Mentone is a little mountain town in Alabama, population 366, close to the Tennessee and Georgia borders, on Lookout Mountain. The weekend I originally planned there was to be filled with hiking and exploring the great outdoors in very early Spring, but as Robert Burns wrote, “The best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley (often go awry).” In Alabama, all of the snow (if we had any) is gone by February, and we can sometimes get out early for a sneak preview of warmer Spring weather. This time, however, the forecast warned of cold rain for the entire weekend. Reluctant to give up this much needed getaway, I just made sure the cabin we rented had a fireplace and prepared for a cozy weekend indoors.
Day 1: A Warm Family Welcome
Our first day there, Friday, we checked into our cabin in the afternoon and got unpacked, taking a moment to appreciate the cuteness of the little house. Then we drove the mile to town and started looking around the two or so blocks that make up downtown Mentone. Most shops were closed by that time of day, at least in the off-season, but we did find an open grocery store attached to a gas station, the Mentone Market, where we looked for snacks to take back to the cabin and perused the souvenir tshirts and coffee mugs on display. What I did not really notice on that first visit was the rest of the establishment, which was a good sized dining room with several tables and a counter. It wasn’t until returning to our cabin and studying the collection of menus from local restaurants that we discovered that the Mentone Market looked like a good choice for dinner.
We did in fact return to the Mentone Market that evening. After dark it was transformed by the inviting lights from within that splashed their blurry watercolors across the rain soaked street outside. Brief muted strains of music and laughter spilled out every time someone opened the door. We entered and were drawn into the warm embrace of a scene that can only be described as “community”. It was a full house, packed with what I expect were mainly local residents who braved the miserable weather to come together for good food, live music and fellowship. Each time someone came in, they were greeted by name and asked for details of their daily lives. Whenever someone stood up to leave, others would rush over to say goodbye and exchange hugs. Somehow all this familiarity didn’t leave me feeling like the outsider I was, but rather that I could become a member of this close knit family if I had just a little more time there. The live music inspired many to sing along, and the high spirits were contagious. I was transported back to college years at Texas A&M, and evenings spent at the Dixie Chicken, when the Mentone musician played David Allen Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me by My Name”. I was even moved to sing along, loudly, to the amusement of my gentleman friend.
Day 2: The Great Outdoors, Finally!
On Saturday, we decided to brave the weather and venture outside. There had been a break in the rain, though the ground was still soaked and a bone chilling wind blew steadily. We started the morning walking around town, in the hopes that the air would warm up a little by afternoon when we might do some hiking. The row of shops along Mentone’s main street, Alabama Highway 117, were charming and full of souvenir purchasing potential. We made our way up the street, ducking into several cute shops along the way, sometimes just to warm up a little. We ended up at the edge of town at an outdoor farmer’s market where they offered free hot coffee and porta-potties! There are no public restroooms in Mentone, except for inside the restaurants, though one shopkeeper told us that it is a hot topic at town meetings. We had a long conversation at the outdoor market, or maybe it just felt long because we were really cold by then, with an interesting man who has a fruit tree orchard, Backforty Farm and Orchard, featuring mayhaw trees and other native fruits, nuts and heirloom produce.
In the afternoon, we drove up to DeSoto Falls. The main entrance to the falls allows you to view the 100 foot drop from the top, and provides a stone walkway with a railing partway down the side of the Falls. I took pictures from the top, but noticed that they didn’t match the spectacular photos I had seen of the front of the falls.
I had also read about a 2 mile walk through the woods to the falls that we clearly had not done. Feeling unsatisfied we drove on to DeSoto State Park to see what they had there. At the park visitors center, I saw another of those elusive front view photos of DeSoto Falls. I asked the clerk about that and about the 2 mile trail, and she gave me a map and directions to an unmarked pullout on the side of the road, where the trail could be accessed. We began walking through the woods, enjoying scenic views and the ever increasing sound of the falls in the distance. Less than an hour later we were rewarded with a breathtaking view and the opportunity to snap the photo that is the featured image at the top of this post!
Planning Your Trip to Mentone
Where to stay:
Mentone has many romantic cottages to choose from in a beautiful setting among tree covered hills crisscrossed with hiking trails and waterways. I chose my cabin, the Sunshine Cottage, through AirBnB. This was my first experience using the AirBnB app. I have used HomeAway before for other trips and have yet to determine whether one is better than the other. Several of the cabins in the area, including the top two I considered and the one I ultimately chose, are less than a mile from downtown. I found this the most appealing because I like to stay somewhat active on vacation and this allowed a built-in walk every time we wanted to eat at a restaurant or shop the many artisan and vintage/antique shops along the main street.
