Plateau elevation: 4,118 feet. Permanent population: 3,200 residents. Average summer temperature: 76 degrees. These numbers are just a glimpse into Highlands, North Carolina, a charming mountain town just over two hours from Atlanta. However, ask anyone who has ever been to Highlands, and they’ll tell you these numbers do not tell the whole story.
Highlands seamlessly blends into its mountainous surroundings without disturbing its natural neighbors. It envelops visitors in its luscious landscape yet offers them deluxe experiences, excellent service and refined accommodations. Highlands is quaint, serene, artistic, loyal, friendly and unrestricted. It has a heart, and it pumps because of its people.
Everyone (and I mean everyone!) will ask where you’re from, how you got there and what brings you to the area. Restaurant servers will speak highly of their chefs’ creations. Store owners will point out hand-made goods, and if they don’t have what you’re looking for, they’ll send you down the street to their friend’s shop. Restaurants start dinner service at 5 o’clock, and they whip-up concoctions like sweet pea gnocchi and citrus souffle. Additionally, live music happy hours lead to late-night porch drinks. It’s no wonder 18,000 guests flock to Highlands, NC, each summer season. Vacationing in Highlands is like visiting an old friend – you pick up right where you left off. Before summer’s over, pack your bags and hit the road for a mountain retreat like no other — here’s how to spend a weekend in Highlands, NC!
Climb various mountains to reach Highlands’ plateau. Once in town check-in at Half-Mile Farm, an 18-and-over Old Edwards property near Mirror Lake. The renovated farmhouse-turned-27-room inn — complete with eight cabins — will inspire you from the moment you turn down the pea gravel drive. Putt-worthy grass greets you as you twist past the inn’s edible garden on your right and a private lake on the left. Park just past the porte-cochère and take a moment to breathe in the serenity and crisp mountain air before receiving your complimentary glass of welcome champagne sweetened ever so slightly by a special simple syrup. In our case, we were delighted by a refreshing concoction made with local plums.
While at registration, pick-up a chef-selected picnic basket filled with treats to enjoy while you wait for your room to become available. Picnics must be requested 24 hours in advance, but a quick call into the front desk will ensure your arrival is met with snacks and treats, like charcuterie or sandwiches. Find a place on the lawn for your picnic, or follow the path towards the pool and Garden House. There, you’ll find several tables tucked near towering azalea bushes and shaded by local grapevines.
Post picnic, get your bearings and the lay of Half-Mile Farm. Cell service is rightfully spotty throughout the property. Don’t panic. Emails can wait until Monday. Instead, take this moment to feel your shoulders release and your body relax. This is the mountain getaway you’ve been waiting for.
On a warm day, make your way to the sun-drenched pool. Change in the nearby Garden House, a detached beautifully appointed building complete with plush furniture, rich textures and plenty of sunlight. If sunbathing isn’t your style, you can also choose from a variety of games or books to enjoy.
Once your room is ready (ask for a historic deluxe king for ultimate farmhouse character), get evening-ready and head to the main dining room or verandah for light bites and live music. Complimentary hors d’oeuvres are served each evening and include a range of inspired treats such as oysters on the half shell, charcuterie, pickled ramps and various dips. Grab a drink from J. Henry Tavern just inside the main house before snagging a lake-view rocking chair on the porch. Cocktails are prohibition-inspired and unique, but there is a variety of wine and beer available as well. After sufficiently enjoying happy hour, catch the shuttle to town for dinner at Madison’s at Old Edwards Inn.
Madison’s is one of the most well-respected restaurants in town. With a farm to table menu featuring locally sourced ingredients, chefs craft timeless favorites beside innovative newcomers. One of the tried-and-true items is the pimento cheese served alongside crisp and spicy buttermilk crackers. The Southern staple is the precursor for what’s to come. The rest of the menu features interesting selections such as crispy leg of duck confit, local lamb merguez fettucini and 48+-hour braised bone-in Carolina buffalo short rib. Yes, there are buffalo in the Carolinas!
SB TIP: Inquire about the featured crème brûlée or soufflé of the day before deciding on the rest of your courses so you’re sure to leave room for dessert.
The last shuttle heads back to Half-Mile Farm at 10 p.m., but if you have time, there’s nothing like drinks at the Hummingbird Lounge on the second floor of Old Edwards Inn. The wood-paneled bar is often brimming with guests and locals alike. Find a spot to sip well-made cocktails and listen as talented artists serenade imbibers with throwback tunes.
