Where to Find Outdoor Adventure and Southern Charm in North Carolina
One family finds some outdoor adventure and a whole lot of southern charm on a summer escape through North Carolina
On Top of Old Smokey
When it comes to the beach or the mountains, we would always choose the mountains, especially in the middle of a Texas summer. So as temperatures rose to 105 in Austin, my husband, two kids, and I soaked up the cool breeze with all windows down as we climbed the winding road leading to The Swag, a 14-room mountaintop inn just outside Waynesville, North Carolina, at the southern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains, the first stop on our one-week tour around the state. We stepped out on the front porch of the picturesque main log cabin, which sits at 5,000 feet, to sweeping views of the mountain range. The warm staff greeted us with personalized walking sticks and the first, and only, hard decision of our four-night stay: what to select for the nightly four-course dinner.
But first, the hiking. At The Swag, getting into Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a hike is as simple as walking out the front door, as guests are able to easily access as many as 15 different routes just outside their cabin. There are no shuttles or crowded parking lots to navigate. On many of our hikes, the only sounds heard were the birds, as we would be the only people on the trail. Adventuring is made even easier with packed gourmet box lunches and iced-down water bottles waiting our arrival back in the main cabin each morning.
Time slows down at The Swag, where screen time was the last thing on our mind. Days were spent hiking, reading in the library, fishing, playing yard games, or just exploring the inn’s 250 acres. Dinner is the main event, and guests gather on the porch for hors d’oeuvres. Even though The Swag is remote, practically every delicious bite we had was made from scratch and sourced from its lush garden. Every night, each course brought a new delight to our senses — cooked-to-perfection halibut with mushroom dashi and quinoa, squash soup with pumpkin seed brittle and snap pea risotto. We couldn’t resist a nightly order of the “cookies and cream,” a warm chocolate chip cookie baked in a mini Dutch oven and topped with homemade ice cream.
David and Annie Colquitt, a charming young couple out of Knoxville, Tennessee, who honeymooned at the resort in 2011, purchased The Swag in April 2018, when longtime owners Dan and Deener Matthews, who opened it to the public in 1982, decided to sell their beloved property. The Colquitts spend most weekends during the summer joining guests for meals and honoring the traditions of The Swag with engaging storytelling and ringing the dinner bell to signal that it’s time to gather at the community tables in the dining room. Escapes to The Swag have become a tradition for generations of families in the area. Binders filled with Polaroid photos of guests dating to the 1980s line a wall of the dining room.
Our last day at The Swag was capped off with the most memorable event, a chef-prepared hilltop picnic offering the best views of the mountains. With elevated takes on classic picnic foods — coleslaw, salads, sausage, and fried chicken — looking out at the view and the joy of the guests of all ages, it was easy to see how a visit to The Swag is an experience you want to relive each year.
“It’s like the Southern version of Greenwich, Connecticut,” a friend said as he filled me in on our next stop, Highlands North Carolina (population 939). At the epicenter of this utterly charming town is the Old Edwards Inn & Spa. It’s like the capital of refined yet casual elegance — the ivy-covered red-brick Colonial main house, the inviting porches, the beautiful vintage rugs, the dark wood antiques.
With suites, cottages, and larger vacation homes throughout the well-appointed grounds, accommodation styles abound. Our first stop was a dip in the outdoor mineral pool and a few rounds at the croquet court before dinner at the inn’s restaurant, Madison’s, a cozy farm-to-table New American spot that serves up pecan-crusted Springer Mountain chicken and sunburst trout. We could have lingered on the porch that overlooks Main Street for the rest of the night, watching the relaxing pace of town meander by. The nearby 18-hole Old Edwards Club overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains and offers golf with a stunning view, but I opted for an uber-relaxing spa treatment in the tucked-away Spa at Old Edwards. One of our favorite things about North Carolina was all the rivers, and we found a lot different ways to use them along the way. Our kids would yell, “STOP!” whenever we came across a rope swing (which was often). We found many fishing spots, hiked to a waterfall and did some treasure hunting in one of the many gem-mining shops, and after each adventure, Old Edwards Inn was the most calming refuge to return to, with its impeccable attention to detail on every front.
Our last stop of the trip was Asheville, a quaint mountain town with hip restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques set against the backdrop of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Be – fore checking into The Inn on the Biltmore Estate, we did what any true Austinite would: We stopped for breakfast tacos at Taco Billy, a high-energy spot that serves up the Texan staple all day and was not surprisingly opened by a former Austin resident. The highlight was Mama’s Favorite (sausage, eggs, spinach, sweet potato and goat cheese on a plantain tortilla).
I confess, touring the Biltmore Estate, and its neighboring garden, has been on my travel bucket list for years. The 250-room château, which was built by George Vanderbilt and completed in 1895, is still the largest privately owned home in the United States. I wasn’t sure if my 7- and 5-year-old would enjoy the self-guided tour of the house as much as I did, but thanks to a kid-friendly audio guide filled with fun facts for junior ticket holders, they loved every minute of seeing the architectural feat. We opted to stay at the inn, which was a short shuttle ride away from the main house. Between the equestrian center, a petting zoo and craft demonstrations, our kids found a lot to do, while we enjoyed live music on the lawn and rosé from the Biltmore winery. Gathering around the grand rock fireplace in the inn’s lobby for a Shirley Temple toast was the perfect ending to our weeklong exploration of a new state and its natural beauty.