Life on the Ridge

Mountain Grandeur & Golf in Grandfather’s Shadow

written by CARL DANBURY | photos courtesy of LINVILLE RIDGE; THE ESEEOLA LODGE; CARL DANBURY

Golf - Hole 16 tlb_053015_3011 - LowWhen you think of seasonal escapes, Avery County, N.C., might not leap to mind. It’s a four-and-a-half hour drive from Atlanta’s Northside, located within a good holler from the Tennessee border and Boone, N.C. The entire county is home to about 18,000 residents. During the winter months, Beech and Sugar Mountains are inundated with downhill skiers, snowboarders and tubers while the town of Banner Elk is abuzz with après-ski activities and visitors swelling overnight and longterm accommodations. Just 9 miles south, the town of Linville barely notices and benefits little from the crowded slopes. When the calendar flips to the merry month of May, however, the delectable hamlet in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain State Park is a hub for outdoor enthusiasts, relaxation seekers and golfing purists.

A friend once suggested that Linville has “two stop lights and four world-class golf courses.” The mountain oasis also is home to The Eseeola Lodge at Linville Golf Club, which affords guests the opportunity to play one of those four while the welcoming staff spoils them with unfettered hospitality before, during and after their round.
A quick drive away is Linville Ridge Country Club, a mountain community paradise that summons vacation-home buyers and club members for an enjoyable summer mountain season. The community and club, founded in the early ’80s by Naples, Fla. developer Raymond Lutgert and his son Scott of the Lutgert Companies, is built upon a 1,800-acre site high atop Flattop Mountain and squarely stares at Grandfather Mountain’s frown. The unique locale is revered for its gorgeous, challenging golf course with world-class views and extraordinary home sites.

I visited the area at the height of leaf season in mid-October, just a few weeks before both Eseeola and Linville Ridge shut down for the winter. My mountain sojourn was a bit shorter than I would have liked, but there was little question that both are perfect for either temporary or seasonal escapes.

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Easy Eseeola
First opened in 1892, The Eseeola Lodge will open the 2016 season May 20. As it was when professor William James of Harvard University visited in 1891, Eseeola has managed to maintain its 19th-century charms while fast-paced, modern superficiality has enflamed nearly everything else.

“At last, I have struck it rich here in North Carolina and am in the most peculiar and one of the most poetic places I have ever been in,” James wrote. “Strange to say, it is on the premises of a land speculation and would-be boom. A tract of 25 square miles of wilderness, 3,860 feet above sea level at its lowest part, has been bought, between 30 and 40 miles of the most admirable alpine, evenly graded, zigzagging roads in various directions from the center, which is a smallish cleared plateau; and exquisite little hotel built, nine cottages round about it, and that is all. Not a loafer, not a fly, not a blot upon the scene. The serpent has not yet made his appearance in this Eden, around which stands the hills covered with primeval forest of the most beautiful description, filled with rhododendrons, laurels and azaleas, which, through the month of July, must make it ablaze with glory.”

Initially, Linville speculators were fixated on nearby mica mining opportunities. The leader of the effort was Hugh MacRae, a resident of Wilmington, N.C., and graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After a horseback ride to the area during which he became completely enamored, he asked his well-heeled father for the funds to purchase nearly 16,000 acres encompassing Grandfather Mountain, parts of Sugar Mountain, Grandmother Mountain and Flattop Mountain.

MacRae built the Yonahlossee Road from Linville across the eastern slope of Grandfather Mountain to Blowing Rock, opening the area to more efficient transport. He also opened a stagecoach line on the 20-mile scenic route that today is known as U.S. Route 221. He founded Linville Improvement Company and began construction on The Eseeola Lodge.
Linville pullquote 1Wilmington architect Henry Bacon, best known as the architect of the Lincoln Memorial, played a large role in the use of American chestnut and Linville was the beneficiary. Many of the town’s buildings and cottages were covered with chestnut bark shingles, providing the tone and allure of the resort town. Thick chestnut bark shingles cover much of the exterior of The Eseeola Lodge, which remains one of the best examples of its use. The simple bark-covered building has served as the main inn for visitors since a fire destroyed the original Eseeola Inn in 1936.
Although 14 golf holes had been built from 1895 to 1900, the company contracted Donald Ross to design and build a new course in 1924. The design seamlessly suited the topography and two years later, the course was completed using mule and pan grading to carve its spectacular mountain setting. The original 14 were abandoned for use, but with the addition of Ross’ 18-hole treasure, Linville Golf Club and the sport’s emerging popularity, in part because of Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam in 1930, the destination became a highly sought vacation spot. Jones often played at Linville during visits to the area. In addition to golf, visitors enjoyed fishing, bridge, tennis and fabulous social events.
The Legacy Continues

