Blowing Rock, North Carolina

Years ago, travelers from my neck of the woods in the Southeastern United States would head to the mountains of North Carolina for a summer respite. That was before air conditioning. That was before SUVs. That was before a time when middle-class America would fly to the Caribbean or crowd the beaches and commercialized swamplands of Florida.

Well before all of this, people would go to the hills of the Tar Heel state to escape the heat and humidity so that they could experience cool air -- gazing out at nature’s wide expanses while listening to dulcimers and dining on apple-spiced trout. This is Western North Carolina also known as High Country. This part of the state is home to communities nestled in these gorgeous mountains that bear names such as Waynesville, Dillsboro, Banner Elk and Hot Springs.

As I climbed the narrow winding roads leading into these cozy towns, I felt a true sense of escape. Sure I find a sense of serenity when I’m away from the daily grind, but this getaway felt special. I could relocate here if given the opportunity. Now that communication is possible from anywhere, why not make this home? I bet scores of people have made the leap to escape the big city’s traffic, strip malls and noise. Certainly there is a bit more weather here – especially in the winter, but that’s the charm of North Carolina mountain life.

As my Toyota ascended and descended the High Country hills, I couldn't help but notice how the Broyhill family has been driving the modern economic engine in these parts. Broyhill, the furniture manufacturer that has become familiar to millions of consumers the world over, is based in Lenoir, a hamlet located in the Blue Ridge foothills. The Broyhill name seems to be plastered throughout Lenoir and beyond with plants, corporate offices and even schools named after the legendary company. I wondered how business has been for Broyhill in this tough economic climate as this business has been outsourcing its work overseas. When going into these towns, it doesn’t take long for one to see that furniture creation and mass production is embedded in the steep hills along with pottery making, drawing, painting and writing.

Western North Carolina is home to some of the world's greatest talent. I discovered this fact when visiting the town of Blowing Rock, where famed author Tom Robbins was born. Even though he spent much of his life in the Northwestern United States, Robbins' literary roots can be traced back to Blowing Rock, population 1500 in the off season and 20,000 in the peak summer months. Beyond claiming Mr. Robbins as its native son, Blowing Rock is home to a number of wealthy retirees and seasonal vacationers who support the seemingly endless array of talent that sets this town apart from its neighbors and similar mountain getaways like say, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which is OK if you like “tchotchkes” and popular entertainment.

Blowing Rock is a destination unto itself. It features eclectic artists, musicians and restaurateurs. All right, the town center does have its share of touristy offerings, pricey children’s apparel and Kilwin’s fudge, but there is so much more to it.

In its compact yet bustling downtown, Blowing Rock offers world-class restaurants including Glidewell's, the Speckled Trout and the standout, Crippen's Country Inn and Restaurant. Crippen's is the brainchild of Jimmy Crippen, a former North Miami boy and his longtime business partner, Chef James Welch. I was quickly greeted by Jimmy the moment I set foot on the front porch of the historic structure that houses his restaurant. With bountiful energy and a firm handshake, Jimmy was eager to tour me around the facility.

Crippen's is in a historic 1931 structure

"This house was established in 1931," Jimmy announced, as he whisked me by the stocked-bar and lounge area which was probably the house's living room. "C'mon up this way," Jimmy said, while motioning me to come up to the second floor. "Visitors can check in for the night in these renovated rooms." Crippen’s Country Inn has elegant rooms which are spacious, comfortable and beautifully appointed.

"I had to put these TVs in for the guys," Jimmy quipped. "They begged me to put them in."

The TVs, which are affixed to the wall on posts which give guests perfect views from many corners of the room. I assumed that most of the visitors are from the South and would naturally need to see their Southeastern Conference football games in the fall.

“We kept as much of the original structure as we could,” Jimmy pointed out as we came down the stairs. “But as upgrades were made, workers found bits and pieces of dishes near the front porch.”

Next up was the kitchen where Crippen’s chef and staff were working with locally grown organic produce and meats. Jimmy quickly ushered me to the dining area in the back where I dined for the next 90 minutes. As I browsed their extensive menu, I was treated to the sounds of the Beatles, Elton John and Billy Joel from the evening's entertainment-a gifted local keyboardist.

