BY DAVE KELLY
The mountains of western North Carolina came calling. And spring is the perfect time to answer their summons.
But with so many highland towns in the Blue Ridge Mountains to choose from, is there one that stands above the rest that can call us away from Florida’s impending summer heat to enjoy the fresh cool Appalachian air?
Yes. Hendersonville does.
Our pre-trip research showed that this picturesque city features challenging scenic hiking trails, outdoor family activities, and rustic cozy accommodations.
Throw in an eclectic mix of wineries, breweries, cideries, and dining options, and we could not resist a trip to check it out.
The city sits at an altitude of about 2,300 feet and settles in between dozens of surrounding peaks that check in at over 5,000. Its accessible downtown area is home to dozens of specialty restaurants, intimate pubs, unique shops, and assorted museums and galleries.
START WITH A HOME BASE
So where is the best place to stay to absorb the Hendersonville vibe? Our exploration led us to Echo Mountain Inn, a 125-year-old building with luxury, peace and quiet, and a bit of local history.
Built by Jacksonville’s John and Jessie Patterson in 1896 as a private summer home, it was converted in the 1930’s into “Happiness”, a camp for teenage girls, where the original pool was created from an abandoned reservoir.
New owners soon gave it the Echo Mountain Inn moniker, with each ensuing proprietor improving the building and the property while keeping that warm North Carolina feel.
In fact, rooms in the 1930’s wing of the property still have wood-burning fireplaces for winter visitors.
The huge common area features a sun porch, oversized comfy couches, and an enormous fireplace for a relaxing atmosphere with books, games, and coffee. The dining room, which has a specialty breakfast included in your room rate, allows for stunning views of the surrounding mountain scenery.
The Bonnema family purchased Echo Mountain Inn in 2019 and have worked hard to continue the renovations on its 28 guest rooms while keeping the classic look and feel of the property. The family is hands-on, providing helpful advice and input as to what to do and where to go in the area. Their attention to detail and passion for the property make it the perfect place for a romantic getaway, a family vacation, or a corporate retreat.
CALLED TO HENDERSONVILLE
We were called to Hendersonville largely because of the mountains, so after checking in at Echo Mountain Inn we headed back out the door and right down the street to the very top of Echo Mountain, where we found the famous Jump Off Rock.
Native American legend has it that over 300 years ago a young Cherokee maiden got word that her partner and chief had been killed in battle, so she climbed to the top of the mountain and jumped. On full-moon nights, legend has it that you can still see her haunting the precipice at Jump Off Rock.
The climb to Jump Off Rock rewarded our efforts with breathtaking panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountain and Pisgah Mountain ranges, with an on-site map that notes each impressive peak that is visible. The park also has a shaded trail system with comfortable to moderate hikes leaving from and returning to Jump Off Rock. This city park area is often utilized for year-round weddings and family outings.
Looking to increase the pace of our hikes, we headed out the next day to DuPont State Recreational Forest and the trails that head up to the 125-foot tall Triple Falls waterfall. Less than 15 miles from the Echo Mountain Inn, this lush state park features trails leading to three distinct waterfall areas.
We chose to test our Florida flatlander legs by making the longer 2.2 mile round-trip, allowing us to see the glorious High Falls along the way. Not content with that, we took the staircase path down to the flat rock plateau between the falls and visited picturesque Hooker Falls. It was great to see that many hikers had brought their dogs for the trek.
Later in the week we tackled the challenging Bearwallow Mountain Trail. At 4,232 feet, Bearwallow Mountain reaches the highest elevation in Henderson County, so we were excited to test our stamina and ability. A winding 2.1-mile loop trail considered by fellow hikers to be demanding but not overly difficult takes you snaking up the mountainside through the verdant landscape.
From bottom to top and back it takes the average hiker about 90 minutes to complete, and wow is it worth it. Sunset views from the plateau at the mountain’s summit were stunning. And the sense of accomplishment knowing that we tackled and mastered the area’s highest peak stayed with us throughout the trip and beyond.
The trail is maintained by volunteers like the Carolina Mountain Club Friday Crew, so there is no charge to use it. The route is open to visitors and hikers year-round.
All that exercise and activity led us to downtown Hendersonville regularly to satisfy our hunger and quench our thirst. This picturesque, vibrant, pedestrian-friendly city has a flourishing culinary scene interspersed with boutique and regional retail, distinctive museums, and traditional pubs.
Over the course of our trip, we managed to visit many of these locations to get the feel of this lively city.
Mast General Store – This regional, outdoor-themed general store has western North Carolina roots dating back to the 1850’s. The Hendersonville location, one of a dozen or so in the South, features specialty clothing, outdoor gear, home and hearth accessories, and old-fashioned candy sold by the pound from barrels.
Appalachian Pinball Museum – Founded by arcade enthusiast John French, this museum is home to over 80 pinball and electronic games dating back to the 1950’s. Many come with histories and information about their popularity and their place in the growth of electronic entertainment. Favorites such as Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Pinball Wizard are housed in a theater-styled museum with food, drink, and snacks available.
Shine Hendersonville – Owners Bobby and Layla Rogers spent over a decade developing Hendersonville’s most unique restaurant concept. All effort was made to re-utilize the original brick, stone, and heart-pine wood while creating the new restaurant. A new rooftop and historic storefront were installed and Shine opened in 2019 with an eclectic menu that is creative and innovative yet nods to Southern flavors, all made fresh in-house. Our meal and the service were delightful.
