Literature-lover Natalie Compagno approached an author well-aquainted with western North Carolina for trip-planning advice. What she got was a three-day itinerary for Highlands, Bryson City, and Asheville. Call it an author-inspired case study on Southern setting.
THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS, North Carolina – Pat Conroy's booming laughter fills the stylish dining room at the Old Edwards Inn and Spa, where he is holding court. Conroy, along with his charming wife Cassandra King, is one of the big draws for Words, Wine & Friends, a weekend gathering in Highlands, North Carolina, to celebrate Southern literature.
There are the usual bibliophiles and wealthy patrons of the arts, along with hopeful future authors and even one young, enthusiastic Conroy fan that has a quote from his book Beach Music tattooed on her ankle. I am not here for any of these reasons, although I do love books. I am here by invitation from the quiet man somewhat out of the spotlight. I am here for Ron Rash.
I do not mean to say that Rash isn't well known in his own right. His New York Times best seller, Serena, has recently been made into a film starring Hollywood's favorite on-screen couple, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Rash has won numerous distinguished literary awards. It's just that Rash is a stoic person, calmer and more serious. When juxtaposed with his dear friend Conroy, his polar opposite demeanor stands out. "Call him Mr. Big," Conroy encourages us with a wink gesturing towards Rash, "It will make me so happy." The mutual respect and love is palpable, and Rash can't help but laugh after this comment. "He deserves the title," Conroy adds for emphasis.
And so he does. When the readings begin and Rash reads his short story, "Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out," his voice is steady, quiet but strong, giving nothing away. Set where almost all his stories are set, in Western North Carolina, place is a character woven triumphantly throughout.
"So driving had to be the good part...as a boy [Carson] loved to roam the woods, loved how quiet the woods could be. If deep enough in them, he wouldn't even hear the wind."
We listen surrounded by these woods, cozy in the elegant hundred year-old inn's embrace, as the story unfolds. It is a masterful tale of two men whose friendship is forged in the Appalachians, tested during the Korean War, and renewed in old age. It is all contained during one brief struggle to save a breeched calf, and yet it encompasses these two complete lives — as well as other lives they could not save.
There isn't a dry eye in the house when Rash finishes, although some hide it better than others. I will not spoil the beauty of the ending, but there is something magical about being in the region where the story is set, and having the author himself read it aloud.
I steal Ron away for a few minutes and we sit by the fireplace in the lobby of the inn. Rash loves this part of the state. "Go deep enough into this place, and you will see the heart of human nature." His work is with these people. He began writing because, "there is a specific language here, and art can keep it alive."
I knew I had come to the right man to help curate my three-day road trip in and around the Smoky Mountains. Rash gave me the best advice, and my itinerary was set.
Three Days in Western North Carolina: Highlands, Bryson City, and Asheville.
DAY 1: HIGHLANDS, NORTH CAROLINA
Start at the award-winning Old Edwards Inn and Spa, a destination within itself, and enjoy the antique-meets-modern comfort ambience: oil paintings of distinguished scenes, warm roaring fireplaces, and curtains with pug dogs and roses. Guests receive champagne upon arrival. Take your glass and wander the vast property. It includes lounges, restaurants, shops, a pool and spa, and a lawn on which to play cornhole. Request one of the Falls Cottages. It's like having a private cabin in the woods. The stand-alone tub, next to a window looking out into the trees, is the ideal place to read Something Rich and Strange by Ron Rash.
After enjoying the hotel, meander onto the aptly named Main Street, which is filled with family-owned businesses and shops — cooking shops, toy stores, boutiques, and more. Don't miss Mountain Fresh Grocery, which is so much more than just a grocery store. I stumble upon it looking for a sandwich, and find a heavenly place filled with gourmet foods, an extensive wine selection, and a counter where I can order hot or cold food from the deli while sipping a Kermit Lynch-imported glass of wine. Owner J.T. Fields bought the store as an emotional purchase because he loves this town. "There is no snobbery here. Casual and fancy sit together and chat," he says, pointing out the diverse group savoring his food. As I eat gumbo and enjoy a glass of cotes du Rhone, he works to submit his wine list for a Wine Spectator Award. So I let him go, fingers crossed.
