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N.C. mountain town blends rustic charm, rich history

By Ben Brown
Southern Accents

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Entering Highlands from the north via Cullasaja Gorge Road, visitors see Lake Sequoyah.

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(Southern Accentsexternal link) -- Since this North Carolina town arranges itself on a ridge 4,000 feet above sea level, the "high" in Highlands is entirely justified.

Yet it has taken more than altitude to uphold this town's reputation as a favorite summer refuge for more than a century. It's the related gift of remoteness that's key. Getting to Highlands requires intent. You don't pass through on the way to somewhere else.

On approach

You go slowly. You pay attention to the road as it narrows and winds upward. The air feels cooler. The light changes. And when prudence allows, you take in the views: the pastures, the pines and towering tulip poplars of the Nantahala National Forest, the dramatic drop-off into the Cullasaja River Gorge. Lake Sequoyah was created in 1927 by damming the Cullasaja, and its tree-lined shores and vintage cottages suggest the Adirondacks.

The history

Its remote location has protected Highlands since it was founded in 1875 by a couple of Kansas developers who "took a map in hand and drew a line from New York to New Orleans," writes local historian Ran Shaffner in "Heart of the Blue Ridge: Highlands, North Carolina."

"Then they passed another line between Chicago and Savannah. These lines, they predicted, would be the great trade routes of the future, and where they crossed would someday be a great population center."

The idea of hauling goods up and down the highest mountains in the eastern United States to get them from New York to New Orleans never took off. But a landscape that hindered ordinary commerce in the 19th century uniquely qualified Highlands for the business it's been in ever since. By 1931, according to Shaffner's research, Highlands' year-round population of 500 swelled to as many as 3,000 in the summer.

The historic Highlands Inn, where generations have rocked afternoons away on the Main Street porch, was built in 1880 and is one of several Highlands structures on the National Register of Historic Places. The 19th-century Episcopal Chapel nearby and the old cottage neighborhoods bear witness to the town's rich history.

Some locals and longtime seasonal visitors worry that Highlands' increasing popularity will threaten the character of a place with traditions tuned to the rhythms of summers in residence. However, the town's core attractions, walking on footpaths bordered by mountain laurel and lounging on a Main Street bench with an ice cream cone, are like the drive up the mountain. They are too connected to the place itself to be replaced by imported experiences.

To explore

Start off with the basics. At the Highland Hiker, a popular outdoor-gear shop, pick up a map or guide about local hiking trails and take to the woods. Almost half of Macon County, where Highlands is one of two incorporated mountain towns, is in the Nantahala National Forest.

Visit the Highlands Nature Center on Horse Cove Road, for a briefing on the plants and animals that make the plateau unique. Then make the pilgrimage to Sunset Rock, just outside of town, for a taste of the mountaintop perspective.

The people

Now you should sense the place's hold on return visitors -- on particular kinds of visitors, who constitute the second secret of the town's success over time. Since its beginnings, the people most attracted to the area and most likely to invest in summer homes and businesses have been the intellectually curious and committed types -- and, not incidentally, those with the means to retreat to the mountains for the season. They are customers interested in fine food and wine, art, antiques and books.

"It's the cosmopolitan nature of Highlands," says Shaffner. He bet on that sophistication when he founded an independent bookstore, Cyrano's Bookshop, 28 years ago, despite bankers warning him that only a bookstore selling vacation fiction and tourist guides could survive in such a small town.

Main Street

You can sense the diversity of visitors' origins and perspectives in casual conversations around town, from Buck's Coffee Cafe to the take-out counter at Mountain Fresh Fine Foods (where whole apple pies disappear almost instantly).

You can hear the surprise in the voices of first-timers when they recognize established international artists' work at Ann Jacob Gallery. And you may find yourself jumping into conversations at favorite restaurants such as On the Verandah or Wolfgang's Restaurant & Wine Bistro. This summer, to take advantage of the after-shopping crowd and the desire for relaxed gatherings with friends, Wolfgang's will open its Bistro at 3 p.m. to serve wine and a special menu ("from caviar to collard greens," says chef Wolfgang Green).

Many visitors are still brought to Highlands by friends with summer homes. But a feel for the classic mountain resort is available in town at such places as the Highlands Inn or just outside of town at the Inn at Half Mile Farm.

For most whose lives have grown hectic in the urban lowlands, a whole summer in the South's favorite mountain town may be out of the question. But a few days in Highlands can work wonders, from the moment you turn off the main highway and start gaining altitude.


Copyright 2006 SOUTHERN ACCENTS Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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