Highlands, N.C. -- There may be better ways to pass an autumn afternoon than rocking on the front porch of the Inn at Half-Mile Farm, but you'd be hard pressed to convince Jack Henry.
The proprietor of this 1870 farmhouse turned upscale bed-and-breakfast inn, the gregarious Henry often joins his guests on the veranda overlooking placid Apple Lake and sun-dappled woods -- especially during the late afternoon when wine and hors d'oeuvres are set out in the living room and beer chills in a tub on the porch.
Although the inn has been open only two years, Jack and his wife, Beth, who live in a cottage on the property, are so at home you'd think they'd been living here forever.
The Henrys have managed to strike just the right balance of luxury and kick-off-your-shoes casualness for their 14-acre retreat just outside the mountain village that's long been a popular destination for Atlantans.
"We cannot stand stuffy places," says Henry, an Atlantan who moved around frequently in his former job as an executive for a health care company. "I have this exactly how I would want it."
After two decades of "living where we didn't want to live," Henry says they decided to become innkeepers.
They traveled around the country -- from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to the California coast -- looking at potential properties before falling in love in 1999 with an old house hidden down a winding dirt road. Acres and acres of fields, ponds and streams and abundant native wildlife including black bears, cougar, red fox and lots of bunnies sealed the deal.
"It's two hours from Atlanta, which is home for us," says Henry. "Highlands had all the right demographics. All we have to do is be the best in town."
During two years of construction, the Henrys renovated the original house (which has four guest rooms) and added 11 rooms in a two-story, L-shaped wing that features a courtyard with a burbling fountain.
No two rooms are alike. Ten have stone fireplaces; some have private decks. Beth directed the interior design of the rooms, each of which features handcrafted furniture and antiques and is decorated in neutral tones with accents of nature-based hues of red, blue or green. Jetted tubs make some of the rooms especially appealing for romantic getaways.
Yet there's plenty to draw guests into the great outdoors. Two ponds are stocked with fish -- and fishing gear and tackle are provided. Canoes are available for a paddle around the 6-acre lake. And there's an outdoor swimming pool overlooking a meadow where blueberries ripen in the summer.
A masseuse is on call for in-room massages by appointment. Or the staff can arrange a golf outing or an adventure such as white-water rafting, mountain biking or a wilderness safari.
The inn is a make-yourself-at-home place where guests can raid the "convenience center" for complimentary soft drinks, bottled water and snacks any time. Staff members like always-smiling hostess Linda Yinger are on hand to make sure you have what you need.
"I feel at home here," says Wendy Danielson of Sewell's Point, Fla., who has stayed at the inn more than 30 times with her husband, Scott, as they've looked for a second home. "Everyone is friendly -- the guests, the staff. Nobody is a stranger here."
In fact, they're half tempted just to move in permanently at the inn.
"It's rare to get a better night's sleep away from home, but you do here," says Scott. "The atmosphere is very relaxing. My favorite thing is to read a book on the porch."
Nobody has any complaints about breakfast, either -- except that it's so filling you can't move for hours.
One of guests' favorites is blueberry bread pudding with fresh peaches and fresh whipped cream served with slices of apple sausage ring made by chef Rene Ramsdell.
Wendy and Brent Farrington of Bainbridge were enjoying a vacation within a vacation.
While their children stayed with grandparents at Turnstone Cabins in Otto, N.C., the couple slipped away for a quiet evening together.
They loved their room in the main lodge with its pencil post bed, wicker chairs, wide-plank pine floors and private balcony where they dined on wine and cheese rather than leave the inn for a restaurant.
"It has kind of an English manor feel," says Wendy. "It's so quiet here. No road traffic. No nothing. We were surprised to be so close to Highlands and be in an area that's so secluded."
And then there's Jack Henry.
"We stay at B&Bs maybe two times a year," says Brent, "and of all the owners we've met, Jack is one of the more engaging. That, to me, adds something. Just in the short time we're here, we've been made to feel welcome."
Henry calls it the "Scoot factor." Scoot is a friendly golden-haired mutt that the Henrys rescued on Main Street about three years ago when he was a stray pup.
"He was in such poor shape, he could only get around by scooting along," says Henry.
After a few good meals and a lot of care, the once-homeless dog is completely rejuvenated.
These days, you'll find Scoot contentedly at home at the inn -- lying on the welcome mat, eager to greet the next world-weary travelers. Map: Locator map of western North Carolina pinpoints the location of Highlands, N.C.; inset map of central Atlantic states pinpoints the Area of detail./ DALE E. DODSON / Staff
From downtown Atlanta, travel north on I-85 to U.S. 441. Just north of Dillard, take N.C. 106 to Highlands. From the intersection of N.C. 106 and N.C. 64 (Main Street), turn left on N.C. 64 west toward Franklin, N.C. Go less than one mile and turn right on Mirror Lake Road. Cross a small bridge and bear right on Hicks Road. Go a half-mile and turn right on Half-Mile Drive at the inn sign.
$160-$285 per room per night, including a full, hot breakfast and early evening hors d'oeuvres and wine. The Fall Surprise package is available nonholidays in November and December. Book a two-night Sunday-Thursday reservation at regular rates and get a third night free or one of the following: up to a $100 credit at any Highlands restaurant; 18 holes of golf at Highlands Cove, plus greens and cart fees; or a dozen roses, bottle of champagne and chocolate covered strawberries upon arrival.
Southeast Expeditions: White-water rafting on the Chattooga and Ocoee rivers through November. Full day, half day and overnight trips. 1-800-868-7238, www.southeasternexpeditions.com.
Adventure Depot: Mountain bike tours and rentals, canoe and kayak adventures, hiking trips, llama trekking, rock climbing and rappelling. On Yellow Mountain Road, Cullowhee (4 miles off U.S. 64, 10 miles from Highlands and about 8 miles from Cashiers). 1-800-903-4401, www.adventuredepot.net.
Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution