Like the explorers of old, Americans
set out each spring in search of new discoveries. These days, however,
instead of crossing uncharted seas or trekking unmapped wildernesses, we
hit highways and byways on a quest for all that’s nostalgic,
handcrafted, and historic—from grand old ballparks and vintage cars to
whirligigs and heirloom roses. And during our journeys, we discover a
countryside we never really knew.
Each year, in North
Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, thousands of travelers head out in
search of the meticulously made crafts for which the region is well
known. En route they come across not only quilts and coverlets, baskets
and vases, but lush mountain vistas, clear water cascading over cliffs,
and thousands of acres of rich woodlands harboring hundreds of species
great and small.
They go together, crafts
and nature, in this region especially, in part, because of the isolation
the mountains once enforced. Cut off by the steep terrain, settlers
long ago learned to rely on nature for their needs, crafting river cane
into baskets, clay into vessels, and native hardwoods into musical
instruments and furniture.
An invaluable little
book, The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina, points
the way along seven of this region’s crafts trails—some winding down
sleepy hollow, others up wooded coves—across some 1,000 miles to more
than 450 fascinating and historic studios (many just recently opened to
the public), galleries, inns, and restaurants. Consider the trail
names—High Country Ramble, Circle the Mountain, Farm to Market, Mountain
Cities, Cascades Trail, Shadow of the Smokies, and Lake Country—and the
diversity of the region begins to unfold. Each stop has been
authenticated as featuring only that which is handmade in America. The
nation’s first recreational highway, the Blue Ridge Parkway, serves as
the connecting link.
Asheville is the ideal
point of departure, for this city of some 65,000 not only sits in the
heart of the crafts region, but also sponsors prestigious craft
fairs—some permanent, some just passing through. From downtown
Asheville (with 20 galleries showcasing fine crafts and art), it’s only
a two-mile drive south to the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate. Late in the
19th century, George Vanderbilt fell under the spell of these
mountains and settled into his 250-room chateau, which remains the
largest private residence in America. Biltmore Village, the adjacent
village designed to house the estate’s workers and suppliers, today
hosts eclectic galleries and shops, including the popular New Morning
Gallery, where 8,500 square feet are devoted to the display of
meticulously fashioned crafts.
Just north of town,
explore the 1913 Grove Park Inn, an Arts and Crafts haven furnished with Stickley, Roycroft, and Limbert pieces. Eight Presidents, starting with
Woodrow Wilson, were frequent visitors; F. Scott Fitzgerald spent the
summers of 1935 and 1936 at the inn. The inn’s Gallery of the Mountains
displays fine works in metal, glass, pottery, and fabric. Next door,
the Grovewood Gallery and Grovewood Café offer their own artful displays
of fine traditional and contemporary American arts and crafts (with a
concentration on Appalachian furniture) and historic Grove Park Inn
Now it’s time to head
for the hills. Drive along the Circle the Mountain trail, past Mount
Mitchell, which pokes above the clouds (at 6,684 feet its peak is the
highest point east of the Mississippi), to the internationally
celebrated Penland School of Craft and its community of artists. Stop
in at the Penland Gallery, which features top-quality crafts by the
region’s artisans and teachers. Dozens of area artists welcome visitors
to their private studios. Jane Peiser, for one, has gained national
renown for her exquisitely detailed porcelain, and another, former
nuclear engineer Jon Ellenboggen, of Barking Spider Pottery, creates
festive Christmas tree ornaments and earth-toned vessels.
The scenic trip back to
Asheville winds by Craggy Gardens, where you’ll view a spectacular
display of rhododendrons and mountain laurel, and past the
30,000-square-foot Folk Art Center, at once museum and monument to the
art of crafting fine traditional and contemporary works in media ranging
from clay to metal. American’s oldest continually operated craft shop, Allenstand, fills the center’s first floor with hundreds of handcrafted
creations. Upstairs, the Focus Gallery spotlights changing exhibitions
of one or two artists, while the Main Gallery hosts more extensive
After craft hunting and
hill climbing in the crisp mountain air, you can replenish your energy
and satisfy your appetite at any of some 50 historic countryside inns,
ranging from stately Victorian gems to rambling log-and-boulder
resorts. Consider Crippen’s Country Inn and Restaurant in Blowing Rock,
along the High Country Ramble trail. Jimmy and Carolyn Crippen and
Executive Chef James Welch moved north from Miami and Mark’s Place, Mark Militello’s highly acclaimed restaurant, which is often cited as one of
the country’s best. Only in their third season, the talented team at
Crippen’s has already earned the coveted honor of preparing dinner at
the prestigious James Beard House in New York City.
