Heavenly Views

A Familiar, Fond Memory Found at North Carolina’s The Swag

written by CARL DANBURY | photos courtesy of CARL DANBURY; THE SWAG COUNTRY INN

THE CHORAL DIRECTOR GOT IT RIGHT when he chose “Nearer, My God, to Thee” on an otherwise typical Sunday in late September.

“There let me see the sight,
An open heaven;
All that Thou sendest me,
In mercy given;
Angels to beckon me,
Nearer, my God, to Thee”

I left Cumming after church and drove straight up U.S. Route 23 North to Waynesville, North Carolina. Turning onto Hemphill Road, past Smoky Mountain Christmas Tree Farm and Trails End RV Park, which seemed like a suitable name, through Pot Leg Road to Tumbling Fork Road and Flossie Bell Lane. Finally, the entrance to The Swag Country Inn appeared on the left.

Summoning all of the nerve I possess, I began the steep ascent up Swag Road gaining 1,000 feet in altitude, 2.5 miles in distance and more than 50 switchbacks on a gravel road built in the summer of 1970. Harold Bryson, who did so with a dynamite crew, three bulldozers and 150 truckloads of gravel, called the road his best work ever.

Gasping with a huge sigh of relief to have reached the summit, I found a parking spot and climbed the hill to the historic Swag house. As I walked into the breezeway, or what is referred to as the Dog Trot, “the view” came into sight. Framing the photo-worthy scene was an American flag billowing in the soft afternoon breeze. The sky looked like a melting orange Creamsicle with puddles of clouds resting just beneath the mountain peaks. Haywood County, North Carolina has more mountain peaks rising above 6,000-plus feet than any other county east of the Rockies. The views from The Swag, positioned atop the Cataloochee Divide — the long ridge that forms one of the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — are extraordinary.

In this part of the Smokies, inspiring vistas may be commonplace, but few inns anywhere may surpass the overall experience provided by owner and innkeeper Deener Matthews, her seen but seldom-heard staff of well-doers and her husband Dan. Born 20 miles from The Swag in Canton, North Carolina, Dan later lived in New York and was, in fact, the rector of Trinity Church Wall Street in lower Manhattan on 9/11.

That pastoral presence is now felt at the Matthews’ property, originally born as the family’s second home. The living room is made from large tulip poplar logs that once were once part of the Lonesome Valley Primitive Baptist Church in Tennessee. The communal dining room, with its two long tables typical of the log cabin era, is built from rare chestnut wood. For a while, The Swag became a church retreat.

Then in 1982, when the World’s Fair came to Knoxville, Tennessee and hotel rooms there were scarce, the Matthews decided to open the inn to fairgoers. They nearly had a full house, and some guests elected to skip the fair. Perhaps it was the incredible 250-acre property that captivated them, but most likely, it was Deener’s demeanor and The Swag’s incomparable penchant for hospitality.

THE MATTHEWS’ WAY

The accommodations are luxurious, but not in an ostentatious way. That would be incongruous with the area, the setting and the Matthews’ way. The 14 rooms, cabins and suites feature original artwork, rustic antiques, woven rugs and handmade Holloway quilts. Guests can relax in a sunken brass tub, Jacuzzi, hot tub or enjoy a sauna in certain rooms.

The Matthews’ Suite, which I enjoyed comes complete with a brass tub, steam shower, sauna and a private natural stone outdoor shower, an indulgence I highly recommend. The cathedral-beamed living room with wet bar and stone fireplace combined for a peaceful afternoon of reading prior to a social hour and dinner.

Guests congregate at the Dog Trot for hors d’oeuvres and drinks each evening at 6 p.m. Since Haywood is a dry county, guests must supply their own alcoholic beverages during their stay, but soft drinks and tea are provided. Watching the sunset while enjoying the camaraderie of new friends was enjoyable, but dinner with Deener, Dan and several other guests offered a more meaningful exploration of why a stay at The Swag is so tempting.

During the evening’s meal, guests shared small portions of each course, and themselves. Several were returning guests, such as the husband and wife from Rome, Georgia, and the couple who drove up the mountain just for dinner. Seated across the table to my left was Gay Bryant, an artist and hiking enthusiast from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who discovered The Swag along with her husband David for the couple’s 30th anniversary.

