A Tale of Two NC
Freelance writers Kathy Newbern and J. S. Fletcher recently journeyed to the North Carolina mountains for SouthernTravelNews.com™ to check out The Swag Inn (above left) and the Balsam Mountain Inn (above right). Both offer spectacular views and eco-options.*
By Kathy M. Newbern and J. S. Fletcher
Autumn’s leaf spectacular draws thousands to North Carolina's Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains, but throughout the year another reason draws countless others: R&R.
This is a tale of two inns that specialize in rest, relaxation and rejuvenation.
The Balsam Mountain Inn (800-224-9498 or www.balsaminn.com), 68 Seven Springs Drive, is a much-loved, hundred-year-old getaway in Balsam, NC, near Dillsboro and Sylva.
Year-round, its 100-foot, double-decker front porches overlook a valley rich in evergreens and deciduous trees. One of the porches is shown at left.*
The Swag Country Inn (800-789-7672 or www.theswag.com), 2300 Swag Road, is an elegant mountain retreat near Waynesville, NC.
Guests will enjoy relaxing on the hand-hewn porch of this 36-year old inn. Or, they might check out the panorama that stretches for miles (see photo below*).
On a clear day, you can see Mt. Mitchell, the tallest mountain in the eastern U.S. at 6,684 feet, and Cold Mountain (yes, of book and movie fame) at 6,030 feet.
Both inns offer a base from which to explore what the mountains are all about - hiking, fishing, rafting, birding and wildlife and quiet contemplation.
But each delivers a very different mountain vacation.
A Historic and Hospitable Inn
Originally built as a hotel stop on a railroad line, Balsam Mountain Inn (shown at right*) has retained its historic appearance, adding modern touches along the way.
Open year-round, the inn delivers old-fashioned hospitality.
Tongue-and-groove hallways and wooden stairs are wide because they once accommodated travelers’ large steamer trunks. Today, they’re galleries for local artists.
The decor in this National Registry of Historic Places property is reminiscent of a simpler time.
The welcoming lobby (shown at left*) is large and homey.
You might cuddle up with complimentary newspapers by the fireplace among cushion-covered, antique wicker furnishings. The experience is reminiscent of a visit to grandma's house.
Or, you might get lost in the adjacent library room while perusing 2,000 volumes. Complimentary coffee, tea, cider and hot chocolate are served.
Each of Balsam's 50 charming guest rooms (with rates from $139-$215) is decorated differently -- from gingham and eyelet to hand-made quilts or puffy duvets. See photos at right and below.*
The goal when visiting Balsam is to "get away." Thus, rooms lack televisions and phones.
Balsam's Dining Pleasures
The sunny breakfast/dining room features a white-and-purple tiled floor lovingly laid by a former owner. It compliments the tongue-and-grove walls and floor-to-ceiling drapes printed with small purple hydrangeas.
The background music is a blast from the past, too, with tunes like “A Bicycle Built for Two.”
Scrumptious breakfast entrees include Creme Brulee French Toast and Eggs Benedict, but it was the dinners - served here or in the adjacent dining hall - that had us raving.
The Low Country Shrimp and Grits with Tasso Cream and Sauteed Spinach is a regional award winner. The Fried Pecan Encrusted Catfish with Macaroni-and-Cheese plus Hushpuppies is a keeper, as well.
A great Southern starter? Try the savory Fried Green Tomatoes with Pimento Cheese Sauce and Country Ham.
Balsam hosts events like the monthly Songwriters in the Round Dinner Show featuring such writers as Benita Hill who's penned hits for Garth Brooks, Alabama and Isaac Hayes.
On July 4th, guests enjoy a local parade along the long, winding driveway with everyone decked out in red, white and blue.
And for Christmas, the inn opens its doors to guests and local residents with an invitation to enjoy refreshments while hanging greenery and placing ornaments on the many holiday trees.
Yet the Balsam Mountain Inn activity that guests cherish most is just sitting and rocking on that welcoming front porch (see photo above.). The aroma of mountain pines and firs in the crisp mountain air is better than any bottled fragrance.
A Pampering Retreat with a View
It's an easy ride to reach the Swag Country Inn's general locale. But then be prepared for a two-and-a-half mile ride up a steep hill.
