MOTORCYCLING: The TRILOGY of Old Smokey

 1. The ACCOMMODATION 

Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn…

a jewel in the Appalachians!

 

MAP TO LODGE

 

“On top of old Smokey, all covered in snow,

I lost my true lover, by courtin’ too slow”

 The Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn, a must for your bucket list.

Atop a mountain in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, the Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn is a rustic, pastoral jewel within the treasure of the Appalachian mountain range. It offers a lot: numerous activities relative to the surrounding region, fine dining, first rate accommodation and comfortable ambiance. This resort should be rated as five star accommodation in any travelogue.

A large stone cairn at the side of Hwy 143 marks the entrance to the Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn eleven miles northwest of Robbinsville, North Carolina. Want fine dining? Energetic hiking? Exciting fishing? Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn is your getaway haven. It can accommodate all your restorative needs: rest – it will take  you away from the hustle and bustle of city life; recharging – it will re-energize you with its comfort and pampering service; revitalizing –  it will resurrect your waning spirit with its modern and soothing ambiance. It really is a wonderful place to stay!

Stretch limos in moonshiner country

Arthur Wolfe, the owner of a Chicago based travel agency specializing in tours to the southern states built the inn in the early 1940’s. Tour groups stopped overnight in Gatlinburg, Chimney Rock, Bryson City, and Tapoco after arriving in Knoxville via a Chicago train. Then the groups toured the mountain area in a stretch limo, no less…its final stop, the lodge.

The lodge has all the necessary amenities for the reviving one’s inner self. However, it does lack something, electronic gadgetry: no TV’s, no radio, no internet, no Wi-Fi. Geeks and nerds need to go elsewhere; those seeking peace and tranquillity, recharging and re-energizing, the inn is your idyllic retreat.

The rooms, rustic in décor with their wood siding, retain the quality of modern hotels with the most important of essentials: outstanding beds. Double beds with wooden end tables, wooden bedside luggage stools reinforce that this is a countryside inn. The premium beds guarantee deep, restful sleep till dawn. Then the birds singing and mountain breezes gently waken the sleeping guest.

Exhausted by the ‘Dragon’ but not defeated

My riding partner and I arrived after a long and arduous ten hour ride capped by an additional 11 miles riding the motorcycling challenge, the tortuous ‘Dragon’s Tail.’

We were mentally exhausted. The circuitous roads puzzled our sense of navigation. Even our GPS device found navigation impossible, one moment the distance to the lodge was 5 miles in one direction, the next, 6 miles in another direction. It became an exhausting and unsolvable riddle. However, as we rode more deeply into confusion, we spotted a beat up pickup truck parked in a shaded roadside pullout, its driver sitting by the open window. When asked if he was a local, he “Garumphed,” a reply which we interpreted as positive. “Was he familiar with our accommodation destination?” Another “Garumph.” We listened like grade school pupils studying for a final, one we were doomed to fail, His instructions were indecipherable. His accent, a mangling of syllables defied all comprehension. Tennessean or North Carolinian, it didn’t matter. He might as well have been speaking Greek. In fact, Greek may have been more comprehensible. We rode on.

Soon we came upon a middle aged woman walking along side of the road. We pulled up. Immediately, she backed away from us. Two bedraggled riders in the dusk of a Smokey Mountain roadway might frighten anyone. Her hesitation at our approach was understandable but she responded to our pleas for direction assistance. She nodded that she knew our destination well. Again, an accent that demanded complete and dedicated attention. Though her accent was very pronounced and challenging, her instructions were incredibly concise and clear: “Strayeet allong this road til y’all come to a big stop sign. Not too farrr, y’all heeer? Turn leffft and git along ‘nuther 7 mile or so, til y’all see a ‘nuther stop sign. Git yerself left rite ‘way…yer there!” I could have hugged her for speaking so clearly and precisely. To our great relief, we found the lodge easily.

entrance 01

The enclosing shroud of the darkness meant a clear view of the lodge would wait till morning. The entranceway stairs felt like Mount Everest climb after the long ride.

Staff who know the meaning of the word ‘Service!’

Ada, the lodge’s receptionist greeted us as if we were long lost explorers. We were. We were dog-tired arriving six hours later than planned. Still we arrived, safe, sound, intact but totally beat.

