Set out on a fall foliage and wine tour through the Carolinas.
by Judy Garrison
It is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and to ask of himself, ‘Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?’ - North Carolina Poet Carl Sandburg
It sneaks up on you. Faint smells of smoldering wood, roadside stands dressed in apples and pumpkins, people strolling rather than bustling. It’s fall in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As the days get shorter, the mountains call. Travel north they say, far enough to see the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge, but not so far that you lose sight of Southern hospitality. I begin and end my adventure in Athens, Georgia, but no matter where you jump on board, you must jump on board.
I contend that interstates are for speed, not for travel. As I reach the Georgia/South Carolina line, my ride veers off I-85 to find its stride on Hwy. 11, the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Drive. A quick stop at the South Carolina Welcome Center for directions from sage traveler Chad Keith, and I leave with a mile-by-mile account of must-stops.
Hwy. 11 boasts more state parks with more views than time allows. The most impressive are Devil’s Fork, surrounded by Lake Jocassee, the state’s only cold water lake for smallmouth bass and trout fishing; Table Rock, serving as access point for the Foothills Trail; and Caesar’s Head, showcasing a 420- foot cascade waiting for hikers who reach the summit.
I explore historic Stumphouse Tunnel, 7 miles from Walhalla. Started in 1852 as part of the attempt to link Charleston to Knoxville by rail but never completed, the tunnel is a constant 50 degrees with 85 percent humidity. In the 1950s, Clemson University realized that this environment produced excellent blue cheese. There’s no cheese now, simply a dim 50-yard-passageway where men with pickaxes and black powder once labored for the progress of a nation.
Next, it’s off to Sassafras Mountain, the highest peak in South Carolina, where clear days give sight to neighboring Tennessee. The new deck overlook draws hikers and locals for a view of Pumpkintown, a stone’s throw down the mountain. Even though I was a stranger, the town fire chief offered an invitation to their recent Pumpkin Festival, complete with a parade, pumpkin carving and greased pole climb.
Back on the scenic highway, discover the fruits of the region at Victoria Valley Vineyard, the 47-acre love child of Les and Vicki Jayne that produces fine wines in a French chateau setting. They are open daily for wine tastings ($5 for choice of 6 wines). The terrace eatery offers a small selection of sandwiches, cheeses and wines. Don’t miss resident dog Bentley and Bentley’s Best or the Table Rock Red.
After sampling wine, head north toward Perdue’s Fruit Farm, taking note of Wildcat Wayside Falls on the left. Perdue’s is no average roadside stand, but an exercise in farm science for 81-year-old Dick Perdue. The tilted land has been producing yummy homemade applesauce and Betty’s Country Catsup for decades. Ask about his secret fresh-packed apples and peaches.
Continue up Hwy. 11, past Klickety Klack Covered Bridge, turn right on Tugaloo Road and discover The Red Horse Inn, a unique B&B perched on a hill offering breathtaking views. Settle into one of the six inn rooms or opt for complete seclusion in an estate cottage. Innkeepers Mary and Roger Wolters stock each fridge with tomorrow’s breakfast, so there’s no need to rise early.
For dinner enjoy a bit of Irish influence at the Hare and Hound Pub in downtown Landrum. Traditional fish and chips are only surpassed by chocolate and Coca-Cola bread pudding with bourbon sauce. If you’re too full to dive in there, get it to go. According to my server, “it travels well in the backseat.”
About 20 miles from Red Horse is Travelers Rest, once a pit stop for early wanderers and livestock drovers. If you’re in need of comfort food, The Cafe @ Williams Hardware serves family recipes using the freshest ingredients from local farmers. If you need to walk off the Reubens, homemade soups or shortcakes, the cafe is adjacent to the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a 13.5 mile walking/biking trail that connects Travelers Rest to Greenville.
There are hundreds of waterfalls in this region; most complement parks, but there are some you simply trip over heading to somewhere else. Pearson’s Falls (open daily, $5), located off Highway 176 N, is easy access thanks to Tryon Garden Club.
Crossing into North Carolina, you’re captivated by Tryon and Saluda, each framed by railroad tracks on the left and a string of antique and artisan shops on the right. Satisfy hunger at The Purple Onion in Saluda, an unexpected smart bistro dishing out savory pizzas and divine peanut butter pie.
