By Doc Lawrence –
Julia Child advised those seeking fulfillment to “find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.” Entrepreneur Robert Rankin has a passion for his Snowbird Mountain Lodge and his interest in hospitality qualifies him as much more than one of the South’s top innkeepers. His philosophy is to “get in touch with what matters most in life. True wealth,” says Mr. Rankin, “isn’t really measured by money, but by time. Creating the space that allows us that time is incredibly important in today’s world.”
Driving to his Snowbird Mountain Lodge involves ascension on a long and winding road. High up in Santeetlah Gap, on the southern border of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park you feel the elevation changes while enjoying the cleaner, cooler air that will appear in lowland Southern cities in October. The Snowbird Mountains regularly greet visitors with postcard moments: a stunning view of peaks embraced by morning clouds; the canopy of trees; flowers and wildlife galore; and priceless peace.
All this without television or radio.
Walkways, patios, dining, library, and bar space are made with native wood and stone. With over 500 of the world’s most heralded wines in a magnificent cellar, dinner, prepared under the auspices of an executive chef and a skilled culinary team, is an experience comparable to gourmet dining in Palm Beach or Atlanta.
Not your average innkeeper, Robert Rankin gives new meaning to hands-on management, emphasizing the gentle art of warm hospitality. “What is available here,” says a youthful Rankin, “reflects how I live.” The Alabama native lives and breathes joie de vivre, and it is highly contagious.
Secluded and elegant, the historic lodge, built of stone and huge chestnut logs has a porch view you won’t find south of Virginia’s Homestead. Rankin has amassed a library in the main room with bookshelves from the floor to the ceiling. A few minutes of conversation with him (he is approachable and very bright) confirms that he has read many of the books.
Snowbird’s intimate Fireside Bar features a spectacular backdrop of countless bottles of Bourbon, rare Single Malt Scotch and Tennessee Whiskey. Cocktails are served in fine barware by a bartender whose conversation equals his pouring skills. Relaxing here is a just reward for a day on the hiking trails or in the abundant waters of Lake Santeetlah.
The dinner menu is exceptional, top tier among respected Southeastern resort restaurants. With a kitchen headed by Executive Chef Frank Davi, a talented culinary wizard of Sicilian heritage, a four-course gourmet menu includes local farm products like North Carolina trout and quail, organic free-range chicken and artisan pork and beef. His culinary heroes include Julia Child and Thomas Keller. With a profound influence in Asheville, Keller has set the gourmet culture of Western North Carolina ablaze. “My style of cooking is Carolina fusion,” says Davi. “Farm-to-table fresh blended into interpretations of many cooking traditions.”
Trout en Papillote recalls a dinner long ago at Antoine’s, the French Quarter gourmet shrine. Locally sourced North Carolina mountain trout, wrapped, baked and served in parchment paper is magnificent with a bottle of Chablis from France.
For beef, a signature dish is Grilled Steak Teriyaki, a twelve-ounce New York Strip glazed with a custom Teriyaki sauce that becomes supercharged when accompanied by Chambertin, the regal red Burgundy that was one of Napoleon’s favorites.
The outstanding dinner menu is notable for variety, sensitivity to seasons and the availability of fresh items. The courses encourage diners to explore wines from the expansive list that includes prized wines ranging from South African Pinotage to the best from France, Oregon, Napa and beyond. Wines from North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley are also available. Nothing from the cellar is ordinary, evidenced by the high quality of wines by the glass.
Snowbird is a launch pad for outdoor recreation: Kayaking and canoeing, fly-fishing, whitewater adventure and hiking are popular. Reputable guides are available and many of the activities require little more than a map. Local history is rich with Cherokee heritage with one branch, the Snowbird Cherokee Tribe living in the area. The Appalachian Trail is nearby. With a long stretch of mile high unsurpassed scenery, the Cherohala Skyway guarantees a breathtaking experience.
Robert Rankin, a man who values time, is often present during dinner, assisting the wait staff, chatting with guests about wine choices or where they call home. Ernest Hemingway, another man who loved the outdoors and a good bottle of wine once wrote that in the end, “time is all we really had.”
Snowbird Mountain Lodge