The movie Serena, starring Hollywood’s favorite onscreen couple Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, sweeps viewers away to 1920s North Carolina. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Ron Rash, the tale is filled with passion, obsession, and a true sense of place. Rash writes from the heart, illuminating his native Western North Carolina. The setting is a cinematographer’s dream, with misty mountains, verdant rolling hills, and dense forests.
Western North Carolina is a delight for the traveler. With Asheville — the craft beer capital of the U.S. — Cherokee heritage, outdoor activities, culinary destinations, plus award-winning hotels, the region has much to offer. Book a flight to Asheville, rent a vehicle, and get ready to discover the hipster mountain region right off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Highlands exudes elegance
The cozy chic Falls Cottages at Old Edwards. (Photo: Old Edwards Inn and Spa)
Your first stop should be in charming Highlands, N.C. The 90-minute drive winds through the Appalachian Mountains, and the last 19 miles of intensely curved roads are gorgeous. Check in to the award-winning Old Edwards Inn and Spa, where guests are greeted with a glass of champagne. Request the Falls Cottages, upscale private cabins replete with period antiques, fireplaces, and balconies. The standalone bathtubs and original Persian rugs give an old-fashioned yet luxurious touch.
Mountain Fresh Grocery offers freshly baked pizzas and an expansive wine selection. (Photo: Mountain Fresh Grocery)
The Old Edwards Inn and Spa is an expansive property with multiple pools, a cozy cocktail lounge with a raging fireplace, dining options by Chef Johannes Klapdohr, and the ever-popular game cornhole for amusement. After enjoying the decadent inn, stroll down Main Street, where artsy shops and posh stores await. Don’t miss Mountain Fresh Grocery, which is much more than a grocery store. Reinvented by J.T. Fields, this bustling deli has an extensive fine foods section and an intimate bar in the center where hungry patrons can grab an organic chicken salad with honey mustard dressing while sampling a Kermit Lynch-imported glass of wine. With a golf course designed by Arnold Palmer, art galleries, and a lively restaurant scene, plan on spending a few days exploring Highlands.
Cherokee preserves history
Wax figures of Cherokee chiefs on display at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. (Photo: marek kasula / Alamy)
Drive approximately 60 miles north to Cherokee to visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. The well-curated exhibits illustrate the great and tragic history of the Cherokee, who inhabited the local mountains for centuries before the explorers arrived. If luck permits, a friendly older gentleman adorned in turquoise jewelry will explain the legends and stories of the Cherokee people. Spend a few hours enjoying the museum and gift shop.
Experience the outdoors in Bryson City
The Squirrel’s Nest cabin overlooks the eponymous creek. (Photo: Lands Creek Log Cabins)
Stay the night in nearby Bryson City at Lands Creek Log Cabins, a tucked-away cluster of individual log cabins. Stay in the Squirrel’s Nest, where finding all the squirrel accents makes for a fun game. The sound of the roaring creek right in front lulls guests to sleep, and the ensuing peace is priceless.
Grab a bike and hit the mountain trails. (Photo: Bryson City Bicycles)
Bryson City is the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains, and it is as rugged and outdoorsy as Highlands is polished. After a good night’s sleep, try horseback riding, fly-fishing, ziplining, or kayaking, or rent a bike at Bryson City Bicycles and hit the Tsali Recreation Area mountain biking trails. Motorcycle enthusiasts like to ride in nearby Cherokee on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which winds east for 26 miles. If you’re looking for a calmer option, picnic at Deep Creek Community Center and then go tubing or hiking through waterfalls.
Have a pint (or several) at Nantahala Brewing Company. (Photo: Nantahala Brewing Company/Facebook)
Need a caffeine fix? Stop in at Mountain Perks for a latte and a peanut butter granola bagel. Owners Jeff and Pam Pulley party like it’s 1969, proudly wearing tie-dye and displaying a “Hippies Welcome” sign. If craft brews are on the agenda, Nantahala Brewing Company is one of the finest purveyors in all of beer-crazy North Carolina. The Noon Day IPA is the perfect refreshment after a long day on the mountain, and the Nanta Claus Chocolate Mint Stout makes an excellent nightcap — or two.
Having exhausted the outdoor possibilities in Bryson City, make your way east 65 miles through the Smokies. Pass waterfalls by the highway, detour on The Road to Nowhere, and end at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Asheville awaits.
Devour Asheville’s culinary scene
The Omni Grove Park Inn is surrounded by luscious sprawling mountain scenery. (Photo: Omni Hotels)
First, check in to the Omni Grove Park Inn. The drive up to this noble structure must be seen to be believed. Huge stone boulders create the facade, and a fluid red roof drips over them like icing. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and 10 U.S. presidents, including President Obama, have all stayed there, among other notables. The lobby fireplaces are enormous and require a classic cocktail in hand. Edison, the aptly named restaurant, serves delicious, regionally inspired fare. Order the Carolina scotch eggs and get lost in the panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Ask for community outreach director Tracey Johnston-Crum, who can tell you all about the thrilling haunted history of the hotel, as well as stories about the region’s colorful past.
Early Girl Eatery serves up delicious farm-to-table comfort food. (Photo: Via Tsuji/Flickr)
Asheville is a food and beer lover’s paradise, with a booming restaurant scene and more microbreweries per capita than any other U.S. city. And there are some do-not-miss joints that you won’t want to skip.
For breakfast, start at homey Early Girl Eatery for a “farm-to-table Southern comfort” meal. Order the Early Girl Benny for grit cakes topped with tomato, spinach, poached eggs, and tomato gravy. Chai Pani serves awesome Indian street food with a sense of humor. Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar is a rare bookstore with a wine and beer bar in the back. What could be better than an afternoon book and brew?
There’s no way you’re leaving without having some bbq, right? (Photo: Moe’s Original Bar B Que/Facebook)
For more Asheville beer experiences, go to Wicked Weed Brewing and savor the outstanding Freak of Nature Double IPA in the brewery’s sleek new digs. To drink with the locals while relaxing outdoors, Wedge Brewing Company is the spot. A trip to North Carolina isn’t complete without sampling the famous barbecue, and arguments ensue over whether 12 Bones Smokehouse or Moe’s Original BBQ is the best. Non-carnivores should stop at Plant, Asheville’s premier vegan restaurant. Chef Jason Sellers is a master artist, and healthy never tasted so good. The kimchi uttapam is a winner. The caramelized Jerusalem artichokes come with a lemon sauce that is perfect for dipping potato chips in.
Spend a few hours exploring the epic Biltmore House and gardens. (Photo: The Biltmore Company)
The Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site has preserved the author’s house and has a quirky museum attached for Wolfe fans. Site manager Tom Muir is an excellent guide. The Southern Highland Craft Gallery features work by vetted regional artists and is a great place for souvenirs, along with a jar of barbecue sauce, of course. The Biltmore House — built and occupied by the Vanderbilts in bygone days — can take an entire day to tour, with extensive grounds and interior tours and complimentary wine tasting. A walking tour of historic Asheville is a good way to burn off those beer and barbecue calories and see the unique Art Deco architecture. Finally, linger at Malaprop’s Bookstore, an excellent indie bookshop. It’s the perfect way to end the tour, with local author Ron Rash’s books displayed prominently.
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