others head for places like the Village at Staunton or other 55+ communities in the region.
Who would like Staunton: History buffs, folks who want a small college town, and have a southern experience. If you like mountains, they are nearby.

Crossing over the border to North Carolina in the morning our first stop was Mt. Airy, NC. This was the model for the “Andy of Mayberry” TV series, and Andy Griffith’s imprint and influence are large. The downtown goes for a few blocks and includes fixtures like the Snappy Lunch, the old time Soda Shop, and rides in vintage police cars like the one Sheriff Andy drove. Check out the very friendly visitor center in the center of town for all kinds of info about the area. Mt. Airy has a theatre named after him, the Andy Griffith Playhouse, which features regular community productions. The Downtown Cinema Theatre broadcasts a weekly bluegrass radio concert.

Who would like to retire in Mount Airy. This is one of the more remote places we visited – the people are very friendly, but not much else is around. The streets were filled with working class tourists who are very interested in the TV show heritage. Our impression was that college educated suburbanites might find this a schmaltzy place to retire, as well as feeling out of place.

Moving on we hit Boone and then Blowing Rock before settling for the night in Asheville. The map below shows the trip from Boone to Highlands.

Boone, named for the frontiersman, was a lot bigger and more interesting than our preconceived notions. When entering it you got the feeling that this was a growing and vital place. Storefronts are occupied with all kinds of different shops and restaurants. Athletic, outdoorsy students from Appalachian State University, along with tourists, throng the streets. There is plenty of parking and most spots were filled. There’s a farmer market every Saturday, but the highlight of the year is a Daniel Boone Days yearly festival with music, food, and storytelling. The 3 mile Greenway Trail is a popular local attraction. The city is the economic hub of the High Country area. On the negative side, traffic was terrible during our visit. Boone has a few active communities in the area but our impression is that many retirees live in single family homes outside of town.
Who would like to retire here: It is a college town with a big college presence, so if you are looking for that you might like it. This is definitely in the Blue Ridge Mountains so it could be great if the outdoors is your thing.

Gazebo in Blowing Rock

Both Boone and Blowing Rock are on the edge of the mountains so the drive between them has stunning views. It is always surprising to see how tall and majestic these mountains are. Access to the even more spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway comes at regular intervals.
Blowing Rock. Small, but affluent, Blowing Rock offers a contrast from Boone. It has tourists and an active downtown, but is not nearly as jumping. The town and its shops indicate this is a very affluent community. Downtown is very small with restaurants, a nice park and gazebo. There are active adult communities in the area like The Coves Mountain River Club, while other retired boomers live in the beautiful big homes along the mountains above town.
Who would like to retire here: The town is very small and relatively inaccessible, you might find it confining because of it size. Affluent folks looking for small town living will feel at home here.

Just driving into Asheville we could see why this perfectly sized small city in the mountains was the #1 retirement town at Topretirements.com for so many years. Asheville has something for everyone. We confess that of all the towns on our trip, this is the one where we could live. Yet one day after writing this we stayed with friends who had just been to Asheville. On a quick visit they loved the area, but thought the town was dead during the day. They found Hendersonville to be more appealing. In matters of taste, there is no dispute!

Asheville has culture, restaurants, and people of all ages on the street. There is construction everywhere including at the temporarily closed Asheville Art Museum in the very center of downtown. There are many, many places for retired boomers to live. There are downtown apartments and condos with more under construction. There are some suburbs, plus almost 50 active adult or retirement communities. As you pass between the streets you get great views of the mountains. UNC has a campus here. We stayed at the Windsor Boutique Hotel which was very nice and in the heart of downtown.
Who would like to retire in Asheville: If you are looking for a small, walkable, and livable city that is full of positive energy, this is for you. Warning to those who don’t like it, Asheville is hip, and there are plenty of tattoos and tofu.

Bears in front of Henderson County Courthouse

The next day we left with Hendersonville as our first stop. It has a very long Main Street for shopping that is unusually prosperous and busy. The city planners put in curves and seating areas along the street, including piped in music (not the only town we visited with that), both interesting touches. Hendersonville is a pretty good sized town with many resources and places to live. The former County Courthouse has been extensively restored and converted to a local history museum that is worth visiting.
Who would like to retire in Hendersonville. This area is ready for retirees and it is big enough that people coming from any area would probably feel at home. It is not as sophisticated as Asheville, but it is more manageable (downtown parking is free!)