Highlands has other diversions, like Cullasaja Club (an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course), art galleries, and summer stock theater. I am short on time, so I'm happy to relax at Old Edwards and meet the locals on Main Street. Dinner should be eaten at Madison's, where chef Johannes Klapdohr does not disappoint. As Klapdohr told me, "Books are wonderful, but even better with wine." I love this guy.
DAY 2: CHEROKEE TO BRYSON CITY
Drive through the Appalachian Mountains, stop to take a few pictures of the waterfalls that practically fall onto the highway, then on to Cherokee to visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. A friendly older gentleman in dazzling turquoise jewelry and a large western hat who asks if I am coming into his museum accents my visit there. It's a powerful place with a self-guided tour through the Cherokee history, legends, and art.
Head to Bryson City and check into Lands Creek Log Cabins. The cabins give a hint of the back woods, while staying completely warm and comfy indoors. Ask to stay in the Squirrel's Nest. Among the numerous squirrel art pieces is a romantic framed sketch piece with two deer, made by the owner for her now husband. The roaring creek and cozy quilts make leaving difficult, but heading into town for local flavor is a must.
Craft brew lovers shouldn't miss Nantahala Brewing Company, where the Noon Day IPA is the perfect refreshment after a day of driving. The indoor/outdoor setup is perfect for any season. Pick up a beer-scented candle or a hip shirt as a souvenir.
Dinner should be at Fryemont Inn Restaurant and Bar for the historic 1920s feel and views of the Smoky Mountains National Park. It's a small town, so after dinner head back to Nantahala. The Nanta Claus Chocolate Mint Stout makes an excellent nightcap or two.
DAY 3: ASHEVILLE
It would be hard to spend only one day in Asheville, but with the proper schedule and the right mindset, a serious tour can be accomplished. I love this groovy town, and I race around like a maniac taking it all in. I suggest arriving hungry and thirsty.
For breakfast, start at homey Early Girl Eatery for a farm-to-table Southern comfort meal. Order the Early Girl Benny: grit cakes topped with tomato, spinach, poached eggs, and tomato gravy. With a full and content belly, visit the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, which has preserved the author's childhood home. Site manager Tom Muir is an excellent guide and can tell stories about the research that went into the film Genius, which starred Jude Law as Wolfe.
It's 5 o'clock somewhere, so it's time for the Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar. The used bookstore with a wine and beer bar in the back has thousands of books and an interesting wine list. Sipping champagne surrounded by all those gorgeous first editions is a blissful mid-day break.
After purchasing a rare book find, lunch is next on the agenda. A quick drive up to the Omni Grove Park Inn will impress. The majestic rock facade with its dripping red roof has welcomed distinguished guests for more than one hundred years, and arrival to the hotel feels like a dream. Dine inside at Edison, with its panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. While I eat there, the sun's rays poke through the misty clouds and move like fingertips playing the piano on the mountaintops. Order Carolina bison meatballs or smoked brisket sandwich with moonshine BBQ sauce. After eating, check into the inn, if you dare. It is not only sophisticated, but also haunted.
Appalachia is famous for its crafts, so hit up the Southern Highland Craft Gallery for one-of-a-kind art. The collective only features work by carefully vetted regional artists. I find incredible pieces, from intricate quilts to woodworking handicrafts. After shopping, it's a short drive to Wedge Brewing Company where the locals enjoy the early evening. Situated by the river, the tiny brewery is always packed and the huge patio area is filled with groups playing games or simply enjoying an Iron Rail IPA.
Dinner at Plant, Asheville's premiere vegan restaurant, is a highlight for me. The owner is a friend of Rash, and many others also recommended it. "Flavor-sophisticated scratch-made food" is an understatement. Fried plantains with hot sauce and "bacon" have a hint of spice and a rich, creamy finish. My favorite is the red curry tofu with bok choi, a well balanced dish with ginger, curry, and mint. Order what tempts or be curious and ask chef Sellers what he recommends.
Nightlife in Asheville is happening, with options ranging from music at The Grey Eagle to innovative, precise cocktails at Sovereign Remedies. I, however, lose a bit of steam after dinner and am seduced back to the Omni Grove Park Inn to relax in their underground spa with waterfall pools, relaxation rooms with fireplaces, and the outdoor hot tub with a vast view of the night sky.
After three days in western North Carolina, I am sad to leave. I feel I am leaving a place I could call home, or if not quite that, a place where I leave friends behind. Until next time.