DILLSBORO, N.C. -- There was a murderer aboard the train. And it was our job to solve the caper.
The train in question is the vintage Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, chugging along about an hour north of Asheville. We had boarded the mystery dinner theater express, along with a cast of suspicious characters, including Hugh R. Awsum, a Hollywood filmmaker, starlet Anita Tallwon , and the guilty-looking Ben Dover, stuntman to the stars.
Although the ensuing drama was good fun -- Anita did it -- and dinner was surprisingly tasty, they couldn't compete with the stunning views from the passenger cars of the Tuckasegee River and the gorgeous rolling Smoky Mountains that attract visitors to this western corner of North Carolina year round. Still, the train is a huge draw, with its many themed and specialty excursions, bringing 200,000 passengers annually to this town of just 236 people. A different train line, the Western North Carolina Railroad, is the reason the town exists at all. Dillsboro was founded in 1888, when the arrival of the train out of Asheville created an economic boom.
Some residents, like Theresa Dowd, came as tourist s to ride the train and decided to stay. Dowd was an urban planner in Annapolis, Md., when she came to Dillsboro with her son, a train enthusiast. Today, she is the owner of the West Carolina Internet Café, dispensing chai and cappuccino, scones, and free Wi-Fi access to her customers.
"I guess I always had a dream of getting away from the rat race, and this is the nicest little town I've ever been to," she says.
A ride through "downtown" Dillsboro takes about two minutes. But turn off the main street, Haywood Road, and head a few blocks toward the river. On Webster, Church, and Front streets, all of which lead to or abut the railroad tracks, more than 40 merchants sell everything from country kitsch to high-style home accessories. The latter is the forte of partners Bud Smith and John Miele, who have owned the Golden Carp for 17 years.
"We're half-back Yankees," says Smith. "We went to South Florida, then we came half way back." The shop's eclectic collection of imported and locally made serving dishes, lighting fixtures, textiles, and chic bric-a-brac would be at home in any big city.
There aren't too many places to stay in town, but what's there has character. The mayor, Jean Hartbarger, and her husband, Jim, run the Jarrett House, a ramshackle inn that dates to 1884. Known for its family-style dining -- fried chicken is a specialty -- and friendly service, the Jarrett House offers comfortable (and sometimes architecturally odd) rooms at a good price.
A few blocks away, within walking distance of shopping and restaurants like the Dillsboro Smokehouse and the popular Dillsboro Steak & Seafood, Emma Wertenberger and her husband, Tom, have run the four-room Squire Watkins Inn since 1983.
"Tom's mother had a fishing shack around here, so we fell in love with the area -- even though it's really not on the way to anywhere, is it?" says Wertenberger.
The newest hotel in the area is the Galvladi Mountain Inn in Sylva, a luxurious five-room hideaway carved on a mountainside 4,000 feet above the treetops -- hence the name, Galvladi, which means heaven in Cherokee.
The longer you stay around Dillsboro and Jackson County, the more you find to like. The monthly "Songwriters in the Round" dinner show at the Balsam Mountain Inn is a consistent sellout . Then there is the two-hour scenic drive that loops from Dillsboro to Sylva, down to Cashiers and Highlands and back up through Franklin, passing waterfalls and hiking trails along the way.
"We first came to the area when our daughter was going to Clemson," said Dave Stubbs, who along with his wife, Terry Matre, built the Galvladi Mountain Inn. The pair moved from Chicago, retiring early from the charter aircraft business and a family and marriage therapy practice, respectively. They scouted locations in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana for a site to build their dream inn before settling in Sylva.
"We just kept coming back here," says Stubbs. "Terry wanted to see at least five ridge lines from our inn -- and we can see seven. It doesn't get any better than that."
Contact Beth D'Addono, a freelance writer in Belmont Hills, Pa., at firstname.lastname@example.org.