After World War II, the members and property owners purchased The Eseeola Lodge and the club under the name Linville Resorts Inc. The Eseeola Spa, opened in 2002, properly pampers patrons while the nearby fitness center and recently added Olympic-sized, salt-water pool provides guests with workout opportunities. Har-Tru tennis courts are located near the golf clubhouse, and tennis professional Bill Zopp conducts daily clinics, lessons and five weeks of tennis camps each summer. Outdoor programs director Alan Burchell arranges fly-fishing, canoeing, kayaking and sporting clays for members and guests. He can also point you to the best locales for walking and hiking nearby or on the many trails at Grandfather Mountain.

While those active pursuits are worthy pastimes, if golf is your chosen activity, Linville Golf Club is not to be missed. Golf packages are available Sunday through Wednesday evenings (May 25 through June 30 and Aug. 24 through Oct. 15). All golf packages include lodging, breakfast and dinner, a resort service charge and one round of golf per day with a cart.

The course can be very challenging because of Ross’ trademark small, fast greens, but five sets of tees for men and two sets for ladies help golfers manage their threshold for painful approach shots. While golfers must cross the valley creek 14 times during their round, there are no forced carries at Linville Golf Club. The challenge comes from elevation changes, sloping fairways and the immense scenery. One of my favorites is the view from the 11th tee box, a 427-yard, downhill par-four with a glorious view of Grandfather Mountain. As I am inclined to believe, short-yardage par fours are the key to a great golf design, and Ross provides three examples at Linville: No. 7, No. 10 and No. 16. Each measures less than 340 yards from the blue tees, yet is crazy good. The course’s signature hole is the 449-yard par-4 third hole, a challenge for even the best low handicapper.

Director of Golf Tom Dale, whose father Burl was the head pro at Linville for almost 25 years, commented that the course isn’t the longest, nor the most difficult, but it is the most enjoyable to play.

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Warm Envrions
Although there is a certain element of genuine rusticity at Eseeola, the 24 rooms and suites, as well as the cottage, are flawlessly and comfortably decorated, quiet and equipped with private baths and porches. The few number of overnight accommodations means attentive personal service is guaranteed, whether from a longtime staff member or one of the many seasonal employees. While few of us have rich uncles with grand estates to visit, Eseeola exudes that feeling of trusted allegiance to all that stay in the lodge.

Part of the allure is the modified American plan, still used by some of the finest resorts. The plan includes breakfast and dinner each day, and a 15-percent service charge and sales tax. The lavish breakfast provides a leisurely beginning to each day and dinners under the skilled hands of Executive Chef Patrick Maisonhaute and his fabulous staff simply are not to be missed. Maisonhaute’s signature dishes include boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin from his native France, and grilled local mountain rainbow trout. A tried-and-true seafood buffet is offered every Thursday evening and comes highly recommended. Sommelier and Maître d’ Brandon Wilson is passionate about the marriage of food, wine and spirits, and has compiled a fine list for Eseeola’s members and guests, including a dozen wines-by-the-glass selections.

