Nantucket in the Mountains

Highlands, North Carolina, offers a place to "renew your soul."

Cynthia Strain

Highlands, North Carolina, has often been described as a kind of “Nantucket in the Mountains.” You may wonder just what these two popular vacation destinations have in common, other than the fact that they are both unique and let’s face it, upscale, American treasures. Read on.Nantucket is off the coast of Massachusetts, a small town on an island of the same name, some 30 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Cod. Highlands is situated at an elevation of over 4,000 feet above sea level high in the southern Appalachian Mountains, well within the Nantahala National Forest. Both towns are “intentional” destinations, which means you don’t really pass through them en route to somewhere else.

Despite their relative remoteness, both Nantucket Town and Highlands have long histories as “cool” spots to escape summer’s heat and each has managed to retain its historic, small-town charm. Picture-perfect main streets feature lampposts with flowers and flags waving in the breeze and a multitude of art galleries and other specialized shops to entice visitors. With mountains and rivers (Highlands) and the ocean and beaches (Nantucket), both places are well-established centers for outdoor sports. And once the summer crowds have thinned, each is an ideal getaway for enjoying crisp autumnal temperatures and a plethora of fall arts and crafts festivals.

As the story goes, Highlands, North Carolina, was established in 1875 by two enterprising developers from Kansas — Samuel Truman Kelsey and Clinton Carter Hutchinson. They came up with the bright idea of drawing lines from New York to New Orleans and between Savannah and Chicago and establishing a town where they crossed. They dreamed of making that dot on the map — now Highlands — a major commercial crossroads and population center.

As it turned out, the mountains provided a mighty tall obstacle to realizing this dream; instead “their” town evolved into a beloved health and summer resort for Southerners escaping the sweltering summer heat. Over the years generations of young boys and girls from places like Memphis have spent their summers in camps in the general area — Green Cove, Camp Carolina, Mondamin, and Merrie-Woode — returning home with a lifelong devotion to these mountains imprinted on their souls.

Today Highlands has a polished rustic feel to it. Several hotels are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and, in addition, there are campgrounds, lodges, and bed-and-breakfasts aplenty.

Whitewater rafting and fly-fishing are available on countless rivers and streams, including the upper Chattooga River, Cullasaja River, and many others. This is waterfall country, with some of the most famous being the breathtaking Bridal Veil Falls and Dry Falls, both cascading not far out of town.

And would you believe that 200 springs are within the city limits? One fellow told us a great story about how to tell if the water in a spring is drinkable. Salamanders, called spring lizards, must live in pure water, so if you have these little creatures, your water is good to go!

Highlands lies within a temperate rain forest, meaning the town receives up to 120 inches of rainfall a year. It often rains for a few minutes, and then the clouds give way to bright sunshine, contributing to the spectacular plant life all around. Rhododendrons, flame azaleas, and mountain laurels in particular provide brilliant displays of color in their lush surroundings. The Highlands Nature Center is a great place to learn about the natural history of the region. And birders, take note: 160 species of birds breed and migrate through this unique ecosystem, now designated a birding sanctuary by the Audubon Society.

It’s no wonder that with all the mountain trails in the vicinity, hiking is an especially popular pastime around Highlands.

The Highlands Plateau Greenway is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to develop a system of walking and hiking trails that protect and connect the natural settings and historic sites of the Highlands area. The town has also been a golfing mecca since the 1930s, when the great Bobby Jones of Atlanta and some of his well-heeled golfing buddies founded the Highlands Country Club. Today that club is one of seven successful residential country club communities, with many other golf courses in the area.

Gem mining is popular in the Highlands area, and according to the guidebooks, more different types of gemstones are found here than anywhere else in the United States. Visitors can go to the local mines themselves and hope for a “find” or, instead, shop for a “sure thing” at the Highlands Gem Shop, a local landmark since 1952.

Earlier this summer, my husband and I drove to Highlands for the wedding of a Memphis couple, Alison Simmons and Oliver Boyd. Many friends and family members made the trek from Memphis and points beyond, while a number of other Memphians with vacation homes in Highlands were already on the scene to entertain visitors royally. Any way you slice it, Highlands is a full day’s drive from Memphis — roughly eight to ten hours depending on the route and the stops one chooses to make. You can pass through Chattanooga and then follow Highway 64 eastwards along the Ocoee River Valley, or travel via Atlanta and then head north for two-and-a-half hours on faster roads.