Since then, Bryant has spent the past four seasons leading Swag guests for morning hikes, sharing her knowledge of wildflowers, plants and Smoky Mountain lore. In the afternoons, she helps guests explore their creative sides with entry-level instruction in watercolor painting and relief printmaking. Not only an accomplished artist, Bryant is one of 510 hikers to have become a member of the 900 Miler Club, which signifies the completion of all maintained trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“No matter how many times you hike a particular trail, it’s always a new experience,” Bryant said. “The seasons change, and even if you go the same way 50 times, you will see new and beautiful things. The seasons are different and the light is different. ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ is a beautiful analogy, because that’s how I feel.”

When Bryant paints, she tends to go to nature. “You really never get tired of it. The first year I went up there and became a special events leader, I hiked every single month during the season. I wanted to do it to see which was my favorite month of all. I found that it just does not matter,” she said with a laugh. “I love to hike in the winter because you can see so much more when there are no leaves on the trees.”

While there are plenty of very strenuous hikes near The Swag, Bryant said the Catoolochee Divide Trail that runs along the crest of the mountain range is really just a walk in the woods. “It undulates somewhat, but not until you get to Hemphill Bald is there a steep incline, and still it’s not bad. A lot of people who have never hiked before do that with me, and it’s just beautiful. If you have more time you can go as far as you want,” she offered.

The Swag has their own beautifully maintained nature trail and is every bit as scenic as the trails in the park, according to Bryant. It’s about a 2-mile walk with very interesting vegetation to see along the way.

“Those who want to really log their mileage typically go off by themselves, but those who like stories and Smoky Mountain lore will go with me,” Bryant said.

No matter if you hike, enjoy a spa treatment, have a romantic picnic for two on Gooseberry Knob or simply relax in the Chestnut Lodge library with a good book, Bryant confirmed there is a pleasant, magical vortex that captivates guests at The Swag.

“It’s such a different kind of a place. The whole staff including Deener and Dan, of course, make you feel like family. I see a lot of couples come, and one will want to stay in their room and read, and one will come on a walk. But, before another day or two is over, they are both walking together. There is such a good spirit that makes people want to join in, to feel at home and to be comfortable with what they’re doing up there,” Bryant said. “They’ve got guests that have come for years and years, that sit and tell stories, and there are some that feel they are part of the family after just one meal.”

Mealtime at The Swag has the feel of a Thanksgiving dinner with family members you rarely see, but those with whom you would like to visit more often. It’s as if a fond memory came into focus during your stay that has been missing from your daily routine, yet it is one that can be recaptured by ascending The Swag Road. Sounds heavenly, doesn’t it?

MAKE YOUR ESCAPE

The Swag’s 36th season runs from April 21 to Nov. 25 this year. Special events with The Swag’s hiking event leaders like Bryant are scheduled throughout the season. The very popular Walk in the Wildflowers with master naturalist and certified National Park interpreter Esther Blakely begins the schedule on April 23 through 28. Bob Collier, an avid birder and specialist in wildflowers, will be the hiking leader May 7 through 12. More than 1,500 species of wildflowers are found in the Smokies. Those who sign up for the two-night package will enjoy a hearty breakfast, picnic lunch, evening hors d’oeuvres and a four-course dinner daily, as well as receive a wildflower book, a commemorative hiking stick and a Swag backpack with a Swag picnic blanket.

Blakely also will lead two amazing excursions for wildlife enthusiasts on Sept. 7 and 21. These Sunset Elk Experiences will take guests to Cataloochee Valley during the rut, when the male bulls engage in a shrieking called bugling and enter into antler wrestling matches with other males for dominance. This early fall ritual and four-hour sunset sojourn is a unique experience offered to only four guests for each of the two days.

The Swag Cooking School, which typically sells out for each session, will be offered again this year from May 21 to 23, July 30 to Aug. 1 and Nov. 12 to 4. The Swag culinary team leads guests in four informative cooking lessons. Classes are informal and provide plenty of opportunity to interact with chefs. All equipment will be provided, including a complimentary Swag chef’s apron to take home with you. theswag.com