Cashiers, N.C., offers satisfying stay, even in the rain

The gardens behind Canyon Kitchen restaurant in Cashiers, N.C., offer views of the mountains. The area receives twice the average rainfall that Lexington does.
The gardens behind Canyon Kitchen restaurant in Cashiers, N.C., offer views of the mountains. The area receives twice the average rainfall that Lexington does.

CASHIERS, N.C. — My family and I arrived in this town with visions of outdoor excursions trekking through our heads. The town's website boasts sections devoted to hiking, fishing, swimming, and mountain biking.

Cashiers (pronounced "cashers") even made Outside magazine's 2004 list of best towns, and the write-up described the area's views, hikes and climbs as so spectacular, they "would almost make you swear someone had trucked the place out from Yosemite."

My wife and I aren't so outdoorsy that we own anything so extreme as, say, a tent, but we chose Cashiers in part because when you're a Kentucky family who's recently done Atlantic beaches, the Chicago urban getaway and the Louisville stay-cation, what's left — particularly if you'd like to avoid long days in tedious transit?

Plus, we figured all the natural Blue Ridge splendor Cashiers offered would help us tire out our 10-year-old triplet sons, whose fatigue we must cultivate for any trip to be a success.

The hype about nature's pre-eminence in Cashiers turned out to be true, though not in the way we expected.

Not mentioned in most of the tourism info is that the Cashiers area gets more than 80 inches of precipitation a year, most of it, seemingly, during our recent three-night stay. (Lexington, for contrast, receives half that.)

This made our visit the outdoor equivalent of going to a Broadway show to see the actor who's playing in the leading role, only to find the understudy has taken over for the night. We lamented this at first, but as it turned out, Cashiers offers enough to make ours a satisfying stay, even with the area's star attraction, the outdoors, largely unavailable.

It helped that we stayed in a gorgeous 1,400-square-foot cabin.

Maintained by Lonesome Valley, an 800-acre planned community just outside of town, the $325-per-night cabins are mostly used for property owners (which is why Lonesome Valley doesn't advertise them), though anyone can rent them and they offer full kitchen, two bedrooms, bathrooms, fireplace and laundry room.

The Lonesome Valley management would probably like it if you also asked to tour the property (totally worth it) and perhaps purchased one of their $1 million-plus homes. (You'll have to let me know.)

The cabin was perhaps the highlight of our stay. Surrounded by greenery, we found ourselves surprisingly content to spend hours inside or on the deck, transitioning from reading to screens (TV or video games) to naps and back.

For journalistic purposes, my wife Gabrielle spent part of one wet afternoon conducting a vigorous review of the massage program at Canyon Spa, where she received the $115 Farmhouse Massage that included something described as "farm fresh seasonal sealant."

This sounded to me a little like something you'd find between the logs in the renovated caretaker's cottage where the spa is housed. Gabrielle said it was a kind of oil that softened the skin. She returned with a contented smile and said, "I'm just so relaxed, I feel a little floaty."

The restless rest of us wanted to explore Cashiers proper, which didn't take long as the town is mostly a few shops and restaurants surrounding the intersection of U.S. 64 and North Carolina 107.

At about 3,500 feet, Cashiers lies just a few miles from the Eastern Continental Divide. Because of its elevation, the area had barely been explored by settlers of European descent until the 1800s. According to the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce, the town's permanent population is about 2,500, but in summer and fall, the population swells to as much as 25,000. One draw is the climate: the average daytime high in August is 78.

Cornucopia is a popular and charming restaurant that is partly housed in a building that's been a school, tack shop and post office among other incarnations, since it was built in the 1890s. Cornucopia offers a downhome-foodie menu which included highlights like cheddar biscuits and the lobster fries (lobster mixed with French fries along with pimento béarnaise). The children enjoyed their first sips of cheer wine, a North Carolina creation that tastes a little like Ale 8 One infused with grenadine.

People we met in Cashiers were friendly, including one longtime resident who told us, "I never lock my doors. I figure if someone wants to get in, better that they just walk in than break glass."

Another said, "I have a house key, but I don't know where it is; I never use it." We used our keys at the cabin, though I felt both secure and paranoid at the idea that providing me with a key amounted to humoring the tourist.

After nearly 48 hours indoors, we ventured out, rain or no rain. I'd had aspirations of hiking attractions like Whiteside Mountain in the Nantahala National Forest, or nearby Whitewater Falls, which, at 411 feet, is higher than Niagara Falls. Instead we just found an unmarked trail in the woods close to our cabin and it was gorgeous, lush and almost primeval in spots. We laughed, leaping over roots and intermittently shielded by overhanging branches of old growth rhododendron until the rain picked up again and forced another retreat.

A more upscale restaurant than Cornucopia, Canyon Kitchen is part of the Lonesome Valley spread, and its parking lot, on the night of our visit, looked like a Lexus family reunion. Canyon Kitchen gets high marks from TripAdvisor (4.5 stars out of 5 in 58 reviews) and OpenTable (4.7 in 126), and its chef, John Fleer, just got a loving write-up in Garden & Gun. The menu features fresh produce from local gardens, include one right behind the beautiful farmhouse-style building.

We could overhear the patrons at the tables around us bragging on the food to their servers. We didn't feel similarly moved, but it hardly mattered. The real sensory treat of this place was out the open back doors. The rain had slowed and we let the kids drop their forks and dash outside, skipping through the grass and inlaid rocks.

Behind them, we could see the bare raw face of mountains with names like Cow Rock and Laurel Knob, which has the largest granite rock face this side of the Mississippi. Framed by mist, they looked huge and haunting and forever.

Someone told us that on a clear day, we might see rock climbers risking their lives to touch the mountains that bring people to Cashiers. We didn't get that close, but I was content to look at these mountains, millions of years in the making, grateful, even to feel small and fleeting, like the streams that trickled down the rocks' craggy faces, making mini-waterfalls that would disappear with the rain.