After zigzagging among the mountains and passing through rural towns nestled against Chattahoochee National Forest, the splendor of Dancing Bear Lodge seemed a fitting culmination to our bucolic four-hour drive from Atlanta. Its main building, peering out of thick woods, looks like the granddaddy of all Lincoln Logs projects. Massive spruce trunks serve as columns in front of the main entrance. Inside, the airy lodge is all knotty beams and boards, a timber panorama interrupted only by the two-story stone fireplace. Chandeliers depict frolicking deer and maple leaves, but the owners keep the kitsch to a minimum. This is Appalachian style polished with comfortable luxury.
Dancing Bear Lodge and its thirty-six acres sit off the main highway that stretches through Townsend, Tennessee, a town known as the most tranquil of the popular tourist gateways to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The owners of nearby Blackberry Farm, plus managing partner Matt Alexander, bought the property, formerly called Maple Leaf Lodge, in 2004. Blackberry Farm has collected umpteen awards for its extravagant brand of hospitality, and though Dancing Bear is much less sumptuous (and much more affordable), it upholds that sense of next-level graciousness. I experienced it immediately upon arrival, when I needed to send a business e-mail. Alexander noticed I was having trouble connecting my aging laptop to the lodge’s Wi-Fi. “Here, use our Internet connection,” he said without hesitation, ushering me behind the front desk to a computer.
With work out of the way, my friend and I could settle into the business of relaxing. The main lodge houses twelve spacious rooms, but we checked into a two-bedroom cabin. With wood floors and walls and cathedral ceilings, the cabins mirror the main lodge aesthetic. Our place had an indoor Jacuzzi and an outdoor hot tub. Rocking chairs beckoned on the deck. King-sized beds sported extra-fluffy feather duvets.
Dancing Bear accommodates languorous and adventurous types equally. Exhausted urban travelers can quietly disappear into a book or movie (DVD loaners are available), enjoy a calm walk around the tree-covered grounds, or call down to request an in-room massage. Yet this corner of the South also enthralls the outdoorsy set: The lodge offers touring and tandem bike rentals, organizes half-day or full-day guided fly-fishing trips that include all necessary equipment, and gladly suggests prime hikes among the Smoky Mountains’ 800 miles of trails. A golf course is ten minutes away.
Whatever the day’s activities, converge on the main lodge for dinner, when the great room fills with tables and shifts into restaurant mode. The quality of the cooking sets the lodge apart from any other dining option nearby. Chef Jeff Carter honed his technique in the Blackberry Farm kitchen, and his food resembles the cuisine at forward-thinking Southern restaurants in Atlanta such as Cakes & Ale and Miller Union. Highlights from our meal included creamy crab and bacon soup, a charcuterie plate with two-year-aged ham from Allan Benton (see above), succulent whiskey-brined pork tenderloin with spoon bread and roasted tomato jus, pan-roasted trout with roasted mushrooms and farro (a nutty grain resembling barley), and blueberry cobbler for dessert.
On our second night, we ventured to Maryville, a college town twenty minutes away, to try the Foothills Milling Company, the area’s other Southern fine-dining destination. Unpretentious and packed with a cheerful crowd, it offers satisfying dishes such as fried oysters with green onion remoulade, Vidalia onion and goat cheese tart, and meatloaf stuffed with pork shoulder.
All that eating necessitated some exercise in the morning. After consulting with a lodge staffer, we headed to Cades Cove, one of the National Park’s most trafficked pockets, for a five-mile round-trip hike to Abrams Falls. The diminutive falls were anticlimactic, but the invigorating hike was absolutely worth the effort—a scenic blend of even, smooth paths mixed with ascending and descending trails amid jutting rocks.
Driving through Cades Cove can be an exercise in patience. (We likened it to an Appalachian safari procession.) At times, traffic inched along at two miles an hour, with visitors literally hanging out windows to spot a bear. (We didn’t glimpse one.) At least the scenery was majestic. “Cove” is an Appalachian idiom for “valley.” We could imagine pioneering families trudging into this recess and saying, “Yes, we’ll stay here.”
LODGING AND DINING
Dancing Bear Lodge
137 Apple Valley Way
Weekends from $209 nightly in October
Foothills Milling Company
315 Washington Street