A day trip to the foothills offers a delicious, artsy, outdoorsy diversion.
by Page Leggett
I wanted to forget that my home had become my jail. So, imagine the shock of finding myself in the North Carolina foothills … in prison.
Fortunately, it’s a former prison in Columbus that’s been converted into a brewpub. The Iron Key opened in August on a dead-end street in this small (population at last census: 999) Polk County town. The other reason for my shock was finding such unexpected trendiness in a town that feels a tad antiquated. If you choose to — and I do — you could view this prison-turned-brewpub opening as a sign of hope.
Prefer grapes over barley and hops? Local wineries including Tryon’s Overmountain Vineyards, which also has a pick-your-own blueberry patch in summer, and Mill Springs’ Parker-Binns, complete with “Burger Barn” and occasional live music, are ready to welcome you. Reservations are a good idea, and some local venues require them.
Columbus is surrounded by towns that have a lot to offer a Charlotte escapee. The area I’ve dubbed “The Quad Cities” — Tryon, Saluda and Columbus, North Carolina, and Landrum, South Carolina — have a laid-back vibe, mountain crafts, charming main streets and outdoor fun.
Start in Saluda
Begin your day trip at the westernmost of these towns. Saluda’s historic downtown — all two blocks of it, just across from the rail line — appears mostly unscathed by the economic downturn. Retailers have reduced their hours, and some are open only on weekends, but they seem to be faring well.
Heartwood Contemporary Crafts Gallery packs a lot into a compact space. Don’t expect what one of my friends calls “kountry-with-a-K krafts.” The work — ceramics, wood, jewelry, glass and fiber arts — at this 35-year-old gallery is well-made and well-vetted. River Dog Run is filled with vintage and reclaimed furniture and home accessories. Every vignette in the shop is Pinterest-worthy.
North Carolina’s oldest grocery store, historic Thompson’s Store/Ward’s Grill, has been serving customers since 1890. This Main Street location has been Thompson’s home since 1940. The store sells hand-cut meats, wine, craft beer and gourmet cheese and is open seven days a week; the grill, known for its cheeseburgers and milkshakes, is open Monday through Saturday for breakfast and lunch.
The locally famous Purple Onion can’t yet offer its regular lineup of live music, but the beloved restaurant is open. You’ll want to have a reservation, even for lunch. The aged gouda and local honey plate or the tabbouleh salad are nice for a snack; pizzas and sandwiches are heartier fare.
Visit Pearson’s Falls for an easy quarter-mile hike to the area’s most famous waterfall. Masks and social distancing are required, and picnicking was prohibited at press time. The Green River Gorge offers plenty of opportunities for whitewater rafting, kayaking and tubing. For guided trips, waterfall rappelling and kayak instruction, check out Green River Adventures, based in a renovated gas station in downtown Saluda — you can’t miss the neon green and orange signs.
Horsing around in Tryon
About 8 miles from Saluda is Tryon, a place that calls itself “The Friendliest Town in the South.” Notice the long stretches of kudzu along the highway. Once an eyesore, after being confined for so long, the trailing perennial vine now has an eccentric beauty.
Savor the sight of split-rail fences, iron gates and stone walls you pass on this country drive along U.S. Route 176. See with new eyes the “Jesus Saves” crosses dotting the landscape. It’s good to be on the road again.
Once in town, you can’t miss the horses. If you pass through a residential area, you’ll see them in the flesh. If you’re in the business district, look for life-size painted horses, including Morris, a larger-than-life replica of a wooden toy horse that has stood at the corner of Trade and Pacolet streets since 1928.
When Tryon’s most famous attraction, the Tryon International Equestrian Center, reopens, its Legends Grille is the closest thing to fine dining in the area.
But TIEC isn’t the only game in town. Pay tribute to Tryon’s most famous daughter at Nina Simone Plaza downtown. Blink, and you could miss it, so keep your eyes peeled for the statue of the iconic singer and civil-rights hero.
Just across the street is Upstairs Artspace, a nonprofit contemporary art gallery that’s an unexpected find. (Did I expect horse art? Yes. A satirical exhibition on the cutthroat nature of corporate America? No.)
If you didn’t have lunch in Saluda, Tryon’s family-owned Side Street Pizza & Pastais the place to go. Choose from traditional, thin or Sicilian-style crust. Wings, pastas and subs are also on the menu. The owners call it “a hole in the wall,” and it is, but in the best way. Curbside pickup is available if you don’t want to dine in.
Landrum: Vintage charm
Seven minutes from Tryon is Landrum, S.C. The Hare & Hound Pub, a local institution housed in an old mercantile, has good bar food and more substantial selections at dinner, including a grilled ribeye and a crispy whole flounder. Stone Soup is a casual restaurant serving lunch and an early supper with an adjacent market offering cured meats, pimento cheese, frozen casseroles and baked goods made in-house daily. The nondescript exterior belies the culinary experience inside.
Landrum’s pocket-sized downtown offers several antique stores, including Pee Ridge Vintiques (closed Sundays) and the Landrum Antique Mall. Inside the mall, The Millstone Gallery has a diverse selection, including leatherwork, wooden bowls, forged knives, ceramics and paintings.
Closing time in Columbus
End your day in the foothills with a cold beer at Iron Key Brewing Company. The owners didn’t miss a chance to capitalize on their location in an old prison. Choose from the malty “Lock-Up Lager,” the bitter-and-slightly-citrusy “Big House IPA,” the traditional German “Konjugal Kolsch” and more. Everything is on brand.
Iron Key’s food is above average for a brewery. Burgers, brats, wings and buttery house-made pretzels are on the menu, as you might assume, along with pimento cheese potato skins, fried oysters, hand-cut fries and vegetarian options.
When it’s time to head home — Columbus is just an hour and 25 minutes from uptown Charlotte — you might feel a little freer. You legit got away. You managed to break free from your Covid-era confines. It wasn’t the vacation you planned. But maybe it was the escape you needed. SP