We approached the famed blue haze of the Great Smoky Mountains through the only-in-America town of Gatlinburg, which, with neighboring Pigeon Forge (home of Dollywood), is a theme park strip mall so direct in its tackiness as to be beyond kitsch. Luckily, base camp for the night was up a steep dirt road in the nearby foothills village of Townsend. In a smart move, the town bills itself as "the peaceful side of the Smokies."
Opened by corporate dropouts Jim and Susan Hind in 1991, Townsend's Richmont Inn is the rare bed-and-breakfast that's rustic, stylish, and not too cloying (fussy wallpaper and bedspreads are kept to a minimum). Rooms with stunning forest and mountain views, private decks, and wood-burning fireplaces can be had in the inn's Chalet or the handsome main lodge, built in the cantilever barn style that is an icon of the southern Appalachians – or, more specifically, just two counties in eastern Tennessee. (Head 12 miles down into the Smokies' Cades Cove to see a historic example of this vernacular architecture, and catch black bears pausing under trees in the late afternoon sun.) We booked the modest, folk art-focused Robert Mize room, named for the legendary dulcimer maker of Blountville, and headed out for a day of hiking.
Surrounded by enormous picture windows, the inn's dining room offers meals and picnics-to-go by special request, plus a full breakfast with "Richmont bacon," which, we decided, isn't necessarily improved by being coated in flour, brown sugar, herbs and spices, and baked. But the kitchen's claim to glory is the complimentary Candlelight Dessert, served from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. On our stay, we got to experience the Gourmet magazine-approved Creme Brulee Kahlúa – and here's the kicker: Phone the innkeepers that evening and they'll tuck your dessert in your room, fine china and silver spoons included. So don't worry if you'll be back late from climbing Clingmans Dome (or, realistically, if dinner goes long at the nearby Dancing Bear Lodge).
We grabbed some newspapers for kindling, headed upstairs in the cold dark, built a fire, chose our armchairs, and broke into a small point of luxury we didn't know we'd appreciate until it was ours. [Main inn rooms, from $160; Chalet suites, from $250; richmontinn.com]