Travelers familiar with the rugged power of the Swiss Alps or American Rockies will undoubtedly find the mountains of North Carolina tame stuff. Part of a broad ribbon of ridges from Vermont to Georgia that from the Appalachians, the mountains of North carolina have weathered into lush hills with a quiet beauty that can still leave visitors breathless, as I discovered on a recent trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Weaving the serpentine two-lane highway, careening along the brink of deep gorges and cliffs, the road twisted with such frequency that south seemed north and vice versa. The resulting heady combination of dizziness and euphoria was all the more amazing, since the speed limit was a modest 45 m.p.h.
Mountain vistas of sheer drops spun into view on the east, the west, then east again, and just as suddenly the trees parted, revealing softly mounded hills extending 50 to 60 miles to the horizon. As one view fell behind another corner, I caught my breath just in time for the next sight, till the chorus of aahs and oohs sounded like a barefoot race across blazing hot beach sand.
The Blue Parkway is one of those marvelous outgrowths of the 1930s when public-works projects were frequently an exciting synthesis of creativity and practicality. For 469 miles the parkway winds, trails, twists, and tunnels from Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the southern tip of the Black Mountains and through the Craggies, Pisgahs, and Balsams, finally ending in the Great Smokies of North Carolina.
From May 1 to the end of October, lodging and camping sites are open along the parkway, as well as miles of self-guiding trails. For a camping and outdoor guide, write: Northe Carolina Travel and Tourism Bureau, Raleigh, N.C. 27611.
During my early summer trip, the ridges and valleys were lush green, the roadsides blooming with fire pinks and mountain laurel; strings of clouds threaded valleys and meadows of butterfly weed and daisies. Summer vistas along the parkway are heady stuff, the air a buoyant blend of pure mountain air and cool breezes, but one park ranger explained that after the first frosts the air becomes an elixir of vibrant, pure energy and the scenery, rampant waves of primary colors.
Beginning in late September with the brilliant reds of sourwood, black gum, and dogwood, in early October a crescendo of yellow-toned birch, buckeye, poplar , and beech begins. The whole extravaganza reaches its peak at mid-month. The gentle finale is the scarlet-umber tones of oaks.
All this is, of course, subject to the whims of nature. But on thing is assured: When the peak does arrive, word has gotten out. On weekens, visitors may find themselves in a serpentine procession of like-minded leaf peepers. Though the pace may seem egregiously slow for some, the vistas are still undisturbed to the sides.
However invigorating the high mountain air might be, there came a time in my cloud hopping along the Blue Ridge that a desire to plant my feet firmly on the ground led to a stop at Blowing Rock, roughly 80 miles (as the crow flies) from the Virginia border. But distances on the Blue Ridge Parkway can be deceptive because of the ins and outs of the road, so any mileage estimate is rough indeed. Once in Blowing Rock. I stayed at the Green Park Inn, a one-time rambling Victorian Inn, since updated and invested with a modern reinterpretation of its gracious past.
Blowing Rock is a unique little enclave that, fortunately for travelers hasn't been renovated and still retains the character of a turn-of-the-century resort town. It grew up around a singular rock outcropping with a pattern of wind currents and various tales of an Indian maid and her fickle love.
I must admit I didn't go out of my way to throw a hankie over the edge and have the wind blow it back into my outstreched hand where the maid or her lover (depending on which story you hear) was blown back into the other's arms.
Blowing Rock offers numerous shops, including rock and mineral displays and a number of craft shops and guilds featuring woodcarving, pottery, quilting, and other folk arts of the mountain regions. Notable among these is Parkway Craft Center, an upstate extension of the Folk Arts Center of Southern Highland Handicraft Guild in Asheville. The guild, founded in 1930, features working craftsmen in free demonstrations, as well as items for sale.
I spent the larger part of a leisurely Friday morning with the Goodwin family at the Goodwin Guild Weaves in Blowing Rock. An extended family of sisters, brothers, wives, and husbands that all add up to the sixth generation, the Goodwins follow a family trade that dates back to 1812.
On a collection of clanging, banging, and rattling old-fashioned power looms (some dating back to the Civil War), the Goodwins continue to produce limited quantities of household goods in authentic reproductions of traditional folk patterns. Using locally grown wool that is spun and carded in Mouth of Wilson, Va. (a fact included only because of the somewhat unorthodox name), the yarn is then woven into bedspreads and tablecloths.
