Grilled peaches and French wine on stone patios, cool mist from a 75-foot waterfall, and shopping for cashmere sweaters. It must be August in Highlands, North Carolina
We’re in Madison’s restaurant at the Old Edwards Inn in this well-heeled mountain resort town, and we’ve got a red wine from Bandol swirling in our glasses and conversations going about Provence and Paris with the Marseille-born sommelier, Philippe Brainos. Wearing a dinner jacket and an Old World silver tasting cup on a chain, he returns later to pour a delicious Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Our leisurely meal continues for the next couple of hours as we order plates from chef Chris Huerta’s fresh menu of trout roasted in cast iron with locally foraged chanterelle mushrooms, a house-made pimiento cheese and crackers with a nice kick, a cool summer gazpacho with heirloom tomatoes from the inn’s garden, and crispy blue crab cakes on shaved fennel slaw. Other guests in dresses and jackets gather in the garden-like room, with its large windows and botanical upholstery, overlooking the stone patio. Always with a linen towel draped neatly over one arm, Brainos busily attends to the dinner crowd, which ranges from millennials to retirees, bringing bottles and conversation.
Dining at Madison’s is part of the new-era elegance that’s been built into the nearly 140-year-old Old Edwards Inn since insurance executive Art Williams and his wife, Angela, of Palm Beach, Florida, bought the place in the early 2000s. The couple invested more than $150 million to restore the original inn and expand it to include a European-style spa, handsome new cottages, and two pools. (More recently, they’ve added a sister lodge named Half-Mile Farm a couple miles up the road.) The property is overflowing with flower boxes, gardens, and terraces integrated directly into the heart of downtown Highlands.
Six Hours To Cool(er)
Heading there for a summer getaway, we didn’t stop when we saw a 97-degree temperature reading in Columbia around lunchtime and kept on driving north and west toward the mountains, watching temperatures drop as the elevation rose. We drove through Walhalla, Mountain Rest, and Oconee County in South Carolina and crossed the bridge over the Chattooga River. On North Carolina’s State Route 28, two hands were on the wheel through the twisting, low-speed miles of S-curves and roadside blooms of purple Joe-Pye weed. We rolled down the windows, my ears popped, and I could feel a centrifugal pull on the winding route.
So, this is Highlands, I thought, a favored summer escape for generations of Charlestonians that’s more than 4,100 feet up in the Nantahala National Forest. I spied hydrangeas bursting with flowers in pale green, instead of the typical pinks or blues, and felt the cooling effect of the elevation and shaded greenery, from low-growing ferns to the broad leaves of bays and laurels. By the time we arrived at the Old Edwards Inn in the late afternoon, the thermometer had dipped to 78, and I’d adjusted to the mountain difference just fine, especially when I was handed a glass of sparkling wine in the lobby.
A bellman showed us to the resort’s Hickory Cottage on the next block, which has a wood-paneled entryway and shared sitting rooms, as well as an expansive bedroom and bathroom. Glass doors open to a private stone patio surrounded by tall hedges and with a couple of inviting, thickly cushioned deck chairs ready for stretching out. One of the swimming pools is only a couple dozen steps along the garden walkway, but I decided to save that experience for later. I still had the bubbly in hand and wanted to relax outside for a bit before dinner. (I will gravitate to this quiet spot again in the morning and whenever I get a chance during our two-night stay. From that chaise just outside of the bedroom, I’ll have glimpses of chipmunks, yellow warblers, sparrows, chickadees, and butterflies.)
The Sunset Rocks
The next morning, we walk along leafy Main Street and check out several shops, noting the elaborate window displays of fur-coat-wrapped mannequins and Jimmy Choo heels at the landmark Rosenthal’s. Almost all of the boutiques are locally owned and include the woodsy garden offerings at Oakleaf and the vintage silverware sets at Mirror Lake Antiques. The sun is bright, and the street’s getting busier when I go inside the open door at the 1890s-built, white-painted Episcopal Church of the Incarnation. The wood-paneled interior is invitingly quiet, the pews empty, and it’s nice to sit for a couple of thoughtful minutes in the coolness.