The trip south on the
Blue ridge Parkway includes so many worthy stops that a written
itinerary soon turns into scratch paper. You’ll have no trouble
spotting resident beavers, loons, and otters around Price Lake near the
Moses Cone Estate, where you can devote hours to exploring 25 miles of
carriage trails, a Victorian mansion, and more craft displays.
Other craft heritage
trails lead south and west from Asheville. The Mountain Cities trail
courses through Brevard, where Looking Glass Falls (one of some 150
to 200 local waterfalls) shows off a 60-foot-high, 30-foot-wide
effervescent display in the heart of the Pisgah National Forest.
Hendersonville now features a revitalized Main Street thanks in no small
part to Touchstone Gallery, a fine arts-and-crafts center that served as
a catalyst in the town’s renaissance. Follow Main Street south to more
crafts in Flat Rock, where Carol Sandburg wrote his Lincoln biographies
at his beloved home, Connemara, now a National Historic Site.
Time again to rest? Try
the inviting Highland Lake Inn, a pastoral retreat offering fine dining
and casual accommodations. Take a break and feed the goats and geese,
foals and fowl.
Further south around
Saluda and Tryon, the mountains begin to level off into the Piedmont,
and the focus includes horses as well as handicrafts. Welcoming
equestrian-event visitors throughout the year, Mimosa Inn, a two-story
Southern Colonial manse perched atop a rolling green lawn surprisingly
recalls, in this mountainous setting, a graceful plantation. Nearby,
Pearson’s Falls, a 250-acre woodland designated a North Carolina
Heritage Area, features a thundering falls of some 90 feet. The lush,
water-sprayed environment harbors more than 200 varieties of ferns,
wildflowers, algae, and mosses.
viewing and purchasing crafts are plentiful. Try not to miss the Tryon
House, where the town mascot, Morris the Horse, appears in every
imaginable incarnation—wooden, stuffed, quilted, and painted. Heartwood
Contemporary Crafts Gallery, on Main Street in Saluda, has built a
well-deserved reputation for its one-of-a-kind pottery, jewelry, and
glass designs made by both regional and American craftspeople. Saluda
Mountain Craft Gallery spotlights wood, pottery, quilts, and jewelry
from local and well as regional artists.
Shadow of the Smokies travels to the Cherokee Indian
Reservation, where the Qualla Arts & Crafts Gallery bills itself as “the
most outstanding Indian-owned and operated cooperative in America.” And
it is. Exquisite river-cane baskets, satiny smooth woodcarvings, and
traditional pottery continue the legacy of America’s first craft
artists. From here the trails continue past pristine mountain lakes,
virgin forests with trees too big to hug, alluring sapphire and ruby
mines, and old-timey country stores. Given the natural beauty of the
lush North Carolina landscape, travelers on a quest for crafts will
discover along the way the native bounty of the magnificent Blue Ridge
This article appeared in County Living.
Just inside Balsam Mountain Inn’s spacious, holiday-decked lobby,
grinning camels stand watch as wise men dance to shepherds playing
Whimsical pieces in a clay crèche, the tiny figures capture the seasonal
spirit that flows throughout the 42,000-square-foot inn sequestered in
North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountains.
Long, ten-foot-wide hallways (built to accommodate steamer trunks of the
turn-of-the-century traveler) lead to three airy dining rooms, a
well-stocked library, and up one of four staircases to 34 cozy guest
Back-to-back fireplaces in the lobby crackle and pop with good cheer,
helping spread the warmth and joy that reign here not just during the
holidays but all year long.
Owner Merrily Teasley saw to that when she began the ambitious
restoration of the inn, which is now on the National Historic Register.
A pro who took on her first inn 18 years ago in Tennessee, she knew
exactly what she wanted this time around. “Comfort, comfort and more
comfort,” she says. “I want people to feel at home the very second they
walk through the door."
The rambling weatherboard structure with a two-tiered porch takes in
views of the surrounding mountains that soar to 6,000 feet. In its glory
days, visitors came to the grand hotel for the nearby rejuvenating
mineral springs and to escape the heat of the lowlands.
When Merrily renovated the building in 1991, she kept the atmosphere
unpretentious and natural—original wicker, oak and locally crafted
willow furniture preside alongside antique iron bedsteads with
comforters that complement the bead-board walls. Bathrooms are outfitted
with antique fixtures such as Victorian corner sinks and clawfoot tubs
(some have showers, too).
