The Swag — The pinnacle of picnics
Some of my fondest childhood memories are the Viau family picnics in the Rocky Mountains above Denver. They were simple, spur of the moment outings that included a few sandwiches, chips and Nehi sodas, hastily thrown into a wicker basket.
The desserts were great, because we lived close to the Wonder Bread bakery outlet, with discount prices on all the Hostess delicacies — Twinkies, Snowballs and Cupcakes.
Over the years, my picnic experiences — along with my culinary appreciation — have greatly improved. And they recently reached a new high, with what I consider the ultimate picnic experience at The Swag.
The Swag Country Inn is a rustic mountain retreat nestled high atop Hemphill, along the Cataloochee Divide, on a ridge bordering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It is the vision of Dan and Deener Matthews, who bought the land — more than 250 acres — in 1969, and transformed it from a high-meadow potato farm to a high-end travel destination.
Travelers flock to The Swag from across the country and around the world, seeking the peace and solitude of The Swag’s luxurious surroundings. The rooms are wonderfully appointed, to be sure, but the grounds are idyllic — reflecting centuries of artistry by the greatest of all designers — Mother Nature.
Did you know? In geographic terminology, swag is a dip between two mountain peaks, not deep enough to be deemed a gap or a pass.
My personal definition of The Swag is more like, “a wistful, mist-full mountain tapestry of sky blues and lush forest hues, stretching out like a hammock as far as the eye can see.”
My wife and I first experienced The Swag two years ago, on our 20th anniversary. Instead of dinner out at one of Waynesville’s fine restaurants, we opted for “The Chef’s Wednesday Picnic” at The Swag. It was delightful, and not only was the setting majestic and the food extraordinary — the hospitality of the staff and relaxed conversation with new friends made it a truly unforgettable experience.
We weren’t the only couple celebrating our anniversary that day, but we noticed all of the couples behaved like newlyweds.
This year, we returned to The Swag during our anniversary week for another unforgettable picnic experience, and immediately met a couple, Tina and Matt Agee from Frederick, Maryland, who were returning to celebrate their 30th anniversary.
It had been 10 years since their last visit, and Matt spoke for all of the men when he said, “Boy did I luck into something. I got big points with my wife for coming here.”
Another couple, ages 60 and 75, bragged about the 4-hour hike they did the previous day with storyteller, Donald Davis — to the top of Purchase Knob.
We met picnic goers from North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Alabama, Maryland and Florida. We also met Susan Moody Stevens, whose family sold the land that is now The Swag to the Matthews, 44 years ago.
Being back atop Gooseberry Knob was in her words, “… like coming home.”
The conversation flowed freely — until Dan Matthews introduced executive chef, Ronnie Potter-Bowers.
That’s when the salivating began: grass-fed Angus burgers cooked to order; fresh-caught, and prepared, North Carolina fish burgers; chef Taylor Jesse’s homemade Andouille sausage; and buttermilk fried chicken, in chef Ronnie’s words, “The way my Granny did it.”
Accompaniments included salad greens, assorted grilled vegetables, traditional Southern macaroni salad and potato wedges.
Then there was the dessert table, which I had already scouted. All the fresh pastries were lovingly prepared by Hemphill resident, Linda Duckett. It was an impressive array of goodies — lemon-blueberry pound cake, strawberry crème tart, chocolate pecan pie, lemon-coconut roulade, and the world’s best fudge.
After Dan Matthews gave thanks to the Lord, the 40-plus picnic goers made their food choices and ambled to their chosen dining spots. Along with traditional (but covered) picnic tables, Gooseberry Knob also has a spacious covered log gazebo topped with with a Rhododendron-root finial. There is also plenty of laid-back, “couples” Adirondack chairs — neatly facing the breathtaking views of Jonathan Valley and beyond.
The Matthews were gracious hosts, making the rounds visiting with all their guests. I was amazed that they knew so many by their first names. In that sense, it felt more like a family picnic, except my family never enjoyed meals like this.
Throughout the dining portion of the picnic, dining room manager, Sandra Lankfort and staff were ever-present —whisking empty plates away, freshening drinks and even dispensing condiments.
It seemed my plate was always getting empty.
I agreed with one of the picnic-goers, Sherry Fasano of South Carolina, who said, “My favorite thing is the view of the food.”
Following lunch, premier storyteller, Donald Davis, mesmerized the crowd with tales of his childhood days in Haywood County. It was quite a treat.
All in all, our chef’s Wednesday picnic at The Swag was perfect, right down to the rain-free, 70-degree day.
One of the picnic goers, Parke Morris, whose uncle, John Smart, led many hiking trips in the mountains, summed it up perfectly — “We left a 102-dgree heat index in Memphis. This is Nirvana.”
The Swag hosts the Chef’s Picnic at noon every Wednesday, from mid-April through Thanksgiving. The tariff is $46 per person, limited to the first 40-or-so paid guests. Reservations are required, and many Wednesdays during “leaf season” are already booked. If the weather doesn't cooperate, the picnic is held in the inn's spacious living room.
The Swag also offers a weekly Sunday brunch, served at 12:30 p.m. in the main lodge dining room.
For more information, call The Swag at 800-789-7672, or visit the Web site at www.theswag.com.