After a waterside lunch of excellent pecan-and-cherry chicken salad at the inn’s Hickory Pool, we make the short drive west to The Bascom, a nonprofit hub for the visual arts scene in the Highlands-Cashiers area, to see a fascinating mix of new art and historical craft pieces from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. In a barn beside the art center’s modern gallery, we meet ceramicist Samantha Oliver, who’s hand-turning a pottery banding wheel and making teapots and cups painted with tiny butterflies and flowers. The artist-in-residence explains that her designs “are from the memory of my mom’s curtains and tablecloths in her kitchen. I’m pressing into the ceramics a part of me and that memory.” I tell her that they looked instantly like something I wanted to pick up. Oliver smiles, explaining that’s her hope. Working here, at the Penland School of Crafts, and other places, she says her aim is “to create pots that beg to be held and used in a setting that brings people together in conversation.”
It works, and we continue talking about the best scenic hikes in the area. (I’ve been asking everyone we meet.) A popular suggestion is Sunset Rock, and that’s where we go at the day’s end. Parking is at the Highlands Nature Center and Botanical Garden, which hosts a weekly series of conservation lectures in the summertime; we just missed the one on Charles Darwin’s theories. On foot, we follow the unpaved road for more than a half-mile climb to Ravenel Park and the Sunset Rock overlook. Other sunset watchers have blankets laid out and picnics underway at the broad, rugged rock face with easy views of the twinkling lights of Highlands’ downtown streets.
Water to Wine
During our three days in the mountains, we follow the famed “Waterfall Highway” (Hwy. 64 West). From downtown, it’s just a few miles to get to the first roadside feature, Bridal Veil Falls, which streams across an overhang of rock wide enough for a car to pass behind the water. The paved road that goes under the falls is barricaded to car traffic when we visit, so we roll on and within a mile reach the parking lot for the curiously named Dry Falls. A boardwalk and paved walkway offer a long view and wind down to a relatively dry path behind the splashing 75-foot-high wall of water and its rushing roar of sound. I get misted, and it’s just enough to give me a brief chill that in August is particularly sweet. I think about stopping in again at McCulley’s, another mainstay of Highlands retail, where the wooden floors and shelves are stacked high with neatly folded sweaters of Scottish cashmere in Popsicle colors—more than I’ve ever seen—along with bow ties, bags, scarves from Italy and France, and wool jackets, too.
That evening we pass McCulley’s on the way to a bluegrass show at Ugly Dog Public House. Under the tin ceilings strung with white lights, a crowd is filling every chair and barstool and standing along the walls to see and hear Grammy-nominated mandolin player Darren Nicholson and band. Their sets include everything from jazz to “Wagon Wheel” to The Doors’ “L.A. Woman.” What really gets the crowd dancing on the plank wood floors, though, are the minutes when a rendition of “Dueling Banjos” leads right into Led Zeppelin’s “Hey, Hey What Can I Do?”
The Ugly Dog is within two blocks of our lodging, and after the walk back, I sleep well and am up early for a massage at the inn’s spa. I’m the first appointment of the day, but the fireplaces are already lit, and I change into a soft robe and sip hot herbal tea in a garden room of tall windows and plush furniture. The massage leaves me both relaxed and invigorated for the rest of the morning and through lunch on the patio of the Wine Garden. With the backdrop of water sounds from fountains in the garden, I order a veggie burger. I’m keeping it light, wanting to hold on to these elevated days of feeling good, healthy, and higher up.
