Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Blue Ridge - Rediscovering a mountain getaway

Old homestead on Aska Road along the Toccoa River. Photo © by Judy Wells.
I had been to Blue Ridge, population 1,209, many times, thanks to a cousin who lives there, and thought I knew the area with its peaceful views of mountains, rivers, streams and waterfalls.

Not quite. I knew the area and had seen its growth (double the number of vacation homes in 10 years), but hadn't explored downtown for many years.

West Main Street, Blue Ridge. Photo © by Debi Lander.
Won't make that mistake again because it's hopping. A world famous bamboo fly rod maker and school, a jewelry designer whose work is worn by Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, an olive oil and balsamic vinegar store, prize-winning cupcake bakers and innovative restauranteurs have joined the familiar line of art galleries and gift shops.
Vinegars at Blue Ridge Olive Oil Company. Photo © by Debi Lander.

After checking out Tank Town just down the road, we began our Blue Ridge visit at the Fannin County Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center, meeting our hosts, Jan Hackett and Jode Hanson, and getting an overview of the town. Turned out to be a smart stop for any traveler with good free maps and a variety of self-guided driving, hiking and history tours.

Start with food

Driving tanks is hungry work so lunch was first on the agenda. Lucky us, it was at Blue Ridge Grocery, one of many projects of former editor and food writer Michelle Moran and her husband, Chef Danny Mellman.

Michelle Moran and Danny Mellman. Photo © by Judy Wells.
This creative couple have created two restaurants, a one-acre downtown farm where they created the Kids Farm to Table Camp and took an old downtown building and revamped the upstairs into urban cabin-style bedroom rentals.
Kale salad. Food photos © by Debi Lander.

Peaches-n-Cream pie.
Looking and sniffing around the aromatic Grocery with its made-in-house with local produce fare, we realized it was going to be tough to decide on just one thing. Lucky us again. Michelle had sampler plates brought out. Great kale salad, yummy sandwiches and, thanks to baker Heather MacLeod, a delicious peaches and cream pie.

Get the stories
Having sampled ourselves into satiety, we met with blonde and bubbly former Atlantan Lynn Kemp, who turned her jewelry making hobby into Gawdy Bobbles.
Bobbles. Photo © by Debi Lander.
Lynn Kemp. Photo © by Judy Wells.

What began with light-weight bangles in school colors has turned into an international business selling custom-crafted earrings, bracelets and necklaces for women - and men! - through boutiques, the internet and her small store in Blue Ridge.

Making Bobbles in Blue Ridge. Photo © by Debi Lander.
Sports Illustrated bathing suit models have worn her creations for the last two years and her jewelry has been singled out by CBS Atlanta and Parents Magazine.

It was singled out by us, too; we each left with a "starter set" of bangles.

Fashion tip for spring 2014 from Lynn: Look for natural and tribal tones.

 Just around the corner from Lynn's workshop is Oyster Fine Bamboo Fly Rods, otherwise known as nirvana for fly fishing devotees. Bill Oyster is renowned for his rods, each one made and engraved by his hand. Ninety rods a year is the output; most are custom made, but the few "standards" that slip out are quickly snatched up despite price tags that start at $2,390 and go up well into five figures (averages $4,000-$6,000 vs. $900 for best graphite rod).

Bill and his wife, Shannen, were out of town so we talked to Oyster's apprentice Riley Gudakunst. He told us the story of how Bill was a professional cyclist until  forced to retire following a bad crash. He liked to fly fish, but when wife Shannen found out how expensive bamboo fly rods were, she had a suggestion, "Learn how to make your own."
Riley, our Oyster guide. Photo © by Debi Lander.

He did and the rest is angling history, countless magazine stories and a devoted following that includes Pres. Jimmy Carter.

Oyster etching. Photo © by Debi Lander.
Bill is still the only professional rod-maker who does all of the hand engraving himself.

Evidently, that etched silver, gold or brass cap at the end is quite important to rod owners. One of Bill's makes the rod an heirloom piece.

Common area at Oyster Cast and Blast Inn. Photo © by Debi Lander.
Riley showed us through the workroom where the magic happens then told us about their school where anglers can make their own custom bamboo rod over a six day period; cost $1,570. After that it was up to the second floor to see The Oyster Cast and Blast Inn, four en suite bedrooms with common space that can be rented.

Like so many people you meet in Blue Ridge, the Oysters left the city for the quality of life and slower pace (and in their case, trout fishing) here, and started innovative businesses that are growing like kudzu.

Cupcake Wars winners. Photo © by Debi Lander.
We cruised some of the galleries and shops, including The Sweet Shoppe   where we picked up some of Nikki Gribble and Susan Catron's Cupcake Wars winning delights for snacks, then decided to catch a little natural beauty. There was just time before dinner at Chef Danny Melman's Harvest on Main to drive out and see Fall Branch Falls.
Fall Branch Falls. Photo © by Debi Lander.

It was a lovely interlude but our table awaited at the rustic lodge-like eatery with the fine cuisine.
Harvest on Main. Photo © by Judy Wells.

Considering how much we had left to see - not to mention eat - the Good Girls put Blue Ridge atop of their list for a return visit. Next time we rent a cabin, sit back and relax like everyone else who falls in love with this hideaway.
Fall Branch Falls. Photo © by Debi Lander.


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