Our next stop at, Brevard gave us some perspective on retirement there. Back in the day, it was the summer home for wealthy people from the cities and downstate, trying to get away from the heat. There are many beautiful homes from that era. Then it became an important manufacturing center with large companies like Olin having a big presence, although they have since left, leaving retirement and tourism as the economic engines. The town has a 3 block long downtown with nice shops and restaurants. Tom from the Visitors Center was very helpful in explaining the retirement situation; he observed that people retire here from all over the country because of its being named a top place to retire. Connestee Falls is a huge all-ages development outside of town, although most of its residents are retired. Deer Lake is an older development close to town where homes are snapped up quickly by folks looking for one story living and easy access to town. There are some condos in the area but most homes are single family. This area in the Pisgah National Forest is famous for the number of stunning waterfalls – some are easy to see and others require a hike. Hiking is a popular activity.
Who would like to retire in Brevard. The town is decidedly upscale and oriented mostly towards single family homes.It seems like a very pleasant place to live with a very low crime rate.

Highlands. One of the best parts about Highlands was the curvy drive here from Brevard through the Nantahala National Forest. At one point near Highlands there is an awesome lookout spot (marked on maps, be sure to stop) of the mountains in the distance. Highlands itself is a remarkably beautiful and upscale little town. The population swells from under a 1,000 to 20,000 on some fall weekends. The summer and fall are the peak seasons, although we talked with people who have moved here full time because they love it so much. Coming up from Brevard you would not think that there would be a flat spot where a town could exist, but here it is on a plateau. The famous golfer Bobby Jones and his friends created the elegant Highland Country Club. The downtown has a dazzling array of shops where you can buy women’s golf clothes, fancy mustards, and any other type of high end gear. We went to the amazing Mountain Fresh Foods market market on Friday night for their famous steaks. They give out table cloths, sell wine, and the place is mobbed with happy diners. There are also many very fancy restaurants; the Old Edwards Inn and Spa is a sprawling 4 star hotel complex. See the short Highlands video below.
Who would like to retire in Highlands. The town mainly seems aimed at affluent baby boomers who are interested in a cute and tiny town high in the mountains. Golf and other activities loom large, as does shopping and dining.

Towns in North Carolina we didn’t have time to visit
We would have loved to check out Sylva and Murphy, but they didn’t coincide with our route well, they and others will have to be for our next trip. The same goes for Toccoa and Clemson in nearby western South Carolina.

Next Week
We will continue our travelogue next week with the towns we visited in northwestern Georgia. Hope you find it valuable!

More Retirement Travelogues
Michigan is a Great Place to Retire (2 parts)
Flo’s North Carolina Retirement Trip
Hop on the Jay Michael Retirement Bus (Virginia and more)
What Sandy Learned after 8 Years of Visiting Active Adult Communities

Comments? Have you visited the Carolinas looking for a place to retire, or do you live there already? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.




Posted by Admin on October 22nd, 2018

22 Comments »

  1. Not to disparage this brief travelogue, but the emphasis is definitely on “brief”. They did touch several well-known towns/cities, but western NC is so much more. For me, the article should be identified as simply a list of some better-known places which mentions a few items of interest. What was missed is the scope and vastness of NC retirement (or just vacation) opportunities large, small, tiny and everything in between.

    As a non-native 56-year resident who travels, even I have yet to visit and enjoy all that western NC has to offer.

    Editor comment: Thanks RichPB. Yes, this is brief considering the scope of the subject. At over 2000 words it is one of our longest articles ever, yet there is so much more to say. Agreed that there are probably many lesser known places in this big and interesting region it would be great to learn about. Would love to hear more about some of the places you know.

    by RichPB — October 23, 2018

  2. Nor do I disparage! Found your comments/descriptions very interesting!
    The comments pertaining to Mt. Airy, especially!
    Having lived in Waynesville, NC for a little over two years now, would have loved to get your “take” on our little town. We wanted to be near Asheville, but we are just close enough.(28 miles). Drawing a perimeter around Asheville, Waynesville was our little slice of heaven. Your experience may vary!

    by Doc Stickel — October 23, 2018

  3. I enjoyed reading your travelogue. One difference between our points of views regards Asheville, which is about an hour SE of me. Although it always has so much of interest going on, i find the business and traffic too much for me. I just wanted to make that comment to let people know that it REALLY is a city, and a busy one at that! If that doesn’t bother you, Asheville does have a lot to offer. Oh, and it is expensive!

    by ella — October 23, 2018

  4. I think ella and Doc helped correct a mistake I made. Instead of just a “go forth”, they added concrete information. It’s been too long since I directly visited many of these place, but some western NC locations that stick in my mind as “special” include Jefferson/West Jefferson, Linville, Banner Elk, Little Switzerland, Murphy, Cullowhee, Bryson City and on and on. Just zoom a little on Google or Bing Maps and countless options emerge. (My taste tends toward more out of the way and the more you zoom, the out-of-the-way-er you can get!) Add east Tennessee and you could easily just spend a retirement seeking out possible places to settle!