Ada was the epitome of southern charm and hospitality. Her relief at our safe arrival was palpable. She listened attentively as we gave our fatigue-dredged explanations of the puzzling paths of the Snowy Mountain roads. She empathized with our explanations and sympathized with our exhaustion. She assisted us with all our gear bringing our torturously long day to a close. Ada took care of our lodging needs as if she were caring for her own family members, our needs her first concern, the highest priority on her duty roster. She was simply marvelous.

Though the supper ended long ago, the chef thankfully had not left the premises! A great steak and an excellent cabernet sauvignon…dining heaven!!

“Cigars and cognac !”

IMG_2906

After dinner, we adjourned to the rustic bar next to the dining room. ‘Rustic’ does disservice to this wonderfully wood sided bar sitting room that murmured, “Cigars and cognac!” State smoking laws mean the only smoking done in this room is by the natural stone fireplace on wintry nights when patrons sip away while ensconced in wide, leather smoking chairs. There goes that “smoking” word again, but to no avail for cigar aficionados. However, a tennis court was added to the lodge’s property. Why? State law exempts any accommodation with a tennis courts from the liquor service prohibition in this “dry” county. Strange laws and strangely named roads too, “Moonshiner 28, Rattle Snake, Dragon’s Tail.” The cognac? “oooo !” Again, the lodge shone. Hennessey, VSOP? “Yup.” Courvoisier VSOP? “For sure!” Remy Martin, extra special at $250 US a shot …“No thank you !”

Shall we adjourn to the bar for a cognac!”

Every meal here reinforced Chef Rich as no hick in the food department: breakfasts with a European flair, the French toast so good, my riding partner ordered it twice! Dinners smacked of professionalism comparable to any prepared by the likes of one of the Iron Chefs, Emeril Lagasse or Michael Simon, or one of Toronto’s best chefs, Massimo Capra or Michael Bonacini. Even the baked-on-the-premises desserts were “let out your belt a notch” delicious! Of course, cognac and coffee to end each splendid dinner was de rigeur.

One added perk: the Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn provides patrons every day of their stay: brown bag lunches, though calling them ‘brown bag lunches’ is an injustice to its kitchen staff.

overlook

The Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn really is great accommodation in the Smokey Mountain region. Patrons are pampered like royalty; the bar stocks no moonshine among its wide assortment of scotches and renowned selection of bourbons, not to mention, a wine list that will satisfy the most demanding of oenologists; the dining, epicurean; the accommodation, comfortable, clean and modern. If your interests lie in heavily forested mountainous areas like the Smokey Mountain, then visit the Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn. It will be one of the best woody mountain stays you will have ever experienced.

Book a holiday at this great resort.

Snowbird Mountain Lodge
Innkeeper: Robert Rankin
4633 Santeetlah Road
Robbinsville, NC 28771
Phone: 828.479.3433
Toll free 800.941.9290


 2. The Riding 

A ride that roars back and can bite ya too!

2015-08-01_10h44_58Ride a motorcycle? Put Deals Gap Dragon’s Tail on your ‘bucket list.’ A spaghetti bowl of roads near Robbinsville, NC claiming to have more than 300 switchbacks in 11 miles, more than any other road in the United States. It may be true. I was too afraid to count. Touring bike riders are pushed to their limit by the roadway’s endless array of head snapping curves and skill testing twists. Sports bike riders find the route an irresistible challenge as they try to decrease their riding times with repeated runs. The Dragon throws down its gauntlet at your wheels, challenging you to try again and again until….

My first attempt at riding the ‘Tail’ years ago was rained out. I promised myself to return. Riding a rain slicked ’Dragon’ is inviting disaster. Enough fatalities happen when the road is dry: many riders ride too fast, overestimating their riding skills, overrating their capabilities to their sometimes fatal shock. Don’t taunt the ‘Dragon!’ Still, every motorcyclist must ride it, arguably the best motorcycle ride in the entire eastern United States.

2015-08-02_10h54_31My riding partner and I arrived at the top of the ‘Tail’ after ten hours of riding. Our hopes of finding an easy route to our destination were drastically waylaid by the zig zag maze of the Smokey Mountains roadways. Even a GPS device struggles in its constant search for the correct route to its programmed destination. The forest-sided roadway is dark and murky even on the brightest of sunny days giving the roadway an eerie atmosphere. But we had no choice as our accommodations were at the other end of the ‘tail.’ We listened to last minute ‘tail’ riding tips from other riders at the Dragon Pit Inn: “Reduce your speed. Stay in second or third.” The advice served us well.

