A recent visit to North Carolina’s Skyline Lodge in Jeep’s Grand Cherokee L included bear watching, wine around the fire pit, and a seriously good steakhouse.
When I found out that a mid-century modern lodge in my favorite North Carolina mountain town had just been renovated and re-opened, I knew I’d have to plan a trip.
Designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright acolyte, the Skyline Lodge is perched on a mountain just a few miles from the downtown Highlands, North Carolina. Skyline is close enough to downtown for picking up a Tomato Pie from Dusty’s Superette, or a pair of boots from Highland Hiker, but far enough to generally avoid the droves of well-heeled Atlantans who flood into the quaint Main Street on weekends. And Skyline’s restaurant, Oak Steakhouse, has already become the go-to steakhouse in town––more on that later.
I used this trip to test drive the new 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L: the all-new three-row with classic Cherokee and Wagoneer design cues, gorgeous interior details, and serious off-road chops––all while keeping the same MPG as the 2-row version. It made the journey from my sea-level home in Charleston to nearly 4,000 feet in the Blue Ridge Mountains a pure joy.
My press model had the V-6, which had plenty of power and always felt quick––even when climbing mountains for miles at a time––though the V-8 would be the obvious choice for towing. The interior details of the Summit Reserve are next-level, with the open-pore wood trim and quilted leather seats being the stars for me.
To me, there’s always been a certain brand of rugged luxury unique to the Grand Cherokee, and I think it reaches a sweet spot in the new Grand Cherokee L. You can get more luxury (and spend a lot more) with the new Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer. But in the L, you can get the luxury and design elements of the Wagoneer in a more efficient and nimble size.
On the way to Skyline, we stopped off in Hendersonville for lunch at HenDough—a low-key spot dedicated to doughnuts and fried chicken––for a tempura-battered fried chicken breast sandwich slathered with Duke’s mayo.
Then a mandatory stop at our favorite mountain wine shop, Crate Wine Market. Just to give you an idea of the level of attention to detail here, I’d passed through a month earlier and mentioned to the owner the style of wine I like. On my return, she had a bottle in the back room she’d been holding for me.
It’s hard to find unique wine in a town that doesn’t have a serious restaurant focus, but Crate is a rare exception and a required stop any time we’re passing through town. And the prices are much better than in Highlands, where everything seems to have an unspoken “Highlands Tax” added on.
Arriving in the outskirts of Highlands, a cool sign shaped like a national forest sign points you up a hill to the Skyline Lodge, and a winding drive past a mountain lake, a stream, and banks of rhododendron eventually brings you to the lodge––built in 1929 and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright student Arthur J. Kelsey, and just reopened after an artful renovation.
The front office has fresh pastries, espresso, charcuterie, and wine to enjoy in the communal courtyard. There’s an informality to the design here––with many rooms opening into a public space––that pushes the idea that you should get to know your neighbors. It’s a nudge that we went with, and our trip was all the better for it.
You could keep to yourself here, but it’s easier to make a few new friends instead. The rooms have of the feel of a luxury mid-mod summer camp… not too formal, but also very refined, and each with private balconies.
Skyline’s restaurant, Oak Steakhouse, is worth a trip even if you aren’t staying here––a satellite of a well-established steakhouse in Charleston, South Carolina.
Eating steak while bear watching may sound like eating sushi in a shark tank, but Oak’s patio is a safe place from which to spot black bears creeping out of the woods on a pre-hibernation forage. A glass of Pinot Noir, a dry-aged ribeye, and a black bear sitting on a tree limb. Only at Skyline Lodge… and possibly at a Russian Oligarch’s Siberian summer home.
When darkness falls and the courtyard fire pits get going, there’s a serious camaraderie that hits its stride. So much so that everyone we befriended spontaneously began referring to it as “The Lido Deck,” as if we were on an ocean crossing.
It’s BYOB around the fire, which makes it feel like you’re at a party with friends. People come and go on the couches, along with the occasional neighborhood dog on the hunt for dropped S’mores. We had a cheese and charcuterie board with wine for dinner in the courtyard our first night. But all that said, if you prefer privacy, with the private balconies and spacious grounds to wander, you can still opt for solitude here.
The bears came back for a breakfast encore, until one of the local S’mores hounds––a black lab from someone’s nearby mountain house––fulfilled his biological imperative and scared it off. A word to the wise on breakfast at Skyline Lodge, which is not to be missed: you may not remember the names of the people washing down Neuske’s bacon and strong coffee at the tables around you, but you’ll know their faces, and you’ll have a vague sense that several hours ago when you were sharing corkscrews and stories by the fire pits, you were all best friends.
Our last stop was at an architectural salvage and antique bazaar called Reclamations, selling everything from old signs and doors, to reclaimed fireplace mantels, to a Vespa Scooter turned into a side table. Come to buy a bird feeder made out of an old moonshine still, or just to feed the chickens. Either way, it’s well worth a visit before heading back down the mountain.
Jeep has something special with the new Grand Cherokee L. And at a hotel with a parking lot filled with luxury cars, everyone on the Lido Deck wanted a peek inside this one. At $64,000, the Summit Reserve model I drove was far north of the $38,000 “starting at” price. But you really get to see and touch what you’re paying for here. One of my fellow Skyline guests put it simply after checking out the interior: “Welp… Jeep has really stepped it up.”