Sylva, North Carolina - Anybody out there who doesn't love Asheville?
Apparently not: The high-elevation capital of western North Carolina is always awash in kudos as a “best” place for this and that. Its sophisticated, laid-back culture hosts more than 27 000 visitors daily.
That was fine with me, but I was planning an escape from Charlotte's summer heat with my 29-year-old son, Bing - a fine fellow traveller when it comes to beer, books and unusual food, but whose six years on a Navy frigate have left him a bit jaded about visiting crowded cities. So I proposed a kind of Asheville lite: Sylva, a town of about 2,600 residents, located an hour southwest of Asheville, tucked between the Great Balsam and Plott Balsam mountain ranges.
Bing agreed, and we headed west on the breathtaking Great Smoky Mountains Expressway. Clouds funnelled among green summits up to 6 000 feet high. The skies switched abruptly from sunshine to fog to downpour as we crossed ridgelines. Exit 85 took us to downtown Sylva, a trio of streets stacked at one-story intervals on a mist-cloaked mountainside.
After parking on Main Street, we strolled past four blocks of cafes, coffee shops, a pair of wine bars, two outfitters and a brace of galleries and antique shops. A home-decor consignment shop called Sassy Frass played the role of police station while the upcoming film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” was shot there earlier this year.
We crossed paths with well-dressed retirees and goat-legged hikers; a smattering of academics - Western Carolina University is six miles away - and a sprinkling of goths and long-hairs. The mini-Asheville visuals included the Mohawk-wearing guy behind the counter at In Your Ear (new and used CDs and vinyl) and a dad, pushing a baby carriage, with an impeccably waxed moustache and goatee.
As we walked through Sylva and the adjoining (and even smaller) village of Dillsboro, we made our mini-Asheville comparisons: Sylva has three bookstores - one for every 866 people. (Asheville: about one per 3 700 natives.) Sylva has three mircobreweries - one per 866 residents. (Asheville? One for close to every 4 900 thirsty citizens.) A third of Sylva's adults hold a bachelor's degree or higher, edging out Asheville-Brevard (31 percent) and the nation (29 percent).
We were in for two days of rarified alt-country living.
Harry Alter, a Pittsburgh native who has lived in Sylva for 12 years, presides over one of those bookstores, a used/rare/antiquarian shop on Main Street. Though Alter ships to customers around the country, “Fifty percent of my business is walk-in,” he said. Alter often works barefoot.
A couple of doors down, Friends of the Library sells cast-offs from the county library, now housed in the old Jackson County courthouse - a stunning 1914 Classical Revival-style building.
City Lights Bookstore & Cafe is a block away, and up the slope, on Jackson Street. It's one of the best bookstores in Western North Carolina. Florida-born employee Michael Redman said regional titles are the strength of the store, with the biggest name being Ron Rash, a Western Carolina professor whose novels include the 2008 bestseller Serena. Adjoining the bookstore is a vegetarian-friendly cafe that features local produce, cheese, beer and coffee.
Fare at the other dozen or so downtown restaurants includes mango-pork tacos, tahini kale salad and Italian pastries. There's not a franchise outlet among them (those are all on Sylva's outskirts). Locals told us that the best burger in town can be found at the Cosmic Carryout food truck, which is operated by a Florida man, with a braided beard, named Doug. He parks his truck near Innovation, a small brewery and tap room with a deck overlooking Scott Creek. It's popular with the younger crowd.
A block over and (literally) down, Mill Street has Heinzelmannchen Brewery, Sylva's first microbrewery.
It offers limited seating, but does a brisk trade in carryout growlers and kegs for locals who favour the top-fermented suds brewed by Bavarian-born owner Dieter Kuhn and his wife, Sheryl Rudd. They also offer creamy root beer and birch beer.
Business has changed in recent years.
“Sylva is more of a destination now,” Rudd said. “It used to be that people would pass through. Now they're staying.”
John Duncan, managing director of the town's newest brewpub, Sneak E. Squirrel, put it this way: “This area feels like Asheville did 20 years ago.”
Sneak E. Squirrel opened last summer in a former car dealership on the road to Dillsboro. It's large - plenty of elbow room for sipping Parrot Porter (me) and an English bitter called 221 Sneak E (Bing).
Duncan, who also teaches karate at Western Carolina, said the area has changed a lot in recent years and mentioned a few reasons: the opening of Harrah's Cherokee Hotel and Casino in 1997, about 15 miles away; the growth of WCU; and “the influx of millionaires” to the town of Cashiers, about 25 miles away.
For a mini-Asheville eco vibe, we headed to the Jackson County Green Energy Park. The former county landfill of 40 years is on the edge of town, overlooking the Tuckaseegee River, a famous rafting/kayaking site.
