Once upon a time, at resorts of yesteryear, guests didn’t expect yoga classes and paddleboard lessons and hot stone massages. Lawn bowling, card playing, and fishing were entertainment aplenty when
Once upon a time, at resorts of yesteryear, guests didn’t expect yoga classes and paddleboard lessons and hot stone massages. Lawn bowling, card playing, and fishing were entertainment aplenty when the real carrot was escaping the tropical heat back home in Florida. Samuel J. Childs knew this fact because he’d personally experienced it. A Pennsylvanian who hit it big in oil investments, Childs vacationed in Brightwaters, Florida, near Tampa. In the early 1920s, wending his way back north on the “Dixie Highway,” he stopped in Hendersonville, liked the look — and the feel of the climate — bought a 400-acre farm, and turned 100 acres into a resort named after his favorite vacation spot in Florida. He built 25 cabins and began trolling for, well, Floridians.
The man knew his market. “Nights are always cool, even in mid-summer. With such a rarity in air, low humidity, and absence from the annoyance of mosquitoes, you will find the joys of the far Northern woods, and yet you are only a short distance from your Florida home,” reads an early Brightwaters brochure. A one-room schoolhouse became a dining hall, and folks who preferred guest rooms to cabins were housed in both a central lodge and a two-story stone building, built in 1938, that featured eight bedrooms and six bathrooms. “This nature-favored land,” Childs described his oasis in North Carolina and boasted of its lawn bowling court: “We believe this to be the first lawn bowling court in America under cover, and the only marl or clay court north of Florida.” Ninety years on, Childs might have thought twice about advertising “the Dining Hall, which entertains regulars and transients,” but never mind. Horseback riding, tennis, and shuffleboard were among the entertainment offerings. Fresh sheets and ice were delivered daily to your door for an extra $5 per stay. And long before “farm to table” was a concept, the farm at Brightwaters provided fresh eggs, produce, and meat to the dining hall and other Hendersonville merchants. Year after year, the guests kept returning. Just as they do now.
But let’s not jump the gun; the success in those first decades didn’t last. In the early ’60s, the resort ceased operation. The dining hall remained open until 1972, when it burned down in a six-alarm fire that Hendersonville old-timers remember well. A builder named G.L. Murphy bought the property, converted the stone hotel into two flat-like apartments, and renovated the original carriage house, a brown building dubbed “The Foxhole.” Over the next six years, Murphy used supplies left over from his construction projects (as well as his workers, who needed winter employment) to build four rental cabins. The interior layouts are identical, but the cabins are quirkily different depending on what materials Murphy had on hand, and the popular decor of the day. Hence the distinct Asian influence found in one.
The place was sold again. And then, well … leases ended. Renters became squatters. Money grew short. Trees tumbled onto rooftops. Dilapidation descended on Brightwaters.
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Like Brightwater’s founder, Michele Azan and Elisabeth Perez did not have Blue Ridge roots, but the transplants were quick to make Hendersonville their home. Azan, a child of Jamaican immigrants, was working for The Wall Street Journal; Perez, who was born in Venezuela, was a tractor-trailer driver. The pair was living in New York City when they visited Hendersonville for a friend’s birthday party. Duly smitten with the town, they bought a vacation house there in 2007. A week’s vacation became two weeks, and then three months at a time for seven years, and then a permanent home.
And then the Brightwaters property went up for sale in 2015. By the time Perez had heard the Brightwaters’ backstory and toured The Foxhole, she was already at the I want it I want it I want it point. “I know you’re not supposed to show any excitement, but I was giving Michele the eye, saying, ‘We have to have this,’ ” she recalls.
The charming, lovely aspect of that decision, though, is that when Azan and Perez bought Brightwaters, they also bought into the history of Brightwaters. “We thought, It needs to go back to its original history,” Azan says, and they set about doing just that. A jack-of-all-trades and US Army parachute rigger veteran, Perez handled repairs and renovations, discovering nooks where long-term vacationers stored trunks and suitcases in the stone house; finding original wood floors and head-high wainscoting beneath carpets and paint; and convincing contractors that they absolutely could work around the original railing of the open-air veranda on the second floor. Perez was thrilled when a local mason identified the stonework as both area river rock and bluestone hauled from Turley Falls, right down the road.
Azan took on the decorating, attending auctions and befriending consignment store owners in several states to give, say, the Verandah, as the house’s second-floor apartment is known, its original Floridian feel, with rattan furniture, bamboo-framed mirrors, mosquito-netted beds, and tropical-print textiles. She sought out the original gold foil wallpaper and honor the Asian vibe of the Laurelwood Cabin. One cabin is simply called Bungalow 207; another is named Mountain Lily after a doomed, abandoned riverboat meant to transport folks down the French Broad between Asheville and Brevard. Each cabin has today’s vitals, as well: soft linens, fluffy pillows, and that round, domed Hammacher Schlemmer white noise machine — the original and still the best — in every bedroom.
All the while, the duo was also searching for and gathering any scrap of newsprint or oral history they could fine about Brightwaters. They talked to local descendants of the Childs and Murphy families and undertook deep dives on the Internet. Their trove of findings includes photographs and postcards featuring ladies in hats seated on ladderback chairs at dining room tables, “I am here” arrows penned on a picture from the ’40s, guests leaning from the veranda to wave, and patrons on horseback beneath saplings — today those towering hardwoods shower autumn leaves on a grassy central clearing.
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All told, the Brightwaters compound can house 42 people. And boy, does it ever. Thanks to that very climate that Samuel Childs once bragged about, Hendersonville is a four-season playground. Adventure lovers lease cabins as a base camp for hiking and mountain-biking forays into Pisgah National Forest and DuPont State Recreational Forest, minutes away. Shoppers, sippers, and foodies are only three miles from the plethora of shops and cafés, galleries and restaurants along Hendersonville’s long, serpentine, pedestrian-friendly Main Street. The cabins are tucked around a cul-de-sac, with plenty of privacy, yet are close enough that families can reserve the whole compound for wedding weekends, anniversary celebrations, or Thanksgiving gatherings. One fellow rents a cabin for the entire winter — while someone else rents his Florida home.
In autumn, the thin, tall, wild grasses lining the road to Brightwaters bow beneath their heavy, feathery heads, glinting white in fall’s clear, slanting sunlight. The longing to be outdoors, beneath yellow leaves freed by a breeze, or on a cabin porch, or around a firepit, is powerful, and reason enough for a mountain-town sojourn. Yet 10 minutes in the company of Perez and Azan — at the ready with suggestions for mountain bike trails, local brews, Mexican food, or custom hiking itineraries — proves why Brightwaters guests become not just business clients but also friends. Throughout the pandemic, they’ve touched base with absent guests to check on their health. While every cabin has a fully equipped kitchen, Azan and Perez happily store one guest’s special appliances for her annual stay. “We want to be on vacation with them,” Perez says. “I want to tell them all there is to do.”
Sure enough, the phone attached to her hip buzzes, and she answers. “Gotta take this,” she says. “The folks in the Laurelwood Cabin want to know the best place for leaf peeping.”