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Glamping in style in the North Carolina mountains

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010; 11:03 AM

"There'd better be a Four Seasons at the end of this road," said my friend Rebecca as our rented Kia struggled down a steep hill. (Mental note: Don't take a Kia camping in the mountains.) We'd been going in circles for an hour, taking the wrong exits and searching for signs to our campsite.

Alas, there was no Four Seasons at the end of the road. But the accommodations we did find weren't too shabby. Yes, they call it camping, but there was no tent to pitch, no sleeping bag to unroll, no fire to build. At our campsite at Falling Waters Adventure Resort in Bryson City, N.C., eight yurts - insulated circular canvas tents - overlooked Fontana Lake and a pond. Each was furnished with a queen-size bed and a futon and equipped with electricity, a private deck and a skylight for stargazing. And then there was the hot tub a few yards from our yurt. After unloading our bags (mental note No. 2: Don't go camping with a silver Diane von Furstenberg suitcase whose wheels get stuck in the dirt), I climbed into the steaming water to soothe my aching limbs.

"Now, this is my kind of camping," I thought as I felt my muscles relax.

The economy has taken the camp out of camping, making it more appealing to cash-strapped Americans. The new thing is glamping (short for glamour camping), or camping lite. To attract travelers who don't want to sleep on the ground or put up their own shelters, state parks and resorts now offer alternative accommodations: yurts, first used by nomadic Central Asian peoples; teepees; luxury tents; and spruced-up cabins or lodges.

To meet a 25 percent increase in demand for its lodges, Kampgrounds of America is adding 400 to KOA campsites, some with flat-screen TVs and fireplaces and all with full kitchens. Camping, said spokeswoman Lacey Thornton, "doesn't have to be an uncomfortable experience." The campgrounds themselves offer amenities such as outdoor movies, petting zoos and espresso bars.

The luxurious African safari experience was the inspiration behind glamping, but in the United States and Canada, glamping can range from high-end - a luxury one-bedroom tent at the Resort at Paws Up in Montana, for instance, will run you $725 a night in the fall - to comfy for both body and wallet: A two-bed teepee at the Wigwam Village Inn in Cave City, Ky., costs from $60 to $65 a night.

I didn't do much camping growing up in Queens. In fact, I'd been camping only once, with relatives in Wisconsin when I was 13. My mother had forced me into it, and my only memory of it was fighting off mosquitoes. Rebecca, a Jersey girl, also had limited camping experience. Now here we were, in our 30s, two city slickers willing to relive our teenage camping days, but not so much that we would give up the comforts of home.

Falling Waters, right up against the Tennessee border in North Carolina, is known for its comfortable yurts and abundance of outdoor activities. We'd snaked through the Great Smoky Mountains to get there, marveling at the beautiful tapestry of trees and feeling the stress of the city melt away. Near our camp, we saw a sign for Nantahala Village, which advertised a day spa. ("Spa!" we exclaimed in unison.) There was also a restaurant and a general store. It was good to know we would have easy access to modern-day comforts.

The bed in our one-room yurt was swathed in pillows and a tasteful caramel-colored comforter. Rugs covered the pine floor. There was a ceiling fan, but we never needed it: A nice mountain breeze blew in through the three windows and the skylight. A small fridge held bottled water, and there was a coffee maker. Nearby was a CD player.

Each yurt had a theme: safari, country, orchard and so on. We'd chosen Yurt 5, which was named the Lake Yurt, though it turned out to be on a small pond. Really it seemed more country; there was a cowboy hat hanging on one wall and a statue of a cowboy on a bookshelf. The lampshades and tables reminded me of the furniture you can buy at World Market. Call it World Market chic.

The one drawback: We didn't have our own bathroom. But there were shared locking bathrooms a few yards away, each with a shower and plenty of toiletries. On my way there before bed, I noticed that three late-night revelers had taken over the hot tub.

Exhausted after the nine-hour drive from Washington, we locked our French doors and got into bed, the sound of crickets lulling us to sleep. Yurt sweet yurt.

We were up by 7:30 a.m. and set off on a morning hike, taking one of the two trails that started near the stairs to Yurt 7, the Waterfall Yurt. We suffered a spasm of yurt envy, seeing the occupants drinking coffee on their deck while gazing out at the mountains. (Our pond view wasn't nearly so spectacular.) We hiked down the steep trail, climbing over fallen tree limbs, not knowing exactly where we were heading. "This is going to be a pain going up," Rebecca said.

The hike was worth it once we reached Fontana Lake. With the trees reflected in the water, it looked like a scene Bob Ross would have painted in "The Joy of Painting." Then a speedboat raced by, creating waves that distorted the trees' reflection. It was hypnotic.

We retraced our steps to Yurt 7 (yes, it was a pain going up) and searched for the waterfall trail. A sign warned: "Danger. Cliffs Ahead. Stay on the path."

I led Rebecca down another steep hill to what I thought was the waterfall trail. Little did I know that I was leading her off the path. We could hear the waterfall. We just couldn't find it.

We did find Colleen McDaniel and Jamieson Lee, the occupants of Yurt 7, who had decamped from their deck and were building a fire in a pit near their yurt to cook breakfast.

Colleen and Jamieson are regular campers, as we could tell by the ease with which they were snapping branches and creating flames, something Rebecca and I would never attempt to do. (We drove into Bryson City and got bagel sandwiches at a cafe.) But on this trip, they hadn't wanted "the hassle of building a tent," Colleen said. "It's nice to have a roof over your head, with nice sheets." Amen to that.

We resumed our search for the waterfall, making our way down a steep trail, holding on to trees to keep from falling, and finally arrived at a deck overlooking a pretty, though not very big, waterfall.

Because water was the camp's big draw, we signed up for a speedboat ride on Fontana Lake. Nick Williams, owner of Smoky Mountain Jet Boats, drove the neon green boat very slowly at first, telling us that the lake is drained by about 50 feet every year to prevent flooding. He pointed to Clingman's Dome, the third-highest point on the East Coast, and suggested that we hike Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi.

Then he said, "I think we're warmed up enough," and hit the accelerator. We raced around the lake, Nick occasionally spinning the boat around as water splashed all over us.

He showed us Bird Falls, which made the waterfall we had hiked to look like the drip from a faucet. Then we entered the beautiful Nantahala River Gorge. After a few more spins, including one during which it looked as if we might hit a tree, Nick took us on "the real estate portion" of the tour, pointing out some of the most prized lakefront houses.

Not yet sick of the outdoors, Rebecca and I headed next to Smokemont Riding Stables in the nearby town of Cherokee. With time to kill, we stopped along the way for some shopping in downtown Cherokee. (We were glamping, after all.)

At the stable, Ray Cook helped us onto our mounts. Mine was Pearl, a 16-year-old with an independent streak. "Pearl does anything she wants to do," Ray said. Rebecca got Taywah, also in his teens, who stopped whenever the terrain got rough. "Taywah is the lazy one," Ray explained.

We crossed over old Highway 441, forded a small river, then rode up and down hills beneath a mesmerizing canopy of trees. It would have been relaxing had Pearl not stopped to graze on leaves every few minutes. And at one point, Taywah decided to give Rebecca a good scare by taking off at a run.

"Pearl is hungry, and Taywah is done," Rebecca said.

Back at our yurt, we got ready to grill burgers. But our grill looked nothing like mine at home, where all I have to do is open my propane tank and turn a knob. I hadn't even thought to pick up charcoal or lighter fluid.

We had exhausted our camping abilities and headed back into Bryson City for some Mexican fare.

Like Taywah, we were done.

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