Inn for the Night: Ritz on the Rocks

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Ritz on the Rocks boasts a mix of eclectic charm and luxury amongst amazing vistas.

story by GREGG TERRY | photos by STEVEN STIEFEL and RANDY GRIDER

As a native Alabamian and one who has seen a good share of “Alabama the Beautiful” in my 50-something years, I must say Mentone and the Appalachian-foothills region are now at the top of my favorites list.

Growing up during the 1960s and ’70s in the Alabama towns of Decatur and Sheffield, camping and fishing trips and Tennessee River boating activities were numerous for the Terry family – my mom, dad, sister, brother and me. It was common for us to load up the 1961 Nash Rambler station wagon with pop-up camper in tow to explore the many state parks and campgrounds that were developing during those years. After I finished school at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa became and remains my hometown, but I am thankful for the many days spent in the north Alabama outdoors. They helped me develop an appreciation for the abundance of beauty that region has to offer.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]In the spring of 2002, my oldest son’s fourth-grade class went on a two-night/three-day field trip to Mentone, and I raised my hand to go as a “dad chaperone.” Accommodations were at one of the many local camps scattered along the Little River area. This particular one was built on a prime piece of riverfront property in the 1930s, and I’m pretty sure the cabin where I slept and the bath house I shared with a dozen 9-year-old boys hadn’t been touched since then.

Guess what? When I looked around at the pure and scenic beauty of the camp property, that quarter inch of pollen on my plastic mattress didn’t matter. I became hooked on Mentone!

Fast forward to 2011. Wanting to return to Mentone for a quick weekend getaway, an Internet search revealed what appeared to be a perfect place with a catchy name – Ritz on the Rocks. After an e-mail to check availability and clarify some questions, we booked the mid-April trip with owner Tony Giarrusso.

While Mentone is just a three-hour drive from Tuscaloosa, the landscape changes significantly, from mostly flat to hilly with different varieties of trees and plants. The Appalachian foothills surround and welcome us with a sense of relaxation and anticipation as we exit the interstate and head up Lookout Mountain on Alabama Highway 117.

Ritz on the Rocks is conveniently located along the scenic Lookout Mountain Parkway (DeKalb County Road 89), between Mentone and DeSoto State Park. “We are only minutes from DeSoto Falls, DeSoto State Park and Cloudmont Ski Resort,” Giarrusso says. “We’re right in the heart of it all.” The attractive property sign telling us we are here sports the famed fleur-de-lis of Giarrusso’s native New Orleans.

What would become Ritz on the Rocks originated in 1956 as a motor lodge, and adjacent properties were part of the complex. After the motor lodge closed, the property went unused for about three decades. Giarrusso acquired it in 2005. “It was a shack,” he says. “The front of the building wasn’t here. The roof was leaking, and it had a low ceiling. My contractor and I used what we could while renovating.” When the 8-month project was complete, Giarrusso christened the place Ritz on the Rocks – a name that brings home the owner’s idea of what lies in store for its guests – “the place where luxury and comfort meet the mountain.”

The structure is nestled on the western brow of the mountain and boasts two adjacent bungalows. We are assigned Bungalow B, which provides an immediate, “wow-this-is-going-to-be-a-great-place-tostay” feel as you open the door. The entire bungalow is really one big open room (except for the bathroom, of course), but clever furniture placement artfully divides the main space into two sitting areas, a generously sized kitchen and a bedroom. The bungalow’s main wall of
glass provides an unobstructed, panoramic view from any place inside the property.

Giarrusso brought a bit of his hometown’s style with him to Ritz on the Rocks. Decorated with antique furniture, original art, pottery and stained glass, we can feel some of his Crescent-City roots. “Design-wise, it’s very eclectic,” Giarrusso says. “A New Orleans influence? Maybe here and there.

Most of the antiques here are primitive, whereas in New Orleans I would have used heavy French.” The high, wood-beamed ceiling, stone and hickory flooring and a  wood-burning fireplace give Ritz on the Rocks the warm, cozy feeling you would expect in a mountain cabin.

With no particular agenda, we unpack and settle into our quarters in the middle of the afternoon. One of the most amazing sights in the area is Desoto Falls, barely more than a mile away, so we decide to check it out.

Named for the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, the 104-foot waterfall located on the west fork of Little River drops into its own small canyon. Let me just say, this is a must-see for any first-time visitor to the Mentone area.

Upon our return, we take full advantage of Ritz on the Rocks’ outdoor fire pit and the breathtaking sunset view from the brow. The vista and the property’s location complement the bungalows’ charm perfectly. “We have the best view off Lookout Mountain with no obstructions,” Giarrusso says. “We overlook a black Angus farm in the valley. I wanted it to look like you were outside without having to step outside.”

Saturday is dedicated to hiking and a picnic in Cloudland Canyon State Park (see story, page 36) near Trenton, Ga., about a 30-minute drive away. The park offers trails for all skill levels, and we decide on one that will lead us into the canyon, where more waterfalls greet us. The weather is perfect as we sit on a huge boulder to rest and break out the picnic goodies.

An afternoon nap on a blanket on the Ritz’s back lawn is in order before dinner at the ever-popular Wildflower Café in Mentone.

That was our trip in 2011. For the past three years, Ritz on the Rocks has been a spring tradition for us. While plenty of newcomers are discovering the area – and Ritz on the Rocks – repeat guests are a staple. “As time goes on, repeat business is so important,” Giarrusso says. “In the last year, probably every other weekend has been a repeat guest. We give them a preferred rate.”

Ironically, while we have enjoyed the charm and hospitality that he has built and nurtured at Ritz on the Rocks, it is not until our 2014 trip that we finally meet Giarrusso (affectionately nicknamed MenTony by some of the locals) in person. As we sit on the brow with him and guests staying in the other bungalow, the conversation quickly takes on a pace and aura that only those who have met him can understand. We can’t wait to return in 2015.

To learn more about Ritz on the Rocks, visit VBRO.com (listing 255473) or call Tony Giarrusso at 504-481-8666.

Gregg’s Travel Tips

 ENJOY THE OUTDOORS. There’s plenty of nature to see.

DON’T MISS THE MENTONE FARMERS’ MARKET, held every Wednesday and Saturday year round beside the Mentone Inn. You can pick up locally grown, organic produce, jams and candles on your walk to Mentone’s antique shops and art galleries.

ATTEND A FESTIVAL. Mentone is host to three large annual events – the
Rhododendron Festival (third weekend in May), Julyfest (third weekend in
July) and Colorfest (third weekend in October).

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