A "Whig Rose" coverlet, patterned after traditional folk patterns found in eastern Tennessee, is made of Delft blue cotton and woll and runs $125 for a single or double. Recently exhibited at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life, this bed cover will more than likely become a family heirloom.
Continuing south along the parkway to Route 80, it is just a short westward hop from Micaville to Burnsville and the Nu-wray Inn. The only North Carolina inn mentioned in "Classic Country Inns of America" (an Architectural Digest book), I was mildly curious as to what this obviously out-the-way place had to offer. Passing miles of cow-filled fields and seeing massive thunderheads piling up against low-slung hills, Iarrived in Burnsville late one afternoon in the town square and a sleepy tableau of a Southern, summer afternoon.
Visiting the Nu-Wray is like visiting an old friend who, so comfortable with you, doesn't feel compelled to drag out the best linen or impress you with gourmet cooking. Much like that dear old friend, the Nu-Wray and its owner, Rush Wray, seem to invite visitors to feel right at home while knowing you'll forgive the many idiosyncrasies. In a recent conversation Norman T. Simpson, author of "Country Inns and Backroads," said that even after 10 years of visiting the Nu-Wray he finds it as "one of the most singular experiences you can get in a country inn. It's so unique, whatever shortcomings it has, I'm willing to overlook."
There is an easy flow, from the chech-in desk that resembles an old candy counter to the rooms slimmed down to an almost Spartan country look. From the skinny towels, the rustic shower stalls (so reminiscent of summer camp), and the sound of crickets in an overgrown garden, there is nothing pretentious here.
While the guest rooms epitomize crisp simplicity with their basic bed, bureau , and bedside table, the common sitting rooms are an eclectic melange of horsehair chairs, antique tables, and china. There is no menu at the Nu-Wray -- instead mounds of food served family style on long tables. That evening -- fried chicken, freshly baked rolls, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and half a dozen edibles that slip the memory.
Once the frenzy of passing food passed, we began a serious dinner conversation on the inevitable topic of inn hopping. Many of the guests had sworn off the cliche of high-rise hotels in favor of the unique personality of various country inns. Each person had his favorite, and no one was hesitant about sharing his most recent discoveries or old favorites. Hours after dinner the conversations were still going strong while the sky performed a veritable symphony of a sunset that forced even the blase locals to pull out their cameras.
Back on the parkway it is only a short drive to Craggy Gardens. While the Blue Ridge Parkway is certainly great from a car, it was only when I stopped, threw open the door, and ran along the paths at Craggy Gardens that the full effect of the mountains hit. On the trails, one a 15-minute walk with an 80 -mile vista to the Smokies on a clear day, another, a more rigorous 2 hours and 4 back from Carter Creek Fall, you can hear and feel the wind breathe air so clean you want to sing and shout. In the late spring, the acres of rhododendron that from a series of tunnels and mazes are brilliant reds and pinks, and make great exploring.
From the wild grandeur of Craggy Gardens it is another short jump to Asheville, home of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. Here, Wolfe's home is maintained across the street from a complex of high-rise hotels and macadam parking lots you can bet he would have a comment for. While those with a penchant for literary nostalgia may enjoy wandering the rooms of Wolfe's adolescence, in direct contrast to homey folklore are the Biltmore House and Gardens -- about 10 minutes out of town.
Biltmore, a National Historic landmark, was built by George Vanderbilt, grandson of "Commodore" Vanderbilt, and architect Richard Morris Hunt, then landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park. The scale of the mansion, patterned after a French chateau, is so grandiose that it took 1,000 laborers five years to complete.Reduced to 7,500 acres, the estate still features an access road three miles long designed as a naturalistic landscape that is brilliant gold and red in the autumn.
The wonders of Biltmore read like a list of assets of the eight wonder of the world. I spent most of the day there and barely scratched the surface. It is difficult not to speak in superlatives, because Vanderbilt spent his considerable spare time and equally considerable fortune traipsing around the world locating objects to adorn his "country house." The dining room alone is seven stories high and long enough to contain your average single-family home.
The entry fee of $12 covers self-guided tours of upstairs and downstairs. The gardens are included and feature an impressive display of bedding plants and a collection of native azaleas of the Eastern United States that is considered the most complete in the world. For far less than the price of a Broadway play, Biltmore is even more fanciful than Disneyland because this fantasy was once real life.
