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Escape the summer swelter in the mountains of North Carolina and discover a retro-cool lodge with a Charleston connection

Escape the summer swelter in the mountains of North Carolina and discover a retro-cool lodge with a Charleston connection
August 2022

Plan your mountain getaway to Highlands with our guide on where to stay, play, shop, and eat

It’s looking like the mid-1960s on this summer getaway to Highlands and the retro-cool Skyline Lodge—a five-hour drive to the mountains of North Carolina and a gain of more than 4,000 feet above our sea-level life

“Are you looking for the bear?” asks our table’s server, Kevin, as he points toward the hillside that falls away from the dining room and stone patios on the backside of Skyline Lodge. In this heart of the Nantahala National Forest region in western North Carolina, mountain views roll out for dozens of miles into the distance. “Last week, a black bear was right out there,” he says. “And when the sprinklers turned on, it stood up.”

It’s our first bear story of the trip to the restored motor inn that’s within a few miles of downtown Highlands, North Carolina. A 1960s-era brochure framed on the wall boasts 40-mile views on a clear-sky day, and we’ve arrived on a similarly gorgeous afternoon. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I made the nearly 300-mile drive up I-26, a route that’s especially scenic in the final hour or so—passing boat houses along Lake Keowee while still on Highway 11 in South Carolina, and then gaining elevation and expansive views along Highway 64 between Cashiers and Highlands.

In just over a half-day’s drive, we’ve traded creekside expanses for curving roads and elevations of 4,000 feet and higher. It’s a rite of summer for many in the Lowcountry to escape to the mountains at some point—everyone has their favorite town or region. At Skyline, we find instant familiarity. The in-lodge restaurant is Oak Steakhouse Highlands, a sister property to the original in Charleston. In just a few dozen steps from the parking lot to the room, and then to our table, we’re ordering a French rosé, considering the menu, and gazing out often, scanning the scene for bears.

Prairie-Style: Reopened last summer after a major renovation, parts of the Skyline Lodge were designed and built in the 1930s—a student of Frank Lloyd Wright was the original architect. Today, guests relax in the central courtyard where there was once a pool.

That's Wright

I’ve been eager to get to Skyline Lodge since the 2021 reopening, charmed by its architecture from the heyday of vacations spent traveling to motor inns. Partially constructed in the 1930s, the original building design was drafted by Arthur J. Kelsey of Cincinnati, a longtime student and follower of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Before we’d even parked the car, I’d begun to notice some of the lodge’s key features—horizontal lines, long rooflines, and wide panes of glass. There’s handsome simplicity and artisanship in the wood decking and granite-block walls, and a woodsy palette of deep green, pollen gold, and charcoal. When we meet Lauren Skidmore, the director of rooms, she offers us an informal tour of the property, which the National Park Service has just added to the National Register of Historic Places, giving a nod to the stone work and architecture.

While showing us to various rooms and vantage points, Skidmore shares a bit more of the history. The original owner had intended the project as a personal getaway for family and friends, she explains, but construction was halted shortly after it began in the 1930s due to his death. The property then sat unfinished for decades until it was finally completed in the 1960s by a new developer and architect. A rectangular swimming pool was a focus of the then-seasonal lodge, as dozens of rooms at the mountain-top resort were designed for views of both the pool and the distant peaks. Beams of California redwood were erected in the dining room, along with the massive granite fireplaces that now bookend the bar and lounge seating.

In the Village: Main Street in Highlands is lined with local and regional shops, boutiques, and cafes. Outdoor adventures, including waterfalls, hiking trails, and botanical gardens, are just a short drive away.

That brings us back to dinner. At our window-side table, we order oysters Rockefeller, fried flounder, and a steak to share—but first, there’s hot, soft bread served in a cast-iron skillet to tear into while we talk of the Lowcountry connections to this place. The Indigo Road Hospitality Group, founded by Charleston-based restaurateur Steve Palmer, purchased Skyline in 2020 and completed a full renovation. And sommelier Colin Bard, who’s managing the dining room that night, mentions that he worked at McCrady’s in Charleston in the early 2000s.

It’s a small world in the mountain-top dining room that fills before sunset, and the parking lot does, too. That lineup includes several Porsches, a Ferrari, and the vintage Land Rover that belongs to Skyline. Highlands is a favorite stomping ground for residents of Buckhead and Palm Beach, we’re told. And I notice a dressier-than-expected dinner crowd—in blue blazers and tweed, cashmere sweaters and Lily Pulitzer dresses—along with some in denim and hiking shoes. The high-low scene reminds me of some of the mountain-chic shops a few miles away on Main Street, including the local boutique Rosenthals—known for its silk dresses, fur coats, and stilettos—that’s just around the corner from the blue-jean crowd going for pints and live music at the Ugly Dog Public House.

(Left) The Kelsey Trail Preserve entrance; (Right) A painted trillium in bloom.

The Birds & The Trees

Stone chimney tops jut from the roof along the inn’s original ’30s-era wing—each attached to the stone fireplaces (now fitted with gas) in the guest rooms. We’re booked in one called the “Granite King,” which also sports a roomy balcony with views into the treetops. A boxy mid-century chair and geometric-design carpet add cozy texture. Leaving the sliding glass door open to just the screen for the overnight 50s temperatures, we fall asleep to sounds of water rushing in Big Creek below us.

