Boone is the most obvious northern base for exploring the mountains. Corny family entertainments dot US-321, while pretty backroads hold offbeat settlements such as Valle Crucis, off US-194, where the 1883 Mast General Store (summer Mon– Sat 7am–6.30pm, Sun noon–6pm; winter hours vary; Tel:828/963-6511) is well worth a look for its cast-iron cookware, fresh coffee beans, rustic furniture, and outdoor gear.
Boone's visitor center is downtown at 208 Howard St (Tel:828/262-3516 or 1-800/852-9506, Web: www.visitboonenc.com ). For clean hotel rooms, head for the High Country Inn, 1785 Hwy-105 (Tel:828/264-1000 or 1-800/334-5605, Web: www.highcountryinn.com ; Price: $51-75), which also has a decent café and bar; good B&Bs include the Lovill House Inn, at 404 Old Bristol Rd (Tel:1-800/849-9466, Web: www.lovillhouseinn.com ; Price: $131-160). Walk along King Street for plenty of options for eating and drinking. Earth Fare, no. 178 (Tel:828/263-8138), is a natural foods store, with a café and juice bar, while nearby Cafe Portofino, at 970 Rivers St, (Tel:828/264-7772), features homemade breads and an eclectic blend of Eurasian, Italian, and seafood dishes.