Weekend Away

Let’s Go to The Greenbrier!

The Madcap gents banish the beige at the legendary West Virginia resort

By Jason Oliver Nixon

The last few weeks of winter were drab, wet and all-around uninspiring. There was nefarious news on every front, and it felt like Groundhog Day on Elm Street. On eternal repeat.

John and I found ourselves ambling about in our pajamas at all hours of the day. We were lethargic. Our hair was tucked into baseball caps. My beard went untrimmed. And you can only watch Auntie Mame and Bridget Jones’s Diary so many times before you start quoting the lines in your sleep.

It was time for a prints-and-patterns intervention.

Hence, John and I booked an escape to the one place that always delivers a tip-top, terrific tonic — a balm to all things banal and beige.

The Greenbrier!

“Hello,” I trilled after ringing up the fabled West Virginia resort. “Any specials? Yes, yes, yes. AARP? Triple-A? Sure. Sign us up. Tout de suite! And patch me through to the spa.”

John and I have been lucky enough to visit The Greenbrier — “America’s Resort since 1778” — on various occasions. Each time, the hostelry has more than lived up to its legendary restorative prowess. And no, we don’t attribute the rejuvenation to the area’s mineral-rich waters that have made White Sulphur Springs a destination for generations.

It’s not the falconry or the gun clubs either. Although The Greenbrier has something for everyone — from escape rooms to bunker tours, spa treatments to off-roading excursions, golf and tennis to you-name-it — we aren’t really into what you might call “organized activities.” John and I go for The Greenbrier’s Dorothy Draper-designed décor, the riot of color, prints and pattern, and the pure theatricality that is the resort-styled version of The Wizard of Oz. There is nothing like it anywhere — especially since The Greenbrier’s closest twin, the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, has, tragically, been sold (its design future uncertain).

A little history . . .

Shortly after World War II, the legendary New York-based interiors superstar Dorothy Draper — sort of a midcentury Joanna Gaines but with verve — was commissioned to transform The Greenbrier into a showstopper. The resort had served as a 2,000-bed hospital during the war and needed, well, a bold new vision.

Draper, queen of theatrical, was known for design mantras such as “Banish the beige.” She took one look at The Greenbrier’s vaguely institutional architecture and white brick exterior, blinked, then lavished it with enough drama to attract the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to the grand unveiling.

But back to the here and now and the warm embrace of the Greenbrier.

“Hello, hello. Bonjour! Yes, we are back. Yes, hello, hello,” I said to the lovely, slightly quizzical folks at check in. “Charge it, please. And which bar is open? Oh, it’s so good to be back.”

Our room was awash in cabbage roses, stripes and faux bamboo flourishes with “his” and “his” bathrooms. We couldn’t have been more content staying put, but seeing as we were finally someplace other than Instagram, we wanted to spend every waking moment soaking up all the design exuberance we could handle.

Happily, The Greenbrier was largely empty — AARP rates are more favorable mid-week, perhaps? (John handles the cash) — so we could scamper about like feral monkeys in a banana forest with eyes wide and mouths agape. We marveled at the inky green walls in the Victoria Writing Room; the rose-bloom upholstery and black-and-white tile floors in the Upper Lobby; a baroque plaster clock against blue-and-white striped walls; the coral-hued North Parlor; and busts of the presidents delightfully arranged next to the toilets. And that’s just scratching the sublime surface.

Dorothy Draper’s protégé, the equally iconic Carleton Varney, a longtime Madcap Cottage friend (he wrote the introduction to our latest book, Prints Charming: Create Absolutely Beautiful Interiors with Prints & Patterns), oversees the décor of The Greenbrier and constantly curates — and refreshes — the content.

Notes John, “The Greenbrier is always fresh. Never fussy. Never formal. That’s part of the magic. And there are families with kids. Older folks. New Yorkers. Southerners. And everyone in between.”

Our time at the Greenbrier was pure bliss. We dined on superlative Asian fare at In-Fusion (tucked into the glittering, Busby Berkeley-worthy casino). We washed away our cares with a 25-minute Sulphur Soak at the recently overhauled spa. We watched Aladdin in the resort’s movie theater (Hurrah! An open-for-business movie theater); we sipped cocktails in the Lobby Bar; we splashed about in a pool reminiscent of the Roman Empire; and we walked into White Sulphur Springs where the main drag is definitely on the move. (Think a slew of new restaurants popping up!)

