A Secret Retreat in the The Blue Ridge Mountains

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, is a well kept secret that I am about to reveal. Shankara Ayurveda Spa at the Art of Living Retreat Center is a pristine destination for those who want a short getaway to escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.

October is the best time to drive through Blue Ridge Parkway and watch the leaves turn into shades of yellow, orange and red. As you go up in the High Country, watch the valleys unfold beneath you and fill in your lungs with refreshing crisp mountain air.art of living boone

Perched up on the mountain on a private reserve, only a few minutes outside the city of Boone, NC, is The Art of Living Retreat Center . Originally built in the mid 1990’s as a transcendental meditation center, the place was abandoned, auctioned, and later rebuilt as one of the largest retreats in the country. In October 2011, the Art of Living Retreat Center opened its 381 acres after lots of renovations, and now offers a hotel, spa, restaurant, apartments, organic garden, pottery center, and halls that can be rented out for weddings, conferences, retreats and workshops.

The retreat’s parent organization is Art of Living Foundation,  the world’s largest volunteer-based non profit organization, that was founded in 1981 by India’s spiritual leader, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The Foundation conducts “Art of Living” stress-relief courses, based on yoga, breathing, and meditation, and offers a variety of personal-development and trauma-relief programs around the world.

art of living boone

The resort is designed on the principles of Vastu, a set of architectural and planning principles assembled by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi based on ancient Sanskrit texts. The exterior of the main hall reminds me of an elegant white palace that could be found in southern India, with its welcoming gardens, calming fountain, and giant swans guarding its gates. Wooden ceilings have a geometric layered pattern and a glass window in the middle of the ceiling, resembling an upside down stairway to heaven. Heated floors and carpeting provide comfort to those participating in weekend yoga and meditation retreats.

Across the street is the main building where guest check in. There is an unassuming reception desk managed by couple of resident staff. They greet me with a big smile and a warm welcome. Mr. Venkat Srinivasan, PhD (Manager of operations and guest experience), who has been here since the renovations began, officially welcomes me to the premises and takes me on a tour of the grounds.

We first drive a few blocks to the spa building, the newest addition to the property. On the way we pass by buildings that are rented out as apartments to the staff and students at Appalachian State University. There are also modest one bedroom rooms rented out to visitors for an Ashram type experience. Guests who are looking for solace and peace can stay here without the distractions of modern life, at a very affordable price. The spa rooms at the Shankara Ayurveda Spa are comparatively more luxurious. King and double beds are decorated with hues of purple and white, and offer unobstructed views of the forest and mountains beyond. There’s a phone, television and working desk, as well as robe and slippers. Samples of toiletries come from Shankara, an upscale skin care line that embodies the ancient eastern science of Ayurveda, and the western state of the art anti-aging science. Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old system of natural healing that has its origins in the Vedic culture of India. Plant-based treatments in Ayurveda may be derived from roots, leaves, fruits, bark, or seeds such as cardamom and cinnamon. 100% of the net profits of Shankara product sales are donated to global humanitarian projects through International Association for Human Values (IAHV).

The spa service rooms and saunas are located only one floor up and offers traditional Ayurvedic treatments, such as Marma – where pressure points are activated to pacify the doshas; Basti – warm medicated oil massage for the joints; Netra Tarpana – eye detox for improving eyesight; as well as herbal exfoliations, Thai and Swedish massages, are offered at the spa. The therapists here are well trained in the traditional Ayurveda therapies and many of them have practiced all around the world.

art of living boone

I try the Abhyangya detoxifying herbal massage which involves a gentle full body oil massage in circular patterns. It aims to release stress and improve circulation. Regular treatments of Abhyangya also helps in weight loss. After unwinding at the sauna, I lounge in a chaise at the quiet room, sipping on a cup of soothing organic Balance Tea. Shankara blends and sells different kinds of Ayurveda teas that help with depression, anxiety and restlessness.

Dinner reservations are not necessary while staying at the Art of Living Retreat Center. Breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet is served at the main dining hall at set hours of the day. Emphasis is on healthy and wholesome vegetarian dining, while gluten and dairy free choices are also available. Executive chef, Raju, believes in invoking the taste buds with sweet, salty, sour, bitter, astringent and pungent flavors that help feel satisfied while eating less. A typical meal would include soup, salad, protein, carbohydrates, vegetables and dessert. Variations of cuisines is also great for the taste buds. On a Friday night, the theme could be Southern, serving okra and kale stew made with ingredients from the garden, vegetable Jambalaya, and maple molasses coconut bar; while on Saturday afternoon, we are offered a simple meal of Indian yellow lentils, aloo-gobi (potatoes and cauliflower curry), and basmati rice. There is a strict no alcohol and no meat policy on the campus.

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After dinner, everyone heads downstairs to a communal hall for Satsang, which in spiritual context means a gathering with good or righteous companions. A few people pick up musical instruments, while others take over the mike and start singing in a slow melodic voice. The group joins in the chorus of short chants and songs that are pleasing to the ears, and invoke a meditative state in the room.

