Our Eat & Burn series showcases destinations through their cuisine and inviting ways to burn off the calories.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Bald Guy Brew
921 Main St
Blowing Rock, NC 28605
With three locations all in the North Carolina High Country, this coffee shop is a cozy respite from the national behemoth. Friendly folks behind the counter are committed to personal service and delivering what the company guarantees is “the best stinkin’ cup of joe your palate has ever tasted.” Literally: “If you don’t like it, pour it out: Hassle free money back guarantee!” Sip a latte, a single-source espresso or whatever appeals to your palate made with beans roasted locally to the owner’s exacting standards. The bald guy learned to appreciate coffee while on a mission trip in South America and launched the company, with a commitment to organic and fair trade, to share the best of what he discovered and learned with customers. Odds are, you’ll savor even that last drop. If, gasp!, coffee isn’t your thing, the menu offers alternate options including soda, tea and hot chocolate. Muffins, cinnamon rolls and other sweet treats make for a tasty breakfast or snack anytime.
Blowing Rock Ale House & Inn
152 Sunset Drive
Blowing Rock, NC 28605
A sister property to The Inn at Ragged Gardens & The Best Seller, this place offers an on-site pub with upscale casual dining. The eclectic menu showcases the talents of friendly husband-and-wife chef team Erick and Jenny Virt, who are happy to stop by your table and answer any questions you may have (as long as they’re not slammed with orders in the kitchen, in which case your server will gladly get answers). Both chefs are graduates of the Texas Culinary Academy, Le Cordon Bleu and share a passion for seasonal, local and organic ingredients. Much is made on site, including the bratwurst, and every dish including the poutine, beer-steamed mussels, Southern-fried chicken, and venison meatloaf sandwich is made-to-order from scratch. The ever-changing lineup of craft brews is produced in a building behind the dining room, which is open for tours. This is a place to kick back in your boots, watch the game and indulge in seasonal flavors.
(The inn offers eight rooms, which we didn’t see on this visit. Rates from $125/night; children under 10 not permitted!)
The New Public House & Hotel
239 Sunset Drive
Blowing Rock, NC 28605
Pampering service and upscale Southern contemporary fare are on the menu at this restaurant, which recently opened and is now arguably the swankiest dining room in town. The menu promises “a healthier version of traditional favorites,” all sourced from local farmers—think farro risotto, kale salad, Southern-fried quail, mountain trout and roasted beet croquette. The big question is “to share or not to share” the small plates or full entrées: Our advice is to share whatever you order only after securing an agreement from your dining companion that you’ll get an equal sized bite of whatever s/he orders. And you may want a witness, so wave the server into earshot. Because you’ll want to taste as much as possible but won’t want to short yourself. Trust this chef to deliver satisfying flavor. The bartender follows suit: The drink menu boasts an impressive selection of beers (with a local focus), wines and cocktails (with a seasonal bent). Expect a memorable meal here. (The hotel offers seven rooms, which we didn’t see on this visit. Rates from $150/night.)
Odds of Encountering Children: Slim to moderate; all four of these restaurants are adult-oriented.
Blowing Rock has been a tourist destination for more than a century. Its namesake is an attraction that boasts amazing views and a consistent cool breeze that’s especially enjoyable in summer. Located in the mountains near the Blue Ridge Parkway, the area offers hiking, horseback riding, golf, skiing, whitewater rafting, canoeing and a walkable downtown with an appealing mix of antique shops, art galleries and specialty boutiques. Burning calories will feel like playtime not drudgery.
Among the options, we chose horseback riding at Bass Lake with Tim Vines. The retired police officer offers customized horseback riding for two to four hours on what he bills as “trustworthy” horses. When my husband Dean and I arrive at the designated meeting place, Vines already has three horses out of the trailer, saddled and ready to go. I choose a mount and as I climb into the saddle Vines says, “She’s a real sweetie.” And she is, stepping in a rhythm that offers a smooth ride on uneven terrain, responding immediately to even the slightest twitch of the reins, and keeping a calm demeanor even when she falls into third place once Vines, Dean and I get going—which Vines says this mare doesn’t like; the competitive girl prefers the lead position. Vines later says, “You wouldn’t recognize her at the rodeo!” Turns out, this calm horse also runs around barrels at a fast clip, and it is hard to imagine while I’m sitting atop her. Vines and his daughter are active rodeo contestants; he says that’s one reason his horses are responsive and alert to riders—unlike the zombie horses you may encounter on some other trail rides.
We ride the Cone Park Carriage Trails, which must be the best horseback riding trails on earth. Wide, perfectly groomed and forgiving underfoot, they were built in the 1800s for Mrs. Bertha Cone who enjoyed routine carriage rides. The trails slope at a graceful eight-percent grade, making the climb up the mountain easy on horses and riders. There are 25 miles of trails in the park that’s managed in cooperation by the State and National Park Services, and Vines selects specific routes based on factors like his guests’ riding skill and speed, weather, rider interests, time and varying the route for the horses so they won’t get bored. (It’s also possible to hike some of the park’s trails. The panoramic view from Flat Top Tower is reportedly impressive.)
Vines says that he will escort beginning as well as experienced riders and can take groups up to six. He allows children (of a certain age) as long as they are accompanied by their parents. While he might put two couples together to make a foursome, he would never group a couple with a family—thus the Odds of Encountering Children are zero unless you bring your own. 21 Plus Salute!
This horseback riding experience ranks as one of my personal favorites. I felt like I was riding with friends and in control of an engaged horse not merely setting upon one numbed by routine. It’s the sort of afternoon I wish I could enjoy more often.
And, yes, horseback riding does burn calories. Dean’s fitbit recorded several thousand steps and Vines says, “Horseback riding is all about your core.” It can also test thigh muscles.
To ride with Vines, reservations are required: Call 828-963-0260 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
More To Do…
Visit the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum. Opened in October 2011, the facility includes six galleries that feature rotating exhibits focused on local and regional artists. Current exhibits include the art of Wiili Armstrong (through May 3, 2014) and the history of Skiing in the N.C. High Country (through May 31, 2014).
Where To Stay…
The Inn at Ragged Gardens
…or one of the restaurant/inn combos named above.
When To Go…
Blowing Rock hosts festivals every month of the year, including The Blue Ridge Wine & Food Festival, April 10-13, 2014. Contact the tourism office for more information.
Blowing Rock is the only full-service town located on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is known as “America’s Favorite Drive.”
According to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, “The Blowing Rock is the only place in the world where it snows upside down.”
The town is named for the Blowing Rock, a cliff 4,000 feet above sea level that overhangs Johns River Gorge.
— Photos © HSP Media LLC