So it's Saturday afternoon and Janet and I have driven up the mountain from Spartanburg to Black Mountain, where a guy named Scott at a place called The Madison Inn is holding us a $119 suite for $79. We'd picked Black Mountain because Janet wanted to see it because she wants to go to LEAF (The Lake Edens Arts Festival), and I wanted to stop by Song of the Wood, the famous hammer dulcimer shop of Jerry Reed Smith. And besides, it was not too far from where we had been and on the way to where we were headed.
When you call up The Madison's website, the first thing you notice is that it doesn't look like any of the stereotypic "bed and breakfast" resorts that you tend to find advertised from the Southern Appalachians. Which is to say that The Madison doesn't look like and isn't marketed as a cross between a Shoney's megabar and a Thomas Kinkade painting.
In fact, it looked like a very well-loved survivor of the old 1950s motor hotel craze, those one- and two-story cinder-block drive-ups that replaced the old travel "cabins" and the older downtown hotels with their bellhops and polished wood. You can still find these places on secondary highways in places like Cherokee, but most died out when the first interstates went in and left them pining for the old days of slow, two-lane highways.
Anyway, there was something just odd enough about it that my interest was piqued, and the price was nice, too: single rooms for $59, including breakfast for two people. It hardly mattered that they were out of the singles by the time I called -- I was more than willing to spend the extra $20 to see what a suite looked like.
We showed up in Black Mountain and just drove through town to try to get the hang of it, then called to find out how to get to The Madison. Turns out the inn is not located in Black Mountain proper, but about four miles east and one interstate exit away.
Getting there put us in a good mood. You drive out of town, take a right at the top of the interstate exit, and "follow the blue B&B signs," which lead at each turn into a less and less likely spot to find any kind of hotel. The Madison is also a popular local restaurant, and it was easy to spot: A traffic jam in a tiny residential neighborhood, just across a steep gravel road from a mobile home.
Check-in was a counter that also served as the front desk to the dining room for the restaurant downstairs. This was exceedingly cozy, a combo knick-knack stand and eclectic bistro, lit with the difuse light of tiny white Christmas strings twined between the bare fingers of tree branches, which the owners had bracketed to the ceiling.
We were greeted by Scott, a fit-looking blonde man about our age who was co-owner of the place, and sent upstairs to "Cedar's Retreat" with a room key, which wasn't really needed as the door wasn't locked.
The suite was actually two small rooms connected by knocking out much of the wall between them. As you can see in the photo above, the living room area was quite homey. Everything seemed quite personally arranged and indvidually designed.
We particularly like the shower, which had been enlarged by combining the space once split between two rooms and then turned into ... well, this cool stone masonry look, with two pulsating shower heads we really weren't smart enough to operate properly.
On the living room side, the remains of the bathroom area had been converted into a bar area with sink and mini-fridge, plus a half-bath.
For dinner we had trout and pasta (J doesn't like fish), served in a back dining room called "the library," then went upstairs for the night.
We didn't quite know what to expect from breakfast, so we just went down, took a seat, asked for some coffee and waited. A few minutes after the coffee arrived, Scott brought out two enormous plates of food: a strip of bacon, cream-cheese pancakes, homefries, marble rye toast, scrambled eggs. In our limited experience with B&Bs, this was another slightly unusual twist on tradition. Most places want to feed everybody at once, family style, and this can be either good or bad, depending on the company. The Madison treats breakfast seriously, and the food is great, but it's on your own, served restaurant-style, whenever you're ready and on your schedule.
We talked a bit with Scott, and he brought out a photo album that showed the inn's transition from a Baptist retreat center called Lawing Lodge to its modern configuration as this quirky, fun little place to stay. Janet asked him a bunch of questions about their designs and ideas, and their goal, it seems, was to build something non-corporate.
I'd say that they succeeded. Everywhere I looked there were personal touches that signalled a great attention to detail: places to sit, a rock-lined "stream," statuary... enough here-and-there surprises that it has the effect of making you feel special.
I don't usually go on and on about a hotel, but this isn't your average place to stay in the mountains. It doesn't have great views. It isn't right next to some headlining natural attraction. There aren't any stereotypic on-site: just a funky place to stay above a cool restaurant in the middle of a rather odd neighborhood that doesn't seem to be attached to much of anything.
How these guys managed to look into the dump that was the remains of Lawing Lodge and see the potential that would become The Madison is anybody's guess. All I know is, this is a great place to stay in the mountains that manages to be friendly without intruding on its guests privacy.
Anyway, after breakfast, we headed up US 221 toward Linville and on to Valle Crucis.