Come December, the interior turns decidedly green and red when a bevy of
live balsam trees—later planted on the inn’s 26 acres—are brought in and
adorned with hundreds of handmade ornaments. Miles of evergreen garlands
dotted with bows drift from newel posts, banisters, and tall windows
that stop just short of 11-foot-high ceilings. Diminutive trees sit atop
tables in the main dining room. Colonial-style apple and boxwood trees,
knitted stockings, abundant poinsettias and flickering candles complete the
Once begun, the decorating never really stops until the new
year as the staff is often changing and adding fresh greenery, making small wreaths for every
guest-room door and trimming the trees. “There’s plenty to keep everyone
busy,” says Merrily. “Many of our guests are eager to join in,
especially those who live alone or whose family have grown and moved
away and who still want to be part of an old-fashioned Christmas. It
gives my staff and me a nice warm feeling to share all this with
others—it’s really what the holiday is about.”
The tradition of making her own ornaments began 32 years ago. “It was
the first year I was married,” says Merrily, “and I didn’t have a single
thing of my own to remind me of Christmas, which is all about memories.
So every year I made an ornament for each of my children so that would
never happen to them.”
The inn is open on Christmas Day, and in keeping with the family-like
atmosphere, serves bountiful holiday meals and treats guests to small
gifts to give everyone that never-too-old-for pleasure of unwrapping
packages on Christmas morning.
The ritual ham and turkey, a traditional family dressing, fresh
vegetables and homemade pies are served in the main dining room.
Merrily’s daughter Noell, a fine arts graduate and the inn’s chef, now
uses dinner plates as her canvas to create colorful collages for each
guest. One of her most popular breakfast dishes is an upside-down baked
French toast with caramelized brown sugar garnished with fruit and sour
The crisp mountain air, a forest of fragrant evergreens lightly dusted
with snow (there’s rarely enough to make travel treacherous) and seasonal
events add to the feel of a country Christmas. Some guests come for the
many artists in the area—a picturesque drive north on the Blue ridge
Parkway leads to Asheville’s Folk Art Center, which showcases fine
regional crafts. And the Biltmore House, an architectural wonder
spectacularly gift-wrapped for the season, is not to be missed. Others
come for the Luminaire celebrations in nearby Dillsboro on the first and
second weekends in December.
But the core of the season remains at Balsam Mountain Inn, where peace
and joy abound—and heaven and nature sing.
This article appeared in Country Inns magazine.
The mythical one hundred bottles of beer on the wall are mere child’s
play compared to the legendary thousand bottles of chile pepper sauce on
the walls at On the Verandah, a popular restaurant in Highlands, North
Ironically, this fiery collection is kept in a most pastoral
setting—high atop the Blue Ridge Mountains overlooking Lake Sequoyah,
which is often enveloped in a cool mountain mist. But enter the front
door (maybe only Dante’s Gates of Hell hold back more firepower) and
sample until your taste buds cry for mercy.
Even the building itself has a reputation as somewhat of a hot spot:
Built in 1923, it has been a speakeasy, a casino and the site of many
arrests. The only thing arresting about it today is the bold and
flavorful cuisine of chef and owner Alan Figel.
Figel and his wife and business partner, Marta, completed extensive
renovations to the building in 1981 and have been serving their
imaginative cuisine ever since. This family business expanded several
years ago when Figel’s two sons, Andrew and Nicholas, joined the
creative team. Standard fare includes an eclectic mix of American
standards such as beef and chicken enlivened with chiles, salsas and
spicy seasonings. Figel serves a filet mignon, for example, stuffed with
a mixture of diced poblanos, garlic, onion and Monterey Jack cheese. The
filet is broiled and served with succulent shiitake mushroom sauce.
This melding of cultures is not unlike their own lives; U.S.-born Figel
and Cuban native Marta lived in Miami during the 1960s and ‘70s and
spent most of their leisure time traveling the Caribbean. Eventually
their travels expanded to Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa,
inspiring new taste adventures for their patrons back home.
It is not surprising, then, that the menu at On the Verandah reads like
a travelogue: New Orleans Red Bean Soup, Thai Coconut Ginger Shrimp, and
North Carolina Quail with Wild Berry Barbecue Glaze and Dijon Cream
Sauce, to name a few intriguing selections.
Other favorites include Grilled Fresh Tuna Loin with Pineapple-Papaya
Spicy Salsa; Stir-fried Sea Scallops on Angel Hair Pasta with Peppered
Ginger Scallion Sauce; Pan-Seared Duck Breast with Apricot Curry Sauce;
Sautéed Lamb Chops with Georgia Honey-Roasted Pecan and Ancho Chile
Crust; and Poached Eggs with Two Salsas, Tomatillo and Serrano.
