A recipe for a perfect weekend getaway.
01.06.2012 - 03.06.2012
It started by accident. For many years, Matt’s birthday fell adjacent to the weekend of Memorial Day. Back when I earned only 10 vacation days a year, I had to maximize every one of those 80 hours and always planned our trips to coincide with a holiday.
Thus was born the annual tradition of a trip on Matt’s birthday.
It’s a tradition that stuck.
Because his birthday is in May, we always spent that birthday in the Caribbean. Matt has spent many birthdays with sand crusted on his feet, eating a birthday cake beside some sunny beach. It was time for a change.
I actually stumbled onto the Banner Elk Winery & Villa when I was looking for a romantic place for our anniversary dinner. I saw that they had a Farm to Table dinner planned the weekend of Matt’s birthday and made the decision: forget the anniversary… this would be Matt’s birthday trip. Let’s do something new.
Known by most as the closest place to East TN to actually ski in the winter, Banner Elk is just across the Tennessee state line in the northwest corner of North Carolina. I associated it with winter and with skis, because my only memory of Banner Elk was the time that Matt took me skiing for the very first time about a month after we met. I was only 24 and had never even seen a pair of skis up close, much less put them on my feet. I knew NOTHING about skiing, ski wear, or ski slopes. I was severely out of my zone. The only person I knew who had ski clothing was a 62 year old woman that I worked with. She offered to loan me a ski suit. I agreed, not realizing that the last time she had skied had been in 1983 and the outfit I just borrowed looked like something from Hot Tub Time Machine. Not only did my outfit scream THIS GIRL SHOULD NOT BE ON SKIS but I was trying far too hard to impress Matt to be practical and gear myself appropriately. We had only been dating a month, remember? Rather than wear a hat, as would have been prudent given that the NC mountains don't quite get enough real snow for skiing, but instead, have giant snow blowers that pump massive amounts of very icy fake snow onto the slopes as you ski by, I skipped the hat and left my long hair loose. I imagined how smitten Matt would be when he saw my long hair flowing in the breeze as I swooshed gracefully down the hill. I skied by approximately 14 giant snow blowers that day, each one showering a fresh layer of ice onto my already wet and frozen hair. By the end of the day, my hair was literally an ice wig, frozen into weird corkscrews all over my head. The only upside to this was that it took attention away from my 1983 puffy neon ski suit and the fact that I couldn't actually ski, but instead, slid slowly down the hill at an awkward angle with my skis pointed inward trying desperately not to let them cross and send me plowing onto my face.
Back to the present. Imagine my surprise when I realized that …(duh)…the mountains did not cease to exist once the ski season was over and what was a ski resort by winter became a lush green oasis in the summer.
Banner Elk Winery and Villa looked positively lovely so I booked it immediately, claiming 2 seats at the Farm to Table dinner that would only accept a maximum of 15 people. As I looked longingly at the website images, they simply screamed LUXURY! ROMANCE! RELAXATION!
Okay, they also screamed WINE! ….but let’s not quibble over minutiae.
It’s only a 3 hour drive from Knoxville to Banner Elk, but we opted to fly to Elizabethton and grab a rental car. We were there in an hour. You just can’t beat that. As we flew into the Blue Ridge Mountains, the landscape changed from soft rolling hills to rich green mountains and deep valleys. Banner Elk is a quaint village tucked in the North Carolina highlands near Grandfather Mountain. As we drove the winding mountain road, we marveled at the beauty of the place.
We arrived at the Villa just in time for the dinner. The small group of guests were enjoying a glass of wine as we were quickly shown to our room downstairs. Within minutes, we each had a glass of wine in hand and were sitting in front of the villa’s large fireplace feeling the stress of the work week immediately fall away.
The Farm to Table dinner was intended for the outdoors, but a freak cold snap that took Banner Elk to lows in the 40s in June forced the dinner to be moved indoors. This was actually quite wonderful because the tables were set beautifully near the large fireplace. After enduring temperatures in the 80s since April, the cool weather was a welcome respite from the oncoming wrath of summer.