But, really, John and I just lolled about with magazines and cocktails. And lapped up the luxe.

Then it was back to reality. Still, the hair is washed and the shirt’s tucked in. The beard is trimmed and the socks match. I’d say we are ready to tackle the world anew. At least for a few weeks.

Thank you, Greenbrier! Long may you reign.  OH

The Madcap gents, John Loecke and Jason Oliver Nixon, embrace the new reality of COVID-friendly travel — heaps of road trips. For more information, visit Greenbrier.com.

Weekend Away

Georgia on Our Minds

The Madcap Cottage gents scamper off to Savannah

By Jason Oliver Nixon

I hadn’t been to Savannah in years, and John had never visited.

Pre-pandemic, Savannah was often bandied about as a possible Madcap weekend away destination, but somehow we always wound up in places like London or, closer to home, Charleston instead. And we do love Charleston, but sometimes the Holy City can be a tad too polished.

“Savannah is like Charleston’s wild child,” noted a friend with deep ties to the Georgia coast. “We aren’t as uptight and formal, and we really like to kick up our heels and throw a good party. After all, our nickname is the ‘Hostess City.’ And remember that we are an open-container city, so always get your cocktail to go!”

Meanwhile, our next-door neighbors in High Point spend most of their time in Savannah, where they have a second home and run a ghost tour company, Savannah History & Haunts. The pair has been urging us to visit for years.

“You will love it,” said Bridgette, one half of the powerhouse behind the couple’s multi-city tour company. “There are great hotels and restaurants, and the history is off the charts. Plus, you can take one of our tours!”

John and I re-read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and, yes, screened Forrest Gump late one night to get into a Savannah state of mind.

Weekend away, here we come!

We decided to take George, our pound-rescue Boston terrier, along for the adventure and left the pug posse back home in the capable hands of the dog sitter.

For the five-hour drive from the Triad, John and I meandered through Cheraw and Florence, S.C., instead of facing — or more like being smoked by — Charlotte’s notorious speed demons. Still, after a few hours on the I-95 leg, John and I were ready for a strong libation as we pulled up at our weekend roost: the recently opened and absolutely stunning, dog-friendly Drayton Hotel.

George trotted in like he owned the place, and we all settled into The Drayton’s colorful Living Room, aka the lobby, where masterfully crafted, medicinal martinis were quickly rustled up. George perched happily atop a poof and preened.

Housed within the historic American Trust and Bank, The Drayton calls to mind an intimate, London-style hotel that mixes colors and patterns, giving a nod to the past with modern flourishes and understated — but beautifully presented — service. Smack on the corner of busy East Bay and Drayton streets, The Drayton offers the perfect location but feels worlds away from nearby River Street with its tourist hustle-bustle. The five-story hostelry boasts a terrific restaurant, St. Neo’s Brasserie, a chic, high-ceilinged dining room and first-rate service (our server, Libbie, was a gem). The rooftop bar wasn’t open for the season, but there is a slick, tucked-away bar in the basement and a coffee outpost just off the lobby that didn’t disappoint. Our intimate suite was equally cool with knockout views of the container ships plying the Savannah River (Savannah is the third largest container port in the nation) and a truly inspired bathroom with a wet room that paired a shower and clawfoot soaking tub.

With refreshed to-go cocktails in hand and George happily tucked away, we decided it was time to hit the town.

Savannah is the perfect walking city. Of course, the city celebrates its 22 signature squares, verdant and dripping with Spanish moss, which span one square-mile of its downtown. You will probably pick a favorite over the course of your visit. For us, it was Lafayette, but be sure to visit Chippewa, the site of Forrest’s iconic bench (his actual bench was a prop, now found at the Savannah History Museum). The squares are surrounded by historic residences with gated gardens, many of which you can tour, including the Davenport House and the Mercer-Williams home, site of the murder detailed in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. There’s also dreamy Forsyth Park and museums aplenty.

“SCAD seems to be gobbling up the city,” noted John as we found our Savannah sea legs and looked around for more gin to accompany lonely olives. SCAD, of course, refers to the Savannah College of Art and Design, and the institution does, indeed, seem to have kudzued here, there and everywhere in between.

We passed the famed Olde Pink House eatery (too crowded!) and questioned whether we had to wear masks outdoors — you’re supposed to.

