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GO TO PLAN B

Roanoke Times, March 14, 2004
Travel Section, page 5
By: Lindsay Durango
lindsay.durango@roanoke.com
828-981-3384

With a three-day weekend on its way and a few ants in my pants, I made last-minute plans to take a solo trip to Blowing Rock, N.C. The destination was suggested to me by a co-worker and was nestled among fond childhood memories.

Reservations were a breeze to secure in the off-season, and Mapquest.com directions were perfectly on target (not always the case, I hear). In the week leading up to my trip, I conducted some obligatory online research of the mountain town (www.blowingrock.com) is helpful), and it was only then that I realized what a treasure I was about to explore: Blowing Rock is minutes away from ski lodges; hiking trails (among them are those on The Blowing Rock, for which the town is named, and Grandfather Mountain); more shopping than I could ever hope for or afford; Mystery Hill, where balls roll uphill and you have to lean backward to keep from falling; and Tweetsie Railroad, the amusement park my parents surprised my brother and me with when we were but wee, wee folk. We called it "Tootsie Railroad" and still do. The park opens April 30 this year, for anyone who wants to make memories for their family.

As the trip neared, I made unofficial plans to climb Grandfather Mountain and take gorgeous pictures; also to shop for a trinket or two as keepsakes and take in at least one fantastically expensive, if not good, meal.

Plans, of course, unravel.

I made reservations for the last Thursday and Friday nights in February, dates that directly coincided with the area's biggest snowfall of the season. This was great news for ski- and snowboard-bunnies; I am neither.

Fortunately, I reserved my nights at The Homestead Inn. Not only is it one of the more affordable of the dozens of inns in town, but the family-run business is only a block-and-a-half away from Main Street Blowing Rock.

What had been plans to hike and enjoy mountain greenery quickly changed to hiking and enjoying Main Street scenery.

When I arrived in town, innkeeper Caroline Valet offered me hot cider or tea and handed me a map, naming the restaurants she recommended. Some of the stores might be open, she said.

And indeed, despite snowy-white roads, a few stores welcomed me in Thursday, and many more reopened Friday and Saturday as the streets cleared.

The town is a cozy spot for a lone traveler. I reveled in window-shopping for antiques, gazing at books and in tourist trinket shops; I browsed a yarn shop and French import store and salivated over the fudge and ice cream shop; I sat in Six Pence Pub (highly recommended to and by me) where I contemplated solo travel and the beauty of small communities and their talkative residents.

In Six Pence - dolled up to resemble pubs overseas, with tartan wallpaper and Brit-style beer art - I chatted with a few locals, including a lovely man who was impeccably dressed in riding habit and boots.

It was easy to spend an afternoon at the pub, writing, talking, staring out the window. And I eventually ordered dinner there: fish and chips for $10. The kitchen took a clever middle ground in the great transcontinental "chip" debate: The cook fried up fat slices of potato, cut in the shape of our crispy chips. The meal was delicious.

Interesting tidbit: Blowing Rock is the basis for author Jan Karon's "The Mitford Years," a series of books centered on Father Tim and the characters around him.

Karon is a North Carolina native who lives and writes in the town she uses for inspiration. I came across her books in an antique shop on Main Street that dedicated a shelf to her work.

Most of each day, I found myself walking in and out of such shops, and I put my palate to work daily trying fare from different restaurants.

The French-import store, de Provence et d'ailleurs, I mentioned earlier was darling, if a little pricey. As the owner explained to me in her French accent, she gets everything from France, "because I'm never buying from China," and the cost to ship bumps up prices.

Much of the charm in this shop is its owner, who has been in the states for 37 years and has run the store with her husband for eight.

She was happy to help me pass time with a friendly chat. Turns out she lived for almost 30 years in Greensboro, N.C., the town where I grew up. The day I left Blowing Rock to visit my family, I popped into her shop to get directions.

For more good food, seek the Mellow Mushroom, a pizza joint whose decor resembles a tame Macado's. It wasn't the easiest place to eat alone (the tables were big enough to seat eight; I sat at one by myself), but the food was just right.

Above all, take breakfast at Sonny's. Going solo at this Main Street diner wasn't hard at all. I sat at a bar, opened up a local newspaper and chomped on a biscuit sandwich overflowing with bacon, egg and cheese.

Then the wait staff persuaded me (quite easily, I'll admit) to try a slice of their mystery cake freshly baked. They said something about almonds and coconuts and cream cheese icing. I said, "Mmmmmmmmmmm."

Turns out the town can just as easily be a relaxing retreat for a lone adventurer as it can be a springboard for active travelers.

Next time, though

I already plan to return to the town this summer, when my only weather troubles will mean sweating and sunburns.

I'll call up Caroline and make reservations, and she'll likely tell me some more hot spots and offer a cool summer drink.

I will hike Grandfather Mountain and The Blowing Rock. And "Tootsie" Railroad'll be right around the corner.

Stalking the elusive photo

When my plans to hike Grandfather Mountain were swallowed up by snow, I became consumed by a mission to photograph the behemoth.

Maybe I was trying to make up for the pictures I would have been able to take were the hiking trails on the Grandfather open and safe.

maybe - and I think this is more romantic - the mountain itself drew me to it.

At an elevation of 5,964 feet, the Grandfather is "the highest mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountain Range," according to its official Web site.

An old man's profile is notched into one end of the mountain's craggy rock, some of which dates back more than 1 billion years.

Though the mountain is only 30 miles from The Homestead Inn, where I was staying in Blowing Rock, I racked up 200 miles on the two-lane highway roads that run parallel to the mountain.

I pulled onto unplowed side roads and into the parking lots of closed-up shops. My car got stuck in the snow more than once.

Unfortunately, the images that had been so impressive when I was behind the steering wheel seemed to disintegrate as soon as I pulled off the road.

Every day I returned to The Homestead disheartened and more determined that, the next day, i would get The Picture.

Ultimately, I got only stale images of the mountain, and the profile was elusive.

I plan to revisit the area - and the mountain - this summer. This time I'll hike it.

Maybe even leave my camera at home.

If you go...

For information on accommodations and shops in and near Blowing Rock, N.C., visit www.blowingrock.com. The Web site provides thorough, detailed lists of restaurants, businesses, inns and other accommodations.

The Homestead Inn
(828) 295-9559
www.homestead-inn.com
1 1 / 2 blocks from Main Street

The innkeepers keep sweet rooms with a small microwave and fridge in each for frugal travelers. The location is only a walk away from everything you'd need for a relaxing weekend, and a short drive away from attractions for the more active traveler.

Six Pence Pub
1121 Main Street Blowing Rock
(828) 295-3155

There are separate rooms for sit-down dining and a bar. The dark atmosphere at night is great for intimate conversation, friendly banter or solitary contemplation.

Sonny's Grill
(828) 295-7577

On Main Street, this is a great breakfast joint with a vibrant staff. Women, prepare to flirt and be flirted with.

Mellow Mushroom
155 Sunset Drive
(828) 295-3399

Located off Main Street in Blowing Rock, this chain pizza restaurant also has a site in Charlottesville. What makes its pizza unique is its crispy, buttery crust.

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If you need information about any of our services, please feel free to use our contact form, send us an e-mail to info@homestead-inn.com, or give us a call at 828-295-9559.