A Christmas Holiday Retreat in Dillsboro/Balsam
Crisp mountain air, luminaries, carolers performing on the street corner and the whistle of a steam locomotive set the stage for an memorable holiday weekend in Dillsboro, N.C. Just down the road, the Balsam Inn welcomes you with a blazing fire, hot cider and comfortable rooms. Only 2.5 hours from Charlotte, you’ll feel a thousand miles away and decades in the past.
Dillsboro, just off Rt. 23/441 west of Asheville, is a charming town anytime. But at the holidays, the charm multiplies amid twinkling lights and holiday music. Small shops line the streets and there’s something for every shopper — trains, decorator items, jewelry, chocolate, linens, candles, wildlife provisions, art, an old-fashioned general store, pottery, and, particularly timely, a store specializing in Christmas decor. At one end of town is an historic inn — the Jarett House — that serves up delicious food in a family-style dining atmosphere.
We caught the Polar Express train out of Dillsboro at 7 p.m. on a chilly Friday night in early December. As the Dixie Flyer flew through the countryside (perhaps "ambled" is a better word), the seasonally-lit homes trainside faded away and the ensuing isolation added to the aura of a trip to the Northern Lights. Lucky travelers were served a three-course dinner in the dining cars by a formal waitstaff. As promised, at the North Pole (halfway through the 1.5-hour trip) Santa appeared with his reindeer, boarded the train and read "The Polar Express" to a group of awestruck children, many dressed in their pajamas.
The Balsam Inn, which celebrates its 100th anniversary year this year, was all the rage in your great grandparents’ day. Looking around the grounds, it’s easy to picture the days of the travelers who came by train, exiting at the railway station down the hill and shepherding their trunks up the hill to the inn. No cookie-cutter design here — every room is different. Repeat visitors usually have a favorite. Renovations over the years have led to a private bath with every room. For parents with children, the ground floor is recommended – the double-wide halls (they had to accommodate the huge steamer trunks of the day) are not soundproofed and every footstep your little ones make will echo down the hall.
My favorite memory is returning from Dillsboro on a cold December night to a roaring fire in the inn’s lobby fireplace – a very welcoming sight. We dined at the inn a couple of times and were impressed at the quality of the food. The breakfast room was particularly welcoming – decorated in shades of purples and white.
You can easily finish your holiday shopping in the inn’s gift shop on the off chance that you didn’t get enough of shopping in Dillsboro.
Ready to go? Here’s the info you’ll need:
Dillsboro, N. C.
www.visitdillsboro.org or www.dillsboronc.info
Food and lodging since 1884
National Registry of Historic Places
828-586-0265 or 1-800-972-5623
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Dining Train - Nov. 16-Dec. 23 out of Dillsboro
$58 adults , $33 children, $13 children under 2 (no meal) • plus tax and gratuity, added at time of reservation
The Polar Express train also departs from Bryson City, N.C. (about 20 minutes up the road) with no meal (cookies and hot chocolate) — Nov. 9-Dec. 23 — $35 adults, $23 children
www.gsmr.com or www.polarexpressride.com
1-800-872-4681 or 828-586-8811
50 rooms, each with private bath
$139-$219, full breakfast included
no phones or TVs
1-800-224-9498 or 828-456-9498
Christmas lights: The inn invites area residents and inn guests to pitch in on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to help decorate for the holiday season.
Elaine Heitman is Charlotte Parent executive editor.