Geographically and pandemically situated, John and I decided to follow our friend’s lead, and we truly kicked up our slip-on Converse-clad heels.

We dined at The Fat Radish (bliss!), the farm-to-table Cha Bella, The Collins Quarter and The Fitzroy. We sipped cocktails on the roof of the glamorous Perry Lane Hotel and brunched at Clary’s Cafe, the Little Duck Diner and B. Matthews Eatery. And then, we shopped.

Savannah boasts a glorious assortment of design outposts such as Courtland & Co., PW Short General Store (incredible!), Alex Raskin Antiques (the crumbling building alone is worth the visit) and minimalist favorite Asher + Rye (too Scandi spare for Madcap maximalists!). We were in home design heaven.

Our neighbors’ 90-minute 9 p.m. candlelit ghost tour was an especial highlight of the weekend. Throughout, we explored dark byways and atmospheric squares and learned about the ghosts and cemeteries that haunt and dot Savannah. Dan, our High Point neighbor, guided the tour. Decked in historic-styled garb, he was a font of knowledge paired with heaps of charisma and a true spirit of fun.

John and I trotted George out for long walks (Savannah is super dog friendly), sampled ice cream at fabled Leopold’s, sipped more potent potables at Artillery and the Lone Wolf Lounge, nibbled treats from Byrd Cookie Company and explored the refurbished Plant Riverside District with its power-station-meets-pure-glitz JW Marriott Hotel and river-facing sushi and biergarten eateries.

And, whew, there went the weekend . . .

But there is so much more to see and experience in Savannah. We will most certainly be back — with cool Chatham Artillery Punch cocktails in hand, of course.  PS

For more information about The Drayton Hotel, visit thedraytonhotel.com.

The Madcap Cottage gents, John Loecke and Jason Oliver Nixon, embrace the new reality of COVID-friendly travel — heaps of road trips.

Weekend Away

Not Your Average Farm Town

The Madcap gents lap up the small-town pleasures of Farmville, Virginia

By Jason Oliver Nixon

When John and I think up ideas for our weekends away, it’s easy to consider obvious road-trip destinations such as Charleston and Savannah (stay tuned . . . they’re on our list). But we also like to shake it up with locations that are off the beaten path.

Like Farmville in central Virginia.

Situated 2 hours and 40 minutes north of High Point, Farmville, population 8,000, isn’t exactly your average farm town.

In fact, it’s something of a design mecca. Truly.

But that’s not all.

It turns out that it’s a charming and supremely walkable college town with stately brick architecture, a handful of spot-on restaurants and heaps of green space, including the awe-inspiring High Bridge Trail with an entrance that sits smack on Main Street.

Plus, the town serves as the perfect home base for visits to nearby historic sites such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and lesser-known Poplar Forest — without the crush, say, of bustling Charlottesville.

John and I discovered Farmville’s recently overhauled, 1930s-era Hotel Weyanoke while trawling possible road-trip destinations online. We were smitten with the images of the hotel’s sympathetic renovation that mixes period architecture with modern flourishes. But the hostelry is, in fact, far better than the online images suggest.

The Weyanoke boasts 70 sleek, contemporary rooms and two restaurants — the Taproot Tavern and Effingham’s. Expect craft beer, cool cocktails and smart cooking (think coal-fired pizzas, crab cakes with creamy rémoulade and a terrific burger with homemade pickles atop a brioche bun).

It’s also dog-friendly.

The pound-rescue pups — Weenie, Cecil, Amy Petunia and George — accompanied us for the weekend, a frolicsome quartet that relished everything about the comfortable junior suite, including its sitting area, sprawling bathroom and Juliet balcony. And at just $150 per night, the room was a steal.

The Weyanoke’s rooftop cocktail bar, the Catbird Rooftop Terrace, was closed for the season, but we plan to return in a more clement season for a little rosé with a view. We loved the hotel’s signature green bikes, perfect for exploring next door Longwood University with its pedestrian friendly, postcard-perfect campus.

Hotel Weyanoke ticks off one Farmville design box. And then there’s Green Front Furniture, a sprawling discount furniture company that comprises 13 buildings over several blocks of downtown. Should you seek any type of furnishing, accessory, rug or patio set under the sun, Green Front is your nirvana. Its showrooms are housed within various storefronts up and down Farmville’s main street, including former department stores and dramatically lit tobacco warehouses that look as if they were plucked from the canals of Amsterdam.

