By Roberta B. Turner

Why in the world would a South Florida resident want to leave our beautiful region to vacation in the mountains of North Carolina during the summer like so many do?  We have a beautiful ocean, swimming pools galore, boating, fishing, water skiing, diving, exciting bars and restaurants, great food, and a population minus all our winter visitors.

In a word, heat!  Sure, you can argue for a change of scenery, but the bottom line is that the summers in the Deep South are hot, unless you seek the thin, cool airs of the mountains.  And, the closest cool mountains are in North Carolina in places like the Highlands, Cashiers, Blowing Rock and Boone.  What these towns have in common are quaint stores, good restaurants, nice people, and most of all cool summer days and nights.

I guess you could make the “glass half empty” argument and lament the long drive or inconvenient flights, the winding roads, summer traffic, and packed attractions.  But other facts belie that approach.

But don’t restrict your visit to North Carolina’s beautiful mountains to only the summer.  The fall is spectacular with its explosion of color and changing of the leaves. Spring is incredible too, with the wildflowers all in bloom and, of course, those people who enjoy skiing can enjoy winters there too.

If you are driving rather than flying, there are ways to make the trip quite enjoyable rather than long and boring.  One way is to stop along the way in some of America’s great towns and cities.  One favorite is Savannah, Georgia.  Savannah provides an insight into the old south and offers fabulous food like shrimp and grits, and wonderful hotels and bed and breakfast accommodations.   Some of the most recommended to consider are The Bohemian Hotel, The Gastonian and Planters Inn.   All three are very different.  The Bohemian Hotel is a new hotel located directly on the river. It is part of the Kessler Collection which is a new boutique concept managed by Marriott.  It is modern, chic and very trendy.  The Gastonian is a luxury bed and breakfast and is located in the Historic District.  Each room is unique and the grounds are very intimate and interesting.  Planters Inn is located on River Street and is in the hub of activity.  This Inn has comfortable rooms, a small lobby and no restaurant.  However, it is adjacent to The Olde Pink House, a popular Savannah restaurant.

And you won’t need your car to get around.  The city offers bicycle taxis powered by young men and women who attend some of the local colleges and universities.  The fares are very reasonable and some only ask for a tip, if you choose to give one.

A further option is to visit more than one venue in the higher elevations.  If you are interested in breaking up the trip from Savannah to Blowing Rock, stop at the iconic Old Edwards Inn in Highlands, North Carolina.  There are plenty of shops and restaurants to make your stay interesting, and the Old Edwards Inn is worth exploring.  It features a variety of accommodations, a great spa, fitness center, expansive swimming pool area, delicious dining options, and a wine garden.  As the name implies, it is higher up and the weather is cooler.

But there’s a lot to gain by being up near the top of the mountains.  There is certainly something to be said for majestic, tall, green mountains that calm the nerves and relieve the stress.  The days are warm in the sun and cooler in the shade, requiring a light jacket or sweater.  The nights are delightful, especially if you have a porch or terrace with a wood or gas infused fireplace.  Even the children stay up late to enjoy this change of pace that gets families not only to be together but to talk to each other for hours at a time regardless of their ages.

In the Blowing Rock and Boone area of North Carolina there are many places to stay, from traditional Holiday Inns and Marriott’s to unique and special bed and breakfasts, and to resorts like Chetola Lodge.  Chetola is located minutes outside the City of Blowing Rock.  It is has a beautiful lake, and small buildings scattered throughout the 87-acre property.  The word ”Chetola” is Cherokee and means “Haven of Rest”.  There are paddle boats, kayaks, a spa, and various activities.  The resort is also an Orvis endorsed Fly Fishing Lodge.

One of the most popular options for families is vacation rentals.  The mountain area is full of beautiful homes to rent and many can be rented for a few nights, a week, and a month or longer.  There are many companies that specialize in vacation rentals and there is everything from log cabins to beautiful luxury homes available.  There are many choices and the price range can vary immensely, so it is important to spend time researching what works best for you and your family.

We recently selected a mountain-top home with a wrap-around porch, spectacular views, and a waterfall and front yard, which was named Diamond Creek Lodge.  The home was relatively new and the mountain it was built on had lush vegetation, so you would see deer roaming and rabbits hopping.  This home was built for privacy and you feel you are the only home on the mountain when you arrive.  There is a comfortable living and dining room area on the main floor along with the kitchen and master bedroom.   Upstairs there were two bedrooms, two baths and an open loft.  Downstairs was a complete suite with two bedrooms, a seating area, a pool table and wet bar.  There was a comfortable seating area and a gas fireplace on the front porch, which is where we gathered in the early morning and late into the night.  We experienced 50 to 60 degree weather during these hours and used the fireplace to keep warm.   During the day, there was no humidity and the temperatures were in the low 70’s.

The area has two main attractions, Blowing Rock and Grandfather Mountain.

Blowing Rock is an immense cliff 4000 feet above sea level, overhanging John River Gorge 3000 feet below.  The views from the attraction are simply majestic and no words can adequately describe the natural beauty of the scenery. Surprisingly this attraction is not crowded and you can enjoy spending time in the gardens or walking the nature trails, and there is a picnic area for those who want to enjoy some time there.  Many people enjoy climbing on the rocks but it is not for the faint of heart.

Grandfather Mountain is the most popular attraction, and if you don’t arrive early you are in for a very long wait to get into the park.  Local residents say it is always like this.    Near the entrance way there is a camp ground scattered with everything from trailers to tents and it is like a city onto itself.  The state park is home to walking and hiking trails, a nature museum, wildlife habitats and perhaps the most sought-after Mile High Swinging Bridge.  A true landmark of a pioneering spirit, the Mile High Swinging Bridge is an engineering masterpiece that welcomes visitors to admire 360-degree panoramic views from Grandfather Mountain. The bridge has been in place since 1952.   Having been on the Swinging Bridge, I can tell you the views are magnificent but the experience is a bit frightening.  Many people try to cross and simply turn around after a few feet when they experience the depth of the drop beneath the bridge.

For those seeking activity during the summer without “glistening”, the mountains offer zip lining for all sizes and ages directed by experienced guides; whitewater rafting, again supervised by an experienced crew; trout fishing which, while not as exciting as pulling in a marlin, requires a different skill level; challenging mountain-side golf courses; “panning” for gems at a local mine; or just reading a book while enjoying the soft, cool mountain breezes.  You can also wander around the nearby cozy towns and select some really unique souvenirs.

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