Today's traveler can easily become jaded with all the smoke and mirrors and jumping through hoops contrived to keep guests happy. Some hotels go over the top with frivolous amenities, things you'll never use, or in some cases, be asked to pay extra in resort fees until you've been nickeled and dimed for everything that persuaded you to choose that particular resort or hotel in the first place. Others -- like the "resort" hotel I recently stayed at in Orlando, Florida, include a printed note in the guest-services book advising guests not to ask for anything because they are very busy and can't do everything for everybody -- just outright declare that they cannot meet your individual needs.
That's the sort of thing that makes the much-acclaimed Swag (tel. 800/789-7672; www.theswag.com), in far-western North Carolina, so refreshing. The best amenities at this Appalachian knock-out are the living breathing ones: the wonderful warmth of hosts Dan and Deener Matthews, down-to-earth part-time Manhattanites, and the splendor of creatures great, small, and tall (in the case of some of the trees) all around. The excellent, friendly staff members -- who often meet your needs before you even know you have them -- will help you with anything from performing in-room bee rescue (I speak from personal experience on this one) to getting you a glass of milk to bring back to your room for the evening (ditto). At the Swag, the contrivances of guest service are so heartfelt as to not feel like such. Seriously, you can't fake this kind of hospitality, Southern or otherwise.
What Is the Swag?
I thought a swag was something you decorated with; well, it is, but it turns out a swag is also a dip between mountains. This Swag, settled so far west in North Carolina that it's almost Tennessee, was started as a locale for church retreats and remains a peaceful place today with tactful spiritual under- and overtones. Today, it is a member of the Select Registry of Distinguished Inns of North America (www.selectregistry.com) and has hosted famous guests like Dr. Heimlich and Katie Couric, as well as repeat guests who have returned 11 times in as many years. Guests arrive at the inn from all over the United States, though many trips originate in the South; during my stay, cities represented included St Louis; Asheville; Wilmington, NC; Houston; Cincinnati; and even far-flung Eugene, Oregon.
The beauty of the rolling, often mist-shrouded mountains, is truly undeniable, and, from its perch 5,000 feet atop the ridge known as the Cataloochee Divide, The Swag offers many ways for guests to enjoy the surroundings. Sitting in the yard and gardens reading a book or admiring the spectacular view -- to the south, Cold Mountain is visible in the distance -- while sipping some fresh-brewed iced tea is a perfectly acceptable way to wile away some time here.
If you are itching for some exploration, you can meander around the 250-acre property. Find a private spot to relax in one of the various "hideaways" spread across the grounds: These secluded nooks are named after family members' favorite spots; my favorite features a hammock strung among nothing but trees and has an unbroken view overlooking the valley below. The DO NOT DISTURB sign of choice is a rustic wooden block that lets others know if the spot is vacant or occupied by another solace-seeker. For those who prefer a more active use of the environment, trails around the property lead to an au naturel swimming hole (a small pond) and a grassy badminton area. You can also play racquetball, croquet, horseshoes, indoor volleyball, and enjoy the natural crowning glory of The Swag: its location at the back door of Great Smoky Mountain National Park with its own private park entrance.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the United States with about 8 million visitors per year. The Great Smoky Mountains are the oldest mountains in the world (200-300 million years old); once as high as the Himalayas, they wore down over the years. 10,000 years ago, during the Ice Age, species were driven south in the path of the advancing ice, which explains the tens of thousands of species that are thought to live here today. Ninety-five percent of deciduous old-growth forest in the United States is in the Smokies. Surprisingly, it's also the second wettest national park after Olympic in Washington state. Friends of the Smokies (www.friendsofthesmokies.org) almost entirely fund park maintenance, as the current administration has enacted recent "service level adjustments" that have negatively affected funding and service in the nation's parks. If you are interested in hiking into the park, The Swag offers folders of maps and information on numerous hikes of all levels.
When The Swag first opened in 1982, Deener and Dan thought guests would be off the hotel property for the day; they quickly adapted when it became clear that, once at the retreat, folks prefer to stay nearby, returning to their cars only at the end of their trip. Therefore, many activities are offered to keep guests occupied onsite.
Guided summer programs (see website for this season's menu) include various hikes, workshops, and walks with acclaimed scientists and naturalists. I was lucky enough to join up with birding and wildflower specialist Bob Collier and his wife Louise, both of whom are experts on the area's ecology and history. (Ask them about their favorite places to travel and some of the incredible things they have seen in places worldwide, like the Galapagos Islands.) Wildlife on your hike may include vegetation and flowers such as rhododendron shrubbery, trillium flowers, yellow birch trees, woodpeckers, and bears if you are lucky -- or maybe just their scat. One night I was awakened by the sound of coyotes howling outside my window, so I know they are out there too.
In the afternoon, guests gather in the Chestnut Room library, where stuffed critters -- grouse, bears, deer -- line the second-floor gallery walls (reclaimed roadkill gifted to The Swag), for Bob and Louise's presentation of wildflowers, flowering trees, birds, local history, and more. A slideshow recaps local floral specimens like trout lilies, hybrid trillium, anemones, "Dutchman's britches," Solomon's Seal, and bluets.
After an informal question-and-answer period, everyone adjourns to the dogtrot (or breezeway to most Northerners). About a dozen hummingbirds gather at the feeders for an early-evening meal while guests congregate around a variety of hot and cold hors d'ouevres to chat, sip a cocktail (if they've brought their own wine or spirits -- the county is dry, so the inn is BYOB), and watch the sun arc down into the hills. Which brings me to another important aspect of life at The Swag: the food.