Jars of wildflowers adorned the tables and wine flowed like music as the guests were able to look into the beautiful kitchen and watch as the guest chef, Travis Sparks, put the final touches on the meal. He told us that most of the food we were about to eat came from his own farm, and that the food that didn’t came from farms within a 20 mile radius.
The meal had four decadent courses and each was paired with one of Banner Elk Winery’s own wines. It was served family style and we were literally given more than we could eat. We tried to eat it all. We really did, because it was simply phenomenal, but we all failed miserably.
The first course was a large platter of baby field greens. With that were small bowls filled with young spring onions, radishes, herbs, and a lemon herb vinaigrette.
For the second course, Travis brought out two absolutely beautiful mountain trout that had been caught that day. They were served with an incredibly delicious bowl of sautéed kale (my new favorite green) served with a green tomato relish. We were given so much fish that it should have been the entrée. I couldn’t get over how fresh and light the fish tasted. I guess I am used to fish that has been frozen, then shipped, then refrozen, then displayed, then refrozen, then cooked and by the time I eat it, it’s pretty much a tasteless piece of rubber. This was no tasteless piece of rubber. It was mountain trout heaven.
And I don’t even like fish.
The main course was a platter of roasted chicken with herbs, a bowl of new potatoes, and the most decadent sugar snap peas that have ever been placed in a bowl for human consumption. The peas were lush and green, incredibly crisp, and slathered in butter. The potatoes and chicken were equally delicious, but you have no idea how much I love sugar snaps.
After Travis told us about catching the fish that day, I was tempted to ask about the chicken, but I didn’t really want to know.
As though we hadn’t already been stuffed to the point of misery, we were served a strawberry cobbler with fresh cream and mint.
I think we were on our fifth glass of wine at that point, but that didn’t stop Michelle, the owner, from grabbing us a bottle to take down to our room.
Heaven, I tell you.
We thought the dinner was tops, but then we went to our room. The room was beautifully decorated and had large glass doors to a patio that overlooked the vineyards and the pond below. The bed had a plush top and crisp, soft white linens. I love a place that uses white bedding because you can see it is fresh and clean. The bath had an abundance of fluffy towels and was loaded with Fresh skincare products including the most adorable Fresh Sugar lip balm.
With no dogs snuffling around under our bed trying to figure out how to get on top, no alarm clock to set for work, an impossibly comfortable bed, and a serious wine fog settling over us….we slept as soon as our heads touched the crisp white pillows.
When we woke the next morning, I tiptoed quietly upstairs to the common area in hopes of coffee. There were two fresh brewed pots in the large, warm kitchen along with oversized mugs and an assortment of flavored syrups and cream. Instead of the typical “lace doily breakfast with uncomfortable conversations with strangers interrupted by awkward silences” breakfast that is so common at a B&B, the breakfast at the Villa was a comfortable, casual affair.
A chef was in the kitchen cooking our breakfast as we stood around and chatted over mugs of coffee. The food was “serve yourself” and was set on a large wood and copper island in the center of the kitchen.
The morning was cool, like fall, and so we took a walk after breakfast. The grounds are really beautiful, with a lush green lawn rolling down to a catch and release pond.
The winery was set down near the pond and “up the road a piece” was a rustic little barn. As we wandered up toward the barn, someone told us they were setting up for a wedding and asked if we wanted to see inside.
I did. I love weddings. I love wedding dresses. I love wedding cakes. And now, I especially love old barns decorated for a wedding.
How perfect is that? I immediately asked Matt if we could get divorced because I wanted to get remarried IN THAT BARN.
We had nothing to do before lunch, so we weighed our options. Drink more wine? No, too early. Go to Grandfather Mountain for a hike? No, too much like exercise. Relax with a good book? No, the day was too beautiful for that.
We decided to make the short, but scenic, 15 minute drive to Valle Crucis, a small town nearby that housed the original Mast General Store, still in the original building that it was opened in some 130 years ago.
We decided to head back when it was getting close to noon. The night before, Michelle, one of the owners, had pulled me aside when she realized we were celebrating Matt’s birthday. She recommending we do a lunch picnic in the upper vineyard. All she needed to know was whether or not we liked pasta. I told her we ate anything that didn’t run away first, and she said, “Be at the winery at noon and we’ll take care of the rest.”
