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Beat the Summer Heat by Seeking Altitude in North Carolina

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Beat the Summer Heat by Seeking Altitude in North Carolina
Escape this summer's heat in the North Carolina Mountains. Photo courtesy of the Old Edwards Inn.

Old Edwards Inn and Spa

Southerners have been summering in the mountains for generations. My husband’s late grandfather, attorney Ben Scott Whaley, cursed the day they installed air conditioning in Charleston’s courthouse because that meant he had to make court appearances in August. That simply wouldn’t do. August was mountain time.

When the late-summer air feels like bath water and we’re all eyeballing the coast for hurricanes, many of us pack our bags and seek higher climbs. Winding, undulating two-lane roads in western North Carolina take us up. The dark forest flies by, its floor intensely shaded by rhododendron and lush ferns, its canopy dappled with sunlight. A cloud bank envelopes us. We open our windows to the refreshing mist. This is the Nantahala Forest, land of waterfalls.

At an elevation of 4,118 feet, Highlands, North Carolina, is the highest town east of the Mississippi. Its founders in 1875 drew a giant X on a map to designate eastern trade routes—Chicago to Savannah, New York to New Orleans—then incorporated a town at the junction of that X. They were sure Highlands would become a center of commerce. Instead, it became a prime vacation destination. The town now thrives with unique shops as well as cool eateries like Mountain Fresh Grocery, which roasts its own coffee beans, and the wildly popular The Ugly Dog Public House.

5/12/09 Highlands, NC Woodruff Property, Highlands, NC (disclaimer: 3 images stitched together, blue sky added) Photograph by Michael A. Schwarz
Cool Mountain Panorama. Old Edwards Inn and Spa.

In the heart of town sits the European-style Old Edwards Inn and Spa, an expansive resort comprised of a historic inn, private cottages, a stately lodge, multiple pools, croquet lawn, the finest spa I have ever seen, and top-notch restaurants, cafes, and shops, all spanning three city blocks. And that’s not including its off-site properties: the farm, the club, and a golf course whose tenth hole offers a view of three states.

Owners Art and Angela Williams earned their fortune in the insurance business and spared no expense in the renovation, design, and development of Old Edwards. Mrs. Williams travels extensively, personally selecting European antiques, hand-woven oriental rugs, and custom fabrics that give each room a distinct character. Bathrooms are equipped with Italian tile floors, marble vanities, and sunken tubs. The ladies’ sauna area appears to be styled after the elegant bath houses of Pompeii.

MadisonsPuree Soup of Butternut Squash, Foie Gras Custard Madisons Interiors
Madison's Restaurant. Photo courtesy of Old Edward's Inn.

The property boasts multiple bars, darkly paneled hideaways, and a mind-blowingly good restaurant called Madison’s with an outdoor Wine Garden. Their craft cocktails are fresh and inventive (try the elderflower rosemary martini). My husband’s beef tenderloin was the best he’d ever tasted, and I must get the recipe for its accompanying mushroom marsala jus. I indulged in a spinach herb pappardelle pasta dish with duck confit, field peas, and wild mushrooms. It’s a shame I didn’t have room to try the pecan-crusted quail schnitzel (a signature of the German chef), but that’s just one of many reasons to return to the mountains soon.

High Hampton Inn

Photo courtesy of High Hampton
Photo courtesy of High Hampton Inn

Just ten miles from Highlands, past a breathtaking view of Whiteside Mountain, is Cashiers, where High Hampton Inn has been hosting vacationers for generations. On our arrival, we ran into the Charleston Hagoods (parents of acclaimed Lowcountry barbecue ambassador Jimmy Hagood) who have been vacationing here for forty years.

The 1,400-acre property is stunningly situated on a private mountain lake with the rock face of a mountain as its backdrop. Rooms are rustic but elegant, the beds crafted with rough-hewn timbers, the walls made of wide-plank chestnut or poplar. Not all of the rooms have air-conditioning, but given the cool night air at this altitude, an open window is really all you need. Our room backed up to a waterfall overflowing from recent rains, the perfect mountain lullaby.

Photo Courtesy of High Hampton Inn
Photo courtesy of High Hampton Inn

In a world where most adults thumb their iPhones and kids zone out to video games, High Hampton asks that you step away from all that. Take a hike up the mountain and see what’s blooming along the way. Plunge into the cold mountain lake or grab a canoe, kayak, paddleboard, or paddleboat. Admire the property’s well-marked ancient trees, including the world’s largest Fraser fir. Play a game of ring toss on the lawn or ping-pong on the wide side porch of the historic inn. Kick back in a tall red rocking chair and watch the children being pulled around in a donkey cart. Follow a secluded pathway and claim a hidden gazebo as your own private reading nook. Then listen for the dinner bell.

Dinner is coat and tie in the grand dining room, a dress code that might seem odd given the unpretentiousness of the cuisine itself (more comfort food than haute cuisine, served buffet-style), but it’s all about tradition and respect for mealtime. The sea of white linen tables comes alive with chattering families, many of them multi-generational. Our table fronted an open window with a gentle breeze and stunning view of the lake and mountain beyond. The food was plentiful—Virginia ham, beer-battered trout, peel-and-eat shrimp, flank steak, a plethora of Southern classics, and a dessert spread that would make anyone’s eyes pop with glee. Every August and September the resort hosts special dinners in the dahlia gardens (another reason to come back!).

Photo courtesy of High Hampton
Plan for outdoor dining in the late summer month in the Dahlia Gardens. Photo courtesy of High Hampton Inn.

After dinner, guests migrate to the columned main lobby where some play BINGO, others chess, others relax by fireplaces. Children race their wooden horses across a life-sized checkerboard. I felt like I had stepped back to a time before electronics commanded so much of our attention—a time when we actually talked to each other and turned strangers into friends. High Hampton knows what it’s doing. We all parted ways, but with an implicit understanding: “Same time next year.”

First published Aug.Sept 2013