Located less than three hours west of Charlotte in Jackson County, and nestled in a hollow between ranges that represent the edge of the Smoky Mountains and the Nantahala National Forest, Sylva, NC is a prototypical sleepy mountain town and a perfect destination for a peaceful weekend jaunt. However, scratch the surface of this placid hamlet, and you’ll discover a woolier side with plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation activities, shopping for artisan crafts or enjoying a surprising variety of food and drink. Get ready to choose your adventure!
While Sylva is the county seat of Jackson County, no place in the county is more than a half-hour scenic drive away, so the resort community of Cashiers, the artistic enclave of Dillsboro and even the Harrah’s Hotel and Casino in Cherokee offer inviting options for lodging.
The Chalet Inn on the outskirts of Dillsboro offers two different styles of lodging. The main building contains a bed and breakfast with four guest rooms (a choice of king, queen or full beds), a two-room fireplace suite and a two-room Jacuzzi/fireplace suite, all with private baths, private balconies or patios. Common areas include a great room with fireplace, library and dining room. A separate building houses four private suites offering self-contained Jacuzzi and fireplace suites with private entrances and upscale amenities that include Apple TV with free Netflix, ESPN, Internet Radio and complimentary high-speed WiFi.
Most importantly, the Chalet Inn is located in the middle of 22 acres of private forest with hiking trails around the property, mountain views from scenic overlooks or from the balcony of your room, a quaint pond with a cozy fire pit for enjoying s’mores at night and even a precious little Chalet Stube, a self-contained store stocked with beers, wines, meats and cheeses imported from Bavaria to fit in with the resort’s Alpine vibe. Payment is on the honor system, so drop in anytime for provisions, and settle up with your lodge hosts before departing.
For more action and less relaxing, stay at Harrah’s Cherokee in their modern 21-story hotel tower. Luxury accommodations range from standard rooms to suites, including some rooms that are designated specifically to be pet-friendly. You’ll have to leave Fido or Tabby behind in the room, though, when you travel across the parking lot to Harrah’s massive casino with acres of table games, poker and slot machines and theaters featuring national touring entertainment acts. More sporting activity options include a championship golf course, an infinity swimming pool and a well-equipped fitness center.
With mountains, water and forest all over the county, Sylva and the surrounding area are an excellent choice for an adventurous weekend. Hiking opportunities range from the strenuous Pinnacle Park trail system to an easy 10-minute stroll from the Blue Ridge Parkway to Black Balsam Bald for the chance to experience 360-degree vistas of the valleys below. Jackson County’s extremely helpful website has a list of hikes for any experience level.
If you’re willing to get a little wet, the Tuckasegee River runs throughout the county, offering wide, shallow runs for trout fishing as well as Class IV rapids appropriate for whitewater rafting. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced angler, Alex Bell of AB Fly Fishing is a fantastic instructor who will guide your trip and provide all the gear if needed. He also works with Operation: Grateful Guides to provide free fishing experiences for current military personnel who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan within the last year as a small thank you for their service. A former high school principal and coach, Alex has the perfect temperament to teach this hobby to newbies.
For a fastwater trip, Tuckaseegee Outfitters provides 2- to 3-hour float trips down the river from May through September. Vessel options include kayaks, tubes or rafts ranging from $12 to $30 per person. If you’re more of a spectator than a participant, Play On Adventures conducts guided hikes to the base of High Falls, where you might be lucky enough to see intrepid kayakers beginning an adventurous run down the West Fork of the Tuckasegee Gorge. When the water is running high, this is a trip for experienced kayakers only.
Stimulate your artistic side with gallery tours around Dillsboro, a quaint little mountain town with pottery studios and craft stores that are always happy to receive visitors. Treehouse Pottery is the home studio of two talented potters, Joe Frank McKee and Travis Berning, who ply their craft right in the middle of the shop. They also sell beautiful works of art from other local craftspeople as well. Riverwood Pottery is another working studio located in a charming row of shops overlooking a quiet stretch of water flowing through town. Known for their handmade functional stoneware for home use, Riverwood is an excellent spot to shop for a useful memento of a trip to Jackson County.
Everybody knows that North Carolinians are proud of their barbecue, and Haywood Smokehouse is no exception. Although the area around Asheville isn’t necessarily as rabid about their particular stylistic preferences like the proponents of Lexington, NC-style vs. Eastern NC-style, the pit masters at Haywood are quite proficient with their wood smoker. Order a Smokehouse Combo Platter for your choice of meats from pork, brisket, chicken, turkey, ribs or the “Sausage of the Day,” served with a rainbow of sauce choices. The exotic Japple (jalapeño and apple) sauce is especially intriguing.
Lulu’s on Main is a charming little bistro in downtown Sylva, featuring eclectic fare served in a vibrant ambiance. Edgy artwork covers the walls, but your attention will probably be drawn to your plate, where rich, flavorful seafood and meat dishes are artistically presented by Chef Devin McCardle. A full bar offers the best cocktails in town plus regional craft beers.
Just a few steps from Lulu’s is Baxley’s Handmade Chocolates, a family affair where the Baxleys moved from a home hobby of creating chocolate confections to a professional operation selling signature items like malted milk balls, toffees and caramels. For a special treat, Russell Baxley will occasionally put on a special tasting menu of confections and beers from his neighbors at Heinzelmännchen Brewery.
Heinzelmännchen is one of three breweries in Sylva, providing for a striking amount of quality beer per capita. The owner/brewer at the tiny brewpub is German-born Dieter Kuhn, and he is proud to play up the connection between Bavaria and his adopted mountain home. In fact, he cheekily refers to Heinzelmännchen as “your Gnometown brewery,” with the mythical diminutive spirits decorating every aspect of the brewery. Kuhn concentrates on light and refreshing German beers, often rotating new varieties on the taps in his cozy tasting room. Try a flight of several taster-size glasses to sample his range of recipes.
The Sneak E Squirrel is a brewery on the outskirts of Sylva, but still within a short walk of downtown along a safe sidewalk. In addition to brewing and serving an interesting selection of experimental beers, Sneak E Squirrel is a fun clubhouse for patrons who don’t care to hang out with hardcore beer snobs. Board games and card games are scattered around the building, and organized game nights, cornhole tournaments and contra dances bring all the party people to visit the Squirrel’s lair. The food menu is surprisingly varied for a brewpub, but it still doesn’t take itself too seriously. There is even a special option to roll a set of game dice to have the ingredients of your sandwich randomly selected by chance. You have to eat what you roll, though …
The third brewery in Sylva is probably the best known as a regional craft beer player. Innovation Brewing is the brainchild of Chip Owen and Nicole Dexter, two hard-working young brewers who have created a modern brewing facility that they have tucked into every nook and corner of a small industrial building. Pipes and tubes run everywhere between floors, carrying more than 30 recipes of house-made beers from tank to tank and to the multiple taps behind the bars in their popular tasting room. Twelve recipes are consistently available with the rest of the draft lines filled with rotators. Saturday nights are perhaps the best evenings to visit as Sylva residents gather to listen to live music and enjoy fantastic burgers from the Cosmic Carryout food truck permanently docked on the edge of Innovation’s outdoor patio.
The convivial scene of friends catching up over burgers and beers is a wonderful representation of the friendly small town atmosphere of Sylva and the rest of Jackson County. If you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city for a weekend, consider taking a trip to where the air is a little fresher, the sun is a little brighter and the pace of life runs a little slower.
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