Traditional furniture brands such as Theodore Alexander make a big presence. As does Kindel. Gabby and Summer Classics. Hickory Chair. And on and on.

Lest you feel overwhelmed, Green Front has a great map that will give you the lay of the land.

We cross paths with the charismatic 20-something Den Crallé, a Farmville native and the force behind Green Front Furniture.

“We love being an inherent part of the Farmville community,” Crallé tells us. “The town is super dynamic and only getting better and better. You can shop for furniture, dine, spend the weekend at a great hotel, wander the wonderful campuses and really enjoy a classic American small-town experience.”

John and I walked. We hiked. We trotted the dogs up and down Main Street. We browsed furniture at Green Front for clients. We visited nearby Hampden-Sydney College and brunched on BBQ at The Fishin’ Pig. We dined at Mex-centric one19, where we savored uber fresh scallop tacos paired with prickly pear margaritas and a mountain of chips and homemade salsa.

Speaking of mountains, on Saturday morning, John and I made the hour-long, bucolic drive to Monticello in Charlottesville. Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop masterpiece is stunning, of course, the iconic architecture paired with a gorgeous panorama. Visitors can learn about the plantation’s history, sip local wines, wander amidst the vegetable gardens and visit Jefferson’s grave. But be prepared for swarms of people, loads of guidelines and — should you miss your social distancing marks — a quantum dose of admonitions. 

“Don’t come any closer, stay away,” lectured a particularly Teutonic guide when I humbly asked for directions to the loo from behind my mask.

Harumph. There went my warm and cozy feelings for Monticello.

Sunday morning’s hour-long pilgrimage to Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s less-celebrated retreat near Lynchburg, Va., restored my optimism. There was nothing didactic or dictatorial about our visit to Jefferson’s folly-like pavilion. And there were no crowds. John and I were two of eight people on the property for a 12:30 p.m. guided tour. Surrounded by suburban sprawl, Poplar Forest has managed to cobble back 600 acres to its original 5,000 and offers stunning views in certain sight lines (and, sadly, perspectives onto vinyl-clad ranch houses in others). The home itself is amazing — a cube surrounded by a Palladian-inspired symmetry that, lacking furniture, celebrates Jefferson’s architectural masterstrokes. Restoration work continues. Happily, there is a master plan for Poplar Forest that will help reduce the suburban vistas and celebrate the estate’s extant surrounding nature. Interesting factoid: Poplar Forest was rescued in the 1980s by a High Point doctor who saved the property from development before selling it to the nonprofit that currently runs the estate.

Back in Farmville, John and I finished off our busy weekend with a languid dinner at the groovy North Street Press Club eatery, housed in a super-cool former printing plant next door to the hotel. We sipped kicky Paloma cocktails and noshed on Vietnamese street tacos with tangy nuoc cham sauce from a vast around-the-world menu.

Our assessment of Farmville?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

Noted John, “I really like this town, who knew? What an unexpected, wonderful little gem.”  PS

The Madcap gents, John Loecke and Jason Oliver Nixon, embrace the new reality of COVID-friendly travel — heaps of road trips.

Weekend Away

Urban Wonderland

The Madcap gents hightail it to bustling Greenville

By Jason Oliver Nixon

Recently, at High Point Market, John and I ran into a Greenville native and friend and, over drinks, we discussed the state of downtown HP.

“You think downtown High Point struggles,” our pal said. “Greenville was worse back in the day. Twenty years ago, you just wouldn’t go to most of downtown. And now it’s really breathtaking. The restaurants, the shopping, the river walk and access to nature . . .”

Intrigued, John and I did our homework. Once the self-proclaimed textile capital of the world, Greenville, S.C., languished for decades when fabric firms moved overseas. Happily, a visionary urban revitalization master plan kicked off in the 1990s and continues to transform this once-uncut gem into the poster child for what a small-scale city downtown can become. Families love it. Foodies love it. BMW has its international manufacturing HQ here. Find Michelin’s U.S. headquarters there, too. It’s super walkable, super dog friendly. Heaps of nature make hiking and biking ideal. Expect loads of art galleries and working artist studios. Furman University. Cultural venues that range from the Children’s Museum of the Upstate to the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum, plus a world-class performing arts center. And a smattering of charming, newly spruced-up towns surrounding the city make for great day trips.

