Heading up Hemphill Road, just outside Maggie Valley, the lush fields and bungalow homes of Jonathan Creek fade in the rearview mirror. I pull up to a large metal gate and soon find myself meandering along a dirt road, pushing ever so carefully toward the top of the 5,000-foot ridge.
At the end of the dirt road, you feel as if you’d drive off the edge of the earth if you went any further. It’s there that a large wooden guesthouse appears, surrounded by several small cabins and all tucked underneath large trees and thick vegetation. Welcome to The Swag.
“I’ve been the owner and innkeeper since 1969, when my husband, Dan, and I bought this property and developed it,” said Deener Matthews. “People from all over the world come here, and it’s so exciting. I get so energized when I see just how far people travel to be part of what we’re doing.”
In their decades of proud ownership, The Swag turned a new corner this year. Haywood County’s dry spell (forbidding the purchase or sale of alcohol outside of the city limits of Waynesville, Maggie Valley, and Canton) came to an end thanks to a new law. Now, the mountaintop retreat is aiming to change things up a little bit.
The Swag will not only sell alcohol onsite, they’re also planning on hosting craft beer tastings. They held their first event last summer when Hi-Wire Brewing of Asheville poured their wares in celebration of the craft beer boom that has taken over Western North Carolina in recent years.
“We’re hoping to do craft beer tastings about once a month up here,” said Haley Stevenson, beverage coordinator for The Swag. “With craft beer, we’re also looking to draw in new faces up to The Swag. And also younger guests, who can come up here and enjoy the beauty for the first time.”
The Swag is an internationally well-known high-end travel destination for lodging and culinary delights. But Stevenson is trying to get the word out that you don’t have to reserve a room to enjoy a one-of-a-kind fine dining experience.
“We’re trying to get more locals to come see what we’re all about—more people from Asheville,” she said. “And I think the more new faces we bring in, the more that ideas will emerge on what else we can do and offer up here.”
Following the Hi-Wire tasting, The Swag showcased their new executive chef, Jake Schmidt. He’s only been at the inn for a short time, but the culinary wizard comes with a long line of credentials. He served stints as an executive chef at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville and as the executive sous chef at The Signature Room, a renowned restaurant on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center in downtown Chicago.
“My style is ever evolving, ever changing,” Schmidt said. “We get whatever we can locally and seasonally. We’re also bringing in fish from the coast three times a week. We like to show our staff and our guests perhaps things they’ve never seen before. And it’s nice to work with fresh ingredients right from our garden where we have a master horticulturist onsite.”
It’s not easy to corral the guests scattered around the property. Many are enjoying the priceless view over Haywood County with their wine glasses held high. Several are wandering the picturesque garden. A handful have disappeared for a quick jaunt down hiking trails into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which borders The Swag. But when she does, Deener thanks everyone within earshot for being part of her lifelong creation.
Her sincerity for all of those in attendance is only matched by Schmidt’s joyful explanation of “Tonight’s Menu,” a never-ending long table of intricate salads, tantalizing finger foods, fresh vegetables, lean proteins, and scrumptious desserts. It’s a feast made for a king—or a queen in all actuality, when you see the ear-to-ear smile on Deener’s face. She’s sitting at the head of one of the large dining tables, immersed in conversation about these mountains and their intricate history with friends and guests from down the hill or across the country.
Even after all these years, you find yourself sitting there—facing other dinner guests, now fast friends—in awe of the scene unfolding in front of you. It’s proof positive that The Swag remains a place where you’re “above the distraction.” It’s a unique mountain property where you shake off the trials and tribulations of everyday life with each curve in the road leading to the inn. It’s an escape route back to nature, back to the essence of yourself.
“At 5,000 feet, we’re the highest inn in the eastern United States. And it’s been thrilling to do this,” Deener noted after the commotion of the dinner dies down. “When I first opened as an inn, I was the key employee. And we had a man who slept on Gooseberry Knob in a tent who helped mow the lawn, get firewood, and wash the dishes. And to see it now? It’s just incredible.”