Road Trip: Highlands, NC

We made the 723 mile trek from Florida's coastline to North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains.

Urbanites have long found respite from the summer heat in Highlands, a charming town located in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains and sought out for its cool temperatures, unaltered beauty, and unlimited outdoor pursuits. In recent years, a posh resort and concentration of high-brow restaurants have gained national notoriety, earning Highlands a reputation as the ultimate refined yet rustic getaway. 

Stay

Highlands’ foremost accommodations are intertwined in the town’s history. Part of what now stands as the Old Edwards Inn & Spa, a Relais & Châteaux property, was once Central House, Highlands’ first boarding house circa 1878. As summer guests continued to flock, the hotel changed hands and underwent a few expansions until Palm Beachers Art and Angela Williams took ownership in the early aughts and invested in its restoration. Today, Old Edwards’ Historic Inn matches the feeling of a cozy mountain lodge with old-world sophistication. Oriental rugs and antiques from Angela’s travels outfit the suites, many of which boast fireplaces for curling up next to on a brisk night. The resort also encompasses multi-bedroom cottages ideal for families and estate rentals like the Rockwood Lodge manse with scenic surrounds. Those seeking a truly remote retreat should stay at the affiliated Half-Mile Farm, a renovated 1880s farmhouse on 14 idyllic acres just outside the center of town. 

See + Do

Enjoy a walk underneath Dry Falls

Elevated at 4,118 feet above sea level, Highlands’ unique ecosystem is home to a temperate rainforest filled with flora and fauna best observed on its many hiking trails. First, discover a bird’s-eye view of town and share a golden-hour picnic atop Sunset Rock, an easy half-mile hike starting across from the Highlands Nature Center. Next, prepare for a more challenging 2-mile loop up Whiteside Mountain, thought to be one of the oldest in the world with granite dating back more than 390 million years. After pursuing peaks, chase waterfalls—Highlands is brimming with them—including Bridal Veil Falls, visible from U.S. Route 64, and Dry Falls, nestled another mile or so down the road. 

Those who prefer admiring nature at a distance can play a round of golf at the Old Edwards Club, an impeccable course with vistas of faded blue peaks. Naturally, these rigorous activities should be matched with relaxation in equal measure. Plan a day at the resort’s renowned spa and luxuriate with a customized Biologique Recherche facial and a restoring dip in the mineral pool. Then, reinvigorate the mind at The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts, home to ceramics workshops, impressive exhibits featuring regional artists, and a walking trail with large-scale sculpture installations.

Eat

Experience wine dinners at Madison’s as well as its Sunburst trout and signature Caesar salad

Though small, Highlands possesses a mighty food scene with six of its establishments bearing Wine Spectator awards. Guests at the Old Edwards will find one of the best seats in town right under their nose at Madison’s, where chef Chris Huerta cooks with ingredients plucked from the resort’s own 5-acre farm. Go for one of his Southern plates with finesse, like the cast iron–roasted pork chop with cornmeal-dusted okra, squash relish, and a peach-infused pork jus. And look out for the Old Edwards’ new restaurant next door, 465, to be completed this summer.

Outside of the resort’s umbrella, grab breakfast with the locals at homey Buck’s Coffee Café or a next-level sandwich at Mountain Fresh Grocery, both mandatory fueling spots for hungry hikers. For adventures of the craft beer variety, visit Satulah Mountain Brewing Company to sample area ales. Wind down for the evening at Wild Thyme Gourmet , an intimate eatery situated on a quaint courtyard that serves classics with subtle Asian flair, or keep it casual at The Ugly Dog Public House, a community watering hole with live music and superb bar bites. 

Don’t Miss

This town loves to eat, and the Old Edwards Inn caters to resident and visiting gourmands by hosting monthly wine dinners with vintages from Laurent-Perrier and Whispering Angel paired with courses from James Beard–caliber chefs. The culinary events hit a high note during the annual Highlands Food & Wine Festival, happening November 7-10, where the weekend lineup runs the gamut from food truck rallies to a Southern gospel brunch.

Shop

When in Highlands, you’ll need to dress as the Highlanders do. Fortunately, there are plenty of charming shops throughout the town center. Pick up high-end outdoor gear at Highland Hiker, select a cashmere wrap for chilly evenings from the rainbow knits at McCulley’s Cashmere, or catch redecorating fever from the boho-cabin aesthetic at Bardo.

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