Cool brisk mornings, perfect for long walks or fast runs. A cloudless, deep blue sky. Golden rays of sunshine that towards the end of the day, bath the outdoors in a rich light that resembles liquid amber. The fragrant aromas of cinnamon, apples and hot cider perfume the crisp air. All these things herald the arrival of autumn and the myriad sights and smells the season brings, particularly the color extravaganza that goes on as the leaves change before they fall to the ground and expose their branches to the onslaught of another winter.
Most folks head out of town if they can to catch the most spectacular displays of color, usually in the mountains. One of our favorite fall leaf-peeping locales is the area in the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia and North Carolina. Convenient to many southern cities like Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Columbia, Memphis, Montgomery and Nashville, it’s also a popular fall destination for many in Florida who don’t get to enjoy the change of seasons.
The cooler climate, the majesty of the mountains and the quiet relaxation of the Blue Ridge is an irresistible draw that many return to every year. And not just in the fall. The mountains of north Georgia and North Carolina are a wonderful destination any time of year. Here are a few of our favorite places that will not disappoint and may get you to come back year after year.
Anyone looking for Shangri-La just needs to head north out of Helen, Georgia and take a left. Just a few minutes from the crowds, beer, brauts and fudge shops of the faux Bavarian tourist town is a tranquil valley as magical as any place described in “Lost Horizon.”
A punch-code-controlled gate opens to a narrow, winding, deeply shaded lane that runs along-side of Dukes Creek leading to a cluster of five cottages tucked in the northwest corner of the Smithgall Woods Conservation Area, a Georgia state parks unit with 5,600 acres of hemlock and hardwoods, trails and trout streams.
Newspaper owner Charles A. Smithgall Jr. assembled the acreage in the 1980s and in 1994 sold the White County tract to the state for $10.8 million, half its appraised value of $21.6 million. Up until July 2009, Georgia State Parks managed the property as the Lodge at Smithgall Woods, an upscale group and corporate retreat where gourmet meals were included in the somewhat steep daily tariff.
It’s now a do-it-yourself operation with five nicely appointed cottages and creekside houses suitable for a couple’s retreat or family reunion.
Two cottages – Laurel Cottage and Garden Cottage — offer one-bedroom with kitchen and living room. The living room is furnished with an upholstered chair with an ottoman and a love seat for reading or watching cable television. At the center of the room is a small wood stove, a built fire awaiting a flaming match.
On an autumn afternoon, however, the best spot at either cottage is the front porch where a rocking chair is an orchestra row seat at a white-water symphony, the high notes of Dover Creek harmonizing with the deeper rumble of Dukes Creek.
Two larger cottages – full-sized houses, really – sit next to Dukes Creek, a world-class catch-and-release trout stream. Creekside Lodge has three bedrooms, each with a private bath. The best spot in the house – the first retreat built by Smithgall – is the deck overlooking a trout pool. A container of trout pellets is included in the daily rate. Tossing those in the stream and watching the swirl of large, hungry trout will make everyone in the house giggle.
Smithgall Cottage once served as the Smithgall’s mountain home. It has four bedrooms and a huge great room with a soaring ceiling. Smithgall Cottage and Dover Cottage, which has five bedrooms, are great spots for a family reunion. Both have large public areas for the gathering of the clan and private bedrooms for quiet reading or napping.
With a maximum capacity of twenty-eight overnight guests, you’re certain to find a private stretch of trout stream or hiking trail. Picturesque wineries such as Blackstock Vineyards and Frogtown Cellars are a short drive away.
But once you sit down in that rocking chair, it will be hard to leave the valley.
There is plenty to explore in and around Blue Ridge, Georgia, a small town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains about ninety minutes from Atlanta.
There is the 3,290-acre blue expanse of Lake Blue Ridge. There is the seventeen miles of hiking and mountain biking trails at the Aska Adventure Area in the Chattahoochee National Forest. There is tubing and canoeing on the Toccoa River. There is drinking in the fall colors while aboard the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. There are orchards where you can pick your own apples. There is shopping in the easy strolling downtown Blue Ridge, where options range from galleries such as Turning Leaf Wood Art where you can covet unique, albeit pricey, museum-quality art to Brown’s Feed Store where you can buy a live turkey with which to remember your visit.
When you explore Blue Ridge, you’re going to need a base camp and would be hard to find a better one than Aska Lodge Bed & Breakfast. The lodge is just four miles from downtown Blue Ridge, yet feels a world away. The wide porch and lushly landscaped front lawn dotted with comfortable sitting areas are serene spots to sip morning coffee, laze an afternoon reading a long-neglected novel or raise a glass to the sunset. You could do all three and feel you made the most of the day.
And the grounds are a birder’s paradise – we spotted a couple of indigo buntings during our visit. The ongoing display of feeding and flying is the product of work by the owners to have the lodge named a certified wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.
