Tifton Gazette

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October 9, 2011

Mountain town with passion and pleasures: Blue Ridge, Ga.

TIFTON —   Layers and layers of good times: that’s what I like to discover in a community. More than meets my eye, or taste buds, at first glance.

    Let me have fun fast, but give me plenty of reasons to stay longer, and to return. 

    That’s what happened to me in Blue Ridge, Georgia. I already had a favorite antique mall on a steep corner, a bookseller named E. Quinn and a cooperative of local and regional fine artists called Turning Leaf Wood Gallery on East Main Street.

     Been there, done that might influence my mood since I pass Blue Ridge en route to my family cabin in neighboring McCaysville.

    Three nights in a bed and breakfast named Aska Lodge changed everything. Innkeepers Mary Jo and Bob Stamper are so delighted with their community that traveling partner G. W. Tibbetts and I decided to delve in.

    This is a four-guestroom lodge and the other six people were directly off the plane from Germany and Scotland.

    If they chose Aska Lodge and Blue Ridge because of Trip Advisor research, it seemed high time I stuck around.    

    Funny what it takes to pay attention in our own back yards.

    All wood this handsome two-story lodge, perched on a hill giving woodsy views and cardio walks.

    This is a certified wildlife habitat and Bob is certified too! He’s a Georgia Master Naturalist, so stories are abundant if you want them about neighborhood bears, birds and creatures in the woods.

    Hummingbirds in September piled on 15 feeders, a symphony along the porch running the length of the Lodge and humming on the private upper balconies for three of the rooms.

    This porch is designed for lingering: rockers with cushions, a grouping of wicker furniture, big wooden swing, café table with chairs. And the view.

    Go when it’s chilly and Mary Jo has you covered with plushy blankets at the front door.

    Aska seemed to be a lodge anticipating all needs. Towels in the upper foyer in case I went kayaking or tubing on the many rivers, or swimming at Morganton Point beach at Lake Blue Ridge.

 Binoculars on every porch. White-noise machines to filter hallway sounds that I never heard.

    Books a-plenty in the large sitting area. I chose an Annie Proulx called “Shipping News.”

    Easy to launch Blue Ridge hikes, driving tours, art events and galleries, shopping, water sports and wine tasting from Aska Lodge, and easy to stay put. These innkeepers figured out just the right amount of conversation: accessible and interesting they are, but not ever-present.

    Leave the pets at home, and only include children older than 10. Plan to spend $96 up to $150 a night.

    Bring a morning appetite. My menus included zucchini cheddar frittata with smoked turkey sausage, carrot jam and banana bread. Another morning—smoked Gouda spinach soufflé with sausage rolls.

    For the afternoons, I heartily recommend maps you can pick up at the Welcome Center, download from  HYPERLINK "http://www.BlueRidgeMountains.com" www.BlueRidgeMountains.com or ask for at Aska Lodge.

    Clarity these maps gave G.W. and me: simple road layout on one side and mile-by-mile, or smaller, increments with clear descriptions on the other.

    Somebody worked hard to have details that make sense to strangers. They have alluring titles for three driving tours: mountains and countryside, Cohutta wilderness and mountains, forest and valleys.

    “No need to say head north in these mountains,” Jode Hanson with the Fannin County Welcome Center told me, “because the same road can turn north, south, east and west.”

    I also saw easy shifts from forest to meadow to farmland, and the rivers.

    Three maps focus on whitewater, waterfalls, the Toccoa and Ocoee rivers, Lake Blue Ridge and its dam. Same clear detail.

    Biking trails, county history sites, shopping, dining and a downtown walking tour are the others.

    Was it all that map-following that set me hunting a spa? Or just because I wanted one?

    Teatrees Boutique Spa is intimate: five treatment rooms tucked in a courtyard a few steps down from bustling Main Street. 

    I chose a 90-minute Thai yoga massage because you don’t find that skill many places, and it was superb. Looking for less? Teatrees welcomes drop-ins for 15 and 20 minute massages.

    Might ask for a vinotherapy treatment another time, not a routine facial. Teatrees owners Betty Jane and Andrew Bruce also have a wine boutique and tasting room in downtown Blue Ridge.

    Grapeseed is one of their spa specialties, byproduct of guess what? Winemaking in southern California.

    What a delightful family lifestyle duo of careers in a town of 23,000 full time residents and many visitors that native Sarah Verner says “has always had a bedrock of creative spirit.

    “Move here and find the opportunity to reinvent yourself and participate.”

    I’m not planning to move but I saw clearly how that creative spirit infuses visiting experiences.

    Verner heads up The Art Center where 600 plus artists hold memberships, and galleries and festivals abound with their work.

    “Everything we do impacts art, artists and the community,” she says. “This county is 42 percent national forest and that inspires people to paint, take a picture, write.

    “We have artists because we have nature,” Verner says, “and we inspire more.”

    Her family background in these foothills of the Appalachians is mining and I want to hear more about that because she calls mountain mining life “a culture of creativity.”

    In 1921 her great-granddad was the Tennessee fiddling champion so I guess it’s true.

    Exhibitions and artists-in-residence are already booked through 2013. Catch the fourth annual Southern Appalachian Artists Guild show opening Oct. 15 with juried fine art from 33 states.

    Says Verner: “We’re a small mountain town with art from all over the country and you can buy original works here cheaper than prints in Atlanta.”

    The Art Center has energy, even in the front yard with cheerful sculpture, more folk art than formal. It’s an historic building, a former courthouse now on the National Register and next door to the new courthouse.

    They also made it easy to follow the Blue Ridge Art Trail with a brochure pinpointing 20 places to discover art and music, some all the time and some special events.

    I want to do that, but I also wanted to follow a trail started by Benton McKaye; he’s the instigator of the Appalachian Trail.

     This one, named for him, is 288 miles in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. Less daunting than the fabled AT, and more primitive and solitary, but it does cross the Appalachian Trail four times.

    “Sort of a figure eight with the AT,” Ralph Heller told me. He and his wife Marge greet visitors and Trail volunteers at a late 1800s log cabin, moved and restored as a welcome center.

    Family passion and partnership yet again fueling Blue Ridge.

 Every third weekend is a group hike of nine or 10 miles; registration in advance required.

    Want to help care for this Trail marked with white diamond blazes? Every second weekend the Hellers launch volunteer crews with non-motorized tools and a plan.

    Lots to launch in this town I mistakenly passed so many times. Enough for a separate story next week about Blue Ridge chefs and their food, wine lovers and their tasting rooms plus community theater, music and art walks.

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