    Adding a bit more from recent trips, West Jefferson in the northwestern corner of NC is my second home and a place where I always feel comfortable. Constantly growing, not far from Boone, North Wilkesboro and even Johnson City, TN, the area has expanded more and more over the years as a retirement destination. An apt description is “little big town”. Once isolated, new roads (even today) and restaurants have opened WJ as a tourist retreat with a true “half-back” feeling.

    Murphy in the southwest tongue of NC, reminds me a lot of what West Jefferson used to be. Remote, interesting in its own right with fewer amenities but a town I enjoyed for two days at the end of a long road trip “out west”. We were so captivated that, on the brink of getting home, we stayed an extra day to explore and enjoy.

    Roadways in western NC have expanded exponentially in the past 40 years, but without question, if you want out-of-the-way, you can find it with very little effort (other than the drive).

    Editor Comment: Thanks for adding this RichPB – this is great stuff. We look forward to more if you have the time.

    by RichPB — October 24, 2018

  5. Thank you so much- very helpful! Appreciated the maps and the where to stay recommendations:)

    by Marylee Zurick — October 24, 2018

  6. On a trip to Asheville a couple years ago, my wife and I visited both Waynesville and Hendersonville as possible retirement locations. We’d been through Waynesville briefly several years ago. Waynesville was nice, but downtown Hendersonville just blew me away. It is everything a downtown should be. And the city, while only about 14,000 people, has pretty much everything you need, with the big box stores around the periphery of the downtown area. If if what you want isn’t available in Hendersonville, it’s only a short trip up to Asheville or down to Greenville or Spartanburg.

    We’re planning another trip to Hendersonville this coming spring, since we only spent a couple afternoons there the last time. But it was enough time to convince me that it’s the place I want to retire to, in about 5 years. When we were strolling around downtown, it just felt “right”. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about moving down there, even more so this time of year through about April, when I compare the temps down there to what we have here in northern Vermont! Right now, our yard is white with wet snow. A most unwelcome sight.

    by Chuck — October 24, 2018

  7. Interesting article. I have only been to Asheville and enjoyed reading about the other towns.

    by Joanne D — October 24, 2018

  8. For a quieter hometown near Asheville, consider Marshall. It is on the French Broad River, with interesting architecture on Main Street. Marshall has a couple of very nice restaurants, a brewery, and weekly bluegrass music at a coffee shop. French Broad Crossing is an amazing development north of downtown Marshall. With significant acreage under conservation easements, the views are among the best and hiking trails take advantage of the beautiful forest. The amenities include an impressive lodge and river park.

    by Barb — October 24, 2018

  9. When we decided to retire in ‘12, we embarked on our “ville” tour. We knew wanted to be in the SE. visited Nashville, Knoxville, Huntsville, Asheville, Charlotte and Clemson. Always came back to Asheville. Yes, super liberal, lots of tattoo places, but also great restaurants, beer, unique shops, hiking, scenery and lovely people. Looked at Hendersonville and Waynesville but wanted to be closer to the action in Asheville. In Weaverville just north of Asheville and love it. Asheville dead during the day? Not my experience. Always something going on!

    by Chuck B — October 24, 2018

  10. Great thumbprint view of a beautiful area of the country. Daughter lived in Staunton (loved it) but now in Charlottesville, VA. (Loves it). Also a very upscale retirement area with one of the “Public Ivy’s”, The University of Virginia.
    Did the same trip years ago. Ruled out several of the areas mentioned.
    We continued the trip the next year and fell in love with Summerville/ Charleston. Here we are! Close to the beaches, 3 hours to Asheville and surrounding area, but we are much warmer for longer and can do more outdoor activities. My wife was in the outdoor community pool this afternoon for water aerobics with many other ladies. You can’t do that up in the Asheville environs the week before Halloween.

    by Jack — October 24, 2018

  11. Concerning Asheville, i think Chuck B stated it accurately in saying, “It’s where the action is.” That’s what i meant to say with the word, business; when i should have said busy-ness. Thanks, Chuck B!

    by ella — October 24, 2018

  12. Interesting mention on Asheville, but I had to wonder if I visited the same place. Looking forward to a visit there for two nights, I was relieved to be able to cancel one night as I found the city very busy, dirty, too much construction, and NO walk-ability. Maybe ‘downtown’ proper was walk-able if you don’t mind walking over and around the many homeless that inhabit their streets. In order to visit the art district one needs to drive and park, drive and park. There are no sidewalks in many places and no shuttle buses to transport art aficionados from one gallery location to another. Perhaps the surrounding areas have much to be desired, however I left Asheville in bewilderment.

