Little Switzerland: It’s just off the Blue Ridge Parkway... and 3,200 feet above sea level. Long a getaway from those escaping Southern summer heat, it’s also the site of Emerald Village (www.emeraldvillage.com), a collection of a dozen historic gem mines. At its Crabtree Emerald Mine, for $20 per day you can dig through the above-ground dumps of the long-closed mine and for gemstones – emeralds, black tourmaline, garnet, fluorite, aquamarine, and golden beryl – the original prospectors may have missed. Also on the grounds: the N.C. Mining Museum. Staying the night: The Switzerland Inn (www.switzerlandinn.com) has four hotel buildings and a trio of cabins. There’s a spa on the property. Hungry? The Chalet Restaurant at the Switzerland Inn (www.switzerlandinn.com) showcases upscale entrees (rack of lamb, prime rib, etc.) at dinner; sandwiches, burgers and the like at lunch. The laid-back Switzerland Cafe (www.switzerlandcafe.com) has its own smokehouse: The barbecue is popular but consider the smoked trout or salmon, both done up BLT-style.
Bryson City: This picture-perfect downtown, ringed by mountains and on the Tuckaseegee River, holds the main depot for the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad (www.gsmr.com) and its various excursion trips. Most Saturdays when passengers gather, there’s old-time/bluegrass music at the depot. Also on Depot Street (a block away): Nantahala Brewing (www.nantahalabrewing.com) and its taproom. Visit O’Neill’s Shop on the Corner: GSMR has Thomas the Tank Engine events periodically, so O’Neill’s stocks a solid inventory of Thomas items. Also on the shelves: the Jan Karon-esque “Bryson City” novels by Dr. Walt Larimore, which are set here. For lodgings, rent a luxury log cabin through Watershed (www.watershedcabins.com) Local info: www.greatsmokies.com.
Waynesville: Main Street is atop a north-south ridge; three long blocks between the Haywood County courthouse and town hall are chock-full of cool stores and galleries. Waynesville is on U.S. 74 and U.S. 63 – great gateways into westernmost North Carolina, and close to Asheville and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Waynesville is also home to The Swag (www.theswag.com), a charming inn on the Cataloochee Divide. Outside, from easy chairs on that ridge, you can see across the valleys to four of the state’s highest mountain ranges. Local info: www.downtownwaynesville.com
Dillsboro: The tourist-oriented village is well-stocked with shops and galleries – and history. The Jarrett House (www.jarretthouse.com) is a historic railroad hotel (built around 1884 and now on the National Register of Historic Places) holds a famous eatery (especially for fried chicken and for chicken and dumplings) in that’s the little downtown’s landmark. Another must-try: The Dillsboro Chocolate Factory (www.dillsborohocolate.com) on Church street. You can get to Dillsboro by train, by the way: GSMR’s four-hour Tuckaseegee River Excursion goes from Bryson City to Dillsboro and back; you’ll have a 90-minute layover here for exploration explore. Spend the night: The Jarrett House holds 16 rooms; four more are in the acjacent courtyard. Key events: The Nov. 7 Western North Carolina Pottery Festival and the old-fashioned holiday Lights & Luminaries (Dec. 4-5 and 11-12). Local info: www.mountainloversnc.com.
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Sylva: It may have just 2,600 residents, but the Jackson County seat, built on a variety of elevations, is a charmer. It boats two craft breweries – Heinzelmannchen (www.yourgnometownbrewery.com) and Innovation (www.innovation-brewing.com) – plus City Lights (www.citylightsnc.com), an independent bookstore as solid as any in Charlotte or Asheville. Throw in a couple of coffee shops and some solid dining options (like Lulu’s on Main) and pastries/cookies at City Lights Cafe and you’ll be ready to get a workout climbing Sylva’s up-and-down streets. Lodgings in town include chain motels, but for something quaint, drive 15 minutes east on US. 23/64 – the gorgeous Great Smoky Mountain Expressway – to the Balsam exit (McCoy Road), and try the Balsam Mountain Inn (www.balsaminn.com). Local info: www.mountainloversnc.com.
Lake Lure: When the Morse brothers bought Chimney Rock in 1902, they acquired more than a rock formation that would be an enduring attraction: The Rocky Broad River flowed through their up-and-down acreage; they dammed it for hydro power, and the 720-acre, mountain-ringed lake this was created became a recreational spot in its own right. Its centerpiece is the beach-facing Lake Lure Inn and Spa (www.lakelure.com), built in 1927, which has attracted luminaries from F. Scott Fitzgerald, several presidents and the cast of “Dirty Dancing,” part of which was filmed there. Rent a “Dirty Dancing”-theme cabin or stay in the “Gatsby”-esque main lodge. Two years ago, a closed 1925 bridge across the river was reopened to pedestrians as the Flowering Bridge (www.lakelurefloweringbridge.org). See that – as well as nearby Hickory Nut Gorge, a 14-mile canyon that’s largely in Chimney Rock State Park (www.chimneyrockpark.com). The gorge is an ecological one-of-a-kind holding rare plant and animal species. Local info: www.rutherfordtourism.com.
Black Mountain: Asheville isn’t the only place in Buncombe County that’s dipping with coolness. Black Mountain, a small town east of Asheville and on the Swannanoa River, was home to Black Mountain College, an experimental college started in 1933 that attracted famed scholars until its closing in 1957. That legacy endures through the twice-a-year Lake Eden Arts Festival (www.theleaf.org), which returns Oct. 15-18 to the old college’s grounds. You can also feel the vibe on the small downtown’s streets. Try an organic beer at the Pisgah Brewing Copany (www.pisgahbrewing.com). When you get hungry, head to the Berliner Kindl (www.berlinerkindl.homestead.com), a German restaurant offering full-dress entrees as well as an array of sausage plates and dinners. Local info: www.blackmountain.org.