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Hilltop hikes, marvellous wine and a generous helping of moonshine; the joys of a North Carolina getaway

A shorter version of this story was posted earlier Monday on Sun Media/Postmedia websites in Canada.

BLOWING ROCK, NORTH CAROLINA – I’m out to catch the first rays of sun in the mountains of northwest North Carolina. I’m driving along the famous Blue Ridge Parkway and pass a cyclist wearing an American flag jersey working his way up a steady hill.

As I pass over a bridge suspended over a high canyon I glance to my left and see an electric pink sun rising over pale grey-white clouds on the horizon below me. I pull over as soon as I can and go dashing down the road to get a clear shot of a magical sunrise.

Sunrise along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The cyclist I had passed pulls up alongside me and we stand transfixed at the side of the bridge, watching the splendour unfold. We hardly say a word; content to stand there in the morning quiet and let it sink in.

“I come back here every year,” the cyclist, Aaron Cochran of Virginia, tells me. “It surprises me each time.”

I was more than surprised by what I found. I knew North Carolina had hills but I hadn’t expected them to be this sharp and jagged and jumbly. Or this high. My sunrise photo was taken at about 4,000 feet of elevation. The highest part of the state is around 6,700 feet (2,000 meters).

An early morning hike up Rough Ridge is a great way to start your day in North Carolina. JIM BYERS PHOTO

A few minutes after the sunrise, I pull into a parking lot for the Rough Ridge hike and begin a half-hour or so trek up a relatively steep but manageable trail. I stop several times and clamber out onto exposed rocks for the best views. A wispy morning fog is hanging in ribbons that snake over and around rich forests of yellow, auburn and gold, as it touched by the gods of autumn.

The hiking is fantastic, but my four-day trip also takes me to wonderful small towns with a fierce local pride, casual, friendly locals, terrific food, makers of good old Carolina moonshine and a couple of very tasty wineries.

In Elkin, I stop in at a funky, hipster coffee shop called Dirty Joe’s on a hill overlooking the town. Two young guys behind the counter make a cappuccino for a customer and chat for a few minutes. The customer leaves, then a minute later pops his head back in.

“Wait a minute, guys,” he says. “I don’t know if I paid.”

The two workers shrug, as if making a profit was beside the point. I have a chuckle about it and one of the workers turns to me and smiles.

“We’re not too worried,” he says. “I think sometimes the conversation is worth more than the money.”

Chuck Jones and Chloe have logged hundreds of thousands of miles on sales trips for Jones Von Drehle winery in North Carolina. JIM BYERS PHOTO

At Jones Von Drehle winery, co-owner Chuck Jones (his wife and her sister and her sister’s husband are the other owners) pours me a wide variety of very good to excellent wines, all made on site entirely from grapes grown in the Carolina hills near Roaring Gap. The Petit Manseng is a flavourful, unusual variety mostly grown in France. The Cabernet is quite good now, and the Petit Verdot reds are lush and ripe and wonderful and best laid down for another couple years.

Jones said they laid out their vines with the help of a laser. They also hired a top winemaker, Dan Tillman, who worked at high-profile wineries in California.

Jones, a wonderfully likeable fellow, told me he’s big on personal service.

“See that old Honda out there,” he tells me. “I do all the deliveries. There’s 443,000 miles on that car. And Chloe (the winery’s official mascot, a white-gold retriever who loves chasing toys and drinking spilled wine) has gone with me on 90% of those trips.”

At Elkin Creek Vineyards I sample wine in a beautiful old wooden building on the edge of a pretty creek. The wine is good but the wood-oven pizza is divine; perfectly blistered and quite large, as Carolina portions tend to be. If you visit, be sure to ask the partners how they met (it involves the Blue Man Group and Las Vegas), and be sure to walk out back and set a spell on the swings or by the banks of the creek.

The creek behind Elkin Creek Vineyards is a fine place for a quiet respite. JIM BYERS PHOTO

I also try some lovely Tannat wine (a red variety often made in Spain) from Shelton Vineyards, a gorgeous property in Dobson. The Shelton folks also run a very good restaurant called The Harvest Grill, and own the Hampton Inn up the road, which has a wine bar.

The movement to craft distilleries has given rise to a series of cool moonshine distilleries in the land where “shine is king.” I sample some tasty moonshine at Copper Barrel Distillery in N. Wilkesboro, where I also get a brief tour and watch a wry, amusing video with the two principals behind the company, George Smith and Buck Nance. Smith grew up in Vermont but came south and tried moonshine one day.

“It was horrible; like gasoline. It was decades before I tried it again.”

He came to Wilkes County a few years ago and had the idea to try to help revitalize N. Wilkesboro. People told him about Nance (and isn’t Buck Nance a great name?), a master distiller, so he gave him a ring.

Lost Province is a lively craft beer spot and restaurant in Boone, North Carolina. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The way Nance tells it on the video, he was “just looking at trash on the computer” every day so decided to help out. He gave Smith a sample of some his private shine. Then another. And then another. Now they make a variety of flavours and sell all sorts of Copper Barrel paraphernalia at their smart, brightly lit shop.

I also visit the Wilkes Heritage Museum in Wilkesboro and talk with Laura Call from Call Family Distillers, who tells me her husband’s grandfather, a reverend, used to make sour mash in Lynchburg, Tennessee. He took in a fellow named Jasper Daniel, who they called Jack. Together they owned a company called Call and Daniels Distillery #7. The towns people in Tennessee said a reverend shouldn’t be making liquor, so he sold his business to Jack.

“Yeah,” Laura tells me. “Jack Daniels. Our family taught Jack how to make whiskey.”

VIDEO Click here for a video of the Virginialina band (the official band of the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame) in Wilkesboro. JUST THE FACTS

DOING Stone Mountain State Park is near Jones Von Drehle winery and offers tremendous hiking and Sunday drives. If you don’t have time for the rugged mountain climb, there are several fairly easy walks, including a two-minute stroll to Widows Creek Falls. The town also has a fine museum called BRAHM. When I was there they were displaying wonderful art, including powerful photos of young children who were put to work in textile factories back in the day. The folks at Rocky Forest River Run offer relaxing kayak (and other styles of craft) rides down the peaceful Yadkin River outside Elkin. Boone and Blowing Rock are pretty much sister cities, each with nice shopping areas. Elkin’s heritage theatre is about to re-open after a major renovation. Mt. Airy (known as Mayberry in the Andy Griffith Show) offers fun shopping at Opie’s Candies and other places, as well as enjoyable rides in a Mayberry Police Department car. You also can have a seat in the chair at Floyd’s Barber Shop. Be sure to stop at Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies for great sweets, including a cobbler-like North Carolina dessert called sonker. You’ll find peaceful fishing spots and lovely cycling trails at the W. Kerr Scott Dam and Reservoir near Wilkesboro.

Bass Lake is a beautiful spot just ouside Blowing Rock, North Carolina. JIM BYERS PHOTO

DRINKING Lost Province in Boone has fine pizza and very good craft beer. In Elkin, Angry Troll Brewing has a very cool interior space and craft beers to match.

DINING Woodlands BBQ in Blowing Rock has great ribs and wings so big they look like they got pulled off a dinosaur. Brushy Mountain Smokehouse and Creamery in N. Wilkesboro has fine ribs and amazing ice cream. A serving with three to four scoops is $2.79 USD. Also in N. Wilkesboro, Elsewhere on Tenth has everything from buttermilk fried chicken to Vietnamese sandwiches. They had a fine guitar player and singer at lunch when I was there, as well.

WEB SURFING https://www.visitnc.com/

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