Immerse yourself in nature with a visit to Highlands.
by Cathy Martin
The road from Charlotte to Highlands is long and winding — after passing through Brevard, westbound U.S. Highway 64 twists and turns through resort communities like Lake Toxaway, Sapphire and Cashiers before you reach your destination. On a plateau in the Nantahala National Forest, Highlands sits nearly at the intersection of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Given that proximity, it’s no wonder that well-heeled Atlantans discovered the allure of this mountain town decades ago — Highlands has long been a favored summer retreat and second-home market for residents of the Georgia capital.
Here in the Queen City, we’re blessed with a plethora of nearby options for a mountain getaway — Asheville, Blowing Rock, Banner Elk and others are less than three hours away. But having never visited Highlands before, I set out (twice) this year to see what all my Georgia friends have known for years. At an elevation of 4,118 feet, Highlands — a 3.5-hour drive from Charlotte — is a hiker’s paradise with a lovely, walkable downtown, and scarcely a chain store in sight.
Of course, I’d heard about the Old Edwards Inn and Spa, the chic retreat that opened in downtown Highlands in 2004. But recently, a couple of other local historic properties have undergone major facelifts, providing stylish accommodations at a slightly more approachable price point.
If you’re looking to convene with nature (and why else would you be here?), drive 10 minutes from town to Skyline Lodge, a 40-room inn atop Flat Mountain that dates to the 1930s. The U-shaped property surrounded by forest was designed by Arthur Kelsey, a student and friend of Frank Lloyd Wright, who incorporated natural granite and timber native to the area in its construction. Now owned by Charleston, S.C.-based Indigo Road Hospitality Group, the lodge has been recently restored to its midcentury glory.
The renovation kept the lodge’s original layout intact, so there’s a distinct retro feel to the rooms accessed by a covered walkway and surrounding a shared courtyard. Here, what once was a pool deck now feels like an adult playground, with fire pits, Adirondack chairs, bocce and string lights. It’s a social place — don’t be surprised when locals dropping by for dinner want to stop and chat about the improvements to the hotel (they approve) and how the area has changed through the years.
The midmod theme carries through to the guest rooms, with dark paneling, retro accents and large private balconies great for sipping morning coffee. My room, the Hemlock, had peaceful, unobstructed views of the forest, with the soothing sounds of the Big Creek tributary rushing below. The bathroom, a bit small in keeping with the lodge’s original footprint, was nicely updated with sleek marble, zellige tile and luxurious botanical soaps and lotions from Grown Alchemist.
At press time, the hotel was wrapping up construction on Butler’s, a bar with a sunroom and patio that will serve breakfast in the morning and cocktails at night. Meanwhile, the standout here is Oak Steakhouse, situated at the back of the property. The central bar with a soaring, exposed-beam ceiling is accented with a massive granite stone fireplace and several cozy spots for conversation and cocktails. In the main dining room, windows line three sides, allowing plenty of light and more of those mountain views. If the winter chill hasn’t yet set in, ask for a table on the terrace to take in the fresh mountain air.
If you’ve visited one of Oak’s other locations, you know to expect USDA prime and dry-aged steaks, and you’ll find some familiar favorites on the menu here. Much of the menu, however, is exclusive to the Highlands location, including pan-seared mountain trout, heritage pork loin and braised rabbit agnolotti. Cocktails are inventive twists on the classics: Try the skyline sour — lemon, Empress gin and Apertivo — or the Dark, Truthful Mirror – Chartreuse, Mezcal, Lillet, lime and ginger with fresh mountain herbs.
You’ll see plenty of sport coats here — it is Highlands, after all — but you’ll be equally comfortable wearing something a bit more casual. While you won’t find valet parking, a spa or other extravagances you might expect at pricier resorts, you’ll find plenty of historical details, gorgeous scenery, good times and low-key luxury at Skyline Lodge.
Back downtown, perched on a prominent corner lot, expect a different vibe at Highlander Mountain House, an 18-room inn built in 1885. The farmhouse was a private residence for many years before becoming a bed and breakfast. When the newly christened Highlander Mountain House opened its doors last October, the inn was an immediate Instagram sensation, with its moody blue exterior, art and antique-filled spaces, and dreamy wallpapered guest rooms.
If Old Edwards is the rich uncle, HMH is the fun-loving, Ivy League-educated nephew. With a roaring fire, a playlist ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to classic rock, and friendly flannel-clad staff, the inn buzzes in the evenings, when the Ruffed Grouse Tavern fills with locals and guests stopping by for drinks and a dinner of Appalachian trout or steak frites. The tavern is open for dinner Wednesday-Saturday and Sunday brunch. Check their site for information about guest chefs, literary events and more — in recent months, the inn welcomed acclaimed author Ron Rash and Charleston chef Dano Heinze.
OUT AND ABOUT
Three miles west of downtown, Dry Falls is an 80-foot waterfall with a paved path allowing you to walk behind the falls for an up-close look at this natural wonder. It’s one of many waterfalls in the area and can be easily accessed from the parking area just off U.S. 64.
For a short hike that won’t wear you out for the day’s other adventures, head to the opposite end of downtown and the Sunset Rock trailhead. Park on the street or at the Highlands Nature Center and follow the .7-mile, wide gravel trail to the summit, which offers panoramic views of the region. When you return from your hike, explore the Highlands Botanical Gardens behind the nature center, where you can learn about the native flora. Admission is free, and the gardens are open year-round.
Another short hike with stellar scenic views is the Whiteside Mountain Rec Trail, a 1.9-mile loop just a few miles outside of town.
A half-mile west of downtown, The Bascom Center for the Visual Arts hosts exhibitions featuring works by regional artists on a 6-acre former horse farm.
Mountain Fresh Grocery is a one-stop shop for coffee, snacks, lunch, pizza or any provisions you might need for a picnic or to take along on your hike. There’s even a small wine and coffee bar in the center of the store, for your pre- and post-excursion refreshments.
Shoppers will find plenty of one-of-a-kind boutiques, including Bardo, an eclectic home decor, jewelry and furniture store. Just outside of town, head to Reclamations and search through an endless array of architectural salvage pieces, furniture and unique decor items, from rustic dough bowls to whiskey barrels to antique German cigar molds. The Highland Hiker (brands include Barbour, Frye and Mountain Khakis) can outfit you for whatever outdoor activities you have planned during your stay. SP