By Cele and Lynn Seldon
Situated just a stone’s throw from the intersection of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia in the Nantahala National Forest, Highlands, North Carolina is that perfect little mountain getaway spot. It’s filled with stunning scenery, a charming and compact downtown, tons of nearby outdoor adventures and a relaxed ambiance. You’ll find everything from scenic waterfalls and heart-pumping hiking to luxurious spas to sumptuous dining. Highlands is the perfect place to relax, refresh and rejuvenate.
Get Back to Nature
The outdoors beckon at 4,000 feet with magical vistas, botanical gardens and cascading waterfalls. The Nantahala National Forest provides a bevy of natural wonders. Watch the sunset from Sunset Rock or catch the organic phenomena and historical landmark of the Shadow of the Bear during a fall sunset at the Rhodes Big View Overlook. The Highlands Botanical Gardens and Nature Center at the Highlands Biological Station is a living museum of Appalachia flora, thanks to their wandering lake and garden trails. Waterfalls abound in the mountains surrounding Highlands, with some nearby favorites being Dry Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and Bust Your Butt Falls.
Break a Sweat
In addition to scenic activities, the mountains surrounding Highlands offer up all kinds of ways to participate in nature. Hiking and mountain biking are plentiful, starting with the Highlands Plateau Greenway. Connecting natural areas and historic sites throughout town, the Greenway features over five miles of sidewalks and natural trails for walking, jogging or biking.
Outside of town, there are dozens of moderate to difficult trails, as well as walks and hikes at Cliffside Lake Recreational Area, Ellicott’s Rock Wilderness Area, Glades Road Caves, Whiteside Mountain, Satulah Mountain and many more. For something more adrenaline producing, it’s exhilarating to zip through the Appalachian Mountains at Highlands Aerial Park.
Originally founded as a health and summer resort town taking advantage of the clean mountain air and crystal-clear water, Highlands has become known as a destination to relax and rejuvenate. The Spa at Old Edwards Inn is the zen of relaxation for both mind and body. Indulge in soothing facial and body treatments, restorative massage, touchless therapies and hair and nail services. Many choose to make a spa day of it, with lunch at The Spa Cafe.
If you prefer retail therapy, downtown Highlands is filled with dozens of upscale local artisans and merchants sharing their artistry and entrepreneurship. Don’t miss timeless and eclectic women’s fashions and accessories at Lulu Bleu and Unique Elegance. You’ll find home furnishings and decor at Dutchmans, Bardo and Smitten. Enjoy a taste of Highlands at Colonel Mustard’s and, for the active adventurer, check out the outdoor apparel and gear at Bear Mountain Outfitters and Highland Hiker.
Dining is taken seriously in Highlands and you certainly won’t go hungry. For a hearty breakfast, head to Blue Bike Cafe (where breakfast is served all day) for creative breakfast plates, grit bowls, French toast or breakfast sammies. For lunch, the inventive burgers and dogs at The Ugly Dog Public House are clear winners. Don’t miss the Shame Dog, with house made pimento cheese and thick-cut bacon. For dinner, try the shrimp and grits or local NC trout at the lively Bridge at Mill Creek, the regionally influenced menu and cozy ambiance at The Ruffed Grouse, or splurge on fine dining in the elegant and romantic Old Edwards Inn at Madison’s Restaurant.
Expand Your Horizons
Enhance your mental health in Highlands with a host of learning opportunities and events throughout the year. Expand your epicurean horizons with hosted culinary weekends at Half-Mile Farm — the country inn sister of Old Edwards Inn. Learn about all things honey, chocolate, cheese, spirits and more at monthly gourmet weekends with special guest hosts and artisan tastemakers discussing and sampling their craft with tastings, educational presentations and special cocktail and breakfast menus. Half-Mile Farm also presents the annual Chefs in the House dinner series with renown guest chefs.
For the whole enchilada, make plans to attend the fifth anniversary of Highlands Food & Wine extravaganza in November. For music aficionados, Bear Shadow is Highlands ultimate music festival featuring tons of live music, guitar clinics, a music-oriented film fest and outdoor activities like hiking and yoga accompanied by live music to get folks really moving.
Highlands has a plethora of accommodations options — from cozy cabins to elegant inns — for any taste or budget. The Grande Dame in town is the AAA Four Diamond-rated Old Edwards Inn and Spa, a European-style mountain retreat with luxury guest rooms, suites, cottages and homes, as well as onsite spa and fitness facilities, dining options, shopping and more.
Just a few blocks away are the intimate suites of Mill Creek, a charming property featuring six boutique suites overlooking babbling Mill Creek. The rooms are beautifully appointed with gas fireplaces, sumptuous linens, thoughtful coffee service and a lovely courtyard to enjoy the fresh air and fire pit.
For a bit more privacy, book a room at The Inn at Half Mile Farm, sister property to Old Edwards Inn. Just a mile out of town, this tranquil country inn — with its stunning mountain views and lush natural landscapes — feature rooms with luxuriant décor, fireplaces, balconies and soaking tubs, as well as a mineral pool and hot tub. Included evening social hours and elaborate breakfasts await, as do signing privileges at all Old Edwards Inn offerings.
Photos: Old Edwards Inn and Spa; Cele and Lynn Seldon