So on a crisp late fall afternoon, John and I piled into the Subaru and set sail for the three-hour drive to this mythical city in the northwest corner of South Carolina. We left the pups behind.

Home base for the weekend was The Westin Poinsett, a historic, 12-story property smack in the middle of Main Street’s hustle and bustle.

The Poinsett has had a seesaw history since its 1925 opening. After decades as a glittering hostelry it eventually morphed into a retirement home. And then, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, it was abandoned and regularly vandalized. Now, in a beige-on-beige sort of way, the Poinsett sparkles anew after its late 1990s restoration.

Speaking of hotel design, downtown Greenville lacks a good one-off boutique hotel: It’s all Hyatt Place and Aloft (perfect for folks with dogs), Hilton and Hampton Inn. Fortunately, a sleek AC Hotel by Marriott will soon open just down from the Poinsett, and construction of the high-style Grand Bohemian Greenville, perfectly situated at the base of Reedy River Falls, approaches completion.

Checked in, John and I hightailed it for sunset cocktails at the stylish UP on the Roof bar situated, incongruously, atop the Embassy Suites downtown. We wanted a birds-eye view to kick off the weekend festivities, and that’s just what we got. John and I sipped artisanal cocktails and took in the stunning vistas of downtown and the surrounding mountains.

After drinks, we walked a few blocks to Urban Wren, a newly opened eatery tucked into an urban neighborhood blossoming with brand-new lofts next to the still-busy Norfolk Southern tracks. Think an interesting, slightly vexing menu that travels from Italy to Asia and India with a few stops in between. Pair the far-flung menu with cement floors and an edgy Brooklyn vibe that caters to a young, stylish, and, apparently, moneyed crowd.

“Wow, $44 for salmon,” I blurted.

John harrumphed and commented on how packed the restaurant was. Jammed, in fact.

Even during a pandemic, the Greenville restaurant scene bristles with electricity. And residents are truly passionate — and vocal — about their dining-out likes and dislikes.

A Greenville friend checked in, “You have to go to ASADA and Fork and Plough. And you must have cocktails at EXILE and the Swordfish (Cocktail) Club. You will love Willy Taco Feed & Seed and Bar Margaret. And lunch at Afghan restaurant Aryana is a must. Have a glass of rosé and the pickled beet and pear salad at Passerelle Bistro overlooking the falls to take in the view but be sure to get off the beaten path — there are so many amazing options further afield.”

And so John and I mapped out a plan.

Saturday morning kicked off with superlative pastries and lavender-scented lattes at French-owned Le Petit Croissant cafe and from there we walked Main Street to the baseball stadium and back across the Reedy River.

The transformation of Falls Park on the Reedy is the crown jewel of the city’s impressive revitalization. Once all but hidden by a 1960s-era highway bridge, the stunning, mist-kissed falls are now part of a vast river walk that is populated with walkers and bikers who enjoy the numerous cafes and shops and taking in the views from the architecturally stunning pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge.

We stopped at the wonderful M. Judson Booksellers next to the Poinsett, explored Mast General Store, and popped into superlative men’s store Rush Wilson Limited. The sidewalks were bustling.

“It’s so nice to see so many people out and about,” mentioned John. “It almost feels ‘normal.’”

After exploring downtown, we hopped into the car and visited the buzzy parking lot sale at The Rock House Antiques. We stopped at the Hampton Station dining and entertainment complex and considered lunch al fresco but realized we were perhaps too old for the man bun and tattoos/ax throwing/mac and cheese scene. Instead, we visited the charming Greer, a vest pocket-sized town that, like Greenville, has been lavished with much urban-planning love. We were smitten with the blocks-long burg, explored Plunder for antiques and lunched upon crepes at Barista Alley. We drove to the nearby Hotel Domestique, a Provençal-style inn that caters especially to cyclists, and ogled the stonework and postcard-perfect nature views at the 1820s-era Poinsett Bridge.

We stopped in the town of Travelers Rest, an epicurean’s delight at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains just outside Greenville. So many restaurants! Driving back into town, we stopped for dinner at the James Beard-nominated working farm-cum-eatery Oak Hill Café and lapped up a terrific local cheese plate and duck confit with spaetzle.

