That’s the answer to a question posed to me by Lorraine Austin, the assistant general manager of the Mast Farm Inn in Valle Crucis, on the first day of my visit.
When you get here, you’ll notice the old details, like the chimney on the outside of the main house; “M.C. Church” is written on the side. In all likelihood, that’s the signature of the man who put together the original farmhouse in the 1880s. Lorraine will show you around, pointing out the unique features of the seven-room main house, like the trapdoors in the upstairs bedroom that date back to the days when kids could sleep in the attic.
And yet, this is so much more than an old house with a new purpose. The Mast Farm Inn is one of only 21 Select Registry hotels in North Carolina, meaning that it has to meet very strict standards. Out of 25,000 bed and breakfasts in the United States, fewer than 350 qualify.
Hence, you’ll talk about the delicious breakfasts made fresh for every guest. Lorraine will ask you about your favorite treats. The answer (for me, anyway) is anything with peanut butter and chocolate. This place, believe it or not, is built partially on solitude, but it’s a little surprising how much there is to do at the Mast Farm Inn, if you choose to seek those things out.
“What we offer guests is the opportunity to disconnect and reconnect,” says Henri Deschamps, who purchased the inn in 2006. “Disconnect from the world and all the frenzy, and reconnect to the people.” In a modern world, those words might show us the modern way to truly get away.
• • •
There’s no reason, really, that you should find the Deschamps family in this high corner of North Carolina. The family has lived in — among other places — New York, London, Paris, Switzerland, and Haiti. But here they are, in Valle Crucis. Their original plan had been for a similar venture on the border of Switzerland and France. But a family summit at a vacation home in Little Switzerland, North Carolina, convinced them that these mountains were one of the only places they’d all be willing to live.
“The secret to life is in Valle Crucis,” says Danielle Deschamps, Henri’s youngest daughter. Half-jokingly, she says she traded stilettos for Crocs when she moved here from London to help manage what is truly a family business. She gets to work early. “With that morning fog, with the mountains in the background,” she says, “there’s no way not to love it.”
A 19th-century mountain farmhouse is the setting for one of North Carolina’s most memorable bed and breakfasts. photograph by Cheryl Zibisky
The family still held on to their worldliness. Danielle was once confronted with a hopelessly lost French tourist couple who pulled into the inn for directions to their next stop, which was not close. They spoke no English.
Luckily for them, French is Danielle’s first language. (She didn’t learn English until age 8.) The bedraggled travelers nearly broke down when greeted by their native tongue. They stayed at the inn for four nights. Nearly five years later, Danielle still emails with the couple regularly, and they’ve asked her to stay with them in Normandy on her next visit to France.
A framed quote near the front desk more succinctly explains Danielle’s story, and the philosophy here: “People don’t remember what you said, they remember how you made them feel.”
• • •
It has been a long day, or as long as the days get here in Valle Crucis. Every room has a clock. One slight detail, though — none of them are plugged in. You can, if you must, be bound by hours and minutes, but you’re more likely to find that they melt away, and there’s really no need to check the time.
“We do not want to be standard,” Danielle says. “Nothing at the inn is standard. Every room is different, and we know every guest is different.”
So forget the clock, and just measure the day by the laughter, and the temperature of the embers in the fire blazing in your room, and maybe the trip down the road to the legendary Mast General Store. Remember what it said on your Breakfast Almanac this morning? Every morning, guests get a playful, personalized, in-depth menu at their table — one of Henri’s touches — and it’s full of meaningful quotes and suggestions of things to do. Here’s what it says right on the front: “Peace, Quiet, Serenity and Relaxation Chronicle for Seekers of Reposeful Quietude.”
“Our service ethic is based on the idea that every guest is a person,” Henri says. “Find out what this person wants. See how you can help them take it easy and enjoy this rare time to get away. We know nobody has to stay here. We’re grateful people want to come here. It’s kind of simple, really.”
Dinner’s been delicious, and maybe there’s an old movie yet to be watched (the rooms don’t have cable TV — not that you miss it — but several have DVD players, because Henri has built an impressive collection of old movies). Or maybe you’ll just sit outside on the porch and listen to the stillness. Eight of the inn’s 15 rooms are in outbuildings of the main farmhouse, including the Granary and the much-loved Loom House.
But Lorraine had mentioned there are likely to be evening cookies by the front desk in the main inn. So you turn your key in the lock and quickly find the cookie jar, and it’s not entirely surprising to look inside and find — of course — peanut butter chocolate chip cookies.
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These places are the stewards of some very special items: Doc Watson’s first recording, the desk Virginia Woolf used to redefine the novel, and Elisha Mitchell’s pocket watch are just some of the cherished pieces that teach us about our state’s history and the people who preserve it.