Off Hwy. 26 in Flat Rock, North Carolina, is the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site (open daily, $5 tour). Known as the “people’s poet,” Sandburg and his wife, Lillian, fell in love with Connemara farm for its wilderness charm, but, more importantly, for its suitable land to raise goats. Take a tour of the house, the goat dairy or hike a trail while there.
Take the road less traveled toward Asheville — Route 9. Its snakelike passage offers spectacular views of the mountains without having to deal with swishing semis.
The best view of all can be found at Chimney Rock (Chimney Rock State Park, $15 fee), which hangs above Lake Lure of “Dirty Dancing” fame. For the hikers, enjoy the climb; for the rest of us, an elevator scoots up to 2,280 feet to reach this 315-foot monolith hanging over the valley. Its 75-mile view is the ultimate in leaf watching. The Opera Box, an additional short climb, is covered by a rock overhang, while Devil’s Head and Exclamation Point take you to the highest pinnacle.
Having caught my breath, I pushed on through Bat Cave and Hickory Nut Gap straight toward Asheville. My destination: Biltmore Estate. Call this country girl crazy, but I still get goose bumps at the sight of 25,000 books, a seven-story dining room with its own pipe organ and a back yard of more than 100,000 acres.
Touring the estate ($44-$69 depending on purchase/visit) can take as little or as much time as you need, and the suggested audio tour upgrade ($10) gives life to the Vanderbilts. Now a trimmed 8,000-plus acres, Biltmore’s grounds, The Conservatory and views of Pisgah National Forest are majestic.
Antler Village is home to the winery, with 10 tasting bars pouring 23 wines, and its newest exhibition, The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad, showcasing family heirlooms including photography by Edith Vanderbilt.
All restaurants at the estate, including the hearty Stable Cafe, focus on the farm-to-table concept. Menus change weekly to focus on the best of the estate’s harvest as well as that of local farmers. I lay my head at The Inn at Biltmore, for that’s as close as I’ll come to being an estate guest. Ask for room 442 for a spectacular view of the estate at sunrise.
Before you leave Asheville, indulge your sweet tooth at Short Street Cakes in the trendy west area. Baker/Owner Jodi Rhoden celebrates the honored traditions of Southern bakers by using fresh, local ingredients such as apples and sweet potatoes. “Most bakers are formally trained. I bake home style, a reflection of growing up in Marietta, Georgia,” she explains. Her most important ingredient is love, and her favorite cake as a child was Strawberry Shortcake, hands down.
Homeward bound on Hwy. 23/441 produces a winding route South, complete with spectacular views of artistry on every hill and valley. I like to think that these mountains, clothed in their autumn glory, did as much to inspire Sandburg as his imagination did. Follow his lead, sit on a rock in the forest, and accept the Blue Ridge Mountains’ gift of color. You’ll be inspired, too.
If You Go:
Other notable stops are Dillsboro, North Carolina, located on the banks of the Tuckaseigee River, 5 square blocks of restaurants and galleries that treat you to a simpler existence — one of hard-working craftsmen and potters. For an overnight visit, the Victorian Jarrett House provides travelers with quiet and quaint, and you wake to teasing aromas of country ham and red-eye gravy for breakfast.
At The Dillard House, in Dillard, Georgia, you must eat a delicious, family-style Southern breakfast, lunch or dinner, served since 1917. Mountain City is home to The Foxfire Museum, and in Clayton, nature works in kinship with grapes at award-winning Tiger Mountain Vineyards. Past Clayton, exit onto Old 441, and test your balance at Tallulah Falls Gorge.
Photo credits, from top: Park road at Keowee Toxaway State Park courtesy of South Carolina Tourism, Stumphouse Tunnel by Full Circle Fotography, wine from Victoria Valley Facebook page, Red Horse Inn and Pearson’s Falls by Full Circle Fotography, Carl Sandburg Home courtesy of National Park Service, Chimney Rock State Park Opera Box view by Full Circle Fotography, Clayton fall colors by Peter MacIntosh Photography and Dillard House porch by Deep South.
Judy Garrison is a travel writer based out of Athens, Georgia. Read her recap of Greenville, South Carolina’s euphoria food, wine and music festival here.