Chelsea Miller, who guided us around the grounds, said that when dumping was cut off in 1999, toxic gas emission levels were found to be dangerously high. The county responded by drilling 13 wells to pipe highly flammable methane to on-site sheds that were converted into metal forges, pottery kilns and a glassworks; artisans can rent them by the hour. Today, site emissions are well below Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.
The coolest of the ugly industrial buildings there is the former trash-transfer station. It houses a rough-hewn gallery displaying extraordinarily delicate glassware made on-site using silica mined up the road, in Spruce Pine.
Park director Timm Muth told us that he had worked as a nuclear engineer until coming there to reinvent himself as a mountain-bike guide, and was hired as a park adviser in 2005. Is he also an artisan? No, he said, but he is an author. He wrote “Mountain Biking in North Carolina,” and last year he self-published a fantasy novel, “Disciple of the Flames.”
Like Asheville, Sylva is prime territory for leg-stretching. We headed to Pinnacle Park, which has a city-owned peak that you can climb for free. It was a strenuous seven-mile, 2 900-foot ascent - often at a 40-degree incline. The trails were wide and well-maintained, but tend to be boulder-strewn former creek beds.
At the 5 000-foot summit, we carefully pushed through high-elevation rhododendrons abuzz with bees and were rewarded with a stunning 270-degree view.
When that half-day was over, we were ready for sustenance, so we returned to Sneak E. Squirrel, where Mark Harris, another Florida refugee, was behind the bar.
Harris, who also works as a fishing guide, reminded us that this area is trout-fishing heaven (Jackson County publishes a trout-centric fly-fishing trail brochure).
Next time we're up, he advised, try the upper Nantahala River, right below the hydro-electric plant near Wesser. It has scheduled water releases daily; that's when the water rises 1 1/2 feet and hungry, mature rainbow trout come out to feast.
Bing and I discussed this later. We may be hooked.
If you go...
Where to stay
Best Western River Escape Inn & Suites
248 WBI Dr., Dillsboro, N.C.
It's right on the Tuckasegee River with superb porch and balcony views of peaks, kayakers and rafters. River Escape refers to the railroad tracks across the street, where the convict Harrison Ford made his break during the filming of The Fugitive (1993). It's 2.4 miles from downtown Sylva - an easy walk, mostly on sidewalks, down US Route 107. Rooms from $117 (about R1 600).
Where to eat
Lulu's on Main
612 W. Main St., Sylva, N.C.
A regional award-winner with fare that ranges from pasta and salads to New Zealand rack of lamb. Entrees start at $11. Closed Sundays.
606 W. Main St., Sylva, N.C.
Cutting-edge Mexican fusion-inspired farm-to-table fare in a historic pharmacy, now decorated eye-poppingly bright by someone who appears to have channeled Jerry Garcia. Entrees start at $13.95.
403 Haywood Road, Dillsboro, N.C.
Solid, authentic Southern barbecue - think chopped pork, beef brisket and other smoked meats - by the sandwich or platter. Platters with two sides and Texas toast start at $10.99. Closed Mondays.
414 W. Main St., Sylva, N.C.
This small place still manages to offer 32 types of beer. Sure, it can be crowded (and service can be slow), but there are tables and stools on the creekside deck outside. Open noon to midnight daily.
545 Mill St., Sylva, N.C.
The first micro in this part of North Carolina is a kind of hole-in-the-wall operation beloved by area folks. “Heinzelmannchen,” by the way, is German for the gnome-like creatures said to dwell in the Black Forest. You can buy growlers (jugs) of suds, up to two liters in size, to take home. Open noon to 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and noon to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Closed Sundays.
Sneak E Squirrel
1315 W. Main St., Sylva, N.C.
You'll find elbow room and a relaxed vibe in this brewpub located between downtown Sylva and Dillsboro in a former car dealership. Live music on Saturday nights and contra dancing on occasional Friday evenings. Open 2 p.m. to midnight daily.
What to do
Harry Alter Books558 W. Main St., Sylva, N.C.
This used/antiquarian shop is heaven for book lovers, with a large and wide-ranging inventory that's well-organized. Can't find what you seek? Harry Alter can order it and mail it to you. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Friends of the Library Used Bookstore
536 W. Main St., Sylva, N.C.
Looking for deals? Here's where you'll find good-condition castoffs from the Jackson County Library (as well as volunteer donations). This nonprofit operation has hardcover and paperback fiction and nonfiction. Open 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
City Lights Bookstore
3 E. Jackson St., Sylva, N.C.
This is considered to be the best independent bookstore west of Asheville, and its well-informed staff is quite helpful. The two cats wandering about? They're Rowena and Cedric (both named after characters in Sir Walter Scott's “Ivanhoe”). Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10am to 3pm Sunday.
Green Energy Park
100 Green Energy Park Rd., Dillsboro, N.C.
Free tours of this trash-to-crafts complex are offered from 10am to 3pm Thursday through Sunday and by appointment. The park also offers beginner's classes in glassblowing and metalworking.