Daily specials spice up the menu further: Sautéed Frog Legs with Fresh
Tomato Garlic and Shallot Sauce; Double-Cut Pork Chops with
Chipotle-Onion Compote; and Grilled Medallions of Lamb with Eggplant
Chutney. Exotic and unusual wild game creations also appear from time to
time, such as Medallions of Venison with Blueberry-Chipotle Sauce;
Breast of Pheasant; and Rack of Wild Boar.
The couple’s worldly travels spawned the chile pepper sauce collection,
which has grown from 415 bottles in 1990 to its current 1,000+
bottle mark. Friends, customers and family members all contribute to the
collection that represents sauces from the United States (most from
Louisiana), Mexico, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Guyana, Guatemala, Brazil,
Colombia, Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong,
China, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, the Philippines, Morocco, Tunisia,
Mozambique, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, West Germany and France.
Considering the size of his collection, it goes without saying that
Figel considers the uses for hot pepper sauces virtually unlimited. “A
few drops will not only pep up flavors, but bring out flavors that you
didn’t even know were there. In any sauce that uses tomatoes—especially
if the tomatoes are a little flat—a drop or two of one of the green
jalapeno sauces we have performs miracles,” Figel adds.
Because the town of Highlands restricts the sale of liquor or beer, On
the Verandah’s bar must be as inventive as the foods. The restaurant
began winning awards for its wine collection in 1987 and has continued
to do so each year. The staff is noted for its ability to discuss the
wine list in simple, non-threatening terms. Daily specials are regularly
paired with a suggested wine, and wine flights—a choice of three 3-ounce
pours of any of the specials (four white and five red wines each
Guests are welcome to linger on the 50-seat verandah and enjoy the lake
view or relax in the wine bar and sample some of the 200 American wines,
as well as port and Champagne, by the taste, glass or bottle.
While the menu changes often (this is, after all, a widely traveled and
inventive family), one offering that remains on the menu year after year
is their popular rendition of the time-honored dessert, crème brulée. It
seems that after a night of spicy and flavorful food, guests enjoy
ending the evening on a cooler note.
Recipes that accompanied this story: Poblano Chile Stuffed Filet Mignon;
Double-Cut Pork Chops with Chipotle-Onion Compote; Sautéed Lamb Chops
with Georgia Honey-Roasted Pecan and Ancho Chile Crust; Medallions of
Venison with Blueberry Chipotle Sauce.
This article appeared in Chile Pepper.
Walkers run the gamut from steamrollers to easy strollers, from
backpackers with freeze-dried rations to mall marchers munching on
cinnamon buns at the end of their hike. Somewhere between is a
lesser-known breed: the epicurean explorers, avid walkers who are dead
serious about the trek but dead set against pedestrian provisions. They
practice the carrot-soufflé-and stick method of hiking—the
burn-it-and-earn-it approach to guiltless dining.
The mix of hikers, travelers, and retirees attracted to these mountains
has fostered fine dining throughout the region, providing a fortifying
complement to plentiful hiking opportunities. These double-duty
destinations may be spawned by word of a new trail or the opening of a
Either way, proximity to one another is the one hard and fast rule—delayed
gratification is acceptable only while still on the trail. And for those
concerned about attire, the pervasion of travelers has made casual an
accepted mode even at some of the most prestigious establishments.
The following four excursions combine mountain highs with haute cuisine
over an area from Turnerville, Georgia north to Highlands, Balsam, and
Flat Rock, North Carolina. The restaurant criteria vary. Some are
strictly gourmet while others are simply gracious. Settings in a former
summer camp or restored stagecoach hotel make the experience all the
Four of the trails include waterfalls, two panoramic summits, and one
the remains of an old estate. All offer the solitude of the woods plus
wildflowers, birds, and an abundance of trees. Even in late winter and
early spring, native conifers, rhododendron and mountain laurel provide
greenery, while the absence of foliage yields expansive vistas. In fact,
late winter and early spring excursions offer other advantages. Hearty
meals taste even better. Dogs can join the hike and stay comfortably in
the car during dinner. And insects are still busy metamorphosing.
Panther Creek Trail--eight miles north of Clarkesville, Georgia on Old U.S. 441. Moderate
trail—7 miles round trip. Restrooms in parking area.
Don’t worry about the inauspicious beginning, it takes about ¼ mile to
get away from the noise of old and new U.S. 441. The trail quickly
enters the deep, lush scenery of mountain laurel, rhododendron and trees
as it heads toward a 50-foot waterfall. The path travels up and down to
the rhythm and roar of Panther Creek crashing across boulders below.