Roughly 30 minutes from the haughty grandeur of Biltmore is another local legend, Pisgah View Ranch. One evening at dusk I drove along a winding country road abloom with elderberry and daylilies while long shadows stretched across dark green meadows. The last turn in the road opened into a classic secluded valley straight out of a Lone Ranger episode. Guests on the terrace of the dining hall were talking and laughing as Ruby Cogburn and her son Max ushered me into the airy dining hall, reminiscent of my grandmother's farm kitchen.
Miss Ruby piled the table with traditional North Carolina fare: fried chicken , potatoes, gravy, fresh baked rolls, and by far the best sweet potato casserole I've tasted anywhere. For his part, Max Cogburn, a lawyer in Asheville, told stories of local law and order, as well as disorder. Each tale was such an amalgamation of fact, fiction, and fun that even he had a hard time keeping a straight face. Finally about 10, after reluctanty declining Ruby's offer of Black Forest Cake, strawberry pie, and an assortment of extravagant richness, I thanked my hosts and stepped into the sparkling firely meadow and a brief walk in the cool evening air before retiring.
Accommodations at Pisgah View are as homey and easygoing as the food, rather like a North Carolina version of a Western dude ranch. Small log cabins with rustic porches are clustered on 1,700 acres with trails for riding, hiking, and just plain walking. Weekly rates include breakfast, lunch (or picnic), and dinner -- $150 to $205 per person double occupancy; per day for double occupancy is $30 to $40 per person. It's open from May 1 to Dec. 1.Call or write for reservation information: Pisgah View Ranch, Route 1, Candler, N.C. 28715 (704) 667-9100.
The Blue Ridge Parkway ends close to the North Carolina border between Smokemont and Bryson City. Thirteen miles soutwest of Bryson City is Nantahala Outdoor Center and the largest instruction program in white-water canoe and kayak. For many it's their taste of white water rafting.
Central to any white water rafting adventure is getting the feel of maneuvering a 4-foot-wide rubber raft that has the agility of a bathtub. Weather, on the other hand, is no obstacle to rafting, the logic being that you're going to get wet anyway, whether it's coming down from the sky or up from the river.
The day I took on the Nantahala River the sun was out and the river a glittering ribbon on undulating blue water. While this wasn't my first raft experience, the expertise of 10 years ago came quickly back as we guided our black bathtub through the first bit of white water -- nothing much, just enough to get the adrenalin flowing. Feeling somewhat like Water Rat in "The Wind in the Willows," I found this indeed the way to live, flowing with the current, lazily observing trees, clouds, and the countryside slide by.
But soon the tempo quickens and the idyll of summer is broken as rocks hit the bow. "Paddle," yells the guide, and just as my arm is about to fall off, the last rapid appears around the bend; paddles dig deeply into the white foam; and the raft and its laughing, screaming occupants are catapulted into the air, to smash into the serenity of the shallows.
While this may sound a bit like high adventure, this trip on the Nantahala River is often run by total novices, ranging from 7 to 80 years old. One group that endeared themselves to the guides was a man his 80s along with his sister and her friend, both 69. Paddling down the river, instead of pausing as the guides suggested they might do above the last rapids to figure the smoothest way down, one of the crew held a paddle high in the air and shouted, "Let's go for it!" Without a break in their paddling, they ran the rapid whooping and yelling as the raft hurtled through the foam. After their run, faces glowing, the sister observed, "This sure beats sittin' home makin' potholders."
Rates for river runs vary from $14 for a half day on the Nantahala to $36 for a full day (including lunch) on the Chattooga River. Cabins are available at the Outdoor Center; a two-bedroom that sleeps four goes for $55 but accommodations are limited. Campsites are more numerous at the center, and surrounding areas offer a wide variety of lodgings. Because river runs and lodgings are frequently booked ahead, particularly in autumn when the Nantahala Gorge is spectacular, write or call ahead reservations: Nantahala Outdoor Center , Star Route, Box 68, Bryson City, N.C. 28713 (707) 488-2175.
In autumn, the gorge is a wall of red gums and red and yellow sugar maples brilliant against a blue sky, the river a sea of fiery gold and scarlet reflections. It is all so absorbing, there is little thought about cold, wet hands or soaking pants and sneakers. But once the raft finally meets the shore, an equally pleasant experience is a seat in the restaurant with a view of the river, hot soup, homemade bread and cheese ($3.50 for all you can eat in a group of six or more), and a pair of warm, dry trousers.