    by deb — October 24, 2018

  13. Twenty miles south of Hendersonville is Tyron, 6 miles west of I26 and an exceptional retirement town in the Smokies. It is located in a thermal belt which translates into 11 months of golf with year round comfortable temperatures. Come August and the population doubles with Floridians coming up to beat the Florida heat. It has a great community playhouse and steeplechase races in the spring. Try on does have a small lake, Lake Lure, not Lake Lure, GA. Exceptional medical facilities for a small town, 100 bed hospital with 29 practicing doctors. Check it out, but be careful you may not want to leave.

    by Michael — October 24, 2018

  14. We will be returning to Hendersonville for the third time this March. We discovered this interesting town while on a B&B stay. Two years ago, we stayed for a month via VRBO. Loved the downtown and surrounding area. Very walkable even from a mile from downtown. They have a great mix of restaurants, shops, and three microbreweries in town. Two nice wineries just outside. If we were going to move south, this would be our first choice.

    by Bill — October 25, 2018

  15. Just got back from Asheville and I agree with Deb’s comments. I found it dirty, busy, homeless everywhere and too many street performers. It is also expensive. Parking is terrible especially on the weekends. The city itself is not very attractive. Box type buildings everywhere with several in disrepair. Did half of the walking tour and don’t bother.
    Never was so much made about so little. The one bright spot is the Sierra Nevada brewery (out near the airport). Very nice laid back and a mellow time. Overall, like Deb, I came away bewildered.

    by Gary — October 25, 2018

  16. I agree with Deb and Gary. We visited Ashville several years ago and never understood what the appeal was. It was a small town, which in my opinion would become very boring once you live there. By 8:00 pm the town closes down and on Sundays nothing was open. Home prices are high and for retirees that don’t drive, public transportation does not exist.

    by Colette — October 26, 2018

  17. Perhaps you didn’t have the space to mention or even the time to visit the
    Episcopal church in Staunton that has 14 Tiffany windows

    Editor’s note: Sorry we missed that one. Did see the outside of the church, which is beautiful. Thanks for letting us know

    by Martine — October 26, 2018

  18. The article title drew my interest, because my husband and I have made the same trail. For several years we have left our non-native Florida in the summer to escape ‘the oven’. Usually seeking cooler climates. We traveled out west and ‘glamped’ up and down the east coast. We found the western mountains of N.C. to have the best summers. We are called ‘half-backs’. Pick any town as a base and travel around. Maggie Valley is next to Waynesville and near the Cherokee Reservation/forest. You can find a plethora of outdoor activities. Many rivers around to kayak or go tubing. Hiking/ picnicking are seen everywhere. Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalation Trail. Nantahala area is great. Take medication if you drive on ‘tail of the dragon’ ! No shortage of farm stands around. I could go on and on. Retirement communities are dotted everywhere. As are campgrounds that have trailers that don’t travel anywhere anymore. People have built covers and decks on them in scenic campgrounds on rivers , etc. Festivals and other activities are going every weekend for summer visitors. Just my 2 cents worth. We love the WHOLE area.

    by Pat Comee — October 27, 2018

  19. Let me follow up from my previous post about Western NC. I have not ruled out that area as a winter getaway from snow and cold. That was my primary reason for checking out Asheville.

    Talking to the waiter at Tupelo Honey, he explained the town was dead in Jan and Feb (that can be good or bad). He also said ice in the winter months is a big problem. He went on to say the area was like a rainforest and ices up overnight. This can lead to driving and walking problems. I think the icing is a huge negative. I can stay home and deal with that.

    Politics based on the Inhabitants in the downtown appear to be uber liberal. I know, a gross generalization, but if you are considering the area check out the politics as they may be extreme..

    At this time, I much prefer university towns like Statesboro and Augusta GA. I was checking out Western NC to shave off some drive time to get to a warmer climate for 3 or 4 months in the winter.

    by Gary — October 27, 2018

  20. So sorry to hear about the issue of homelessness in Asheville. We had friends that visited recently and reported the same situation. I fear this is a growing problem thst will begin to occur in more and more retirement destinations.

    by Staci — October 29, 2018

  21. As far as the homelessness goes, it has nothing to do with the town/city being a retirement location. Look at the cities in CA, San Francisco and San Diego. Both have a tremendous problem with homelessness and are not retirement locations, however they both have fair weather and plenty of tourism. I believe that is the attraction along with the lack of will by the governments to attack the problem. I retired to Yuma. No problems.

    by Rick — October 30, 2018

  22. I love all these comments from people suggesting different places in the Carolinas. Seems like we are always hearing about the same retirement towns, so it is great to learn about others. Any other places we should consider folks?

    by Ken — October 30, 2018

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