It's not often I think of my Granny Trudy, my grandmother on Daddy's side of the family. After all, she died more than 40 years ago. But when I happen upon a garden as pretty and thriving as hers once was, I can't help but remember her and her love for colors and flowers.
In a tiny swath of North Carolina's ribbon of the Smoky Mountains, I found a wonderful replica of Granny's garden, one crammed with a kaleidoscopic patchwork of brightly hued zinnias and dahlias, clumps of black-eyed Susan, and clusters of butter-and-eggs, a sweetly-scented flower that is a natural magnet for jewel-toned butterflies and bumblebees.
This luxuriant garden of flowers, herbs and vegetables is at The Swag, a mountaintop inn just outside of Waynesville. The Swag is one of those special places that change your mindset so that you can truly leave the rest of the world in your rearview mirror and not think of it even once.
The Swag, high atop Hemphill Mountain, shares a common border with Great Smoky Mountains National Park right at the historic Cataloochee Divide, a ridge that runs along the verge of the Smokies and frames Cataloochee Valley. Step outside of the front door of the inn, and there's the park in all its verdant glory. And its elevation teeters right on the sky-high 5,000-foot mark, which allows the most dramatic and spectacular see-to-forever views imaginable of the Smokies and beyond.
An endless melange of nature trails, tailored for both the serious and unserious hiker, thread not only through the inn's 250 acres but also the park. The myriad hiking opportunities are part of the magical draw of The Swag, for here is a portmanteau of towering forests lush with rhododendron and fern, pastures of sweet grass where elk and deer feed, and flower-filled meadows reminiscent of a fairy tale.
Add into the mix the incredible quietness punctuated only by the wing-flutter of dozens of hummingbirds that have taken up residence around the inn, and you have the perfect antidote for type-A personalities and modern-day stress.
This mountaintop hideaway is where log cabin meets luxury, where ritzy meets rustic, and where the walls are lined with too many hospitality and tourism awards to list.
The Swag - its name comes from the word meaning a dip between two mountains - is built of stone and hand-hewn logs, mostly from the hardwood of tulip poplar trees. The main lodge contains the dining room, library and a few guest suites and is partly built from sturdy, old timbers from the now long-gone Lonesome Valley Primitive Baptist Church in Tennessee. The Swag's then-owners Dan and Deener Matthews bought the wood from the church after it was dismantled, plus wood from other log buildings scattered across North Carolina and Tennessee, to build the inn with its heavenly views.
The Matthewses, a memorable and charismatic couple, in 1969 first bought the property that was once a potato farm. They soon built a second home on the mountainside - they were living in New York City where Dan was rector of the Trinity Church on Wall Street - but not before building a road that wends steeply for 2 1/2 miles from the Cataloochee Valley far below to the near top of the mountain.
The Matthewses first opened The Swag in 1982 and ran it until 2018. That's when Annie and David Colquitt of Knoxville, Tenn., who had honeymooned there several years earlier and fallen in love with its beauty and tranquility, bought it from the Matthewses.
Just 14 suites, cabins and cottages make up the inn, all with wood-burning fireplaces but no televisions. The last thing anyone would want in a place so tranquil and with so much to do outdoors is to be distracted by electronic gizmos. Before you ask, wireless internet is available in case you simply can't become unglued from your phone.
Each room is different from another, but the commonality is Appalachian woodwork and crafts combined with touches that include comfortable hand-stitched quilts, perhaps a terrace or an outdoor shower, and stunning views. And at check-in, you select a handcrafted walking stick that is personalized just for you. At the end of your stay, it's yours to keep.
The Swag is all-inclusive (except for wine and beer), and a typical day begins with a big ol' country breakfast buffet complete with an omelet station. Lunch is brownbag and is ready before you take off hiking or for a picnic. Inside of the bag of goodies is the Swag Bar, the exceptionally delicious and popular homemade concoction of chocolate, peanut butter and cornflakes. Hors d'oeuvres are served just before dinner that might include vegetables from the garden paired with delicacies such as local trout or beef. During the day, feel free to graze on ice cream, apples, trail mix or hiking bars.
There are myriad things to do at this place where the forests touch the sky, most notably the unreal hiking and exploring the National Park over lands that were once the happy hunting grounds of the Cherokee. But the inn, throughout its open season, also hosts special events and programs that give a stay here extra oomph, among them:
- Bear hikes led by bear expert Dr. Michael Pelton from the University of Tennessee and his wife, Tamra Willis (Aug. 27-31 and Nov. 24-30).
- Birding hikes led by Dr. Bob Collier, an expert birder from Tennessee (June 30-July 5, Sept. 1-6 and Oct. 13-18).
- Cooking schools led by The Swag's Executive Chef Jake Schmidt (Aug. 6-7 and Sept. 30-Oct. 1).
- Nature walks led by Joel and Kathy Zachry, authors of "Bears We've Met" and instructors and directors of the University of Tennessee/National Park Service Smoky Mountain Field School (June 9-14, Sept. 8-13 and Oct. 20-25).
- Waynesville, N.C., native Steven Reinhold, owner of Appalachian Outdoor Company, will also lead nature walks (June 15-19, Oct. 25-29 and Nov. 1-3).
- Painting and printmaking led by artist and hiker Gay Bryant (Nov. 10-17).
- Photography lessons and hikes led by renowned outdoor adventure photographer Steve Yocom (Sept. 16-20, Oct. 1-7 and Nov. 17-24).
- "Hikes & Hollers" walks in the woods with Doug Peters (June 20-23, Sept. 22-29 and Nov. 3-10).
- Storytelling and hikes with master storyteller Donald Davis, a guest host with NPR's "Good Evening" (Oct. 7-13).
- Wildflower Walks led by Master Naturalist Esther Blakely of Cataloochee Valley Tours, a certified interpretative presenter for the national park (July 14-19 and Aug. 11-16).