Visitors can enjoy free yoga and meditation lessons offered every morning and evening for anyone who wants to join in. The classes are good for any age and experience level. We stretch our joints, practice breathing techniques, and learn how to manage stress and be more peaceful. Some of the classes involve group discussions and guided meditations, most teachings act as reinforcements to keep a healthy mind, body and spirit.

huffpo boone1Art of Living offers a happiness program on the weekends where participants are taught the importance of being happy from the inside, and how it impacts immunity, health, energy and personal relationships. There are also silence, meditation, detox and weight loss retreats throughout the year.

For leisure, visitors can enroll in pottery workshops at the Clay Studio. Here you can learn how to make your own pottery on a clay wheel with a guided instructor. Extended workshops allow you to paint, bake and finish the pieces, or the instructor would mail it to your home once ready. In November, there are special holiday ornament making classes with clay conducted by studio director and award-winning Appalachian State Fine Arts Pottery alumna, Laurie Caffery Harris.

If you have a green thumb, you can volunteer at the organic vegetable farm. Resident farmer, Emily, a native of London, practices biodynamic agriculture, that emphasizes spiritual and mystical perspectives on the soil, plant growth and livestock care. Farming methods include crop diversification, avoiding the use of chemicals, and consideration of celestial and terrestrial influences on the crops. All of the produce from this garden feeds into the kitchen, and you can see a fresh basket arriving at the dining hall each morning.

Finally, Srinivasan shows me a well manicured labyrinth, historically been used as a meditation and prayer tool. The Labyrinth represents a journey to our own center and back again out into the world.

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Being so close to nature, solo and guided hikes are encouraged during your visit. I go through 3-miles of natural trails encountering various kinds of trees, shrubs and mountain herbs, as well as occasional deer. The walk along the edge of the hill offers spectacular views of the fall color. Seeing how nature has shed its leaves and adjusted its appearance for the seasons right before me, I begin to recognize a subtle transformation happening inside of me. After the clean air I ingested with my newly learned breathing techniques, the release of stress from my body during the Ayurvedic massage treatment, the farm to table organic vegetarian diet in my system, and the communal gathering of spiritual companions, its hard to walk away not feeling any different that when you first came in to the Shankara Ayurveda Spa at the Art of Living Retreat Center.

Go Eat Give is offering a weekend Spring retreat at the Art of Living Retreat Center in March 2016, in partnership with Calmtivity Yoga. Click here to read more.

6 Ways to Wind Up with the Best Deals during Shoulder Season

  1. Book early—reserve a room in advance to reap benefits like peace of mind, plenty of selection and discounts that are only available if you book ahead. For example, the oceanfront Courtyard by Marriott in Carolina Beach is currently offering 20% off when you book a weekend stay 14 or more days in advance.1605-Final
  2. Stay standard, but be prepared to upgrade—as with rental cars, it can be worth the risk to book a standard room, or the cheapest available, and hope for an upgrade upon check-in. Often, when reservation agents hear the reason you’re visiting—i.e. honeymoon, anniversary, long overdue vacation—they’re happy to offer you a free or low-cost upgrade if they have the rooms available. Chances of getting an upgrade are greater during shoulder season when more rooms are available.
  3. Look (and book) online first—before you pick up the phone to call the reservation agent, look at the property’s website to see if they’re currently offering any online-only specials. For example, the Blockade Runner Beach Resort at Wrightsville Beach has weekly e-specials that are only available online.courtyard 3
  4. Consider a longer stayVictory Beach Vacations in Carolina Beach is running a deal for buy three nights, get the fourth free. Often hotels don’t advertise their discounts for extended stays, so be prepared to bring up the subject.
  5. Shoulder, shoulder season—stay during the week for cheaper rates. Many properties such as Dolphin Lane in Carolina Beach and Darlings by the Sea in Kure Beach offer double discounts in the shoulder season. Not only are rooms cheaper because it’s not summer, but they’re also discounted again for stays that fall between Sunday and Thursday.Kure Beach
  6. Don’t limit yourself to discount websites—while websites like Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia can be convenient for quickly finding hotel rooms, they often lack the more charming accommodations that offer character, and in some cases—lower rates. Leave it to the locals—a.k.a. visitor bureaus—to provide the best inside information on accommodations in the area. For example, the Wilmington and Beaches website lists accommodations for all three neighboring beaches and regularly posts updates on special packages and promotions. This is information that comes from the proprietor and is information that discount websites may not be privy to.