Western North Carolina is the “land of waterfalls” after all. On prior trips up this way, we’ve stopped by the roadside Bridal Veil Falls and walked under the overhanging ledge at the 65-foot Dry Falls—staying mostly out of the spray. (Both are within a few miles’ drive from the lodge.) After a couple of morning coffees and bear claw pastries (of course) at Skyline, we make our way to the much less dramatic but beautiful Pinky Falls, situated at the end of a short roadside path just a half mile away. (The front desk staff can point the way.) It’s calming to watch and listen a while as the water swishes and cascades over smooth rocks to create pools with a sandy edge. Suddenly, a cool rain is starting, and we retreat. But on a warmer day, I’d be tempted to plunge in for a dip.

With periodic showers in the forecast, we set out to explore sights close by—each not more than a few miles from one another. Deer are munching some of the native flora near a bog when we pull into the Highlands Botanical Garden, the highest elevation botanical gardens in the eastern United States, with trails that are open dawn to dusk. From a boardwalk portion of it, we spy a mallard corralling four fuzzy ducklings on the shore of Lindenwood Lake.

Later, near the pottery shed and galleries at the six-acre visual arts center, The Bascom, we follow a trail to a picnic shelter and see a rabbit hop past along the way. And at Highland Hiker on the quaint Main Street lined with local and regional shops and boutiques, we step inside the 1920s log cabin that houses the family-owned retailer, and I end up buying some new gear, including quick-dry pants for the next rain spell.

Pizza from the wood-fired oven at the downtown Highlands’ gathering spot Mountain Fresh Grocery is our lunch stop, and through the afternoon, we want to stay outside. The rainfall has spurred a burst of green in the scenery. It’s almost as if we can see the season’s new leaves unfurling from the trees in real time.

A couple of friends from Brevard make the one-hour drive to join us for a hike, and we all meet at the Kelsey Trail Preserve trailhead in Highlands. Our friends excitedly tell us how just before they left home that day, they’d seen a young black bear climb a tree just outside their ridge-top house. Another bear encounter to ponder as we start out on the two-mile jaunt at Kelsey, passing a number of impressively tall and wide, old-growth eastern hemlock trees. It’s not possible to get your arms around the stout trunks—we tried. We find small, ground-level plants of interest, too, including a painted trillium in bloom (three leaves and a delicate white flower tinged with pink), and a few jack-in-the-pulpit plants along the shady forest floor. No sign of bears, but I see and hear an eastern towhee, getting a good look at its side feathers, the shade reminiscent of a “Burnt Sienna” crayon.

Post-hike, we head back to Skyline for a drink. The 1960s-era swimming pool was removed during the Indigo Road Group’s renovation and the central courtyard became an outdoor lobby of sorts, now with barefoot-friendly wood decking and artificial turf, arrangements of low-slung chairs, a bean bag toss set-up, fire pits, and garden plantings. In the adjacent lobby, beer and wine is available, along with s’mores kits of chocolate bars, graham crackers, marshmallows, and roasting sticks. The desk manager offers to light a fire for us. It’s a cool evening, and we take him up on the suggestion—the four of us settle in to watch the flames and talk of the day’s finds in the open air as night falls.

At one point, while a Frank Sinatra song plays on the speakers, and other hotel guests are finding chairs and conversation, too, under the crisscrossing lines of bulb lights, the feel is a bit like a Mad Men-era lawn party, except with s’mores. And just maybe, a bear out there somewhere.

The Old Edwards Inn & Spa on Main Street.

Mountain Time - Suggestions for a Highlands-area getaway

Skyline Lodge: Updated mid-century retreat with 40 rooms, spacious patios, courtyards, and mountaintop views; 24-hour-staffed lobby with cool drinks (beer and wine, too), fresh pastries, and snacks; dogs welcome with a fee. 470 Skyline Lodge Rd.,

Old Edwards Inn & Spa: Elegant in-town mountain resort and European-style spa; pools, cafes, and Madison’s Restaurant; member of Relais & Châteaux. 445 Main St.,

The Bascom: Contemporary art, pottery, and a stream-side trail and picnic shelter on the visual arts center’s six-acre campus. 323 Franklin Rd.,

Highland Hiker: Outfitter for outdoor gear and clothing in a historic log cabin downtown; guidebooks, local info about trails; fireplace to cozy up to in cool weather. 601 Main St.,

Highlands Botanical Garden: Nearly 500 species of plants, shrubs, and trees native to the southern Appalachians grow on 12 in-town acres; woodland trails and boardwalks open to the public year-round. 265 N. 6th St.;

Kelsey Trail Preserve: One-mile section of an oxcart trail that linked downtown Highlands to Whiteside Mountain in a forest of hemlock and oak trees. The trailhead is located at the end of N. 5th Street,

Whiteside Mountain Trail:  A two-mile loop overlooking 750-foot cliffs in the Nantahala National Forest; the trailhead access is off Hwy. 64, 5.5 miles east of Highlands.

Eat & Drink
Highlands Smokehouse: Smoked pork, beef, and poultry; indoor and patio dining; full bar. 595 Franklin Rd.;

Mountain Fresh Grocery & Wine Market: Downtown gathering spot for grab-and-go daily dinner specials, sandwiches, wood-fired pizzas, coffee, beer, and wine. 521 E. Main St.;

Oak Steakhouse Highlands: Steaks, seafood, venison Wellington, and other locally sourced sides and entrees in a vaulted dining room and lounge flanked with granite fireplaces; classic cocktails, wine cellar selections, and regional craft beers. Skyline Lodge, 470 Skyline Lodge Rd.;

Ugly Dog Public House: Burgers, nachos, po’ boys, and other pub fare; draft beer, cocktails, live music. 294 S. 4th St.,