Not long after our trip, I get an e-mail from longtime friend Marlene Osteen and learn that she and her husband are now settled in Highlands. He’s James Beard Award-winning chef Louis Osteen, and the couple lived in Charleston when he was at the helm of Louis’ Charleston Grill at Charleston Place in the 1990s. As we catch up, she tells me she’s a fan of the Highlands Food & Wine Festival (this year November 9 to 12), and says that she’s been working with the Mountain Fresh Grocery & Wine Market in downtown Highlands. The shop is a Wine Spectator award recipient and reportedly sells more rosé than any other store in the state. “Specifically, the salmon-hued Domaine de Fontsainte Gris de Gris,” Marlene explains. She also suggests the Ionis ‘Ater’ Primitivo, a big, bold Zinfandel from Puglia, Italy, for reds in the grilling season.
I jot down the names. If I can find one of those bottles or something similar, I think, it will be almost like sampling another escape to Highlands.
200 Main: Rustic yet modern hotel owned and operated by Old Edwards Inn (OEI); rates from $160 per night. 200 Main St., (828) 526-2790, www.200main.com
Half-Mile Farm: Country inn, owned and operated by OEI, on a lake with a heated mineral pool, hiking trails, and stocked fishing ponds; rates from $250 per night. 214 Half-Mile Farm Dr., (855) 271-7246, www.halfmilefarm.com
Old Edwards Inn & Spa: Elegant in-town mountain resort and European-style spa, member of Relais & Châteaux since 2015; rates from $340 per night. 445 Main St., (866) 526-5008, www.oldedwardsinn.com
Cyprus: An open-kitchen eatery with a global menu, ranging from Lebanese mezze to pad Thai. Upstairs at 332 Main St., (828) 526-4429, www.cyprushighlands.com
Madison’s Restaurant & Wine Garden: Elegant, Southern dining at the Old Edwards Inn featuring organically grown ingredients from regional farms and the on-site greenhouse and gardens. 445 Main St., (828) 787-2525, www.oldedwardsinn.com/dining
Mountain Fresh Grocery & Wine Market: Community foodie gathering spot for coffee and pastries, wood-fired pizzas, burgers and sandwiches, wine, and to-go dinners for two. 521 E. Main St., (828) 526-2400, www.mfgro.com
On the Verandah: Seafood and steaks in upscale cabin style on the shore of Lake Sequoyah. 1536 Franklin Rd. (Hwy. 64), (828) 526-2338, www.ontheverandah.com
The Bascom: Visit the six-acre campus of this visual arts center to see and buy regional standout art in historical and modern barn structures. 323 Franklin Rd., (828) 526-4949, www.thebascom.org
Dry Falls: Walk under the overhanging ledge at the 75-foot fall (misty but not drenching), about 3.5 miles west of Highlands on Hwy. 64 (within a mile of the roadside Bridal Veil Falls).
Highlands Eclipse Fest: Check out the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse, the Twilight 5K, and more than 20 other eclipse-oriented events this summer. www.highlandseclipsefest.com
Sunset Rock: Make the early evening hike up the .6-mile rise to this scenic spot overlooking Highlands. Access via Ravenel Park Road across from the Highlands Nature Center (and botanical garden). 265 N. 6th St., (828) 526-2623, www.highlandsbiological.org
Ugly Dog Public House: Grab a pint and hear live music. 294 S. 4th St., (828) 526-8364, www.theuglydogpub.com
Bardo: Home goods store with soft Turkish towels, carved-wood furniture, poufs, pillows, and jewelry. 460 Main St., (828) 526-4020, www.facebook.com/bardo49
McCulley’s Scottish Cashmere: Sweaters, tunics, scarves, and gloves in every color, plus bow-ties, jackets, and accessories. 242 S. 4th St., (828) 526-4407, www.mcculleys.com
Mirror Lake Antiques: Fine porcelain, pottery, estate jewelry, and sterling silver.
215 S. 4th St., (828) 526-2080, www.mirrorlakeantiques.com
Oakleaf Flower & Garden: Woodsy arrangements, plants, garden ornaments, gifts, and antiques. 133 S. 4th St., (828) 526-8000, oakleafhighlands.com
Rosenthal’s: Manolo Blahnik stilettos in the window displays at this fur and designer clothing boutique established in the early 1990s. 375 Main St., (828) 526-2100, www.rosenthalsboutique.com