So, at noon, we showed up at the winery, having no idea what to expect. I don’t really expect much from these things, which is why I don’t usually do them. But, I had been in a serious wine haze when she asked. You know the kind…where you feel completely at peace with the entire universe and everything sounds like a great idea. I probably would have agreed to give her my right kidney if she had asked for it.
And who doesn’t like a nice picnic? I expected a basket of sandwiches, and maybe a cookie or two if we were lucky, out in the sunshine and that sounded nice.
We were shown where to go and we headed up a twisty, curvy, winding road that led to the upper vineyard.
When we arrived at the top, we were blown away. We found ourselves on a high knoll where the views stretched in every direction and were simply spectacular.
Tall grasses waved in the breeze, like green gold water flowing down the hillside. There was a rustic arbor with a blanket set underneath.
This was no kindergarten picnic. There was no juice box and ham sandwich. This was serious business. We had a bottle of wine, garden salads with marinated olives, a fried artichoke appetizer in a buttery sauce, and tortellini with prosciutto and fresh basil in a light tomato cream sauce.
And real plates. Coming from a family that jokes that our "family china" is made by Solo, that was a nice touch.
The piece de resistance, however, were the two giant slabs of NY cheesecake sitting on top of an old wine barrel.
The beautiful setting, the quietness of the afternoon, the delicious food, and the sunshine on our faces simply made it one of our favorite experiences of all time. We stuffed ourselves silly and then simply lay back on our blanket to drink in the simple beauty of it all.
Best picnic of all time.
We had in-room massages at 2:00, so we headed back to the villa. By the time the massages were over, we were simply a waste of human space, full of good food and wine, relaxed beyond words, and starting to feel downright spoiled.
We spent the afternoon on the patio with glasses of wine, watching the goings-on for the wedding that was going to be in the barn that evening. It was a flurry of activity as tents were set up on the lawn, flowers were arranged, and little girls in beautiful dresses chased each other as they laughed on the lawn.
We were tempted to crash the wedding, because it was so beautiful, but we had reservations at Artisanal Restaurant, and we had high expectations.
Like the Winery & Villa, Artisanal exceeded our expectations.
When we arrived, we were greeted warmly and, as our car was taken by the valet, the large wooden doors were opened for us and we were gently ushered inside.
The restaurant is extremely beautiful, in a very elegant rustic way. You almost feel like you have entered the most beautiful barn in the world. We were greeted by warm plank walls, tall ceilings with rustic chandeliers and my favorite, a giant horse made out of wood. The interior reminded me a great deal of the Barn Restaurant at Blackberry Farm, but the differences were that we were actually treated warmly at Artisanal (unlike the stiff treatment we received at Blackberry Farm), and we weren’t required to give them our credit card and leave without ever seeing a bill (which, at Blackberry Farm, turned out to be $500 for a meal that left us hungry). Despite its incredibly elegant and upscale atmosphere, Artisanal remained unpretentious and comfortable.
The cocktails were very unique and we sampled a spiced pear mojito and a blood orange martini of some sort.
They also brought out the world’s cutest mini-cornbread while we waited.
We started with two small plates, that turned out to be as large as our entrees. Matt loved the seafood bouillabaisse and I loved my soft shelled crab.
For dinner, Matt had the Maine Diver Scallops and I had the Pasta Bolognese, something I can never resist if I see it on a menu.
Although everything was delicious and artfully presented, my favorite had to be the Trio of Chocolate Cupcakes. Being cute along with being delicious is always a plus.
After dinner, we were encouraged to stay and enjoy the cozy lounge area or sit out back by the fire pit, which overlooked a rushing stream. We were tempted but the long day full of food, wine, and relaxation had left us ready to do nothing but crawl between the soft white sheets at Banner Elk Villa and fall deeply into sweet sleep.
Because of prior commitments, we had to be up and out so early the next morning that we missed breakfast, which made me very, very sad, but the truth was that I was so full I probably didn’t need to eat for about 3 days. As we drove back down the winding mountain road, I reflected on what a perfect weekend it had been. Banner Elk Winery had exceeded my expectations.
So much so that the first thing I did upon my return home was book another weekend visit.
I can only imagine what this place will look like in the Fall.