By Carol Antman
Several years ago my book club introduced me to what has become one of my favorite road trip destinations: Hot Springs NC. Giggling in a Jacuzzi together proved to be quite a bonding experience. We got massages and talked about that month’s book, Cold Mountain, hiked and drank wine. Our group of six filled an entire bed and breakfast where the tantalizing aroma of warm brownies greeted our nightly returns from our soak. Since then I have travelled there several times, staying in many different accommodations. You can drive there from Charleston, SC in just under five hours and return with a whole new perspective.
I’ve been to other “spas”: fancy, expensive places with scented air and new age music. This is decidedly a different sort of experience. If you arrive at the baths on a chilly evening, you’ll be greeted by a bonfire. You’ll check in at a shack. Until recently the massage rooms were in double-wide trailers. The tubs are actually Jacuzzis buried in the riverside which are filled with 100-plus degree mineral water when your hour-long rental begins. They’re private and simple affairs, surrounded by trellises and shrubbery. But in the moonlight on a chilly night they are magical…the rushing of the French Broad River, the gushing jets of water, crickets. It’s all very soothing. The masseuses are right next door in a newly constructed building and they’re very well trained. Afterwards, you’ll feel like a wet noodle.
But you have to earn your relaxation and that’s where Hot Springs really wins me over. The Appalachian Trail goes right down the little Main Street. It’s common to see heavily laden backpackers trudge into town looking for hot showers, big meals, and rest. Do a day hike on the AT to glimpse the through-hiker’s experience by reading the log books stashed in trailside shelters. We read earnest inscriptions with quotes like this one from Aldous Huxley: “Your true traveler finds boredom rather agreeable than painful. It is the symbol of his liberty – his excessive freedom” and descriptions of meals of GORP, ramen, and protein bars. It’s also very pleasant to hike shorter trails like the Spring Creek Nature Trail which winds along the river or the many others in the Pisgah National Forest that begin nearby.
On our many visits, my husband and I have stayed in a variety of accommodations including vacation homes we’ve rented on www.vrbo.com, camping cabins, bed and breakfasts, and cottages. The camping cabins across the street from the spa are tiny and inexpensive. We woke up one morning in our cozy, warm cabin to see the campground and all of the tents covered in snow. At the spa itself there are more expensive suites, some with private (heart-shaped!) thermal tubs. A short walk away there is a variety of cottages and small inns. The town’s best bed and breakfast is the Mountain Magnolia Inn and Retreat, which has been the sight of the most elegant resort in the area since one, was built on the sight in 1886.
Full of history and destroyed twice by fire, the current hotel was restored by the new owners Pete and Karen Nagle in 1997. The architectural details tell of the costly and careful modernization that resulted from careful study of historic photos. Now there are 5 guest rooms, a 2-bedroom suite and two larger cottages available. Sitting on our private deck overlooking the mountains, we couldn’t have been more comfortable. The Inn is very popular with anniversary celebrations and small weddings. Guestbook entries exclaim, “…our new favorite weekend getaway spot,” “…most beautiful inn I’ve ever seen,” and “This makes me want to renew my vows.” The Inn’s restaurant is the only up-scale place to eat in town. Chef Chris Brown uses fresh ingredients to create imaginative dishes like pork stuffedwith cherries, pecans and bleu cheese. “Keep it simple is my philosophy,” he says. “Good ingredients speak for themselves, which is why I hand pick all that I use myself.” He visits Hickory Nut Gap Farm to purchase local beef, pork and breakfast meats and gets seafood fresh from Blue Water Seafood Company. Breakfasts at the Inn are sumptuous and, to my husband’s delight, you don’t have to listen to anyone tell their life stories since there are private tables. Up the road is the Smoky Mountain Diner where breakfast comes cheap with plenty of local color. You can watch the hikers loading up on the huge portions and enjoy the friendly banter as neighbors greet each other.
Residents say that the town is rejuvenating. Empty storefronts and hotel rooms give a different impression but Hot Springs was just voted the “Best Small Mountain Town” in Blue Ridge Outdoor Magazine and travelers have been seeking it out since Native Americans discovered the mineral water over 200 years ago. If you’re looking for a place to relax and reenergize, Hot Springs, NC may become your favorite road trip too.
If you go:
Hot Springs is 40 miles north of Asheville in the Blue Ridge Mountains. www.hotspringsnc.org/index.php
Mountain Magnolia Inn: www.mountainmagnoliainn.com
Hot Springs Spa: www.nchotsprings.com
Nearby hiking: www.hikewnc.info/trailheads/pisgah/appalachian/frenchbroad/