Riding a ‘Dragon’s Tail

We rode the ‘Dragon’ twice, once to get to our accommodation, the second time on our return trip home. The first time we rode it, we had arrived at the top of the ‘Dragon’ by error. Our belief had been that this junction point was an easy ride to our accommodation in Robbinsville. We erred. The junction was the top of the tail and we were forced to make our debut ride of the ‘Dragon’ with little real preparation.

Maybe the most famous motorcycle roadway in the eastern United States, the ‘tail’ has 318 “S” turns in 11 miles. The ‘Dragon’ is considered by many as one of the best motorcycling roads in the world. To settle any debate, I rode it and I can say, “It stills your heart!”

2015-08-02_10h55_37

The ‘tail’ begins at the Fugitive Bridge on the North Carolina side of the Smokey Mountain range. The bridge may be so named because it is where Harrison Ford jumped into the waters of the Cherohala Dam in the movie, The Fugitive. The ‘tail’ ends miles later across the mountain at the Tabby Cat Creek Bridge in Tennessee. This section of Hwy 129 climbs through The Slide, a steep series of “S” curves where you don’t want to meet any oncoming traffic. Then it flattens out quickly becoming a whole new set of curves called the Crossroads of Time. Riders take breaks here, shopping at the Deals Gap Resort retail store before resuming their rides.

goin downThe ‘Dragon’ is a real challenge to ride, especially in rainy weather. Though normally the forested mountain area is quite desolate, riders may have numerous non-vehicular encounters: bears, wild turkeys, deer, mountain boars, downed trees and too frequent patches of slick gravel or loose pavement. Thankfully, the tractor trailers that used to use the route as an interstate shortcut are banned from the road now because of the many accidents in which they were involved. The ‘Dragon’ is no road for the queasy or riders who frighten easily. The ‘Dragon’ can scare even the most courageous rider!

wear gear

crashes

Tickets for the policemen’s ball

State troopers sell tickets to the ‘annual state trooper ball’ to riders who ignore the 30 mph speed limit. We never met any of the ticket sellers, possibly because our ride took place very late in the day. Still, the many riders we encountered either paid no heed to the speed limit or else they were excellent dancers. My partner and I rode carefully and cautiously as our dancing shoes were back home.

A rider of the ‘Dragon’ should know that on any given weekend during the summer, the ‘Dragon’ roars at more than 15,000 motorcyclists a day. Many of its curves have somewhat dramatic names: the Pearly Gates, Thunder Road Bend, Carousel Corner, the Whip, Brake or Bust Bend, the Wall, the Hump, Little Whip, Crud Corner, Shaw Grave Corner, Gravity Cavity, Horns of the Dragon and Hog Pen Bend.

2015-08-02_10h57_34Our first encounter with the Dragon was a success. However, another challenge lay ahead, finding our lodging.

That evening the bartender maître de, Butch, a bike rider himself, filled us in on the rides of the area. “Given that you are in the area for one day only,” he said, “I suggest riding the Cherohala Skyway to Vonore and then coming home via the ‘Dragon.’” Good advice, nice riding!

The local AAA office would have been proud with Butch as their rep. His knowledge of the region and its excellent riding routes was incomparable. Only a fellow rider would understand and relate to what is good riding. Butch was our man. He knew we were there to ride the Dragon’s Tail but he was correct in assuming an older rider as I am would enjoy a relaxing, scenic ride as well. The Cherohala Skyway was perfect: sweeping curves, tight corners, short straightaways and beautiful panoramic lookouts overlooking magnificent expanses of green Tennessee/North Carolina valleys, each demanding a stop to view and photograph. We swung northward, our goal the rural town of Vonore.

2015-08-02_10h58_24We liked the Cherohala ride so much, we chose to ride it back to the lodge. Riding the ‘Dragon’ again would have to wait till the next day. My partner, Daniel, told me later, he was hard pressed to keep up with me this time. I explained, ‘familiarity makes any route easier’ but Cherohala still demands close attention constantly. Day one riding: amazing!

After supper at the Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn as we sipped our cognacs, Butch regaled us with descriptions of all the good rides in the area. “You really need to stay here for 5 or 6 days to do justice to the routes that are available here, in Tennessee, and in Georgia, too. There are so many great riding roads: Deals Gap, the Rattlesnake; the Cherohala Skyway, the Devil’s Triangle, Moonshiner 28, and Georgia’s Six Gap. So many.” The area’s roadways must have been created by a biker deity for the whole area is a rider’s paradise.