Sunday morning was languid and began with a Tuscan-inspired lunch on the balcony at Main Street’s Jianna, where a glass of montepulciano paired perfectly with spot-on people watching and a shared plate of pasta.

Phone buzzing, it was our Greenville friend texting a slew of other restaurant and must-visit ideas.

“You need to meet artist Joseph Bradley. Try the cheese at Blue Ridge Creamery. Brunch at Topsoil. And I think you’d like the lunch counter at the Pickwick Pharmacy.”

Ah, so much to see, so little time. And so many reasons for a return visit.

With that in mind, John and I turned off our phones and spent the afternoon on the river walk with a picnic blanket and a pile of books and magazines.

The distant roar of the falls only added to the bliss.  PS

The Madcap Cottage gents, John Loecke and Jason Oliver Nixon, embrace the new reality of COVID-friendly travel — heaps of road trips.

Weekend Away

Port City Adventure

The Madcap Cottage gents “arrive” in Wilmington, literally

By Jason Oliver Nixon

John and I moved to North Carolina from Brooklyn, New York, six years ago and, egads!, had yet to visit the North Carolina coast. Over the years, Florida friends had invited us to their retreats in Highlands and Blowing Rock, but a trip to the shore kept getting shelved in favor of somewhere more far-flung — say, Sicily.

And then . . . Hello, pandemic!

Living in High Point, our Emerywood nabes escape to the Figure Eights and Bald Heads, but we are a bit less fancy and more “beach-adjacent” people who like to savor the strands for a stroll rather than loll about shoreside all day. John and I enjoy a view of the water but we don’t really swim — unless it’s a pool. We love history. Sidewalks. Charming residential architecture. Cool restaurants. And a hotel with a real personality that welcomes dogs and avoids trough-style breakfast situations.

John and I polled our style-setting friends, and, eureka!, Wilmington seemed to fit the checklist perfectly.

Hence, we piled into the trusty Subaru with the four-pound rescue pups, and the “circus” set sail for the easy three-hour drive to downtown Wilmington. Home base for the long weekend: The supremely relaxed-chic ARRIVE Wilmington Hotel.

“You will love it — very Palm Springs,” said an in-the-know pal. And we did.

ARRIVE Wilmington, a bold charcoal-and-white brick, cobbled-together group of buildings, is part of a mini hotel group that stretches from Phoenix to Austin, from Memphis to, yes, Palm Springs. Easy, breezy, modern and yet steeped in history: The motel-like structure is actually one part circa-1915 dye factory meets one part former nunnery. On the dye factory front, the hotel has a colorful history: The historic marker outside the hotel’s main entrance trumpets the aptly named Topsy, the circus elephant who somehow escaped from her circus in the 1920s and ran amuck at the factory. Whew, we sighed, knowing that our high-strung pups would fit right in — but what did happen to Topsy après le déluge, we wondered.

Within the ARRIVE complex, 36 rooms look onto a stunning, verdant garden kitted out with Adirondack and French bistro-style chairs and gas lanterns amidst a cornhole course, fire pits and cozy tables. Enjoy nibbles such as fried beets with whipped goat cheese and ginger-marinated beef skewers whilst sipping a vodka- and Campari-laced Drunken Monk cocktail, proffered from the super-friendly team working the Gazebo Bar. Our suite — #16 — was largely proportioned with a vaguely nautical theme: beadboard paneling, leather sofa, cozy kitchenette (aka mini fridge) and spacious tiled bathroom with the sign “Head” above the door. In summary: The ARRIVE’s location at the corner of South Second Street and Dock is perfect for exploring. The staff couldn’t be more lovely and accommodating. And the rates — we feel — are wonderfully affordable (rooms start at $109/night for two adults).

Factoid: The hotel’s nunnery annex houses a kooky “confessional,” a performance-like living sculpture accessed via your room key card — the perfect tonic after a night of too much sinning out on the town.

After settling in with the pups, John and I walked to nearby Manna for a wonderful dinner. The meal was pricey — almost $225 for two — but beautifully crafted and paired with a level of intuitive, thoughtful service that we rarely, if ever, find in the Triad. John savored his half chicken with Carolina Gold dirty rice and kale, and I lapped up the Vichyssoise with trout roe and crème fraîche, plus smoked pork loin with radicchio and peaches.