For the wedding, we stayed in the 127-year-old Highlands Inn on Main Street, a very friendly place offering a delicious breakfast included in the room rate.

The Highlands Inn is on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the exclusive Old Edwards Inn across the street, which has an award-winning spa attached. Should you wish to get away from it all, however, and rough it a bit, many campsites are located in the area, both “improved” and “primitive.”

Our hotel room fronted on a porch that looked over the pedestrian-friendly and old-timey street scene below. Cars were parked down the center of the road, flanked by sidewalks made of brick, and church bells rang out with such melodies as “Amazing Grace” and the Shaker tune, “Simple Gifts.” The town’s beautiful Main Street churches include the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, where this particular wedding took place, and, on the opposite corner, the First Presbyterian Church, whose pastor, Reverend Dr. Lee Bowman, was born and raised in Memphis.

Many of our Memphis friends with homes in the Highlands first came to enjoy the cooler summers. Now, in many cases, they are spending increasingly larger chunks of time there.

The Memphis contingent with whom we visited included Sam and Barbara Gassaway, Willis and Vance Willey, Malcolm and Ann McRae, John Canale, Ed and Katie Eleazer, Edwin and Julia Hussey, and Bill and Julia Grumbles. According to Jason Macaulay, the Highlands Falls Country Club’s popular manager (and a former Memphian himself), some 25 Memphis families have homes in the immediate vicinity. Jason and his wife, Roder, have themselves called Highlands home for five years; Roder, in fact, continues her affiliation with Memphis’ Regency Travel.

Needless to say, my husband and I found ourselves right at home at so many of the beautiful and distinctive residences we visited. As Paul McCartney might say, we “got by with a little help from our friends,” and gleaned lots of useful inside information from everyone. As one example, Ann McRae recommended “Nest,” located in a charming old building at 802 North 4th Street, as a great source for gifts and antiques.

We also stopped by Mirror Lake Antiques, one of the oldest such shops in town, as well as Acorn’s Boutique. Oakleaf Flower and Garden Shop came highly recommended by locals for flowers, garden ornaments, and antiques.

And everyone agreed that one of the newest, hippest watering holes in town is the Ugly Dog Public House; naturally, my husband and I tried it out posthaste. We chatted with the charming Kay Craig, who owns the Public House along with her husband, Thomas. Kay hails from Jackson, Mississippi, and had a big hand in decorating the place with its bold colors and handsome bar and red bar stools. In addition to tasty food and selected beers on tap, patrons can often enjoy live music. We also dined at highly praised Wolfgang’s Restaurant and Wine Bistro, which was adjacent to our hotel, as well as Madison’s Restaurant and Wine Garden in The Old Edwards Inn.

Oh, and by the way, Barbara Gassaway told us to “beware of bears” and — shades of Goldilocks — thoughtfully provided me with a photo of a bear neighbor who came calling on her porch.

Highlands is a community well-known for its rich cultural life, and many artists, musicians, actors, authors, and photographers make their home here. Memphis’ own Willis Willey is chairman of the board of directors of The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts. Coincidentally, we had not been in town more than a few minutes when we ran into Willis chairing a meeting with some of his Bascom colleagues. He later enthusiastically briefed us on some of the exciting events being held at the Bascom, including an exhibit by Frank Stella, the American painter, printmaker, and sculptor, showing through September 25th.

We took his advice, and the next day we visited the Bascom’s six-building, six-acre campus and were mightily impressed. This nonprofit arts center features historic buildings, a covered bridge, and nature trails as well as a constantly rotating program of art exhibitions and educational opportunities.

A highlight of the fall season in Highlands will be the Fifth Annual Culinary weekend, held November 10-13. It is being called “every foodies’ dream amidst the splendor of fall in Highlands.” (For the latest information on participating restaurants and wineries, check out The Chamber of Commerce website is also a great resource:

Photographer Cynthia Strain, whose work is featured on pages 44-45, sums up what Highlands means to visitors and residents alike: “This wonderful place affords the chance to connect with nature and renew your soul.” That helps explain why Highlands is often called the crown jewel of the Blue Ridge. Both literally and figuratively, it is a place that is truly “above it all.” 


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