Hotel Domestique in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Enticing cyclists, refined palates and those seeking a view to consider a not-so-typical destination
Traveler's Rest near Greenville, South Carolina might not top the must-visit lists yet, but retired pro cyclist George Hincapie and his brother Richard are set to change this by sharing their best-kept secret (and also the area they call home) with others through their new boutique hotel. Those who visit Hotel Domestique, however, are seeking anything but rest. The active travelers have come to cycle—sometimes, with Hincapie himself—and hike through the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains, which also provide the backdrop to their Tuscan villa-like grounds.
The hotel is named after Hincapie's critical role—the domestique, a "sacrificial lamb" who aids teammates (in Hincapie's case, his friend and team leader Lance Armstrong) to success by setting the pace, creating a draft for them to conserve energy and all around support in races such as the Tour de France. A country inn in its previous life, the 13-room Hotel Domestique—which celebrated its opening last fall—has been given a modern makeover to create the ambience of the "old grand farmhouses" Hincapie admired while living in Girona, Spain for more than a decade during the pro racing seasons.
In fact, when guests walk into Hotel Domestique, there's barely any hint that it's a cycling haven. In the lobby, stone walls and oak beams, well-designed furniture and light fixtures, a courtyard fountain and outdoor swimming pool, along with artwork by artists Matt Baumgardner and Paul Yanko suggest a cozy, contemporary getaway to the countryside. The cycling connection is made clear as you see cyclists slowly pedaling uphill toward the hotel and some Hincapie Sportswear apparel hung to the side of the front desk.
The pared down room feels more like spending the night at a friend's luxurious estate than a hotel (traditional amenities like extra towels, iron, hairdryer are hidden in the standalone wardrobe). This ambience is heightened with the guest pantries on each floor, offering complimentary espresso from a DeLonghi Magnifica, red or white wine, chilled beverages, healthy snacks and Skratch Labs mixes. A complimentary three-course breakfast each morning provides guests with the stamina for a day of pushing the pedals.
Our room (Colombière) had his-and-her-sinks stocked with Hermès bath products, with a European-style separated toilet and spacious shower, though knowing how activity-focused the hotel is, a bathtub to soak tired muscles would have been a welcome addition.
Guests who haven't brought their own bikes can be set up with one of the high-end full carbon fiber BMC (road or mountain) bike. The only question for each day then is, "Where should I go?" Hincapie has been cycling in the area for many years, and his choice routes, ranging from 8 to 80 miles, have been saved onto touchscreen Garmin bike computers—meaning cyclists could stay a week at the hotel and explore a new area each day. And amateurs need not be intimidated; routes like the River Loop (about 17 miles) offer equally stunning views with less intensity. There's also the Swamp Rabbit Trail, Greenville's historic rail line-turned-bikepath, taking you to the center of the city.
The only downside would be bad weather coinciding with your visit, since Hotel Domestique keeps the focus on the great outdoors and doesn't have indoor activities to keep guests occupied. But the joy comes, as we experienced during a rainstorm, when the sun sets and dinner is served.
Due to the hotel's relatively remote location (it's about a 30-minute drive from either Greenville or Asheville, NC), dining options are limited to just one—luckily, it's of impressive quality. Adam Cooke heads up the adjacent Restaurant 17 (named after the number of times Hincapie has finished the Tour de France) with a matter-of-factness about cooking local and fresh; it's taken for granted, not lauded as a selling point. The menu is tweaked daily for whatever ingredients come in from the farms in South Carolina. Surprisingly, the area between here and Asheville hosts a large temperate rain forest (not to mention notable local craft breweries like Highland, Westbrook and Thomas Creek), allowing for some unusual additions to the menu.
The pasta, charcuterie, fresh cheeses and sourdough bread (served with skordalia, a flavorful hummus-like dip) are all made in-house. The must-tries are the lamb heart bruschetta, cooked carefully at a low temperature to tenderness, the sweet potato risotto and the scallops with Asian pear and wild chicken of the woods mushrooms—whose meaty bite could fool most about its true nature.
Cycling has experienced a boom in the US in recent years, but the sport has been marred by the inevitable use of performance-enhancing drugs by pros, and the very public takedown of Lance Armstrong and other famed cyclists. After Hincapie, too, admitted to doping during part of his career, retiring that same year in 2012, he's put his focus onto family, his sportswear line (manufactured in Medellin, Colombia, where his family is from) and being hands-on with running the hotel. For example, he leads specialized camps with friends like fellow retired pro Christian Vande Velde to help cycling enthusiasts improve skills, but also show off what the Blue Ridge Mountains have to offer. Perhaps this is his way of giving back: developing the love of a sport here in America which still pales in comparison to countries in Europe.
He's been able to do this on a large scale through Gran Fondo Hincapie, a ride now in its third year that attracts more than 1,500 riders to the Blue Ridge Mountains and experiences his "favorite trail." Hincapie describes to CH, "The ride we do is very difficult. It's only 80 miles, but it's tough. The first 20 miles are pretty rolling, then we do a five-mile climb that's at 9% average—and the top is beautiful, you see the whole valley, it's stunning views up there. Then it's a very steep, technical descent, etc. It's deceivingly hard—if you look at it on paper, for even a pro rider, they'd say, 'Oh, that's not a big deal.' But once you ride it, it's a tough ride. But people love that time of year, the foliage is perfect, and the roads are really quiet."
If you're not an avid cyclist—you've been warned; Hotel Domestique is the place where you'll fall in love. There's nothing in the way of you and your bike but the natural beauty of the mountains, the bluest of Carolina-blue skies and the occasional beep from the Garmin nudging you in the right direction.
To book your next stay, visit Hotel Domestique online; room rates start at $295 per night. On-site registration is still available for this weekend's Gran Fondo Hincapie which takes place 25 October 2014.
Image of George Hincapie courtesy of Hotel Domestique, Gran Fondo Hincapie 2013 images courtesy of Gran Fondo Hincapie, all other images by Nara Shin