Next morning, we explored downtown Wilmington and popped into a few of the charming shops lining ever-gentrifying Front Street before grabbing potent coffees at Java Dog.

For lunch we walked to Indochine, a good 3-mile stroll. “You walked?’ our chic-ster friend later asked, eyes wide, grasping her Chanel pearls. But, yes, these former New Yorkers can handle our own and had a blast stopping in at the several antiques outposts and a hipster coffee shop en route on up-and-coming Castle Street.

Indochine is pure bliss. Fun, funky, irreverent, no pretense, bustling, no reservations and housed within a former public library that’s ablaze with color and pattern — so very us. Plus, our 6-mile round trip adventure burned off the glorious dumpling sampler, papaya salad and crispy bird-nest noodles washed down with a cool Allagash beer. After lunching and before hiking back, we explored the numerous buildings next door to Indochine that comprise The Ivy Cottage consignment store and trundled home a Tiffany vase, blanc-de-chine Chinoiserie figures and an Italian ceramic basket filed with ornamental apples. Yes, that was us.

We toured moss-dripping Airlie Gardens, strolled postcard-perfect Wrightsville Beach at sundown, sipped margaritas with friends who arrived by boat at Wrightsville’s Tower 7, and explored downtown Wilmington with the pups who love wide sidewalks and abundant greenery. Oh, the amazing architecture and history in this port city! Sadly, the city’s many house museums were closed due to COVID, but they will be top of our list on our next visit.

And the epicurean adventures continued at full gallop . . .

Ah, Brasserie du Soleil out near Wrightsville Beach where we supped on knockout French bistro fare (think tuna tartare, steak frites and Scottish salmon with mint yogurt) as tree frogs serenaded us from the fountain on the bustling patio. We loved the cooking at True Blue Butcher and Table, but the strip-mall setting (read, primo view of a Chicken Salad Chick sign) left us aesthetically challenged. But, oh!, the terrific, buttery New York Strip with divine Béarnaise sauce and side of mac and cheese that we split with a glass of spot-on, $9 Tempranillo red. A little more ambience, s’il-vous plaît, or take advantage of the to-go option.

Breakfast at the long-running, dive-ish White Front Breakfast House was a blast, and we walked and walked and then walked some more. On our final afternoon, we kicked back at the ARRIVE’s Gazebo Bar with the dogs scampering about. We sipped a cool rosé and took stock.

Noted John, “I think this is the new Charleston but without the hordes. And there’s more of a range of restaurants here — I get so tired of the same Gullah fare night after night in the Holy City.”

And my take?

It’s still very affordable and a little rough around the edges and that’s part of the magic.

Final assessment?


John and I definitely need to return — and soon — to this little weekend wonderland called Wilmington.  PS

The Madcap Cottage gents, John Loecke and Jason Oliver Nixon, embrace the new reality of COVID-friendly travel — heaps of road trips.

ARRIVE Wilmington, arrivehotels.com

Weekend Away

Mountain Men

The Madcap gents head for the hills

By Jason Oliver Nixon

There’s a handful of rarefied American resorts that are spoken about in hushed terms. Among those are The Point in upstate New York, Vermont’s Twin Farms, and San Ysidro Ranch on the California coast south of Santa Barbara. Blackberry Farm, tucked into the rolling hills and mountains of eastern Tennessee, also appears on that coveted, in-the-know list with breathy nods to the estate’s culinary prowess, superlative spa treatments, impressive wine list, and themed escapes built around literary and fashion “activations.”

I have been lucky enough to visit “the Farm” and was impressed by the estate’s gastronomic glories and bucolic landscape, so I was excited to hear that the Blackberry team would be opening a new outpost up the road from the Farm and atop a nearby mountain named, predictably, Blackberry Mountain.

In a word, Blackberry Mountain is camp. High-end camp. Rooms start at about $1,500 per night. Just for the room. Envision a certain luxe rusticity paired with stunning vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains, interesting menus, endless activities, charismatic sommeliers, and private fire pits complete with dial-up s’mores. And lots of construction still taking place.

But let’s dive deep: As you follow the directions from the main highway through Walland, Tennessee — about a 4 1/2-hour drive from the Triad — you might ask, as I did, “Er, did we miss something?”

“Deliverance,” my partner, John, said. But then you turn onto a newly asphalted road, and that seems encouraging. We drove past the vaguely Druidic gatepost emblazoned with an artistic “M” twice before realizing that we had gone too far. Back on track, we rounded a corner to the property’s actual gates, where we announced ourselves via intercom and were buzzed in.

