In this 100th year of the National Park Service, souls who enjoy nature are heading for America’s amazing parks system that includes 407 parks across the continent and throughout the U.S. territories.
Drawing over 200,000 visitors each year, the tract of seemingly endless roils of deciduous forest bordering Tennessee and North Carolina—Great Smoky Mountains National Park—offers an array of incredible outdoor pursuits. From hiking to fly-fishing and wildlife watching, amid dramatic scenery, it is the system’s most visited park.
Many people prefer to see it from secluded getaways that offer access to all the park’s wonders, while holding unique charms of their own. The Swag, a 35-year-old Appalachian country inn near Asheville, North Carolina, is just such a place. At 5,000 feet and surrounded by 250 acres of woodlands and meadows, this collection of cabins offers 14 rooms with a broad range of amenities. It borders the park for nearly a mile.
“It’s been called The Swag for a hundred years,” says Innkeeper and Founder Deener Matthews of the land where she and her husband Dan established the inn. Some well-meaning friends advised them to name it something else, but they stuck with the original thought. Among several definitions—a “swag” in a mountain range refers to a dip in the ridgeline from knob to knob. In this case, from Gooseberry Knob to Hemphill Bald, along the Cataloochee Divide. The big woods are only a few steps away from the main building of the lodge via a path leading into the park.
This November, the third in a series of three seasonal cooking schools takes place at The Swag. Executive Chef Ernest Bledsoe expects to offer several recipes, including roast turkey and stuffed pumpkins—a Swag favorite. Sous Chef Jacob Osburn creates soups and smoky sauces. Each cooking school participant takes home new knowledge and original recipes, along with a signature apron from The Swag. Participants who had never pulled mozzarella before had to admit it was fun!
The Swag presents a sumptuous Sunday brunch, with much of the produce coming from impressive gardens on the property. Blueberries, peaches, tomatoes, patti-pan squash and zucchini are harvested all summer. Joyce Griffen is the gardener.
The kitchen staff will pack a lunch in a basket or a backpack for your day’s hike. Award-winning Swag pastry chef, Linda Duckett has created the perfect high-energy snack, she calls the Swag bar. It’s best not to hike without one. In the dogtrot outside the dining hall, metal flasks of cool water are available each morning and your own personalized walking stick is waiting. This is also the area guests return to for a social hour before dinner. Be sure to bring your own wine, since The Swag is located in a dry county. All other beverages are plentiful, however, and the coolers are stocked at all times.
Guests come from around the region and even travel from other countries to visit The Swag. Many are from Florida, South Carolina and Texas who have traveled by car for several hours, although a vacationing family from Israel was seriously focused on hiking during our stay. Some people just keep coming back. Staffers get a Polaroid snapshot of visitors at check-in and the images go into a binder and onto the bookshelf, recording each visit. “That way people can see their very first photo, taken on their original visit,” says Shell Isenberg, general manager. “It’s just fun to look back.”
After a day of hiking and a delightful four-course dinner, the amenities of a luxury cabin sooth the body and mind. Most of the cabins have wood-burning fireplaces, saunas and minibars. Some are bright and open—designed and built to include skylights and outdoor shower rooms. There is a fitness room and a game room in the nearby Chestnut Cabin. Its large veranda and outdoor hot tub offer incredible views when guests just want to relax.
Each room has been decorated by Deener, with the help of High Country Designs. The original art by local artists hanging on the walls and a different handmade quilt on each bed reflect the culture and hospitality of the mountains.
“Deener has a passion for art,” says Dan Matthews, who is an Episcopal priest for historic Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. They sold both their family homesteads to raise the revenue to build The Swag. “The idea was to create a family dwelling we could call our own, where friends and family could retreat.”
During the 1982 World‘s Fair in Knoxville the Matthews were contacted about helping provide accommodations for the overload of visitors to the area. They decided to do it, and there was no turning back. The Matthews have maintained contact with some of those early guests and The Swag has continued to evolve over the years.
“At the close of every season, we do major modifications, as directed by Dan and Deener,” says David Juchnowski, longtime maintenance director. Juchnowski remembers all the way back to the building of the road—a feat of engineering work by the late Harold Bryson. “The locals just laughed and said it couldn’t be done, but they did it.” They couldn’t imagine that The Swag would become a Select Registry Inn.
Now in their eighties, Dan and Deener Matthews look back on their adventure in hospitality with pleasure. The Swag has welcomed many famous guests and was the location for the recording of an album by the Statler Brothers. While the experience had been interesting, Deener was concerned that it was too work intensive for staff and chaotic for guests. So, she turned down an offer to host the location for the Robert Redford movie, “A Walk in the Woods,” to the dismay of a few of the staff. But, as always, people come first.
As hosts, the Matthews are meticulously thoughtful and often draw a crowd of locals for the popular evening meal. Their contribution to the town of Waynesville and the region is significant, say many. The Swag is more than a dip in the ridgeline—it is a special place for trek and table—and memories of the mountains.
MAINE LOBSTER AND VANILLA RISOTTO STUFFED BABY PUMPKINS
From The Swag
For the pumpkins:
6 Jack-be-little pumpkins
Cut the pumpkin tops off (wide leaving plenty of room for the stuffing). Scrape out the seeds with a spoon, and set aside. Place 1 heaping tablespoon of compound butter (recipe below) and coat insides of pumpkins. Bake the pumpkins in a preheated 350-degree oven, for about 20-25 minutes until slightly al dente.
1/2 pound of butter at room temperature
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/2 tablespoon ground nutmeg
1/2 tablespoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup Arborio (risotto) rice
2 cups of lobster stock
1 vanilla bean (or 1 teaspoon vanilla paste)
4 leaves of fresh sage
1/2 pound Maine lobster diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 shallot sliced thin
salt & pepper to taste
In a hot sauté pan start with one tablespoon of vegetable oil and chopped shallots, sauté until translucent, add the rice and sauté until it starts to get golden color on the edges of the rice. Then add one cup of the lobster stock and vanilla bean. Simmer on medium to medium high heat until the risotto starts to absorb the stock, then add more stock and repeat this process until the risotto is tender but not mushy. Add lobster, spices and sage then cook for about two minutes more stirring constantly. Finally, season with salt and pepper to taste.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH VELOUTE
1 butternut squash skinned and seeded
1/2 cup lobster stock (chicken stock or water will work)
1 small onion 1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon honey
salt & pepper to taste
Start with the squash, stock, onion and garlic in the pot on high heat and cook until the squash is soft. Then add the spices and honey, now put the mixture into the blender and puree until smooth. If it is too thick, thin it with a bit of water. Lastly season with salt & pepper to taste.
Wash the residue from the reserved seeds and toss them with a little vegetable oil. Then spread them out onto your favorite cookie sheet, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, and then bake them on 350 degrees until golden. Sprinkle the seeds around the stuffed pumpkin on the plate.
Fill each hot pumpkin with the lobster risotto, place the pumpkin top (lid) on top leaning slightly to one side. Place a ladle of the butternut squash veloute on the plate and place a stuffed pumpkin onto the sauce, garnish with a fresh sage leaf and toasted pumpkin seeds.
Photography by Jumping Rocks Studio