A View from The Top 6

The Swag offers friendly luxury

With an hour to go before my first class at The Swag’s cooking school, I grabbed one of the chilled water bottles thoughtfully set out for resort guests and walked 10 feet through an opening in the split rail fence to a Great Smoky Mountain National Park trail. Jake Osburn, the chipper sous chef serving the hearty and healthy breakfast that morning, suggested I head to Hemphill Bald, climbing up a few hundred feet over a mile or so. The well-marked trail was quiet and I pressed ahead hoping to catch a glimpse of the  Cataloochee Valley below. I arrived the night before in the dark and that morning when I walked from my private cabin to the lodge (elev. 5,000 ft.), the valley below was lined with a carpet of puffy white clouds. So, as I set off on my hike, I really had no idea where I was.

To be clear, I did know I had arrived at The Swag resort after a quick, three-hour drive from Atlanta and that the luxurious country inn was set on 250 acres in near, Waynesville, NC.

What I didn’t realize, until I reached the Bald, was that I was at the top of the world.

The view at the top took away what little breath I had left. The morning clouds had lifted and the valley spread out below, thin threads of country roads and trails and the Caldwell Ford creek winding through the green hills dotted with plumes of smoke from cabins far below.

I startled a rafter of wild turkeys (with two weeks until Thanksgiving, they were plump but fast) and they took flight into the valley. With only 15 minutes to get back to The Swag, I jogged down the winding trail along the Cataloochee Divide, kicked off my muddy shoes, tied on my official white SWAG apron and snapped to attention as Chef Ernest Bledsoe and Jake were assigning stations to the other seven students.

We learned to uniformly sear beef tenderloin, use a chef’s knife to carefully slice perfect portions then delicately wrap our blanched asparagus spears and our homemade blue cheese mousse. Perfect post-hike snack! Jake’s rosettes of mousse ruled.

The Swag’s cooking school season continues May 22-24, and is free to guests, as are the birding and wildlife hikes with learned guides, painting and printmaking classes (paired, of course, with an inspiring morning hike), yoga, storytelling circles and after dinner song fests around the huge wood fire place in the living room. Gourmet dinners are served family style or at sweet private tables under the grand wood beams. You chose your meal entrees at the beginning of the day and can opt to have lunch ready in a to-go bag or a back pack (shall we squeeze in another hike?). After the entertaining morning cooking class, I grabbed my back pack and followed the week’s event leader Kathy Peters along a more challenging trail leading to a quiet waterfall past the pond and badminton court. We enjoyed a memorable meal somewhere along the way, then learned to sear duck breasts to perfection in the afternoon cooking class, leaving me time for a soak in the outdoor hot tub and a nap before a lovely dinner.

If you’re very lucky (and you’ll be made to feel like the luckiest, most important guest ever, during your stay) you’ll dine with owners Dan and Deener Matthews. Their warm and generous spirit is infectious and by the end of dinner, my new friends have shared deep life stories, hopes, disappointments, dreams. The Swag is a very special place.