The Highs of Highlands: The heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains

2602-30After dawn broke, there was a mesmerizing violet haze that floated over the Blue Ridge Mountains from the southern crest of the Appalachians. My first glimpse of this violet vision confirmed the dreamy beauty of the North Carolina I had heard so much about.

One feels different when riding up these astoundingly beautiful, scenic mountains, weaving in and out of several state lines that cross over the Eastern Continental Divide. With the misty morning glowing yellow and gold, I sped up the curving ascent, feeling giddy and light-headed as though a spell was being cast on all who ventured here. Later, I would be told that it is the lack of oxygen that thins your blood and creates this naturally blissful state for visitors who are not yet use to the altitude. And yet, I believe it is the sheer wonderment of the place that makes one feel so peacefully elated.

As an ardent lover of seaside resorts, I had listened with casual interest as acquaintances raved about the multifaceted beauties of North Carolina. Hearing the sound of the ocean roaring along a seashore was always hard to beat in my book for vacation get-a-ways. However, when an invitation came to enjoy a fireside retreat in the Carolina Mountains, I packed my bags and hiking boots and decided to discover firsthand the enchantments of this great escape destination.

I was bound for Highlands, North Carolina, a mountainous jewel that sits on a ridge 4,000 feet above sea level on the southern plateau of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Perched upon one of the highest mountain ridges in the eastern United States, Highlands is a botanist’s dream, with treasure troves of rock-loving plants. In the midst of all this ethereal beauty, ravens and majestic eagles spread their wings. Short trails from this historic resort village to the summits of Whiteside and Satulah mountains offer remarkable views.

242424 Highlands was founded in 1875 by two Kansas City developers who, as the story goes, drew lines on a map from New Orleans to New York and then from Chicago to Savannah and marked an “X” in the center where the lines converged. Their plans for Highlands to become a center of trade for the South never materialized. However, it soon became a center for health and pleasure for affluent 19th-century vacationers.

Known as a happening mountain retreat where the very rich and famous gather during the high season (from March through November), Highlands is brimming with cosmopolitan panache. One can find awarded-winning restaurants, a thriving theatre community, international art exhibitions, antique dealers as well as an auction house, and world-class golfing at the famous Highlands Country Club founded by golfing legend Bobby Jones in the 1930s. The fascinating social scene of the village amidst buildings listed on the Historic Register is secondary to the magnificent vistas resplendent with nature trails and cascading waterfalls.

Wayside waterfalls with names like Bridal Veil and Silver Run sprout forth from massive boulders into rock studded streams, forcing frothing rapids along the curving roadsides. Endless forests running on the edges of cliffs cast mysterious shadows beneath the towering trees where wildlife flourishes. In the autumn, canopies of crimson and opalescent marigold leaves frame the roadways in a kaleidoscope of color. When the first snow falls there is a fairy tale shimmer to the landscape in this North Carolina wonderland.

The drive up the mountain on US 64 to Highlands from Franklin, North Carolina, is a riveting ride of sharp curves that follows the rushing rapids of the Cullasaja River Gorge through the granite gneiss mountain. However, the ride down the mountain on US 64 from Highlands is even more exciting with its steep decline and precarious turns. Choosing not to drive, I prefer to open and close my eyes, imagining a roller coaster ride as the imposing granite cliffs hover above the river, breaking boldly downward against the rocks. Zooming along the route, we stop only to run behind the seemingly mythical waterfalls raining down 120 feet from the cliffs at Bridal Veil Falls. We whip by Dry Falls, Bust Your Butt Falls, and slow down to enjoy the finale of Cullasaja Falls, where a series of blinding curves adds to the moment’s high. When we reach the bottom of the mountain I have to proclaim, “Please, let us do it again!”

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Popular with many Louisiana residents as a second home destination, it is not uncommon to run into someone you know while dining in one of the many world-class restaurants and cafés. On my first visit to the story-tale like “Alice in Wonderland” setting of Olives Cafe, I ran into Marda Burton and her entourage from New Orleans. Marda is an accomplished travel writer and has a home in the heart of the French Quarter where she is known for her colorful salon gatherings. Marda informed me that after Katrina, she bought a place in the Highlands because of its sheer beauty and its interesting and varied residents and visitors. Sitting next to us at a nearby table at the restaurant filled with well-heeled patrons was a ritzy older gentleman sporting dark sunglasses. He was dining with a wafer-thin starlet and her dolled-up dog. Recognizing him as a famous Hollywood director, I saw firsthand that Highlands was a hub for the elite café society.

The Old Edwards Inn and Spa sits like an exclusive English gentleman’s clubhouse in the center of the town. Awarded the Most Excellent Inn of 2008 in the USA and Canada, its granite façade houses five-star accommodations, a full-blown health club and spa, and the award-winning Madison’s Restaurant and Wine Garden. Although an impressive choice for a visit, my choice was the 19th-century Highlands Inn located across Main Street from the Edwards.

24242424 The elegant turn-of-the-century lobby of the Highlands Inn is appointed with fine antiques of the period and exudes a warm hospitable atmosphere. Two blazing fireplaces warm the soul in the old theatre room where afternoon tea or hot rum toddies can be enjoyed. The handsome Kelsey Place dining room extends off the lobby offering a classic southern setting where families gather around wooden dining tables for breakfast and lunch. I nestled in to enjoy the blue plate special of honey dipped fried chicken salad and the best serving of fried green tomatoes I have ever tasted. Reminiscent of the long ago scene in New Orleans’ famous Pontchartrain Hotel coffee shop, the service is very personable and the guests are obviously regulars here.

Listed in the Historic Register, the Highlands Inn has 31 graciously adorned rooms with suites offering views of the rock garden and rooftop terrace. The third floor rooms are reported to have ghosts, which have been sighted roaming the halls on numerous occasions.

Kicking back on the rocking chairs that line the long front porch of the Highlands Inn, I was able to reflect on the many beauties of this mountain retreat hideaway. Besides the numerous well-traveled trails to explore, there were so many other enticing distractions.

There was an interesting “Blues Folk Art” show opening at the Museum that night and three great plays to choose from. I had already discovered the independent bookstore, Cyrano’s Bookshop, where its collection rivaled some of the best bookstores on New York’s east side. I knew my afternoon would have to encompass a cup of coffee and piece of cherry pie at Buck’s Coffee Café where locals gathered weaving stories about the town.

Wolfgang’s restaurant and Wine Bistro rounded out my plans for dinner where I heard that the owner, a former chef of Commander’s Palace, was preparing New Orleans style Bar-B-Que shrimp with asiago grits and andouille-scented collard greens. Wolfgang’s on Main has been an annual award winner of the Wine Spectator and was also that evening hosting a wine event with the Summit One Gallery. Good wine and fine art would be celebrated in the restaurant’s cozy fireplace lounge.

A trip to the Highland Hiker was mandatory as I needed to get outfitted with the right gear to venture out onto the Yellow Mountain trail, which traversed over two peaks through a white oak forest filled with chestnuts and hayscented ferns. The hike ends with a panoramic view of the 5,127-foot mountain in all of its splendor.

At the end of a day, the absolute pilgrimage that must be made from Highlands is a walk to Sunset Rock. When the sun descends into the horizon at this mythical perch, the sky and the mountains seemingly melt into a sea of butter and honey. Here, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there are many highs in Highlands.

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