The Crippen’s menu is large and diverse. From Spicy North Carolina Tomato Bisque, Corn Fried N.C. Oyster Nachos to Horseradish Crusted Oven Roasted Maine Salmon, Crippen’s delivers choices that I never knew existed. The most unforgettable offering here is the “Chocolate Salad.” The “Chocolate Salad” is a mixture of mesclun baby greens with fresh raspberries, goat cheese, Reggiano Parmesan cheese, toasted almonds, shaved chocolate and black pepper-Dijon vinaigrette. It would be an understatement to say that this salad packs a punch. If shaved chocolate is not your thing, try the Grilled Escarole or Portobello Tempura salads.

Appetizers are plentiful in this five-star restaurant. The “North Carolina Shrimp Martini” contains shrimp in vodka and dry vermouth with mushrooms, cucumber, lemon and crispy fried tortillas. Another amazing appetizer is the Pan Seared Maine Sea Scallop Sandwich which has arugula, tomato and brown butter vinaigrette.

If the choices are dizzying, do not fear. Every server in this establishment steers you in the right direction. Add in the mellow atmosphere and being in the North Carolina Mountains, you know that you’re in heaven on earth. When it came to my entrée selection, my waitress narrowed it down for me: the Award Winning Pecan Crusted Oven Roasted Alaskan Halibut. The delectable dish comes with wilted organic arugula, goat cheese, roasted red pepper coulis and tomato balsamic vinaigrette. The wine pairing? Tiamo Pinot Grigio 2006 white wine. This crisp fruity selection went well with the moist fish.

With the salad, entrée and complimentary foccaccia with white bean spread and hot chili dipping sauce, I managed to get dessert into the visit: Peanut Butter Pie. Even though cream cheese is in the mix, each bite is just right, not tangy as I expected.

If you’re adventurous, Crippen’s offers Everglades Frog Legs Tempura with Sliced Cucumbers and Soy-Ginger Vinaigrette and another rare treat: 7 ounce Imported Japanese Kobe steaks.

Incredible accommodations

Chetola Resort is home to first-class accommodations

Aside from Crippen's Country Inn, there are a number of places to stay in Blowing Rock. The Hillwinds Inn, The Bed and Breakfast at Maple Lodge and Ridgeway Inn all offer personal service. If you're looking for an all-inclusive environment, Chetola Resort is the answer. This sprawling complex features an inn with 42 rooms and five suites that provides a view of the mountains and looks out over Chetola's well-maintained grounds and lake. Luxurious and reasonably-priced one, two and three bedroom condominiums are also available. These well-preserved condos come complete with ready-to-stock kitchens that feature a stove, microwave and dishwasher. With nearby grocery stores such as Food Lion, it's easy to have plenty of meals "at home."

Chetola Resort is chock full of amenities and activities. Their indoor pool and hot tub is conveniently-located in the lodge building. Spacious locker rooms make the visit even more convenient. With the addition of a new spa in autumn 2009, this resort will live up to its name even more. When checking into Chetola, visitors are supplied with a charge card that allows them to place resort activities and dining on their account. I love this concept because it leaves the cash supply worries behind.

With everything from swimming and tennis to water paddling, canoeing and fishing on the property, it's without a doubt that Chetola Resort is family and kid-friendly. Plenty of kids’ activities happen throughout the year in the lodge and on Lake Chetola. There's even a kids camp where children can play in a Daniel Boone-themed facility complete with a large stuffed bear and an overhead train that thrills kids of all ages. A computer, gumball machine and other activities keep the little ones busy for the day. The best part about Chetola Resort is that you never feel confined. The town of Blowing Rock is close by as well as numerous hiking trails. Whether you're single, traveling as a couple or with family, visitors can get their fill of exercise and be in touch with nature.

"A Boone" to North Carolina

Blowing Rock is full of arts and culture. On just about any given evening, one can catch a play or concert in the town's park.

If you think you've done it all, visit nearby Boone, home to Appalachian State University. Indeed the usual suspects including Pizza Hut and Burger King line the town's main thoroughfare, but there are many golden nuggets to experience. I stopped into the Boone Drug Company at King Street Fountain and Grill. This is where city boys like me get a chance to meet the locals. In my case, I had the pleasure to meet Austin, a young man who sidled up to me at the counter to show me his Nintendo DS' war games. His mother, who was working in the pharmacy, gently told Austin to keep to himself, but the enthusiastic lad would have none of that. I confess that it was a treat to have young Austin along for the lunch ride.

On the road, again

After leaving the Blowing Rock and Boone areas, it was time to head up to Highlands, North Carolina. I had visited here before, but on this visit, I had no idea what was in store for me.


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