You'll be climbing to 5,000 feet on a partially paved and gravel road full of switchbacks.
Copious trees and shrubs line both sides of the rural road. You'll likely spot an occasional trickling of water from mountain stream runoff.
But the uphill drive is worth it. See the views in the photos above and at left.*
Built in 1971 as a family retreat by Deener and Dan Matthews, the Swag is situated within a meadow between two mountain peaks.
Hence it was called "swag" -- embodying a spot not big enough to be a gap or a pass.
The Swag's six buildings use logs from old buildings razed and transported from neighboring areas. Materials for the main living and dining room, for instance, came from a church in Tennessee. See the photo of the lodge's lobby at right.*
The stunning grounds feature the main lodge, lodge rooms and cabins scattered amid flower beds and a lovely gated garden of flowers, vegetables and herbs. The hummingbirds are mesmerizing.
Open late April through Thanksgiving and a member of Select Registry, Distinguished Inns of North America, the Swag has 12 rooms and suites.
Nightly rates range from $400-$625 with three meals a day included. Three cabins are priced at $595-$725 nightly.
All 15 accommodations feature custom-designed interiors. Many boast private balconies, steam showers and fireplaces.
Most headboards are mountain-inspired twig or gnarly wood creations. See photo of the author's room at left.*
Each also has a Bose CD player with XM satellite radio, robes, refrigerator, assorted teas, coffee beans and grinders,coffee makers, daily delivery of the New York Times Digest, plus a fax machine and Internet access.
Guests can enjoy racquetball, croquet, horseshoes, badminton, indoor volleyball, an outdoor hot tub, a book and video library, games and cards, but most find themselves outside walking or hiking on world-class trails.
After all, just a step over the split-rail fence along the parking area is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a 500,000-acre Federal Reserve.
To heighten that experience, the Swag sponsors weekly hiking programs with experts in birding, wildflowers, black bears, storytelling and other topics.
It's common to see guests with their personalized walking sticks, a gift at check-in. You pick your stick based on wood types. The inn then attaches a homey nametag to create a treasured keepsake.
Dining at The Swag
Chef Shawn McCoy puts the fresh vegetables and herbs from the inn's garden to good use in many of his creations. At right, he also shows his grilling skills!*
McCoy's popular Chef's Table weekend dinners cost $20 extra.
He also creates an astounding spread for one of the inn’s most popular events: the weekly gourmet picnic lunch held at Gooseberry Knob.
His bison burgers and tomato pie (shown at left*) will take your breath away.
So will the spectacular view, which can be enjoyed from Adirondack chair pairs, each with green umbrella. Or you might, alternatively, head for the wooden gazebo.
Definitely walk to the overlook to view the signage that points out peaks in the distance.
Among them is Cold Mountain, the setting for Charles Frazier's book. A signed excerpt from the author is displayed in the inn's library. The area is shown in the photo below with Cold Mountain at right.*
Whether you prefer to get away from it all at the historic Balsam Mountain Inn or enjoy a few more creature comforts at the newer Swag Inn, you'll likely enjoy these relaxing retreats nestled within the mountains of western North Carolina.
The Balsam Mountain Inn: 800-224-9498 or www.balsaminn.com
The Swag Country Inn: 800-789-7672 or www.theswag.com One of the hiking trails just outside the inn is shown at right.*
The closest airports are Greenville Spartanburg International Airport(www.gspairport.com) in South Carolina and Asheville Regional Airport (www.flyavl.com) in North Carolina.
North Carolina’s most scenic drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway, stretches 250 miles across NC(www.blueridgeparkway.org)
Fall leaf hotline: 866-6LEAVES
For North Carolina travel information: www.visitnc.com
Travel writers and romance novelists Kathy M. Newbern and J.S. Fletcher live in Raleigh, NC, where they operate www.yournovel.com. Kathy worked formerly for The Charlotte Observer as head of the Concord and Hickory news bureaus, great spots from which to explore the NC mountains.
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used with permission of Kathy Newbern and J.S. Fletcher; the Balsam Mountain Inn; or The Swag Inn. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.