The ‘Tail’s an esaggeration…maybe!

In Butch’s opinion, the ‘tail’ is the least of the riding routes, its reputation perhaps exaggerated by repeated praise relating to its challenge. Still we thought ‘the tail’ was a great ride though it was made riskier by the endless parade of ‘rider’s waves.’ Every oncoming motorcyclist must have some irresistible urge to wave a greeting. I stopped waving after doing it once early in the ride. I never waved again. I was too frightened to let go of the handlebars. To ride one handed on this road with its steep drop-offs and lack of guardrails invites disaster. One slip…

After riding the area around Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn, our hotel, we fully agree with Butch’s belief that the variety of great rides in the area should be undertaken with a five to seven day stay.

I’ll be back !


 3. The FOOD 

Epicurean excellence in a mountain oasis!

In July, my nephew, Daniel, and I motorcycle toured one of the best riding regions in all of North America, the Dragon’s Tail at Deals Gap just north of Robbinsville, NC. Just a few years ago, finding accommodation and good places to eat was a hit and miss endeavour. Usually, you asked your hotel/motel receptionist. Today that hotel/motel clerk is likely to be a high school or college student working part time with no first-hand experience of fine dining or quality accommodations. But Daniel, a 25 year old, typifies the youth of today. If you can’t ‘google it,’ they know nothing about it. As incredulous as this may sound, it is the norm among the youth of today. Google it! Trip Advisor it! Yelp it! Without Internet connectivity, the young are totally lost. Provide Internet access and they will find loads of useful and valuable information.

Our youth know nothing !

Imitating today’s youth, I used the Internet to find our accommodation in Tennessee/North Carolina. The online reviews were right on, The Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn was excellent. The lodge was equipped with all the necessary modern amenities except the expected electronic ones but it had Wi-Fi connection to the Internet. 2015-08-03_10h31_24Nothing else, no radios, no TV’s, not even a desktop computer workstation, truly a great place to get away from the energized excitability of the rest of the world. I thought Daniel might miss TV; I thought I would miss access to radio’s music. I was wrong. Neither of us missed TV or radio. Perhaps this is indicative of a generational shift in our times. We can live without radios and TV’s, as long as we have Internet access. In fact, many of us prefer the Internet to the old modes of communication and entertainment. Be that as it may, one thing has not changed. We still eat and appreciate good food.

2015-08-03_10h36_02The food prepared at the Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn surprised us. Our expectation: eating well, old fashioned ‘home cooking.’ How wrong we were!

Great eating at the lodge!

Our arrival at the lodge was many hours later than planned. We were greeted at the receptionist area by one of the most charming southerners we had ever me. Ada, the receptionist was the epitome of North Carolinian charm and hospitality. She sounded sympathetic when we explained why were so late in arriving. She empathized with our trip descriptions and sympathized with our exhaustion. After moving our gear into the room and to our great relief, Ada informed us that though the supper hour had long passed but something to eat might still be found in the kitchen. At this point, Butch, the inn’s stupendous bartender/maître d’ reinforced her by reassuring us that a reasonable supper would be found. “Reasonable?” It turned out to be one of the best T-bone steaks either of us have ever enjoyed.

2015-08-03_10h39_02A lot at steak !

One might think we enjoyed the steaks so much was that we were so hungry. A grilled leather boot might have gotten rave reviews. Thankfully, this inn’s kitchen rises much higher level than grilled leather boots. Butch asked us our preferences. Given the late hour, I guessed a steak could be done with minimal effort provided the main cook or the chef were still in the kitchen. Butch confirmed our order was very feasible and that the chef was still on site.

Our steaks were two perfectly cooked US prime cut AAA grade beef. The chef had not left the premises! Cooked properly as requested, medium rare and rare, both steaks were done right. “Rare” is a real test of the grill person’s skill. It is far too easy for many grill staff to become anxious and remove the meat from the grill too soon. A good grill person knows the steak will continue to cook a bit even after being plated. Hence, it is a real challenge to get the timing dead on. Not cooked enough, raw meat is chewy and may even be cold in the center, a real dining turn-off. More cooking means the meat becomes drier and less tasty, This poor grilling skill was reinforced at another night’s dinner at a franchise eatery, Ruby Tuesday’s in Kentucky. The poor grill skills of the chef were very evident by the coldness of the center of the raw steak. Complaining would have been non-productive as replacement of the steak would have meant delay without guarantee of proper results. In fact the cook’s anxiety might have guaranteed failure in the wrong cooking direction. The grill person at the Snowbird Mountain Lodge was at the top of his game, both steaks were done properly as ordered. A small salad, some green veggies, dining bliss! Thank you chef !!

