The Watauga County area is known nationwide for some of the countrys best Christmas trees and its a short drive away. Theres great fun (and savings, too) in choosing a tree from a wintry mountain meadow, with hot chocolate steaming nearby. Pair that with an uncrowded early-season day on the slopes, a Christmas parade, or a shopping stroll through one-of-a-kind shops in a brightly lit mountain downtown like Boone, Blowing Rock or Banner Elk, and the ambiance of a pre-Christmas trip to the mountains is hard to beat.
Most people think scenery and summer go together, but the clearest views of the year in the High Country come when cold crisp air diminishes the haze and views stretch to rarely seen horizons.
When natural snow doesnt cover the ground, the Blue Ridge Parkway is usually open and great views are the reward. The trails will be uncrowded and the lack of leaves opens up unexpected vistas. To add a new dimension to a ski trip, make the scenic loop around Grandfather Mountain, using the Parkway from Blowing Rock to Linville. On the way, detour to the top of Grandfather Mountain (www.grandfather.com) and the winter view from the Mile-High Swinging Bridge is unrivaled especially when theres snow. Head back to Boone on N.C. 105 and pause on the way at the Grandfather Winery (www.grandfathervineyard.com). Its the perfect place to toast the old man of a mountain towering overhead.
Spend Thanksgiving in Blowing Rock to start your holiday season bright. Nov. 29 (a Friday) is filled with hayrides and visits with Santa. At 5:30, the Lighting of the Town event (http://bit.ly/152KTpV) illuminates the Memorial Park Christmas tree, street and shops. Then caroling and bluegrass music christen the Christmas spirit.
The resort towns Christmas parade is Nov. 30 at 2 p.m. Dont miss the added element of the start of Chetola Resorts Festival of Lights. One of the towns best lodging and dining locations, Chetola (www.chetola.com) is based in an historic former estate on a lake that is extensively illuminated with holiday lights from Thanksgiving through Winterfest weekend at the end of January. Chetola is also popular for atmospheric winter dining at Bob Timberlakes Restaurant, where you can look out on the glowing displays. This is a good base for skiers at nearby Appalachian Ski Mountain. The Spa at Chetola can soothe those early season ski muscles.
When youre heading through Boone on a High Country ski trip, pause long enough to savor a little bit of the local. Pick up a retro Worlds Biggest Windmill T-shirt on King Street and recall Boones windmill heyday with a classic image of the big NASA wind turbine perched atop Howards Knob. Or get the new version, with a picture of Appalachian State Universitys modern, high-tech wind machine.
A block away, in the 1800s Watauga County Jail, try dinner at Proper (www.propermeal.com), for down home, Southern-style cuisine, with delicious local ingredients. Near Boone Mall, overlooking Boone Creek and Hodges Creek, stop in the Appalachian Mountain Brewery (www.appalachianmountain brewery.com), a first-year effort thats raising the glasses of beer fans in Boone. In winter, the long front-porch bar is enclosed and heated. The brewery usually has 10 beers, including seasonal offerings, on tap and available in 64-ounce glass growler bottles for takeaway.
Between the man-made snow on the slopes and a good chance of seeing the natural white stuff floating around, festivals in the mountains just seem more wintry.
Up on Beech Mountain Eastern Americas highest town Winterfest (Jan. 5-6; www.beechmountainresort.com) finds this snowy ski town at its most atmospheric, with great skiing and all kinds of special activities, including the comical careening of the Cardboard Box Derby.
Blowing Rocks Winterfest (Jan. 24-27; www.blowingrockwinterfest.com) has 15 years of popularity under its belt, with concerts, hayrides, a wine auction and tasting, the WinterFeast multi-chef meal, Chilly Chili Challenge, winter fashion show, and spectacles like the Polar Plunge into icy Chetola Lake. RJ
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