The lodge has four large, comfortably appointed rooms, each with a private bath. The downstairs public area has a game area with dartboard and an assortment of board games. There is a tempting bottomless cookie jar (save yourself another trip, take two). And the lodge has free wireless Internet, should you absolutely have to have it.
The experience at a B&B hinges on the hosts. Some hosts are too intrusive, chatting, chatting and still chatting when you’re trying to read in a front porch rocker. Others have the personality of a fast-food cashier.
Bob and Mary Jo Stamper, who opened the lodge in April 2008, play a big part in making a stay at Aska Lodge delightful. She is a former nurse and he is a former law enforcement investigator. Both are helpful, but not intrusive. Both are easy to talk with, but not overbearing. Mary Jo prepares a wicked good breakfast and has an uncommon talent for giving directions. After all, every base camp needs a good guide.
The Inn at Fire Mountain
Just outside the town of Highlands, North Carolina, somewhere off the Dillard Road over 4,000 feet above sea level is the private mountain top hideaway of Fire Mountain. Situated on over one hundred acres the property boasts expansive mountain views and wonderful accommodations with a contemporary flair.
The trails on the property are a perfect prelude to the hiking that’s available in the area. You can walk through the horse pasture with its long-range views, through the small, quiet and private subdivision adjacent to the Inn’s property, all the way up to the top of the mountain where the vistas seem endless. The climb is pretty steep but the benefit is that the road is paved all the way to the top. On the way back down take a look inside the art gallery in the main building, check out the library next door and if your room doesn’t have a spa tub, take a restorative dip in the one on the adjacent outdoor deck.
The guest quarters include five cabins with six rooms, six rooms in the Inn’s main building and three private Treehouse rooms that offer wrap-around decks for gazing at the breathtaking mountain views. Innkeepers Hiram Wilkinson and Mathew Gillen excel in providing their guests a wonderful experience.
Some amenities that are included in the rate are gourmet breakfast for Inn and Treehouse guests, indoor or outdoor spa tubs, fireplaces in some cabins and BBQ grills on cabin decks or patios. For a fee you can arrange an individual or couples massage, order something from the seasonal dinner menu and have it delivered to your room and if staying in one of the cabins, order breakfast for two. A plus for petowners – the Inn allows pets in the cabins for those who wish to bring their furry friends with them.
Choosing to bring our new puppy with us, we reserved the Chickadee cabin. It faced a pretty meadow and was flanked by giant spruce trees that separated it from the huge organic garden. A small fully equipped kitchen, queen-size bed, an enormous spa tub in the middle of the room and a private patio facing the meadow made for a long, luscious weekend.
Further down the Dillard Road, heading towards Highlands, you’ll pass a couple of overlooks with panoramic views of the Blue Ridge. In this part of North Carolina you are completely immersed in, and surrounded by, the enormous Nantahala National Forest. The trailheads for the Bartram Trail and to the top of Scaly Mountain can be accessed here. We took the one up to Scaly Mountain and were rewarded with a gorgeous view and a welcome breeze at the top. Very steep at the beginning, I was glad to be wearing hiking boots rather than sneakers.
The area is also known for its waterfalls and swimming holes. We took a handful of short hikes to see several of these throughout the area. From Highlands to the nearby town of Cashiers, there were quite a few that ranged from Bridal Veil Falls, directly on the road, to one that fed into a pretty swimming hole about a five-minute walk from the road.
The inn’s proximity to the town of Highlands made dining out very convenient. Wolfgang’s was a favorite and the shop windows offered a way to walk off dinner that wasn’t as strenuous as our hikes had been during the day.
Before our dinner at Wolfgang’s I had an unexpected but enjoyable encounter. While waiting for my husband to park the car, I strolled down the alley adjacent to the restaurant and came upon a small storefront window. Peering through it I saw a collection of various wood turned vessels that were exquisite. All different in size and shape, made from various woods. Behind me, leaning on the wooden railing that separated the alley from the restaurant’s small garden, was a man in overalls with a blue bandanna covering his head, holding a slice of pizza in one hand and a bottle of Peroni in the other.
When I tried the shop’s door it didn’t open right away and considering the hour, I assumed it was closed. The man behind me immediately told me to please go right ahead and enter; the studio was still open. Well, it turned out that he was the artist, Robin Piscitelli, and he proceeded to show me the beautiful wood turned vessels on display in the small studio. He answered all my questions and showed me the machine in the next room where he magically turns huge blocks of sugar maple, walnut, chestnut and other varieties into beautiful works of art. The finish on his pieces is absolutely spectacular, smooth as glass and polished to a high sheen to show off the beauty of the grain and the imperfections he feels gives each piece its own unique character.
Later on, I learned that he is a leading artist in the field, taught by Paul Ferrel and influenced by David Ellsworth with collectors all over the country. This was the first time I ever had an accomplished artist patiently take the time to share his art and let me see, however briefly, the mind of an amazing talent. And because of him, on hot summer days I always wash down a slice of pizza with an ice cold Peroni.
