Stay in a historic home turned modern mountain inn, dig into a cheese board at a farmstead creamery, hike in the footsteps of Revolutionary War militiamen, and sip wine by the fire during a getaway to the Foothills.
In many ways, Jennifer Perkins is like most dairy farmers: up before sunrise, enjoying some calm quiet with the cows before a busy day of tending animals. But Looking Glass Creamery, the dairy that Jennifer owns with her husband, Andy, doesn’t simply sell its milk to be processed elsewhere. Instead, the Perkins bring their consumers to them on this heritage farm, where visitors can enjoy farm-made products surrounded by the natural beauty of Polk County.
In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, their farm isn’t alone in taking something that’s been rooted in the past and making it a little fresher, a little unexpected. Starting with the old and adding to it — sometimes even shaping it into a new experience altogether different — seems to be a theme throughout the county. Here’s where to visit on your next getaway to experience it for yourself.
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The Saluda Inn was originally a private home and later a boarding house before it was transformed into a modern-day escape. Photography courtesy of The Saluda Inn
The Saluda Inn
The Saluda Inn’s Grand Terrace features room to relax with beautiful views of the mountains. Photography courtesy of The Saluda Inn
Find respite from the everyday in the gracious rooms and suites at the newly restored and refreshed Saluda Inn, just a short walk from the charms of historic downtown Saluda. Originally built in 1880, the grand, single-family home was sold in 1914 and expanded into an 18-room boarding house, which it remained for nearly 100 years. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the inn had fallen into disrepair before its current owners, Joel Kirby and Jay Burriss, transformed the neglected building into an elegant, high-end refuge.
It’s easy to see that the Saluda Inn’s inviting communal spaces — the sunroom with mountain views, the lobby with a unique four-sided fireplace, the Grand Terrace with room for weddings and other events — are perfect places to create memories. Venture down to the inn’s cellar, set to open at the beginning of 2023, for small bites and a glass of wine.
Iron Key Brewing Company pays tribute to its prison past in details big and small. Photography courtesy of Iron Key Brewing Co.
Iron Key Brewing Company
At Iron Key Brewing Company in Columbus, you’ll find the gathering place’s namesake — a nearly five-inch-long prison key — mounted, framed, and displayed on the back wall of its taproom. Built in 1932 as a prison for the state of North Carolina, this intriguing, if unlikely, spot for a brewery has become a gathering place for locals and visitors to enjoy a Big House IPA, a Lock-Up Lager, or a Penitentiary Porter, and grab a tasty bite, like the Warden’s double burger.
Inside, high ceilings, brick walls, concrete floors, and large, steel-barred windows have the spare, institutional feel of an industrial warehouse, and the brewing equipment sits behind prison bars. Outside, you can sit on the spacious patio surrounded by buildings and remnants of its prison past: a guard tower, warden’s office, and solitary confinement.
On the exterior of the former prison cafeteria, a large clover sign with white Hs on each leaf reminds visitors of the grounds that after the prison closed around 1957, it remained empty until the Polk County 4-H Foundation bought it in 1965 to use as a place for youth to meet and learn.
Alexander’s Ford is part of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail. Photography courtesy of First Peak Visitor Center
Alexander’s Ford at Bradley Nature Preserve
Walk in the footsteps of Revolutionary War heroes in Bradley Nature Preserve. Photography courtesy of First Peak Visitor Center
Turn down a gravel drive just before the small, white church near the dead-end of Grays Chapel Church Road. Soon, you’ll come to a picnic shelter and the start of a trail that leads about a mile through Bradley Nature Preserve to the open bottomland of the Green River.
The tree-canopied path is a small segment of the 330-mile Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail that leads from Tennessee to South Carolina, commemorating the march of a ragtag militia. These volunteers were summoned in 1780 to protect their mountain communities during the Revolutionary War. On October 5 of that year, the thousand-plus men who comprised the militia camped near the ford at the trail’s end. Originally, the troops were headed southwest, but, upon receiving intel in the area, they changed course: They crossed the river and turned southeast, heading toward King’s Mountain, where they went on to defeat the British troops on King’s Mountain a mere two days later.
When hiking through the sloping, wooded terrain, you traverse the same roadbed these Overmountain Men traveled that fateful fall. When you’ve reached the river, you’ve arrived at Alexander’s Ford, where those unlikely soldiers crossed the shallow depth all those years ago.