I initially arrived at the inn just in time for a late lunch, which consisted of a tuna sandwich on full-grain bread with a side salad of perfectly garden-fresh local greens and fresh sliced fruit. The menu always offers meat, fish, and vegetarian options, and accommodations can be made for other special diets as well. In fact, innkeeper Deneer, who isn't a vegetarian herself, has been eating veggie in order to hone the chef's repertoire in recognition of the increasing number of guests who have made this lifestyle and dining choice (although she is known to happily cheat on her diet on picnic day for the signature burgers made from fresh bison). Breakfast is a deluxe spread offering bagels and breads, cheese grits, cider-simmered oatmeal, homemade granola, a variety of milks (including soy milk), berries, and eggs made to order.
On Wednesdays, a casual but classy picnic lunch is served on Gooseberry Knob: bison burgers, greens from their garden, shrimp salad with crusty French bread, apple bratwurst, avocado salad, fresh Wilmington strawberries; diners hungry from the hike up the Knob carry full plates to sit under the roof of the gazebo or in Adirondack-style chairs strewn about the hilltop.
A Southern-style barbecue dinner is served on Thursday nights, and sweet (and plain) tea or lemonade are available at all times. Fresh-baked cookies, such as oatmeal and chocolate chip, are laid out enticingly every afternoon.
The décor may be rustic, but at nighttime the dining is sophisticated and fun. Dinner is served formally, with guests seated at private or shared tables. Four-course meals include recipes such as lamb shank Provencal with risotto and haricots verts. The menu uses seasonal ingredients, including asparagus and lettuce grown in their own garden and strawberries from Wilmington, NC. Homemade desserts are the perfect finish.
After dinner, get ready for some singing as Dan cozies up to the player piano to honor guests with a sing-a-long: he played "It's A Grand Old Flag" for the young soldier who was home from Iraq on leave with his wife for a romantic country weekend.
Non-guests can also book a lunch/nature hike or a meal at the inn ($30 lunch, $40 Sunday brunch, and $55 dinner; reservations always mandatory). Note: Again, as it is in a dry county, the inn cannot sell alcohol, so stop in town on your way up the hill and bring your own wine if you would like it with your meal.
On your way back to your room, stop to admire the night sky. As the moon hangs over the valley, the town of Waynesville and the paper mill twinkle romantically in the background. (If the glow of the paper mill seems prosaic to you, meditate on this: The Canton paper mill, albeit most likely to ease its polluting conscience, replanted numerous trees to repopulate the area's forest lands.) Folks don't come here for the nightlife, but after your meal might be the perfect time for a trip to the redwood sauna or a soak in the open-air hot tub to cap off your evening.
If you've forgotten something, chances are the Swag hasn't. Their attention to detail is obsessive: designer chocolates and toiletries, plush robes, trail mix and soft drinks in your fridge, plus all the basic amenities like hair dryers, iron, and ironing board. Miss your pet at home? The house cat is usually lounging on the back deck outside and a rubber ducky sits on your tub in the bathroom. Try a candlelit soak in the Jacuzzi tub or a rejuvenating steam bath in the large standing shower; you're guaranteed to feel relaxed as you emerge with hair squeaky clean from the fresh spring water.
Most of the inn's buildings are hand-hewn log structures, and the inn's interior design reflects it accurately. The upscale-rustic rooms feature beautiful handcrafted quilts, fireplaces, and feather beds, and many have private porches or balconies. The décor is pitch-perfect, with stone bathroom floors, reclaimed wooden walls, bed frames of barked limbs, bulky country doors with wooden locks and latches and rope pull releases, a giant wooden oversized key, which I never did figure out how to use, and the DO NOT DISTURB sign is a wooden block to hang on the outside of your door. Other amenities and touches include Wi-Fi, XM satellite radio, Bose CD/alarm clocks, mason jars full of homemade kerosene-soaked wood shavings to be used as a firestarter, and personalized walking sticks you can take home as a souvenir of your trip; no TV is in the room (the inn's only TV is in the library) though there is a phone. A photocopied New York Times Digest is delivered daily along with weather and dining info for the day.
After a lifetime of suffering through those hideous packets of dry dusty coffee in prepackaged bags, the homey glass jars of rich oily coffee beans and in-room grinder had me from "hello." Fresh flowers are presented in homemade pottery that the innkeepers hand-selected at regional craft markets. A gift shop is located on the second floor of the main building (which is comprised partially of a Baptist church once located in Tennessee) if you'd like to purchase a little piece of North Carolina to take home.
Note: This trip was sponsored by The Swag Hotel
When to Go
The season at The Swag usually runs from May to mid-November (April 22-Nov. 25 in 2007). Closed for winter. The best time for viewing wildflower blooms is generally the last week in April through the first week in May, although this of course depends on a variety of factors such as rainfall and average temperature. And with the summer temperatures 10-15 degrees cooler on average than the "mainland" below, who needs any more reason to visit?
How to Get There
The Swag is a 2-hour drive from Knoxville, TN, 3 hours from Charlotte, NC, and Columbia, SC, and 3.5 hours from Atlanta. Guests flying in from other points in the country can catch a connecting flight to Asheville, NC, about a one-hour drive from the hotel.
15 rooms. Doubles $400-$620. Suites and cabins $625-$725. Additional guests $100. Children 7 and under $60. AE, DISC, MC, V. Rates include all meals. Wine, beer, and alcohol are BYOB only. Note: 10% tax and a 15% service fee will be assessed to all room rates.
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