Old Edwards Inn & Spa
Here are words sure to appeal to any stressed-out food-lover: “You could stay here for three days and indulge in fine food,” suggests Johannes Klapdohr, executive chef at Old Edwards Inn and Spa in Highlands, North Carolina. He had me at “stay.” But then he added this welcome but all-too-uncommon kicker to really seal the deal: “It’s very healthy for your body.”
Think healthy fine dining is an oxymoron? Not at this luxury resort. “A lot of people associate fine dining with unhealthy,” says Klapdohr, “But I don’t think that’s necessarily true.” He strives to ensure his menus “show people it’s possible to incorporate true nutrition into a really beautiful lifestyle” and is committed to sourcing “the very best” ingredients. Do you really need any more convincing that this is a great getaway destination?
A Mobil Four-Star, AAA Four-Diamond European-style inn, Old Edwards Inn and Spa is located in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. While beautiful in any season, when the leaves transform from green to shades of gold and orange each autumn, the surrounding view is spectacular. What’s more, it’s located more than 4,000-feet above sea level, so the air is crisp and refreshing even while much of the southern United States experiences sweltering heat. Old Edwards is at the heart of Highlands village, so quaint boutique shops, neighborhood restaurants, museums and craft stores are within walking distance. Nearby mountain forest trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding pass breathtaking waterfalls. Lakes and rivers invite outdoor adventures like canoeing, fishing and rafting.
But the truth is, you may never want to leave Old Edwards. Accommodations include historic rooms, suites (four of which boast direct private access to the spa), cottages, a three-bedroom farmhouse, rooms with their own private porches, and more. My room, located in the “Acorn’s Annex” lodge section of the hotel, opened to a private stone patio that was just a few yards away from the outdoor swimming pool—a gorgeous, warm three-foot-deep pool perfect for simply cooling off or swimming laps. Inside the gorgeous room decorated in relaxing hues were antiques, luxurious bedding and a huge bathroom with a deep bathtub, separate oversized shower outfitted with a rainfall showerhead, plus decadent extras like heated tile floors and heated towel bars. Wireless Internet is standard in every room as are plasma televisions.
Amenities included in the cost of each stay are treats such as a flute of champagne upon arrival, twice daily housekeeping, gourmet continental breakfast in Madison’s restaurant, access to the world-class fitness center and complimentary fitness classes, access to the spa amenities building (which boasts a ladies whirlpool, sauna and steam room and men’s whirlpool and steam room), and access to a 24-hour pantry—where you can help yourself to water, juice, soda and Dove ice cream bars at leisure. (As if you’ll be in the mood for snacks after delighting in Klapdohr’s cuisine!)
For total rejuvenation and pampering head to the spa. This 25,000-square-foot haven of luxury boasts a full-service menu of treatments including signature therapies, skin care, massage, salon services and health, nutrition and fitness activities. After relishing a relaxing facial, I opted to soak my cares away in the ladies’ whirlpool and steam room. (The nap room, however, was an intriguing alternative with its private draped beds.) No matter which spa treatment you choose, after such professional pampering you’ll definitely leave feeling better than you did when you arrived.
When hungry, trust Chef Klapdohr to delight and surprise your taste buds while also guarding your health. A passionate advocate of using top quality ingredients sourced from purveyors committed to the best farming practices, the native German oversees all aspects of Old Edwards’ culinary offerings, including Madison’s Restaurant & Wine Garden, the Spa Café, Poolside Bar & Bistro, the Rib Shack and catering. Whether you opt for a lettuce salad or oxtail lasagna, shrimp and grits or spaghetti with “beet balls,” it will be a beautiful, delicious dish to savor.
Old Edwards Inn and Spa is a peaceful oasis that nourishes the body and the soul. It’s the perfect place to indulge, whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway or a longer retreat.
If You Go
178 Calen Drive
Blue Ridge, GA 30513
The Inn at Fire Mountain
P.O. Box 2772
Highlands, N.C. 28741
For reservations call 800.775.4446
For information call 828.526.4446
Old Edwards Inn & Spa
445 Main Street
Highlands, NC 28741
828.526.8008 or toll-free at 866.526.8008
61 Tsalaki Trail
Helen, GA 30545
Madison’s Restaurant & Wine Garden
The Rib Shack
The Spa Café
Old Edwards Inn & Spa
7277 South Main Street
Helen GA 30545
The only place to eat in Helen if you like good food and excellent service.
Wolfgang’s Restaurant & Wine Bistro
474 Main Street
Highlands, NC 28741
A broad selection of wines, a seasonal menu offering the freshest ingredients and top notch service instill a loyal following for this local favorite.
Blue Ridge Scenic Railway
Hiking the Bartram Trail and Scaly Mountain
The Spa at the Old Edwards Inn
Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Robin Piscitelli Studio
468 Main Street
Highlands, NC 28741
Top photo courtesy of the Inn at Fire Mountain.