Living Luxe / Summer 2018
By Kelly Merritt
The year is 1913. Edwin Wiley Grove watches as the doors open on his Sunset Mountain hotel. The Grove Park Inn comes to life in all its stone grandeur, its massive fireplaces large enough for a man to stand in, the entrance a jaw-dropping panorama every guest will remember for a lifetime. What began as a place for a pharmaceutical innovator to take in the healing mountain air becomes an instant icon. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan delivers the keynote address to hundreds of guests at the opening banquet, declaring the Grove Park Inn as “built for the ages.”
More than a century later, the queen of the Western North Carolina mountains still reigns as the stone lady of Southern hospitality.
I’ve been visiting the Grove Park Inn for decades. You’d think the childlike wonder would wear off after all this time, but that first glimpse of the main lodge still gives me goosebumps. This hulking, genteel establishment etches its mark on those who visit, much like the messages carved into the boulders that bind Grove Park’s 36-foot fireplaces.
I’m not the first to credit Grove Park for the notorious writer’s-block buster that it is, but I do know staying here never fails to inspire and enrich the artists portrayed in the sketches and photos that adorn its halls. To this day, my fondest stay was in the room dedicated to and once occupied by my creative hero, ballet impresario Mikhail Baryshnikov. When I saw his name commemorated on a plaque by the door, I remember thinking, ‘This is so Grove Park.’ This is a place of memories. I have many, too many, to name in one story. But it’s an honor to share what I love about it with others, so that they, too, might make a few memories of their own here.
It is not only possible that Golden Crescent visitors checking into the Grove Park Inn may choose not to leave the property, but probable. In the main lodge, it’s tempting to wedge yourself into one of the plush fireside seats and do nothing else for the duration of your stay. And I have done just that on many occasions. It’s long been my dream as a writer to become a kind of grown-up Eloise of the Grove Park, staying there for an extended time, becoming a part of its storied history.
For first-timers to the Grove Park Inn, a proud member of the prestigious Historic Hotels of America, I heartily recommend the Inn’s complimentary, guided history tour. It highlights the story of E.W. Grove, the construction of the hotel and even the background behind the furnishings — plus an overview of the dozens of notable guests who have rested their heads within the Grove Park Inn’s hallowed grounds.
As for things to do, indulging in beverages and fine cuisine should top your task list at Grove Park. During the spring, summer and fall months, there’s nothing like cocktails on the Sunset Terrace. This perched porch houses the resort’s chophouse and offers an expansive view of the mountains. Around the corner and down the hall, EDISON Craft Ales + Kitchen boasts a more lively, contemporary atmosphere. Fancy-local is on the menu at VUE 1913, a classic brasserie-style eatery — gourmands will love one of my favorite perks, whole roasted Hudson Valley foie gras sliced tableside.
Elsewhere throughout the resort, opportunities to snack and imbibe abound, in pop-up carts showcasing the resort’s “soil food” in homage to local veggies. In the Presidents Lounge, put down the mobile devices, peruse the tea menu and give a nod to the Southern heritage of iced tea and conversation. In addition, there are three beer walls to choose from, locally roasted coffee and a soda wall coming this summer to showcase soda from nearby Waynesville Soda Jerks.
And yes, there is such a thing as a master chocolatier. His name is John Cook, and as the executive pastry chef at the helm of the Pastry Shoppe, this award-winning chocolate artist fashioned a warm cookie bar in the resort lounge with pastry tarts and seasonal truffles.
The Inn’s culinary staff is committed to area farmers, and in the spirit of that honor, have created a very special Grove Park tradition. Participants can now sign up to tag along to a local farmer’s market on Saturday mornings with one of the resort chefs. After procuring their chosen homegrown goods, guests can enjoy the spoils of their hunt in a multi-course meal prepared that night in one of the Inn’s lavish dining rooms.
The Grove Park Inn grand lobby is what you first see when you cross the facade. It is a massive thing — and always makes me think of a place I don’t want to leave. Across the vista, there are mountains in the distance and to the left and right, giant fireplaces alight in front of several rocking chairs. There is seating everywhere and varying options in comfy chairs and straight-back chairs, coffee tables and game tables, and it’s fun to imagine people lounging here in the past. I often wonder how many people have said, “I love you” for the first time in this room, how many conversations happened while leaning against the lobby bar, waiting for the tart sip of a vodka gimlet to crisp their lips, and how many weary travelers must have collapsed in the cushy chairs, grateful for the break in their journey.
As a self-proclaimed architecture buff, when I think of the Spa at Grove Park Inn, the anticipation of the relaxation to come is accompanied by sheer marvel. I love to visit the subterranean spa and simply sit in the pools, gazing upward into the cavernous grotto, examining the rock walls and imagining what it took to build 20 water features and mineral pools, as well as the endless arches and tunnels within the 43,000 square feet of space. While there are dozens of options for treatments and activities here — like contrast pools, inhalation rooms and saunas — the therapeutic waterfalls are a favorite for soothing tired shoulders. The lap pool, swathed in more than 6,000 fiber-optic stars doesn’t hurt, either.
The newest architecture at the Inn is named for its maker, the Seely Pavilion. It always impresses me how everything new honors the old here. Brides-to-be swoon at the thought of getting married in this legendary structure, so its picturesque event space serves as an ideal wedding venue with exposed trusses, a large fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows giving way to panoramic mountain views.
Yet, the main lodge is where I spend the majority of my time. Here again, the stones tell a story. I sit in solace and gratitude for what it took to create this place. Throughout 10-hour shifts, hundreds of men hauled granite boulders to build Grove Park Inn. They had no bulldozers or sky-high cranes, only ropes, mules and wagons to help them harvest Sunset Mountain to construct the space.
As a lifelong traveler, I often find myself saying, “Now this is my favorite place,” and then at the next stop, I’ll say it again, and again, and so on. But I keep returning to the Grove Park Inn, not just for the architecture or escape, but because it is a sacred retreat for writers. This is home to pressureless creative thinking, where muses play freely in the grand lobby and run through the halls.
I teach writing to young people during the summer months in Asheville and always challenge them to seek inspiration in places like the Grove Park Inn, because much of the writing process happens before you ever type a single word. It is so often dependent on the atmosphere. For me, it is sitting in historic places, contemplating the past that invites my fictional characters to emerge, when they know I am listening and am ripe to hear them. This is almost impossible to do at home where responsibility and people serve as tempting distractions. Something about the coolness of the stone at Grove Park encourages a heavy quietude, beckoning the static of life to back off for a bit. Just have a notebook at the ready, because after an hour in the rocking chairs at Grove Park, the words will come pouring onto the pages.
So much has changed in Asheville over the years, even at my beloved Grove Park Inn. It is now part of the Omni family of hotels, which is a good thing, because to me, that is a sign of its longevity. But the spirit of the inn remains just as it was when I stood awestruck, that very first time, looking up at the great stone facade.