Catch a show at the historic Tryon Theatre. Photography courtesy of Tryon Theatre
The Tryon Theatre has been restored to its former glory. Photography courtesy of Tryon Theatre
When the lights dim at the Tryon Theatre and the screen comes to life, owners Scott and Gayle Lane hope you feel like you’ve stepped into the town’s history. When the Lanes restored the theatre in 2018, they took care to preserve its original 1930s feel.
It seemed natural for the couple to pour their efforts into continuing the theater that creates a shared community experience. After all, the community is a big reason they made Tryon their home 11 years ago. “There is an incredible mix of people from all over,” Scott says.
He compares restoring the theater to restoring an antique car. “You want it to look like it originally did, but every time you turn the key, you want it to turn on and run perfectly — and everything to be state-of-the-art, but still be that old car.”
The Lanes have restored other properties in the town’s historic downtown, like the ones just a few doors down from the theater on the corner of Trade and Oak streets. “By taking those buildings and restoring them to their historic architectural look, that allowed the town to be granted a historic downtown designation on the National Register,” Scott says.
A mural pays tribute to legendary musician Nina Simone, who grew up in Tryon. Photography courtesy of First Peak Visitor Center
A 660-square-foot clapboard house perched on the slope of a hill on East Livingston Street in Tryon may seem unremarkable. But the small abode was the birthplace of the legendary musician and activist Nina Simone. Born Eunice Waymon in 1933, Simone grew up in this modest, three-room house, the sixth of eight children.
At age 3, she taught herself to play the piano, and when community members recognized her talent, they raised money to pay for her to take lessons. Originally trained in classical music, Simone’s musical style ranged from gospel to jazz, from pop to R&B, and included well-known recordings like “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “I Loves You Porgy.”
In 2017, four Black artists bought Simone’s birth home and are working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to restore, preserve, and reimagine the landmark that has since been designated a national treasure. Although plans for the site are still evolving, the project’s mission is to uphold Simone’s legacy by supporting the arts and the community.
On Trade Street, across from the Tryon Theatre, you can visit a plaza dedicated to Simone, complete with a bronze statue of the “High Priestess of Soul.” Slightly further north, where Trade Street and Lynn Road meet, you can view the larger-than-life black and white mural painted by Scott Nurkin — part of The North Carolina Musician Murals Project — on the back of the Sunoco gas station.
After exploring the farm, try delicious homemade cheese on the patio at Looking Glass Creamery in Columbus. Photography courtesy of Looking Glass Creamery
Looking Glass Creamery
Order a cheese board to sample the offerings at Looking Glass Creamery. Photography courtesy of Looking Glass Creamery
When the creamery that the Perkins opened in 2009 outgrew its location near Asheville, the couple knew just the place to move their operation. The Perkins had been buying the milk to make their products from a family farm in Polk County that had been operating as a dairy since 1947. When the farmers were ready to retire, the Perkins stepped in to buy the property — even though they had never farmed anything. Locals were dubious that these new folks could keep the dairy going, but the previous owners stayed on board to teach them the ropes and share their knowledge.
Today, as the sole “farmstead cheesemakers” in the county, Looking Glass makes cheese on the same farmland that their cows graze using only milk produced by their herd. When you visit, you can wander the farm to see cows that the Perkins have raised since birth. “We have a map that shows the farm — where the dairy is, where the parlor is, where the different cow populations are kept,” Jennifer says.
Choose from a selection of aged and raw cheeses made on the farm, like Fromage blanc, aged cheddar, and Green River Bleu, from their onsite store. You can also enjoy one of their custom cheese boards and a glass of wine or farm-made hard cider on the patio overlooking the farm’s garden and goat pen. And, of course, there’s homemade ice cream.
Bring the little ones for sweet cones of peanut butter cup and pick up your copy of the map with a guide for how to visit the goats, chickens, and cows to round out your afternoon.
Located within an isothermal belt, with milder temperatures than the surrounding area, Polk County is a prime location for growing crops — particularly apples and grapes. In fact, the area has a 100-year history of growing grapes, and today, the tradition continues, with four wineries and more than 20 vineyards in production.
Among them, the family-owned Parker-Binns Vineyard is a great place to wrap up your trip to the area. The vineyard inhabits 40 acres of bucolic farmland near Mill Spring and is home to Lulu, a sweet rescue dog who roams the farm and graces some of the wine labels.
Come for the estate wines, mountain views from the porch overlooking grapevines, and satisfying eats from the Burger Barn. But lest you think that this is a stuffy place, this vineyard encourages guests to partake in events like their Sunset parties and Sunday Fundays.
As your Polk County adventures come to a close, cozy up by the fire pit with a glass of Maggie Muscat and toast to the people who are bringing new life to this corner of North Carolina.