Downtown there is also a historic hotel, the Mentone Inn B&B, which looked very charming if you’d rather be “in town” in a hotel.
Other hotels I found that were not in the center of town, but that looked nice were:
Mountain View Inn: A four suite B&B perched on the edge of Lookout Mountain.
Mountain Laurel Inn: A B&B that is a 10 minute walk from DeSoto Falls!
Where to eat:
Mentone Market: We had the Brunswick stew, and it tasted like BBQ in a bowl, in the best way. The owner told me it’s made in house and is a favorite during the winter months. I could taste why! Mentone Market has WiFi.
Wildflower Café: We gave in to our inner tourists and visited the very cute and fun Wildflower Cafe that has been featured in Southern Living Magazine. We enjoyed daily specials that included made-from-scratch tomato soup, a grilled cheese sandwich made with thick cut Applewood smoked bacon, and a brunch sampler of house-made chicken salad, tomato pie for which they are known, and a crepe topped with strawberry puree and whipped cream. It was all delicious, with the tomato pie being my sentimental favorite. There was live music, even for the lunch crowd, and our waiter took a moment and joined the guitar player for a verse of Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel”. Once again, as at the Mentone Market, the entire restaurant joyfully sang along, including myself!
Green Leaf Grill: When we were shopping at the Graceful Giraffe (see below), we learned that the Greenleaf Grill won an award for the best catfish in the state of Alabama. We were impressed! Unfortunately, we ran out of opportunities to eat on this trip, but we will definitely be back for that award winning catfish.
Little River Hardware Café: I wanted to go into this place so badly, but couldn’t ever seem to get there before they closed in the afternoons. It was handily located at the end of the street where we were staying, and would have been a nice couple of blocks walk to breakfast. We’ll definitely make a point to stop in next time, as it looked like a really neat place and receives great reviews online.
Where to shop:
Rocky Top Pottery, the first place we stopped, had coffee mugs in the perfect shape, round at the bottom and narrower at the top, to keep coffee warm the longest, in colors so vibrant they could bring cheer to the darkest day. I wish it hadn’t been our first stop because I am still wishing I’d bought those mugs; I only stopped myself from doing so because I didn’t want to spend all my money at the first stop!
The Gourdie Shop: The description I read, “Unique and unusual treasures and clothing”, is really almost an understatement. The sheer volume of things to look at in this winding labyrinth of treasures is kind of overwhelming. It’s in an old building, that can’t be very big, but somehow seems to expand once you are inside, with a winding aisle that passes through a series of rooms, one with Halloween costumes, one with Christmas decor, and several themed corners featuring artwork, clothing, books etc. I didn’t make a purchase there, but saw a few things I’m still thinking about and I plan to go back to pick up some unique Christmas gifts later this year.
Graceful Giraffe: Artisan items, pet friendly. The owner of this shop is very personable, as was everyone we met in Mentone, and is the one who gave us the tip about the award-winning catfish at Green Leaf Grill. Everything in her store promotes her two passions: fair trade and/or animal rescue. There are beautiful handmade original items at reasonable prices, at every price point, from whimsical home décor to jewelry.
Moon Lake Trading Company Unique gifts, antiques and original work from local artisans.
Mentone Farmers Market: every Saturday, year round, 10-1. According to the Mayhaw tree grower we spoke with, it had only been closed twice in the previous year, once for tornadoes, once for snow.
What to tour:
Cloudmont Ski and Gold Resort: 150 foot elevation change. Artificial snow is made once night time temps drop below 28 degrees. Lessons available. Pony Lift. Alas it wasn’t quite cold enough to make snow while we were in Mentone, so skiing in Alabama will have to wait.
Shady Grove Dude Ranch: Accommodations and trail rides
Desoto Falls: Beautiful views from above and below! Kayak and Canoe rentals, weather permitting.
Sally Howard Memorial Chapel: Built into a boulder, this chapel was unique and interesting. No one was there, but the door was unlocked. This measure of trust for the general public and complete lack of vandalism was heartening!
Geocaching! https://youtu.be/vuFiLhhCNww , Dash of the Unexpected Geotour (GT7B), https://www.geocaching.com/play/geotours/north-Alabama This is a nerdy-cool activity you can do with your smartphone that I had never heard of until researching for this trip. Connectivity is hit or miss around Mentone, but that just adds an extra degree of difficulty!
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