Mezzaluna Brick Oven Tap House - Located in downtown Hendersonville, Mezzaluna successfully combines Italian dining and gourmet pizzas baked in Mugnaini wood-fired ovens. There is also an extensive wine list and over 50 taps for local and regional craft beers. A sweeping mural of Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” overlooks the open kitchen, so we enjoyed our amazing pizza and calzones under the stars that night.
HenDough Chicken & Donuts– Tucked just on the outskirts of downtown, HenDough Chicken & Donuts features the most unique menu in Hendersonville. Opened by Biltmore Estate chefs Paul and Sarah Klaassen, HenDough combines two of life’s most famous comfort foods. During Covid, the restaurant’s business flourished, as owners and staff worked hard to provide food and help to the Hendersonville community. They are proud to provide the best made-from-scratch fried chicken biscuit on the planet while supporting local charities, schools, and farmers.
Book and Bee Café and Tea – Nowhere in Hendersonville did we find a cozier spot to enjoy our time than the Book and Bee Café and Tea. Minutes from downtown, this distinctive destination features lunch and tea in an environment based on a love of literature. Each snug room holds only a couple of tables and is individually themed – we ate our lunch in the Tolkien/C.S. Lewis room, which was covered in books and quotes from the famous authors. We were pleasantly surprised to find that, although they highlight tea in their offerings, and in fact serve “High Tea” regularly as a part of their menu, most folks make their way to the Book and Bee to simply enjoy dining and tea from their exceptional lunch menu.
Photo Courtesy Tim Robeson
Wine, Cider … and (Lots of) Apples
In our time in Hendersonville we noticed a theme running through the bars, restaurants, and attractions -there are apples everywhere. Apple cider mills dot the landscape, many with onsite destination activities. And not just basic non-alcoholic ciders are created, as most brewpubs and cideries make their own flavored hard ciders.
Bold Rock Cider – Just outside of Hendersonville sits the Bold Rock Mills River Cidery. Together with its other locations throughout the South, Bold Rock is the nation’s largest craft cidery and produces flavored hard ciders sold in over a dozen states. The Mills River location opened in 2015 and is nestled on North Carolina’s fertile farmland.
On our visit, we learned that hard cider is fermented and distilled, never brewed, and watched the entire process through huge windows in the main bar area above the production floor. We each sampled a flight of four hard cider offerings while learning that Bold Rock sources 100% of its apples from local orchards within 35 miles. Throw in a food truck, live entertainment, and a dog-friendly attitude, and it was an enjoyable visit.
Jeter Mountain Farm – A few miles outside of town and up a scenic mountain road lies Jeter Mountain Farm. A U-Pick farm, cidery, and entertainment destination, the property is owned by the Hunsader family, who brought 150 years of farming tradition from Florida, and consists of nearly 400 acres in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Hunsaders planted their first orchard trees in 2014 and have since graduated to growing peaches, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and pumpkins, as well as over 20 varieties of apples that can be picked by guests or used in the cider process. All fruits are on the U-Pick program open from mid-July through October.
The scope of the farm is breathtaking. Tractor-pulled wagons take your family throughout the farm where you can hop off at the orchard of your choice and pick to your heart’s content, taking your prized fruits home. Visitors even enjoy wildflowers fields, mazes, and picnics on the scenic grounds. We eventually graduated to the Cider Barn and sipped a variety of Jeter Mountain Farm’s hard ciders while sampling their in-house smoked barbeque and listening to live music while the kids played on an indoor playground. They also feature a wedding and event center overlooking the orchards. Jeter Mountain Farm is a do-not-miss experience.
Point Lookout Vineyards – We traveled less than 10 miles from Hendersonville to visit scenic Point Lookout Mountain. Owners Mike and Sabrina Jackson visited this former dude ranch, fell in love with its 30-mile panoramic views, and created Point Lookout Vineyards atop the southeast slope of the mountain.
Though the land was originally an apple orchard, their vision was to create a winery, planting and growing grapes appropriate to the area. Vines were planted in rows running due north and south, allowing a warm morning sun and cool mountain breezes that help them produce wines that are unique to the area.
Soon after, they opened World’s Edge Meadery, perfecting mead from a honey base and fermented fruits including local apples. Mead is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages, offering fermented sweet goodness in what the ancient Greeks called the “Nectar of the Gods”.
We participated in Point Lookout’s sampling program, where each of us chose up to six wines or meads. Staff helped us understand the subtle undertones of each varietal, allowing us to appreciate the flavors and nuances that separate each type.
Best of all, we were able to do all of this during their “Sunset Sipping” event, held Wednesdays and Thursdays at sundown, while overlooking the vineyards. Their passion for wines and meads made us appreciate their company slogan – “Sharing wine, sharing life”.
The Hendersonville, North Carolina, experience was the whole package for travelers like us. The next time the mountains are calling, we know just where you should go.
Echo Mountain Inn
DuPont State Recreational Forest
Mast General Store
Appalachian Pinball Museum
Mezzaluna Brick Oven Tap House
Book and Bee Café and Tea
Bold Rock Cider
Jeter Mountain Farm
Point Lookout Vineyards