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The Ridge to Arcadia 
Tucked nearby is Linville Ridge Country Club, a remarkable mountaintop setting. The million dollar views aside, the execution of vision combined with attention to detail by the staff is essential for a seasonal venue, particularly one catering to second-home owners or guests that primarily winter in Florida, or live nearby in the Carolinas. The highly awarded golf club is the focal point of the community, and reaching 4,945 feet above sea level on hole 13, it is recognized as the highest in elevation for golf courses located east of the Mississippi River. Originally designed by George Cobb and then redesigned in 2007 by Bobby Weed, a former apprentice with Pete Dye, Linville Ridge is very playable in part due to Weed’s tweaks.
linville pullquote 2Members and guests have witnessed these improvements aimed to better accommodate all levels of golfers. The bunker redevelopment lessens the severity of the faces and cuts down the use of fescue grasses outlining them, helping to ease the burden on mid- to high-handicappers. With five sets of tees for men and three for ladies, ranging from 4,788 to 7,030 yards, golfers of all levels can enjoy the layout’s incredible vistas and undulating terrain. The layout is fair and the course conditioning is second to none. Fourteen holes have long-range views of the valley, while 11 of them offer gracious views of Grandfather Mountain. The elevation of the 16th begins at 4,850 feet at the tee box and settles at 4,740 feet at the green complex. The 110 feet of elevation change is equivalent to an 11-story building. Imagine playing a round of golf on a sunny July afternoon with temperatures in the mid-70s? Few other courses in the Southeast can mirror that!

In addition to golf, the club also offers activities such as tennis (eight Har-Tru courts), two croquet lawns, bocce ball, hiking trails, a beautiful outdoor swimming pool, the Bark Park for dogs and an unequalled mountaintop fitness center with twice-weekly yoga offered. All kinds of card games are enjoyed by members, as is the ability to join a photography, book and art club during the season. Organized weekday activities for children and grandchildren of members are available via Camp Linville Ridge, for children ages 5 to 15.

During the past 35 years, Linville Ridge has made constant improvements to its amenities, including five dining options, the club, fitness center and a marvelous terrace that offers a more formal venue for corporate gatherings and traditional club-style weddings. The most popular dining and activity venue is the Belvedere, a spacious indoor/outdoor poolside restaurant and pavilion with two native stone fireplaces. Casually elegant, the innovative dining menu includes steaks, seafood, wood-fired pizzas and delicious sides.

The Sandtrap Clubhouse, which also is home to the golf shop and locker rooms, offers three dining options. The SandTrap is a casual deli counter providing light breakfast, lunch fare, short-order selections, espresso drinks and smoothies. The Elevation Pub is the hub of social activity and provides a comfortable atmosphere for dining, cocktails and entertainment. The Sandwedge is a full-service, casual restaurant. Under the direction of Executive Chef Bernhard Smit, breakfast, lunch and dinner offerings are available seven days a week, during season, for members and guests.

Wine enthusiasts benefit greatly from the relationships established by certified sommelier Adam Shirah, the food and beverage director at Linville Ridge. He procures an array of vintages for members to accompany the fine cuisine offered. Shirah also extends invitations to winemakers and their representatives to the club for informative wine tastings, social gatherings and intimate wine dinners. Special events such as the Welcome Back Gala, Rustic Spit Roast and the Independence Day Dinner, along with Smit’s cooking demonstrations, keep the members engaged with all things culinary.

Upon sampling the lifestyle atop Flattop Mountain and Linville Ridge, the experience might leave you wanting little else. The low density of the 360 homesites stretched over 1,800-plus acres is remarkable considering the community has 20 designated neighborhoods, and includes an intriguing mix of magnificent single-family estates, mountain cottages, townhomes and condos. For prospective buyers, this means a range of price options is available, and coupled with the availability of monthly home rentals and temporary club memberships during the season, future buyers can experience the lifestyle before they fully commit to buying property here.

The newest sale offerings are located in a wooded section of the community but provide breathtaking views of Grandfather Mountain and the Blue Ridge range. Each of the 20 cottages at Cranberry Cove is built at an average elevation of 4,000 feet and situated on a minimum of one-acre homesite. Floor plans include three- and four-bedroom cottages, both in one- or two-story designs with bountiful home amenities and conveniently located near the community entrance on Highway 184. Other re-sale properties are available, as are several lots via Premier Sotheby’s International Realty in Linville.

While the fall scenery here is something to behold, I look forward to a Linville visit this summer. The elevation provides a fanciful escape from the summer heat, and the lush greenery and eye-popping blooms are what captivated those who first settled the area. Summer allows the ability to enjoy all aspects of what the area offers (except for winter sports, of course), including warm days and cool nights. Who couldn’t enjoy a long-range mountain sunset, a glass of fine wine and a crackling fire as the sun disappears over the horizon? For a few days in October, it was nearly therapeutic, for an entire month in the summer, it very well might be salubrious.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
eseeola.com
linvilleridge.com

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