And then we got lost again at a junction as we traveled up and up the mountain. “Just like camp,” John observed. “We need a map.” A few turns past the many homes being constructed (the Mountain is mixed use in its focus — resort meets second, third and fourth residences), and we arrived at the 5,200-acre property’s lobby-cum-bar/dining room, aka The Lodge. The views out toward the endless pine-shaded Great Smoky Mountains and the heated pool and spa lawn were breathtaking, and we lapped up the very calm interiors of the public spaces with the fire crackling merrily away in the bar.

We were ferried by Lexus up from The Lodge to our stone-clad cottage complete with sprawling bedroom, spa-like bathroom, and private terrace with fireplace. A golf cart sat charging beside the villa’s entrance that would allow us to travel up the mountain to locations such as the fitness center, aka The Hub, and Firetower — and, yes, it’s a hike uphill, so the golf cart certainly came in handy.

Settled into our neutral-hued (aka, beige) pitched-roof guest room, John and I set out to explore. A stay at the Mountain — unlike the Farm, which gears itself more to relaxation — revolves around things to do. Or as the resort refers to the post-reveille run sheet, “active adventure.”

“We want the Mountain to inspire curiosity in our guests,” notes Blackberry Mountain proprietor Mary Celeste Beall.

“Have fun with that, I plan on sleeping,” commented John. “If I have to be curious, is there room service and a sauna and Turner Classics on the TV?”

And so I was left on my own to channel an inner “curiosity.” I skipped the Japanese pottery class — something called “raku” — but did try the Sound Bathing treatment, and that left me a bit perplexed. There were lots of musical instruments and singing, I think. Maybe a gong and a zither. I felt like I had attended a Sarah McLachlan concert, albeit supine. But then I didn’t like the bizarre “equine therapy” I tried at another retreat either, so maybe it’s me.

Would I care to do a spin class? Or any of the myriad exercise classes, yoga, spa treatments, workshops, painting classes, and hiking trails and so much more?

Er, no.

I do too much of too much in my daily life. Well, maybe not the gong playing. Or the raku.

Instead, I created my own version of “active adventure.” I luxuriated with a perfect martini in The Lodge surrounded by a heap of magazines beside the fire before enjoying the hot tub in a natty Orlebar Brown bathing costume depicting James Bond.

But maybe I wasn’t being a good sport.

I recalibrated and tried to fit in. I donned head-to-ankle organic Lululemon and generic Allbirds.

“You look like a trustafarian from Venice Beach,” John commented, whilst dialing up for bubble bath and ice. “Very Abbot Kinney.”

Still, I tried. In my own way.

“Where’s the spa?” I trilled. “A farm-to-table pedicure, perhaps?”

“And is there a mixology class at the bar? With complimentary nibbles . . . ”

“Is there archery?”

We lapped up two inspired dinners at the Three Sisters restaurant and hiked a bit and took the golf cart to lunch at the Firetower, where John and I savored the eye-popping views. I took part in a cooking demonstration and felt like Ina Garten for about an hour.

John slept in, and we ran amok with the golf cart and Instagram TV-ed the whole thing. Frankly, the golf cart was our favorite active adventure. Brilliant.

I considered a yoga class.

And thought about Pilates.

And I have no idea what happens in a “movement studio” and don’t want to know.

Happily, there were s’mores that evening by our fire.

What I realized was that my interest in camp-like activities ended at about age 14 in tandem with the demise of The Go-Go’s and my plaid Swatch. If I have to be active, I want to bike through Provence or hike Sicily. And if I am curious, it’s about art-house films, museums, and famous gardens. Although I do like a good lanyard.

Sigh. I guess I am the wrong demographic.

Get me to the Farm.

So this bad camper ordered another martini and sat back to enjoy the postcard-perfect vista and wait for the internal dinner bell.  PS

In their debut travel column, the Madcap Cottage gents, John Loecke and Jason Oliver Nixon, embrace the new reality of COVID-friendly travel — heaps of road trips. To kick off the festivities, the gents pile into their Subaru and set off for the recently opened Blackberry Mountain (see blackberrymountain.com), the adventure-geared sister to Tennessee’s fabled Blackberry Farm.