A different kind of smoke !

Let’s back up a bit. When we sat down for our late supper, Butch asked if we wished to have a drink. Daniel has a discerning, educated and acquired taste for good scotch, possibly to his uncle’s credit. We nodded to each other to test the lodge’s bar. Butch proudly assured us that the lodge had a good selection of our favoured libation, in fact, more than 80 scotches he boasted proudly. “Lagavullen,” I ordered. Butch nodded and disappeared. Moments later, the unmistakable peaty bouquet, the signature trademark of ‘Lag’ wafted up to o

wineur noses from the elegantly wide glasses. Good omens of what was available at the lodge!

The dinner wine was another Butch suggestion and an excellent one: a moderately priced cabernet sauvignon which was outstanding. This man knew his stuff and again the lodge hit the mark on another libation.

No beef about the beef here !

Dinners throughout our short stay were spot on. The second night a filet with a light blue cheese sauce done just right. Such a sauce can overpower the taste of the beef, but again the kitchen staff was very adept with this preparation. I have dined well in many superb restaurants, a number of them even in the southern USA. I remember the coffee steak prepared for me exclusively at a hotel in a Knoxville. Amazing! However the Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn executive chef, Frank Davi, can stand as tall beside other great culinary professionals, whether one of the renowned Iron Chefs, New Orleans’ Emeril Lagasse, Cleveland’s Michael Simon or one of Toronto’s finest such as Massimo Capri or Michael Bonacini. For late arrivals, Executive chef Davi’s assistant, Chef Rich, steps in for his boss with his own admirable and fine skills.

Daniel chose another entrée:2015-08-03_10h40_43

Loosen the belt…dessert!

Then desserts: “let-out-the-belt-a-notch” baked-on-the-premises preparations that will satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth. We had an apple crisp threatened mom’s for outstanding taste.


Breakfasts
were great day starters’ at the inn, again indicating that the inn ranked among the best with its kitchen’s productivity. Would you believe the lodge has fresh eggs from its own chicken coops? Believe it! Fresh fruit cocktails, eggs done in European style, with parmigiano cheese. The French toast so delicious, Daniel ordered a second serving!

grotsTrue grit !

Then, you must dine like a local and try the “grits” with your breakfast. Northerners with no familiarity with this dish, might think porridge or oatmeal. A southerner would shudder at this comparison. Still, it is a dish that must be tried. I was quite amazed at the many guests heartily eating the dish alongside their omelets or breakfast fruit cocktails. Before rejecting the dish as a breakfast sidedish, diners should remember northern Italians and their love of  polenta, the cornmeal cousin of grits.

Finally, it would be sadly remiss if the lodge’s “brown bag lunches” didn’t get mentioned. At the conclusion of every registered guest’s dinner, the diner is presented with a selection menu for ordering their personal brown bag lunch. Choose the beef or the turkey; you can’t go wrong. The next day your tagged brown bag lunch awaits you in the lobby’s mini fridge. Prepare yourself for when you unwrap the sandwich on its multigrain bread, you will bite into one of the most delicious sandwiches you have ever tasted. I like to think it wasn’t the riding in fresh air that made the brown bag lunch taste so good. Rather, it was the quality of the ingredients. Be sure to check off a fresh fruit and don’t worry about a drink. The lodge’s packs a bottle of water automatically.

The short of dining at Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn is that it is five star dining in the most unexpected of places. You are in the middle of the mountains of North Carolina, moonshiner territory, the backwoods, some mistakenly think the Ozarks, a region further west in Arkansas but Smokey Mountains area may have its own share of stereotypical rednecks, residents who might be first looked at as being much like the people of the Ozarks. These people live in very isolated areas of a rough land, heavily forested with wide, broad valleys. In the summer, humidity and heat reach very uncomfortable levels. In the winter, a 12 inch snowfall receives a blink of an eye in acknowledgement. So such quality accommodation as the Snowbird Mountain Lodge Inn is very surprising and such five star dining is beyond description.

I look forward to another visit with whetted appetite and great anticipation.

Richard Szpin

 

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