After 1-1/2 miles the path flattens out, crosses a wooden bridge and
meanders alongside Panther Creek. In less than a mile there are a series
of cascades and rapids, a nice spot to break before heading toward the
falls, another mile away. The path between the rapids and falls requires
some caution as it makes its way up cliff faces and across a three-log
bridge. The Forest Service has installed a wire band cable in areas
with little or no shoulder. At the crest of the falls, a switchback
trail heads down to the falls’ base.
The grounds at the inn include 17 acres along Panther Creek with
perennial and herb gardens to explore. (The herbs are used liberally by
the chef.) Long, white porches stretch across the entire length of the
front and back of the inn, and a spacious sun deck provides a place to
enjoy the panoramic mountains.
Glassy Mountain Trail--Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site is 3 miles south of
Hendersonville. Turn off U.S. 25 at Little River Road at the Flat Rock
Playhouse and go to the Visitor Information Center.
Several easy and well-maintained trails course through Connemara,
encircling the Front Lake and heading to the summits of Glassy Mountain
and Little Glassy Mountain. From the parking area the trail meanders
uphill to the Main House and barn area where the bleating kids and goats
beckon even the most avid hikers for a short detour. The well-marked
trails to Glassy Mountain (2,780’) and Little Glassy Mountain (2.420’)
begin at the Main House and climb steadily but comfortably with benches
along the way. While the view en route is best before foliage, the vista
from the summit offers a spectacular year-round panorama. On the way
down, turn right onto the trail to Little Glassy Mountain. Then follow
the signs to the Front Lake and return to the parking lot.
Glen Falls Scenic Area--From the corner of N.C. 106 and Main Street in Highlands, take N.C. 106
1.6 miles and look for USFS “Glen Falls Scenic Area” sign on left.
Follow signs to parking area.
Just south of Highlands, N.C., the trail at Glen Falls Scenic Area
offers three cascading waterfalls, a beautiful stream and lush
vegetation. One of the advantages of this trail is that even if hikers
decide to return after seeing the first or second waterfalls (especially
considering the return is uphill most of the way), the trip is well
worth it. The trail descends steeply towards the first waterfall, which
is only 15 minutes into the walk. Spur trails lead to impressive views
from the main trail.
For a longer outing, the trail to Chinquapin Mountain begins to the
right of the trailhead. The trail crosses the East Fork several times
and then a mile-long series of switchbacks lead to a spur trail for
views of Blue Valley and the summit of Chinquapin Mountain (4,160’).
Mountain-to-Sea Trail--located 13 miles from Exit 27 off I-40, ½ mile from the intersection of
U.S. 23/74 and the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 443). Turn left at
Balsam and follow the signs.
Just south of Waynesville, the tiny hamlet of Balsam straddles the
railroad tracks that were once its lifeline to commerce and community.
Sitting high above these tracks, the historic three-story Balsam
Mountain Inn is a sight every bit as commanding as the view from its
100-foot, two-tiered porch. The inn welcomed its first guests in 1908,
and owner Merrily Teasley continues the tradition today with unbridled
The trailhead begins in her chintz and wicker-filled lobby with its
double-sided rock fireplace. From here guests head to Teasley’s car or
follow in their own for a guided tour of her favorite places along the
nearby Mountain-to-Sea trail. Begun in the 1970s, this trail includes
long sections along the Blue Ridge Parkway and will eventually extend
from Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to Nags
Head on the Outer Banks. A favorite trail runs along the highest ridges
and offers excellent views with little change in elevation—a real plus
for older hikers wishing to avoid the strain of steep up-and-down
grades. They can follow Teasley’s car in their own and park at Grassy
Ridge Mine (5,250’) between mileposts 436 and 437. She then chauffeurs
to Licklog Gap or Double Top (5,365’) between mileposts 435 and 436 for
a four-mile hike along rolling hills back to their cars. For a longer
hike, start at Grassy Ridge Mine with a box lunch; it’s 12 miles to the
Back at the inn, guests head down a long hallway lined with artwork to
the refurbished dining room with its bead-board construction. Breakfast
and lunch are prepared by Teasley’s daughter, Noell.
Sandwiches, quiche and homemade soups are adorned with fresh fruit, new
potato and garden salads. Dinner entrees are equally well prepared by
Chef Bill Devin, who specializes in broiled and grilled fresh seafood
and chicken, accompanied by a variety of fresh vegetables, breads and
luscious homemade desserts.
This article appeared in Blue Ridge Country magazine.