Perhaps the best feature at Half-Mile Farm is the daily complimentary breakfast. Each morning, earlier risers are greeted with coffee in the main house beginning at 7 a.m., and breakfast begins in the dining room at 8 a.m. Find the hand-written chalkboard menu just outside the dining room doors. The menu changes daily but always features a breakfast starter and an entree. Starters during our getaway included a bacon, potato and cheddar souffle and a mango clafoutis, a French specialty prepared in a buttered dish, topped with a fluffy batter and sprinkled with confectioners sugar. The entrees were even more impressive. Saturday, we were treated to open-face soft-shell crab BLTs finished with sunny-side-up eggs, while Sunday brought delectable blueberry bread pudding with sausage links. Needless to say, breakfast at Half-Mile Farm is a must before exploring.
After breakfast, make the 2.1-mile drive to town to start your day with local perusing. There are ample shops of various types to browse, but my personal favorites include Oakleaf, a garden shop with outposts in both Atlanta and Asheville, as well as C K Swan, a gift and interiors store at the corner of North 4th and Pine streets. Plan to dip into Appalachian Harvest, too. The locally owned and operated condiment store sells everything from jams to pie fillings.
Once you’ve had your fill of retail, it’s time to head to the Spa at Old Edwards for some rest and relaxation. Trust me, an early arrival will do the body good. In fact, I’d encourage you to spend as much time as possible at the spa. It’s an oasis and a quiet escape from the bustling town below.
Slip into your robe and enjoy the surrounding amenities. Once your treatment is complete, sit by one of the spa’s many fires or melt into one of their oversized chaises. Lunch at the spa is another must-do activity. The spa cafe feels like a luminous greenhouse. While there are many light bite options on the menu, the crowd favorite is Madison’s dried cherry chicken salad. Order it on a freshly baked croissant or accompanying a garden salad. Robes and slippers are the only required attire, so don’t worry about changing before dining!
If a trip to the spa isn’t a part of your itinerary, there are plenty of area activities and restaurants to fill your afternoon. Golfers can play at Old Edwards Club, hikers can clamber to Sunset Rock, and Instagrammers can snap photos of Dry Creek Falls. Should you find yourself in town for lunch, I cannot say enough about the delicious fare found at Wild Thyme Gourmet. Upscale sandwiches and salads are set amid a comforting, friendly atmosphere.
Later, as you head back towards Half-Mile Farm, stop at The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts. Enter through the refurbished covered bridge to find several wooden structures in front of you. To the left is the ceramic studio where local ceramicists hone their craft, peddle their goods and teach aspiring creatives. Straight ahead is the main gallery. Admission to this local art appreciation headquarters is free, but donations are always welcome. Once inside, feast your eyes on local creations as well as rotating exhibits. Currently, the upstairs gallery showcases photographer George Masa’s iconic images of notable Highlands landmarks along with his astonishing story. If you miss the exhibit, you can view the entire restored collection at the Highlands Historical Society.
For dinner tonight, there are a few options. Hang near Half-Mile Farm and enjoy a casual meal at J. Henry Tavern, or hop on the shuttle back to town to experience more of the local cuisine. Should you be on top of your reservation game, snag a table at Ristorante Paoletti. The Italian eatery is a Highlands hotspot. With only 18 tables, reservations are required, but if you’re willing to take a risk, the bar is first come, first serve. For a starter, try the beef carpaccio. It’s sliced razor thin and completed with peppery arugula and snappy Parmesan. Follow that with a pasta course such as veal cannelloni. Finally, turn to the nightly specials, which will inevitably feature flown-in catch or prime meats. Skip dessert in favor of a complimentary cookie back at Half-Mile Farm. Varieties include snickerdoodle, white chocolate macadamia nut and classic chocolate chip.
With Highlands’ easily accessible location, there’s no need to pack up early. Instead, enjoy another leisurely gourmet breakfast on the property. It will be exactly the fuel you need to carry you through one last Highlands-area adventure: a local hike.
Area hikes allow you to experience all the splendor of Highlands and the surrounding Nantahala National Forest. When you’re ready to turn your car home, pack your bags and head down Highway 106 towards Dillard. Look for signs for Glen Falls on your left and follow the road to the parking area. There, select your trail and begin your journey. The falls have several tumbling cascades for hikers and make for breathtaking photos. While the walk down is relatively simple, keep in mind what goes down must come up, so save some energy for your return! Before getting back into your car, take one final deep, cleansing mountain breath. Don’t worry – I’m sure you’ll return to Highlands soon, picking-up as though no time has passed at all.
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