Inn for the Night: Spiritual Oasis

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The Lodge at Gorham’s Bluff blends elegance with nature’s beauty and a powerful sense of community.

By MEREDITH CUMMINGS

Few communities are so amiable they seem like a living, breathing being – complete with a personality. From the moment I step foot into the hamlet’s signature and picturesque six-suite inn – simply named the Lodge – my three-page-and-counting, to-do list and daily routine are replaced with an I-never-want-to-leave-here mindset.

I arrive after dark following a three-hour drive from my home in Tuscaloosa – interrupted by a stop in Fort Payne to see old friends. (Unless you are familiar with the area, I would suggest arriving during the day, if possible, as the rural roads can be a bit difficult to navigate after the sun sets.) The shadowy view on the way gives me pause, like I am semi-consciously driving into a dream. Through the entrance, winding past the lake, just when I start to think I am in the wrong place, the winding path leads me through the neighborhood to the end of the road.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]There is no mistaking when I am “home,” as the Lodge rises up, illuminated from within like a lighthouse welcoming a sailor back to shore. Stepping out of the car, the first thing I notice is the soothing quiet – something that would be calming throughout my stay.

Bill and Clara McGriff have owned the land where Gorham’s Bluff is located since the 1970s. But it is their daughter, Dawn McGriff, who spearheaded the mission to make it a planned community. Since then, the family’s ownership has grown from about 80,000 acres to 186,000 acres, yet the mission remains the same: Do not compromise the integrity of the bluff, and keep it accessible to the community.

Dawn, self-proclaimed “town talker,” yet known as the keeper of the vision of Gorham’s Bluff, talks about it as an almost religious or spiritual experience. “That bluff is here,” she says. “I do not own it. I was appointed steward of it. That’s my family’s job. And nothing we do will ever be as good as that bluff. This place has a soul. It speaks to you. It’s like the bluff comes at you. If you are in a centered place in life, it lifts you up and reminds you that you have capacity.”

Dawn is a native of nearby Scottsboro and thinks of the 37 homeowners who have invested in the vision of Gorham’s Bluff as family.

Before Gorham’s Bluff was developed, Dawn was a fan of much-heralded Seaside, Fla. She was “obsessed” with collecting magazine articles about the city. She pulled in Seaside real estate broker Chris Kent, who connected her with Lloyd Vogt, a New Orleans-based architect and planner, who, in its infancy in 1992, helped plan the journey that would become the community of Gorham’s Bluff.

Construction of the Lodge started in 1994. The first thing that was complete was the Overlook Pavilion, and anyone can see why. It offers stunning views of the Tennessee River, Twin Lakes and Raccoon Creek, obstructed only by fog and clouds in the early morning, which add to the enchanting feel of the place.

Gorham’s Bluff includes a post office, fitness center and meeting house – which serves as a place for class reunions, church services and wedding receptions in case of rain. West Lake, with resident Canadian geese, completes the small-town, Rockwellian feel of the community.

“If you’re adventurous, this may not be for you. But if you want to walk around and talk about things that matter, this is the place,” says the Lodge’s chef, Rene Boyzo. “Life is so stressful and people are in a rush. When they come here, they slow down.”

In addition to the Lodge, overnight accommodations include nine cottages. I am assigned a suite in the Lodge called “The Roden.” The spacious suite boasts high, vaulted ceilings and tasteful decor. The fireplace is strategically placed between the bedroom and bathroom – adding an air of romantic ambiance worthy of a Hollywood movie.

The details throughout the Lodge, from the gorgeous flowers to local artwork, have clearly been thought through. And while the inn, like a Southern woman, is professional, polished and graceful, it is also friendly, hospitable and accessible. It walks the fine line between being elegant and being a place where one could just relax in jeans and a T-shirt.

There is just enough technology to keep you tethered, but not enough to tie you down. The rooms do not have TVs in them (the common area on the first floor has a television), but do have wireless Internet access. A quick walk upstairs to the very top of the Lodge reveals a cupola with stunning, unimpeded, 360-degree view of the village and the valley.

I find that if a guest needs something, the staff is helpful, but not intrusive. On my last morning there, I request to eat on the back porch with its panoramic views, and the staff quickly accommodates me, white tablecloth and all.

A jack-of-all trades at the Lodge, Thelda Arnold, spends some time telling me about guests who come here from all over the world. “My favorite thing about working here is the guests,” she says during breakfast one morning. “It’s not a place for the very active. It’s a place to renew your spirituality.”

Arnold tells me about a couple who recently stayed at the Lodge from Warsaw, Poland. Arnold gets wistful while she speaks. They flew into Key West, Fla., and planned to tour eight states. They came to Gorham’s Bluff after leaving the Biltmore in Asheville, N.C., and planned to stay only one night, then decided to stay two. On the second night, the man proposed on the bluff.

