A few years ago, Travel + Leisure magazine predicted that the "greatest luxury of the 21st century will be dropping off the grid," and that the future of travel would be so-called black-hole resorts, desirable for their total absence of the Internet and cellphone connections. I found this hard to believe at the time, in light of the modern tendency to document every turn of a family vacation on Facebook.
But I wound up at one of these places recently, almost by accident, and I'm here to report that it was the best 24-hour vacation I've ever had. I didn't want to leave.
The Len Foote Hike Inn, built in 1998, sits on a remote mountainside, not far from the peak of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Owned by the state of Georgia, the inn is operated by a nonprofit affiliate of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club. The president of the board had invited me to stay a night and host a postdinner conversation with other guests about my book, Grandma Gatewood's Walk, a biography of an Appalachian Trail pioneer.
You can access the inn by foot only, and from the trailhead at Amicalola Falls State Park it's a lovely 4.8-mile hike through the Chattahoochee National Forest. The trail, through oak and hickory forest dotted with rhododendron and mountain laurels, gains 700 feet of elevation on the approach, but my kids — ages 5, 8 and 10 — loved the hike and managed just fine with a few pit stops.
The LEED-certified inn was built to be as sustainable as possible. Solar panels atop the roof provide power. There are no wall outlets. The toilets are waterless and human waste is composted. In the basement, red wigglers turn kitchen scraps and paper into compost, which is used in vegetable gardens that feed the staff.
Breakfast and dinner are served family-style at picnic tables, which prompted some wonderful — and uninterrupted — conversations with strangers. And the staff turns consumption into bit of a competition to prod diners to plate only what they can eat. The collective food waste is scraped from plates and weighed, and if it totals less than 1 ounce, your group gets a smiley face on the dry-erase board. I did have to help the kids clean their plates, but both meals we ate were delicious, so I didn't mind. In the same vein, guests are assigned their own cups to reuse throughout the stay.
The inn has 20 guest rooms ($107 per room for singles, $150 for couples), each with cozy wood-framed bunk beds. The spartan rooms are rail-car small and not good for much more than sleeping, napping, reading and changing clothes. There are no televisions or alarm clocks. Each morning, a staffer walks the perimeter of the inn playing a drum softly to alert guests to the sunrise.
The morning of our stay was chilly, so we all wrapped ourselves in blankets, got coffee and hot cocoa, found a seat on the porch overlooking the fog-draped Appalachian Mountains, and watched the sun rise. It was a Facebookable moment, but, thank goodness, we had no access to Facebook.
Our family activities are often outdoors, whether we're taking long walks on the beach or swimming in Florida springs. Still, it seems we're always connected, always looking at a screen of some sort, distracted by our devices. This is who we've become. We have more ways than ever to communicate, and with that, it seems, comes a burden to say more. And to say more we have to consume more information. Maybe that explains why the average American spends at least 8 1/2 hours in front of a screen every day.
This has given rise, of course, to an assortment of ways to purposefully disconnect — from "Internet Sabbaths" to the Freedom software that disables your computer's Internet connection.
This was the beauty of the Hike Inn, which is a cellphone-free place. You can't even get a signal. So we played Monopoly. A friendly couple set up a trail of dominos and invited my youngest to knock them over. We used the community guitar to sing Folsom Prison Blues and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot with other guests in the Sunrise Room. And in the morning, there we were, in the cool quiet, watching the sun rise over the mountains without distraction.
It turns out nature is beautiful in the black hole.
Contact Ben Montgomery at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.