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It was a surprise trip to celebrate our 24th wedding anniversary. A cabin on the New River, just outside of Boone, N.C., -- one of my favorite spots in which to travel. Once we arrived, however, we learned our rental cabin, "Down by the River," was in actuality closer to a town called West Jefferson located in Ashe County, N.C. We drove into West Jefferson to see what it had to offer. Were we ever in for a surprise!

West Jefferson flourishes in the shadow of Mt. Jefferson, the tallest peak in Ashe County, rising 1,600 feet above the surrounding area, and well over 4,000 feet above sea level. Specifically, the county, just west of the continental divide, consists of a high plateau averaging 3,000 feet in elevation interspersed with peaks over 4,000 feet, such as Mt. Jefferson. All of this geographic wonder and beauty form the backdrop to West Jefferson, the county's service and retail hub.

Offering a traditional, walkable downtown that boasts abundant free parking, West Jefferson is welcoming and inviting. In fact, I think the phrase, "We've never met a stranger" exemplifies what my husband, John, and I experienced with our visits to West Jefferson. Business owners, whether we purchased an item in their store or not, talked to John and me with great interest. Several stores supported and sold the same local artisans and artists. Stated one owner, "West Jefferson succeeds when all businesses succeed. We do this by working together."

Dog-lovers will find West Jefferson of interest because John and I have never before witnessed a town with abundant numbers of families strolling about town and in out of businesses with their leashed dog. In fact, I would guess at least half, perhaps more, of the businesses we entered had well-behaved dogs on their premise that belonged to the business' owner. Talking with these owners, it was clear that part of the attraction of owning their own business in West Jefferson was because there are so many dog-lovers in town.

Children could be seen everywhere throughout sidewalks of town. Of course, it helped because they were having their "Christmas in July" Festival during the time we were visiting. Why not have this type of celebration? After all, Ashe County is known for its Christmas tree farms, specifically the Fraser fir. In fact, one Ashe County tree was on display at the White House this past Christmas. Meanwhile, during the festival, inflatables, face-paintings, and family-run booths were plentiful during this three-day event, as were children performances, from dance troops, to cloggers to singers, it seems the kids of Ashe County rank highly in this seemingly tight-knit community. Still, it wasn't just the festival that seemed oriented to the kids.

Downtown West Jefferson has two ice cream parlors and one candy store aimed at children; however, I could not help but notice kids-at-heart, like my husband and me, enjoyed these shops as well. Clothing and shoe stores for both kids and adult were plentiful as were numerous craft, antique, and art shops. Additionally, West Jefferson is home to the family friendly Ashe County Cheese Plant, the only such facility in North Carolina. Established in the 1930s, this has become one of the most popular family tourist attractions in North Carolina, according to the Jefferson Post. Boasting a factory fresh cheese and gift shop, on-site observation room of cheese being made, and proudly displaying three large metal cows in the front, John and I noticed families flocked to this point of interest on any given day we were in town.

Another point of interest that we enjoyed immensely while visiting West Jefferson is the prominent and quite public art on display throughout the town. Numerous sides of buildings are completely devoted to large murals. Freestanding sculptures can be found throughout the downtown area. Additionally, internationally renowned fresco artist, Ben Long, created magnificent frescos in two small antique churches in Ashe County during the 1970s. One of these churches, Saint Mary's Episcopal Church, is located on the southwestern edge of West Jefferson. There you can see his images of Mary Great with Child, John the Baptist, and The Mystery of Faith. Even the fire hydrants and certain concrete squares within the town's sidewalks are painted or contain murals.

If you travel with a hungry family, West Jefferson can meet your crew's culinary needs. After walking the streets all day, John and I can attest to the fact it is easy to build up an appetite. There were several family-friendly and locally owned restaurants all within easy walking access. We enjoyed a take-out pizza from an Italian/American restaurant called Geno's. It was fabulous, but I should mention they did have a large dine-in area with a varied menu. Boondocks Brewing Tap Room and Restaurant was another enjoyable dining experience. In fact, we enjoyed an appetizer, main course and dessert while in this art-filled, modern looking establishment.

Finally, we also enjoyed eating in Black Jack's Pub and Grill. They claim to have the "best burger in the High Country." John would most certainly agree with this claim as he went off his vegetarian diet to splurge on a sandwich he said was the best burger he has ever eaten in a restaurant. An interesting point at this restaurant was the fact that it was owned and operated by a grandmother whose daughter and granddaughters were working for her when we visited.

Nearby the town of West Jefferson, and directly outside the cabin we rented, was the New River, the second oldest river in the world. Gently flowing, shallow waters generally define this river, making it perfect for family water outings such as tubing, kayaking, canoeing, and fishing. We happened to be visiting the area during a weeklong deluge of rains. Unfortunately for us, this meant the river was running exceptionally high -- overflowing its banks, in fact -- leaving us unable to participate in any of our favorite water activities.

West Jefferson, N.C. now ranks in our top ten towns to visit. "Down by the River" cabin, owned by Carolina Mountain Properties and Rentals, Inc., is the ideal cottage escape for families or couples. We already are making plans to return again, this time with our daughter.

From my home to yours, I wish you safe, happy and family-fun filled travels.

Stephanie Hill is a freelance writer and a teacher at St. Joseph Catholic School in Huntington. She is also a lifelong resident of Lawrence County.

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