~ Courtesy of Wilmington and Beaches CVB

Detox with spices

Often times “spice” is used synonymously with “heat.” Spices are generally used to impart flavors to food, and not all spices are hot. When people refer to spicy food, they are thinking curry, red chili and strong flavors. But the truth is cinnamon and nutmeg are as much as a spice as are cumin and turmeric. There is a reason why spices have been used across cultures for thousands of years. Most spices have some advantages for the body and have been used to treat illnesses, prevent diseases and detox. For example, turmeric is a natural anti septic and Alzheimer’s preventer, while black pepper and curry powder help prevent breast cancer. Continue reading “Detox with spices”

A Christmas Tree family tradition

Escape to the mountains, sit by a cozy fire, bite into a peppermint soufflé and visit a Christmas tree farm. Picture a better Christmas tree family tradition? I recently experienced the perfect weekend holiday-season getaway at the Old Edwards Inn in Highlands, North Carolina. Continue reading “A Christmas Tree family tradition”

Pork Shoulder Confit, Wild Rice, Parsley Root Pure, Cheerwine Glaze

Recipe courtesy of Old Edwards Inn and Spa

2# pork shoulder
1 cup green salt (3/4 cup kosher1/4cup herbs processed in robocoupe)

Portion pork shoulder into 4 -8 oz portions. Liberally season with green salt. Leave to rest overnight. Rinse next day cover with pork fat and place in oven at 180F and cook until tender about 3 hours. Remove pork and let rest.

1-2 lt Cheerwine soda
¼ cup dried cherries

Meanwhile add Cheerwine and cherries to a pot and reduce to about 1.5 cups place in blender puree until smooth and strain through chinois

2 cups wild rice
3 cups chicken stock
3 cups water
1tb grapeseed oil
¼ cup brunoise carrots
¼ cup brunoise celeriac
¼ cup brunoise onions
¼ cup toasted walnuts

In a 8 qt pot sweat off brunoise of veg until tender add rice toast for 2 mins add stock and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer until rice is tender about 45 mins. let cool slightly add toasted pecans.

4 ea parsley roots peeled and rough diced
1 small onion peeled/rough diced
2 tb butter
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream

Sweat small diced onion add salt and pepper until translucent in butter add diced parsley roots sweat until soft add stock and cream bring to a boil cook until tender about 20 mins, Place in a blender puree until smooth strain through chinois.

4-ea parsley roots peeled/sliced thin on mandolin
12-ea baby round carrots peeled tops removed

Bring 2 pots of water to a boil salt liberally add carrot to one and parsley root to the other cook both vegetables until tender remove with a slotted spoon and place in icewater bath til completely cool.

¼ cup vegetable stock
2tb unsalted butter
1 tsp chopped thyme

Place sliced parsley roots and carrots in a pan with ¼ cup vegetable stock and 2 tablespoons butter add salt and pepper glaze vegetables finish with thyme.

½ cup pork jus

To finish place shoulder in pan with clarified butter sear all sides add ½ cup glaze evenly being careful not to burn glaze. Remove from pan let rest. Place parsley root puree on warmed plate push add wild rice to center of plate place glazed veg around rice slice meat put on top of rice sauce shoulder with pork jus and drizzle Cheerwine glaze around plate. ENJOY!

Oak Street Cafe

Located off Main Street in downtown Highlands, is a restaurant you will make sure not to miss. A tiny doorway leads you to a staircase to the first floor of Oak Street Cafe where a casual dining room playing Gypsy King music awaits you. A cheerful server greets you and seats you to your table overlooking the most popular street in town.

The menu is deceptive at first. You see is Hummus, Fried Green Tomatoes and Escargot…what is theme here? The menu has traditional American, European and Southern influences but everything is well prepared and authentic to it’s flavors. You order a glass of wine from a carefully selected wine list and contemplate your next move.

In the kitchen is a 25 year old chef who apprenticed with former Executive Chef of Oak Street Cafe, Mark Hibbs. Hibbs was nominated for the Best Chef of South East by Prestigious James Beard Foundation in 2009 and has left his legacy behind at the restaurant.

The signature Mushroom Bisque is acclaimed among the locals so you have to give it a try. Simple, light and flavorful, the mushrooms tease your taste buds while preparing your appetite for greater things to come.

Next is another uncomplicated Apple and Walnut Salad Mixed Greens, with sliced green apples, spiced walnuts, crumbled blue cheese and dried cranberries tossed in a mild vinaigrette. It is the perfect blend of sweet, tangy, smooth and crisp. It feels like the radicchio dressed appropriately for the occasion.

For entree comes Carolina’s favorite Shrimp and Grits. No southern meal goes complete without it so why should you leave before tasting the succulent sauteed shrimp resting on melt-in your-mouth creamy Cheese Grits drizzled with scallions, mushrooms and bacon swimming in a delicate lobster broth.

And if you are still not satisfied with the perfectly cooked dishes so far, the Chicken Kiev will transport you back to a home in Eastern Europe. Stuffed With cheese, Garlic Butter and Herbs Served With Julienne Vegetables and Roasted Potatoes. A chicken breast is stuffed with cheddar cheese, garlic butter and herbs, and fried leaving the meat juicy and tender, with  a gooey cheesy interior that makes it wonderful comfort food.

A sweet ending is a must to round out this meal, so you get oh nothing fancy, just a good old Creme Brulee. It’s made home style and has just the right amount of burned sugar to crack with your spoon and is  just plain delicious.

Oak Street Cafe

332 Main Street, Highlands, NC

828.787.2200