Food Feature: All aboard

Everything or nothing at all at Balsam Mountain Inn

Comfortably resting on a forest green oak rocker, I gaze at the hazy North Carolina wilderness from the ground floor of Balsam Mountain Inn's two-tiered veranda. On this crisp late-autumn night, the twinkling stars seem within reach and a mountain silhouette provides a captivating backdrop.

More than anyone, owner Merrily Teasley knows about the tranquil spell cast on those who visit the 50-room Victorian inn. Surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, it's perched on a towering ridge that looks down on the hamlet of Balsam, 35 miles west of Asheville. One cloudless summer night, she passed through the village and was mesmerized by what she saw — a homey weatherboard structure illuminated by a full moon.

"Seeing the inn lit by the moon's glow, it looked like a mountain oasis," Teasley said. At the time, the 42,000-square-foot building was in disrepair. Teasley had a vision for the inn, though. She bought the place and, after extensive renovations, opened the inn in 1992.

Each of the inn's 50 guest rooms has its own character. Beds are antique iron, wicker or bent twig crafted by local artisans. Beaded board walls are adorned with old paintings. The pine floor creaks with each step. All rooms have private baths — some even have clawfoot tubs — and heat comes via antique radiators. The rooms are purposely deficient in late-20th-century gadgets: no televisions, radios or phones here.

When the inn first opened in 1908, it served as a summer retreat. Vacationers boarded the Western North Carolina Railroad, which carried them to a depot within view of the grand hotel. Today, though Norfolk Southern freighters chug down the same tracks that once brought passengers to the inn, the depot is gone. Yet the Balsam Mountain Inn is once again frequented by vacationers who savor lazy days inhaling the fragrance of fresh evergreens from the two-tiered covered porch after returning from a journey aboard a historic locomotive.

Twenty minutes from Balsam in Dillsboro, a cozy town laden with antique shops. The Great Smoky Mountains Railway offers scenic excursions on restored steam and diesel locomotives from the early 1900s. When Norfolk Southern abandoned a portion of its track in the late '80s, the state bought the line and leased it to Great Smoky Mountains Railway Inc. The organization now operates 53 miles of track from Dillsboro to Andrews.

After a hearty bacon-and-eggs breakfast at the inn, I drive to the depot in Bryson City, a modern-day Mayberry, and board a train. The steam locomotive rambles past hamlets with rustic cross-tipped churches and rippling streams teaming with trout. We lumber around a horseshoe curve before passing over a 794-foot-long trestle 100 feet above Fontana Lake, affording a stunning view of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Minutes later, we reach the Nantahala River which cuts through Nantahala Gorge. Raging whitewater explodes over jagged rocks. Banks are covered with ferns, wildflowers and colorful foliage. The whine of the train's whistle and the chug of the steam engine add to the mystique. The excursion stops at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a haven for mountain biking, whitewater rafting, camping and backpacking. Great Smoky Mountains Railway offers a one-day raft-and-rail adventure from the Bryson City and Andrews depots where passengers ride the train to Nantahala and return by rafting the rapids.

Departing from Dillsboro, the Tuckasegee River expedition winds along tiny railroad towns and painted meadows before passing through the 836-foot-long Cowee Tunnel, where the train is enveloped by darkness. The highlight for film buffs is viewing the site where the dramatic train wreck was staged for The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford. The railway labored for two months to create the set. It took four days to shoot the entire scene, but just one minute for the fiery crash. Special excursions — romantic twilight dinner trains, murder mysteries, Santa Express, a New Year's Eve gala and more — are scheduled throughout the year.

After the four-hour locomotive adventure, followed by walks around Bryson City and Dillsboro, I looked forward to an entertaining evening at Balsam Mountain Inn. I walked into the spacious lobby and the double-sided fireplaces crackled. Guests lounged on wicker chairs and played checkers. In the library, an elderly couple was immersed in their respective books.

Teasley's inn has three dining rooms including a solarium with high windows and white tile inlaid with purple geometric patterns. I devoured my plate of blackened tuna and finished with a piece of mud pie before walking to the main dining room to watch "Songwriters in the Round," a monthly event at the inn featuring Nashville songwriters, some who've penned titles for well-known country recording artists.

When the performance ended, I returned to the 100-foot-long front porch. Moravian stars hang above the oak rockers. Nature's stars gleam in the cloudless midnight sky. Moments later, it's lights out. A good night's sleep is essential to prepare for the next morning. The Blue Ridge Parkway entrance is less than a mile away, as are dozens of beautiful mountain hikes.

Of course, the oak rockers on the two-tiered veranda are even closer. As Teasley says, sometimes the most recommended activity during a stay at Balsam Mountain Inn is nothing at all.


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