Take our shortcuts to fall, and sneak off to one of these cool retreats.
1 of 11Art Meripol, Gary Clark
Feel it in your bones. Autumn arrives with the crunch of leaves, a drop in the temperature, and the urge to head for the hills--literally. We went in search of three terrific fall escapes that are guaranteed to make this colorful season even more special. Two are fabulous bargains. One is a splurge well worth taking. All three offer a full array of activities, including hot-air ballooning, carriage rides, hiking, fishing, and just plain relaxing. A breathtaking backdrop of nature, painted in harlequin gold and orange, is found as well.
Whether you're partial to the foothills of the Great Smokies in Tennessee, the stunning terrain in southern Kentucky, or the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, pack your walking shoes, grab the film, and go. You won't be sorry. Explore on foot, on horseback, or by rail, but don't pass up these delightful discoveries.
2 of 11Art Meripol, Gary Clark
Spend an afternoon in this part of the state, and you'll be convinced that God is a painter. A Matisse-like presence spreads his grace among the north Arkansas region like a color-crazed phantom this time of year. Yet this spirit stirs up more than just gorgeous leaves. Wooded retreats, tiny towns with budding artist communities, scenic highways, more than a million acres in protected national forests, as well as fall fishing and float trips along the Buffalo National River prove this place a perfect playground.
Make your first stop in the town of Ponca, and let your spirits soar with a hot-air balloon ride ($245 per person). Trip guide Mike Mills at the Buffalo Outdoor Center takes his silky sensations out in the early mornings. (Make reservations at least a day in advance.)
When it's time to eat, head to Jasper and the Ozark Cafe, a fixture in the area since 1909. They make a fine country-fried steak for lunch. Their fried cheesecake ($3.99), wrapped in a tortilla and fried to a crisp, is so good it defies logic.
This area claims galleries such as the Old Carriage House in Jasper. The red, barn-like structure sits off State 7 and features the creations of owner-artist Rebecca Holden and local craftspeople. Wind chimes, old-fashioned toys, handmade jewelry, leaves and flowers fashioned from copper, and pottery stock the shelves.
3 of 11Photography: Art Meripol, Gary Clark
Cedar Crest Lodge
After a magical day in the mountains, return to the Ozark Cafe for some music, and then retire among the treetops at Cedar Crest Lodge, set along the Buffalo National River in Ponca. Six thousand square feet of rock, cedar, redwood, and cypress, the plush abode sleeps 10 to 12 adults comfortably and exemplifies the kind of expert craftsmanship the Ozarks nurture. At only $500 a night (roughly $50 per person) on weekdays, this stay could possibly be one of the best bargains around.
Though families love the spacious amenities provided at Cedar Crest Lodge, couples desiring less room to roam find a tasteful alternative at the Arkansas House Bed & Breakfast in downtown Jasper. Modest antique furniture, comfortable beds, and inexpensive rates ($59-$89 a night) make this small-town gem a sweet choice.
Moments spent here, as in most of the Ozarks, promise a window seat to something wonderful in fall.
4 of 11Photography: Art Meripol, Gary Clark
Jasper and Ponca, Arkansas
5 of 11Photography: Art Meripol, Gary Clark
Wide-open spaces and a brilliant palette of fall color await you at the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Straddling south-central Kentucky and north-central Tennessee, this 125,000-acre playground on the Cumberland Plateau displays some of the lushest scenery to be found in the region. But how best to see it? The answer is simple, fun, and even inexpensive. Head for the small town of Stearns, where coal once reigned supreme and a train still carries passengers.
6 of 11Photography: Art Meripol, Gary Clark
Big South Fork Scenic Railway
Hop aboard the Big South Fork Scenic Railway (running Wednesday-Sunday in September; $15 adults, $7.50 ages 3-12), which takes you on a three-hour ride between stands of maples and hemlocks, across a bridge, through a tunnel, and over tumbling streams. Though the stunning fall scenery makes an indelible impression all its own, you'll also make a stop at Blue Heron, a onetime thriving coal mining community.
Now part of the National Park Service, the former coal mine and tipple (the building where different types of coal were separated and then dropped into railcars for transport) were built in 1937. You can walk among replicas of the town's buildings and hear oral histories in the school, church, and homes describing life in the camps. Don't miss climbing the hill and walking across the bridge on the coal tipple; the view of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River can't be beat. Chat with the park ranger on duty, and grab a sandwich and chips from the snack bar before you hear that whistle blowing one more time. Enjoy the pastoral view from the tracks; even at the end of the line in Stearns, the real world seems far away.
7 of 11Photography: Art Meripol, Gary Clark
8 of 11Photography: Art Meripol, Gary Clark
Smokies in Style
An Eden on Earth awaits just 25 minutes south of Knoxville, Tennessee, at the exquisite resort known as Blackberry Farm in Walland. Make no mistake; the word "farm" is misleading. You won't find barnyards or checked tablecloths here. Nor will you find bargain lodgings at this cozy hideaway with a total of 44 rooms.
This mountain resort glows with English countryside decor. The estate rooms and cottage suites welcome warmly with antiques and bedding that threatens to swallow you and never spit you out. There are worse things.
Take advantage of as many ways as you can to enjoy the brilliant changing leaves on this 4,200-acre patch of pastoral perfection. Get some exercise on one of the six hiking trails, which connect to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park trails.The guide on the nature walk identifies plants and points out the statue-still deer nearby.
9 of 11Photography: Art Meripol, Gary Clark
You'll also revel in the autumn color by taking a horseback riding excursion, and you don't have to be an expert to enjoy a 1 1⁄2-hour ride on a Rocky Mountain Horse. The Orvis-endorsed property offers top-notch fly-fishing instruction both on the grounds and in the National Park.
10 of 11Photography: Art Meripol, Gary Clark
Still, relaxation is the key here. Indulge in a spa treatment in the Farmhouse Spa, or wind down in the heated pool (through October). For a romantic jaunt, settle into a horse-drawn carriage for a journey among a swirling dance of crimson leaves.
Just save room for the food. You'll get three gourmet meals a day at Blackberry Farm, and chef John Fleer promises you won't go away hungry. You'll find the Angus beef is tender enough to forgo a knife, and don't try to resist the desserts--no one can. Just enjoy the repast. Let the nice staff prepare a fire in your fireplace, and then sink into your enormous feather bed. Folks, it just doesn't get any better than this, especially in the fall.
11 of 11Photography: Art Meripol, Gary Clark
This article is from the September 2005 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.