Condé Nast Traveler Readers Laud The Swag

The Swag is a mountaintop treasure. At an elevation of 5,000 feet, the resort borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where the views are spectacular and the rustic inn is a luxurious getaway from the hustle and bustle of life.

Now in its 36th season, The Swag has received many awards for hospitality at its finest. But the award received Oct. 17 from Condé Nast Traveler, is a gem — because it came from the Condé Nast readers. More than 300,000 readers participated in the 2017 Readers’ Choice voting, giving The Swag the second highest ranking of all resorts in the South.

Condé Nast readers ranking The Swag at the pinnacle of hospitality is a major accolade. Deener Matthews, owner and innkeeper of the 14-room rustic inn, feels The Swag’s high ranking was the result of hard work by the managers and staff, personal attention to detail, and most importantly, making guests feel “like they’re returning home.”

“It’s always wonderful to get recognition,” said Matthews. “We are among some fine competition. The Readers’ Choice Award is very exciting.”

The Swag was originally built as a family home in 1971 by Matthews and her husband, Dan Matthews, Rector Emeritus of Trinity Church, Wall Street, in New York City. Dan grew up in Canton, which is why the Matthews were delighted to return to Haywood County.

“For Dan to be back home was very special,” Deener said.

The Swag has come a long way since 1982, when the Matthews opened it as a 7-room retreat in the mountains. In the early days, Deener cooked for guests, and everyone pitched in to keep it running. The inn grew with additional rooms and cabins, and so did The Swag’s reputation for fine service, privacy and natural surroundings.

“When guests come up the 2.5-mile drive from the gate, they decompress,” said general manager Marla Larson. “It’s another world here — it’s a magical place. It’s a way to get back to nature.”

Guests enjoy The Swag’s fine rustic décor, with rooms and cabins made of hand-hewn logs, most rooms with wood-burning fireplaces and comforting steam showers. There is no television, but guests have Wi-Fi, since many want to be connected to their family or work. Deener gives the entire staff — and especially housekeeping — high praise for knowing and anticipating guests’ needs.

The Swag is literally steps from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and a perfect place to learn about the Great Smoky Mountains and wildlife.

“Through hikes and expert guest leaders, it’s a way to get back to nature,” Deener said.

The inn’s rustic, yet refined setting, draws guests back time and time again. Deener, who loves to put people together for conversation, seated two couples — who didn’t know each other together — for dinner 10 years ago. The couples became friends, and now return to The Swag together every year.

In the age of social media and internet searches, The Swag is drawing new and younger guests, too.

“We are definitely seeing a younger clientele this year,” Deener said.

Larson pointed out that younger guests find The Swag online, and fall in love with the photos of the inn and its mountaintop ambience.

Seasoned leaders take guests on hikes, explore artistic expression, tell stories and give talks about wildlife — all activities are included.

“You can partake in as many activities at The Swag as you want,” Larson said. “But there’s no pressure to participate. Guest create their own environment here.”

Food and dining are important parts of The Swag experience. Executive chef Jake Schmidt, formerly of the Omni Grove Park Inn, and The Swag’s culinary team provide fine dining every day.

Lodging guests and non-lodging guests alike savor the popular Wednesday gourmet picnics, which are much more than a ‘picnic.’ The Wednesday noon outings to Gooseberry Knob provide an array of artfully-prepared food in a spectacular mountain setting. Advance reservations are important, since the picnics often sell out.

Schmidt and the culinary team also lead cooking lessons during the year, with one more set of cooking lessons for the season scheduled Nov. 12-14. Haywood County people are welcome to sign up for the classes.

“The cooking classes are fantastic,” Deener said. “Jake is so good with seasonal dishes.”

New this year is the availability of wine and beer at the inn, since Haywood County regulations now allow the sale.

As for future plans for The Swag, during the winter, staff will be adding a larger room in the Chestnut Lodge for meetings.

“We had eight full-property buyouts this year — the most The Swag has ever had — and the Matthews’ vision is to have a mini-conference center,” Larson said.

Deener recruited Larson as general manager this year.

“Marla is doing a remarkable job,” Deener said. “She cares about people and the details.”

With Condé Nast readers’ comments on The Swag from “the views can’t be beat,” to “the owners are delightful and engaging and the staff are friendly and efficient,” it’s easy to see why The Swag received a top 2017 Readers’ Choice Award. While ranking second in the South in the prestigious awards is an accomplishment for any resort, The Swag staff members continue their daily focus on outstanding hospitality.

“Next year, we’ll be No. 1 in the Condé Nast Readers’ rankings,” Marla said, with a smile.

The Swag will close for the season the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and re-open for the 2018 season the third week in April.

For information on The Swag, visit www.theswag.com. To see the Condé Nast Traveler rankings, visit www.cntraveler.com/readers-choice-awards/united-states/south-u-s-top-resorts.

By Carol Viau