MAGGIE VALLEY, N. C. — My two sisters and I had been planning this weekend getaway for months. A four-hour drive from Lexington would take us to Maggie Valley on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and our ultimate destination, The Swag.
Getting its name from the dip between two mountain peaks, The Swag Country Inn is the quintessential mountain hideaway. Sitting atop a 5,000-foot ridge, the Cataloochee Divide that forms one of the Park boundaries, it's easily the highest inn in the southeastern part of the United States.
On a beautiful day, getting there would be half the fun, as the twisting, turning road that meanders 2.5 miles up the mountain snakes past a vast canvas of oak, evergreens, bubbling streams, miniature waterfalls and in summer, bushes bursting with multi-hued rhododendrons.
Unfortunately, the day we arrived was not a beautiful day. The driving rain and fog so thick it resembled steel wool blotted out any vista save the road itself, and that was just what could be picked up by the car's headlights.
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By the time we negotiated the final curve, and found ourselves at the top of the mountain, we were so relieved to be safely at the inn, that we wouldn't have cared if Norman Bates had been manning the registration desk or Freddy Krueger handling concierge duties.
Fortunately, the gloomy weather outside proved no match for the warmth and hospitality inside. The smell of freshly brewed coffee mingled with scented pine, and a crackling fire in the enormous stone fireplace quickly made us forget our harrowing drive up the mountain.
It's not by chance that the Wall Street Journal called the Swag "one of the 10 coziest hotels in America." The irony is that it didn't start out as a hotel at all.
When Dan and Deener Matthews first saw the mountain nearly 50 years ago, they knew it was just the spot for a vacation home, away from the bustle of Atlanta, and later, of Manhattan where Dan served as an Episcopal priest at Trinity Wall Street Church.
Running an inn never crossed their minds until the World's Fair in Knoxville in 1982, when they opened their home to visitors in need of accommodation. When they found those guests reluctant to leave, the Matthews began transforming the Swag from family home to inn.
Wanting to retain the integrity of the Southern Appalachian region, they set about carefully selecting items that would reflect their vision. The exterior included 210-year-old hand-hewn logs that once made up the Lonesome Valley Baptist Church in Tennessee. The impressive antler chandelier suspended from the living room ceiling was a challenge to install, eventually having to be brought in through the dining room window.
As for décor, The Swag boasts an impressive collection of Southern folk art — delicately carved wildflowers by Kentucky artist Jim Sams; animal woodcarvings by Amanda Crowe, a noted Cherokee wood carver; hand-braided rugs and handmade quilts from North Carolina and Tennessee artisans.
Away from the main house on the property's 250 acres are five buildings housing an activities center and 14 accommodations (10 rooms and four suites.) Accommodations have views of either the mountains or the woods — or during my visit, wispy tendrils of fog obscuring what had to be a world-class vista.
Rooms are individually decorated, although common features include hardwood floors, colorful patchwork quilts and bed frames intricately fashioned from branches. Most have stone fireplaces and a few have hot tubs. It's designer chic meets warm and cozy, or as one magazine put it, "as if Ralph Lauren took to designing log cabins."
My sisters and I were in the two-room, two-bath Terrace Room, with its beamed ceiling, Jacuzzi and sauna, wet bar, stone terrace and towering stone fireplace. Lighting a fire to ward off the chill became our first order of business, but after several attempts, the three of us determined that we wouldn't make it past the first episode of Survivor.
Not to worry. Ginger, one of the staff members, came to our rescue, getting a fire going in no time.
"I've spent my whole life right here on this mountain, so I know what it takes to light a fire," she said. "Call me whenever you need it stoked."
I realized two things — that she really meant it and that Ginger would probably be the last one still standing on Survivor.
Great food and good fun
The Swag is all-inclusive, with meals and activities included in the room rate. Breakfast and dinner are served in the spacious living room and dining room, while lunch is offered picnic style in guests' accommodations, or, in good weather, outdoors.
Guests make their dinner selections from a daily menu, and congregate in the living room for pre-dinner conversation and cocktails. The staff provides much of the former, but the guests are responsible for the latter as The Swag can not serve liquor (They can, however, provide buckets and ice.)
Chef Ernest Bledsoe presides over the kitchen, and is an advocate of the farm-to-table approach, often selecting produce from The Swag's one-acre garden. For variety, gourmet picnic lunches atop Gooseberry Knob are offered on Wednesdays; Thursday is BBQ night, and for Sunday brunch, Bledsoe and pastry chef Linda Duckett lay out a spread that has to be seen to be believed.
A white picket fence separates The Swag from the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so hiking is one of the area's main attractions. Each guest receives a personalized wooden hiking stick to take on one of the 10 marked trails easily accessible from The Swag.
You can hike on your own or go in the company of a guest expert, such as Gay Bryant, an artist based in Knoxville. During the weekend I was there, Bryant, who has hiked all 900 miles of trails in the Smokies, led hikes in the morning and taught watercolor classes in the afternoon.
At various times during the season, other experts will be on hand to share their knowledge of birding, wildflowers, folk music, storytelling, Appalachian history and the area's black bear population.
Many guests find their stay at The Swag so congenial that they return time and again, and repeat visitors are referred to as Swaggers. And that's just the way Dan and Deener Matthews like it.
"We love it when our guests become family," says Deener Matthews. "The Swag is a labor of love, but most of all, it's an eloquent tribute to the Great Smoky Mountains and southern Appalachia."