Small Town, Big Heart.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Banner Elk, North Carolina is a one-stoplight town. If you’re arriving from some bigger community where traffic lights are commonplace, you may not personally register the fact that there’s only one here. But spend any time talking to a townie and odds are that stoplight will come up in conversation at some point: Local folks are uncommonly proud of the thing. Perhaps because the neighboring ski resort town, Beech Mountain, has none.
Banner Elk manages to embody the phrase “small town Americana” with sincerity and uncommon heart. From the everyday hospitality of its 1,067 residents to the underlying reasons why some businesses were launched, the community is so warm and welcoming that to visit feels like getting a great big hug. Goodness and kindness are a way of life here. Feeling grumpy? Time to visit Banner Elk and get yourself cheered up!
Here are just some of the warm fuzzy reasons to visit Banner Elk in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the North Carolina High Country.
There are two professional theatre companies in Banner Elk, truly unusual for a town of its size. Both hire professional actors from across the U.S., so expect big city quality at small town prices. Lees-McRae Summer Theatre stages three musicals each summer, ultimately entertaining its audiences while also giving college students bonafide experience working with professionals. Ensemble Stage favors straight plays (not musicals) that run the gamut from dramas to comedies to suspenseful mysteries to psychological thrillers. It also performs radio plays that are recorded and broadcast on a local station (so you can sit in the audience while it’s recorded and/or listen later). Gary Smith founded Ensemble Stage with his partner, Lisa Lamont, after promising their friend Jerry Burns, who was dying of cancer, that they’d keep professional theatre alive in the High Country of North Carolina. Smith still gets teary-eyed when telling the story, emotion that tends to draw in whoever happens to be listening. His dream is to grow Ensemble Stage into “the force that brings people to Banner Elk,” he says. “Theatre is about life and about the world, it’s not all ‘candy and fluff’, it’s also about poignant things.”
Apple Hill Farm is billed as “a place where animals talk and people listen.” Owner Lee Rankin was inspired to raise alpacas after she looked one in the eye. She moved to the mountains to pursue her dream in 2001 and never looked back. “We specialize in the experience of the farm, of letting people connect with animals,” she says. “There’s a moment when people disconnect from their lives and come to something else that is magical—and usually it happens by the alpacas,” though the farm does keep a variety of animals including chickens, goats, donkeys, dogs, at least one pig whose destiny is to contentedly ham for the camera. Rankin hosts opportunities for visitors to “knit with the alpacas,” sitting in the picturesque pasture to stitch surrounded by peaceful, grazing alpacas. This experience that at first glance may seem oddball is actually so popular among avid knitters that the farm has had to add additional dates. The farm sells yarn made from the alpacas’ wool, plus socks and more are available at the on-site store (so even if you can’t knit you can get cozy with some alpaca wool).
Located along the Elk River on the Lees-McRae College campus, the Dan and Dianne May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center treats over 1,500 injured and orphaned wildlife patients each year. Some of these animals have fallen from nests, others suffered injuries that require medical, surgical and/or rehabilitative care. Each patient is evaluated and treated according to its individual needs, regardless of species. Some former patients become residents (if they wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild), available to receive visitors and appear in student presentations (check the presentation schedule online).
The Woolly Worm Festival is an annual family-friendly event celebrating its 40th anniversary this October and is basically a local version of Groundhog’s Day. Caterpillars are made to compete in a series of string races in order to determine a winning “woolly worm” whose stripe pattern is then “read” to predict the 13 weeks of winter—and the human who entered that worm in the races gets $1,000, so it may be worth stopping to pick one up along the way (or buy a caterpillar at the festival). Each caterpillar naturally has a different stripe pattern so the races were created in order to help decide which individual creature might be the best predictor of winter. The woolly worm (also spelled “wooly worm”) is the larvae of the Isabella tiger moth. In addition to the woolly worm races, the festival is a marketplace of handcrafted works by juried artists who sell goods from furniture to jewelry to pottery and more.
Wildcat Lake is a picturesque place to swim, fish, canoe, picnic, and play. The 13-acre lake is on Hickory Nut Gap Road just past the 100-year-old Grandfather Home campus of Children’s Hope Alliance (which helps children and families throughout North Carolina get housing safe from abuse or neglect). The non-profit owns and operates the lake and justifiably could have just kept it to itself. But instead, of course, locals and visitors are invited to enjoy the lake, white-sand beach and surrounding park land for free. Lifeguards are on duty during summer hours. Boating is limited to non-motorized vehicles (rentals are available). The lake is stocked with bluegill, largemouth bass and three types of trout (fishing license required). Tufts Memorial Park is adjacent to the “old-fashioned swimming hole” and provides restroom facilities, ice cream vending machines, and picnic tables.
Wine, which can be heart healthy, produced in the area is in a new American Viticultural Area (AVA): The Appalachian High Country AVA, officially designated on October 28, 2016, is a 2,400-square-mile area spanning eight counties and three states, including Banner Elk. Get an introduction to the distinctive attributes of the new AVA’s terroir at Banner Elk Winery, where wine tastings are offered daily from Noon to 6 p.m. throughout the year.
Prefer beer? No problem! Flat Top Mountain Brewery is the realized dream of its new owner, Mark Ralston. “I talked my wife into putting all our assets on the line for this,” he admits. Fortunately, his beer is so well-balanced and yummy that it’s easy to sip a pint or two and feel good about helping the genuinely nice guy keep his business afloat. Don’t miss Speckled Trout, an English-style mild ale.
Good tastes abound in Banner Elk, since it has several better-than-you’d-expect restaurants for a town of its size that collectively serve a wide range of regional and international fare. Stonewalls Restaurant has anchored the dining scene for more than 30 years; it has served steak and seafood since 1985, but recently underwent a major renovation under new owners Scott Garland and Chef Tim Heschke. Don’t miss the salad bar that boasts 50 items or the slow-roasted prime rib. Sorrento’s Italian Bistro serves traditional Italian fare based on recipes handed down through the family for three generations. Chef’s Table serves upscale creations by Chef Nicole Palazzo in a festive setting. Bayou Smokehouse serves Cajun- and Texas-inspired fare. Banner Elk Café, which also houses The Lodge Espresso Bar & Eatery, offers so many menu options it’s hard to choose, but you can’t go wrong with fresh mountain trout.
Banner Elk can warm your heart, fill your tummy and tuck you into a cozy bed. Expect to fall in love.
Banker Elk offers range of accommodation options from Best Western to B&Bs, quaint shops, and more of whatever you need to round out a visit.
– Photo Credits: Sorrento’s & Chef Palazzo by Todd Bush; Wildlife Center by Justin Reich; Wildcat Lake by Craig Distl; Best Western courtesy Distl PR; remainder © HSP Media LLC
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