A spirit of joyful enthusiasm that is contagious abounds at this place. “Everybody is coming here to celebrate life,” innkeeper Angela Horton says. “Anniversaries, birthdays, weddings – it’s a joyful place to work when everyone around you is happy.”

Dawn handles the day-to-day operations of the Bluff, which encompasses more than just the Lodge. Her eyes, framed with glasses, grow animated as she talks about the enormous undertaking that is her job. Her large hoop earrings start to move back and forth as her face lights up.

Her love of hospitality management comes from years working at hotels, among them, the famous Peabody in Memphis, Tenn. “Coming to a hotel – it’s an environment that you don’t live in,” Dawn says. “It’s a small little piece of real estate that’s yours for one or two nights. The clutter of your life is not there.”

Dawn’s background in the corporate world, which “soured” her on what motivates big business – has come in handy. In conversation, she often mentions the importance of relationships. Watching her with guests at the Lodge, it’s easy to see how that has carried over into her current occupation.

“I was rising up in the corporate world,” Dawn says. “I touched nothing creative. I touched people who were creative.”

Here, she gets to be creative in many ways. From 1994 through 2010, the Gorham’s Bluff Institute was an integral part of the community and supported a vibrant arts scene, including ballet, concerts and storytelling, with artists-in-residence from New York. Dawn plans to re-launch Institute events in the next two years.

One of the people who currently lives at Gorham’s Bluff is Boyzo – a three-year resident. Like other guests and staff, he agrees the bluff has “healing powers.”

“The thing about Gorham’s Bluff,” he says as he surveys the garden just steps away from the Lodge, “is that when you are here it gets you away from everything else.”

At only 21, Boyzo started a French restaurant in Scottsboro, and the French influence carries over in his cooking. But he brings a multicultural flair to the dishes thanks to his days as a child on a farm in Mexico. From a young age, he was cooking meals for himself, as the youngest of five kids.

“If I needed eggs to cook, I would have to go look for one where the chickens were. If I needed wood for a fire, I would go find wood,” he says.

Boyzo is quiet and shy, hates to have his picture taken and cringes at the thought of having his name on his chef’s coat like most chefs do. “We want guests to remember the food,” he says. “That’s the goal.”

He is loath to brag about his cooking, but the guests’ empty plates do the job for him. Yet anyone can tell he is proud of his creations.

Boyzo likes to keep things simple with just salt and pepper for flavor, and uses vegetables from the garden when possible. He and I walk to the garden together, and I can see his wheels spinning, planning dinner as he gathers jalapenos.

Dinner is a wedge salad with mouthwatering homemade buttermilk dressing, applewood smoked bacon, fire roasted corn, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, blue lump crab cakes served with fresh heirloom pica de gallo, parmesan and jalapeno-crusted striped sea bass or filet mignon. Dessert boasts white chocolate and Belgian waffle bread pudding with butter pecan ice cream and fresh berries.

He takes his commitment to simplicity and serving the customer seriously and faces challenges operators of large venues do not face, such as the inability to buy in bulk. On the flip side, dinner is always fresh and as local as possible. “Most of my dishes have three components or four components,” he says. “We’re a small business, and I only get one chance to make dinner right.”

Breakfast during my first morning is eggs and grits; the next morning, it’s biscuits and gravy and another of the-most-fluffy-made-from-scratch griddlecakes I’ve ever had in my life, with whipped pecan butter and maple syrup.

Boyzo prides himself on variety and disdains chain restaurants and what they have done to American palates. “If it’s the same thing over and over again, where’s the experience in that?” he asks. “And sometimes the server doesn’t even make eye contact.

“Here we have a variety of staff, but the guest will have the same good experience with a personal touch. When you live here, you build a friendship with the people you work with. I plan to be here awhile because we share the way that we think.”

As a resident, Boyzo enjoys the small community in which he’s raising his three daughters, ages 2, 4 and 6. One evening, as white tablecloths and candles are being set on tables, Boyzo takes a moment to reflect.

“You get that candlelight and you actually enjoy each other,” he says. “It makes you forget your life. That’s how people build memories – by sharing things. And once you give yourself a chance to try something new, you’d be surprised.”

When Dawn reflects on the 20 years worth of people who have invested, in addition to the visitors who often return and become lifelong fans of Gorham’s Bluff, she smiles.

If You Go

GETTING THERE: Gorham’s Bluff is at 101 Gorham Drive, Pisgah, AL 35765.
NEARBY ATTRACTIONS: Pisgah Gorge is a 1.5-mile-long canyon located just minutes away.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: gorhamsbluff.com; 256-451-2787[/s2If]