Just when you think the community of Highlands, N.C., has it all together, along comes something newer, better and bigger to make this mountain getaway more appealing. About 400 million years ago Mother Nature began shaping the Blue Ridge Mountains, but lately it's been man's turn. For at least a half century, the community has been evolving and enhancing itself to the delight of those seeking a break from the noisy frenetic pace in Atlanta.
Exciting new stores, boutiques and art galleries consistently open to much fanfare. The same goes for restaurants, four of which have garnered coveted highbrow awards such as those bestowed by Wine Spectator magazine. That's remarkable for a mountain community of that size and population.
Lodging follows the same pattern. New and old inns, lodges, and bed and breakfasts evolve, expand, and fine-tune themselves, each carving out their own identity and developing a loyal following.
Highlands continues to develop a mystique, an image and an attitude, all bound together with superlatives like"best dining," "breathtaking homes," "superb lodging," "the finest golf facilities," "exquisite art" and "classy cultural events," creating an unparalleled quality - for weekend visitors and part-time or year-round residents. Who knows, maybe we're seeing an "Aspen of the Southern Appalachians" evolving just two hours away from the suburbs of north Atlanta.
PLANNING PAYS OFF
The Inn at Half-Mile Farm on the edge of town fits perfectly into Highlands' mix. Althought it's only two years old, the Inn has quickly built an amazing following of regulars from Atlanta and beyond. In this short span, some guests have come back as many as 15 times!
A business of achievement such as this is not a fluke or simply the result of good luck. Take into consideration that owners Jack and Beth Henry were not experienced innkeepers, nor did they know a lot about Highlands (though they lived in Atlanta for a number of years). Jack was a sales and marketing executive in the healthcare equipment industry. For 20 years, he traveled extensively. Out of his experience, a plan to someday own and operate an upscale inn began to emerge.
The couple first looked at coastal areas from North Carolina to Florida. Eventually Jack set his sights on Highlands because of the visitors' high-end demographics. He found a piece of land spanning 14 acres complete with a farmhouse circa 1870 on the edge of town for sale. It's nestled among lovely, mature hemlock trees and overlooks a sparkling 6-acre lake. The property and its superb setting would become Jack's dream place.
Jack and Beth acquired the property in the fall of 1999 and Jack named the it the Inn at Half- Mile Farm because it's located a half-mile from town. The subsequent winter months were spent planning with architects, contractors, decorators and consultants. Then work began renovating and enhancing four existing rooms in the farmhouse. New kitchen equipment, sufficient to serve 30 or so guests, was installed. Finally, the old house was enlarged for a dining room and a large common area where guests could mingle in front of a massive stacked-stone fireplace.
Workers constructed two new structures with 11 guest rooms around a well-lanscaped courtyard. These are connected to the old farmhouse by walkways and flagstone patios.
The couple carefully conceived and honed their business plan over a period of years, but even with such extensive preparation, they hit a bump in the road- they opened just two months before the events of Sept. 11. Despite that, they've rallied well.
Guests enter the property by driving down a narrow lane and across a small creek. Follow the road, which is shielded by a heavy canopy of hardwood trees, around a bend into and open area dominated by the Inn sitting on a slight rise. A split-rail fence covered with lichens and flowers borders the roadway. The scene looks like something out of a Wyeth painting.
Warmth has special meaning at the Inn- there are a total of 13 working stacked-stone fireplaces. Ten are in the guest rooms for cozy romantic nights. Unfortunately, my visit was in late August, hardly the time for a fire, and the romance of my life was at home in East Cobb grading biology papers. (My dream is for my wife to come back with me for a snowy night this winter!)
Each room is individually and tastefully decorated. Even the down comforter in my room seemed to fit the romantic notion of an 1870s farm. The walls feature beadboard paneling used from that era. The comtemporary bathroom fixtures have a hint of rustic charm, and most units have the latest in jetted tubs.
Many of the rooms have private patios or decks. On my next visit, I want to stay in the old farmhouse with a view of the lawn and lake- a perfect setting for a perfect sunrise.
APPETITE FOR ACTIVITIES
Coffee and tea are available in the common area at 7:30 a.m. for early risers, and there's a satisfying breakfast for guests beginning at 8:30. I was second in line to get a cup of gourmet coffee and followed Kandace Leslie of Savannah out to the edge of the Apple Lake to sit and watch the sunrise peek through the mist and fog hovering over the water. Leslie was the perfect model, allowing me to photograph a tender moment as she sat curled up in an Adirondack chair sipping fresh coffee- like a scene from "On Golden Pond."
After breakfast, I joined Allen and Beulah Wilson of Owensboro, KY., at the lakeside dock. They sat for an hour soaking up the early morning light as I shot more photos. Allen's gift to Beulah for her 63rd birthday was this getaway to the Inn. They hadn't visited Highlands for 35 years, but they vowed to come back and head straight for the same lodgings.
Wine and hors d'ouevres are served every day at 5:30 p.m. The "welcome hour," as they call it, is a good time to mingle with guests while planning your foray to the delightful dining venues in the Highlands area. One couple went to Wolfgang's on Main. Another went to The Lakeside. Still another went to On The Verandah. I headed to Nick's at The Cove, which overlooks the majestic Highlands Cove Golf Club. Later during breakfast, we all compared notes about the previous night's dining. It didn't surprise me at all that each of us rated our meal as superb. That's been typical of my Highlands experiences.
Visitors can do a lot- or nothing- at the Inn. There is a heated inground pool and patio, plenty of easy chairs on the porches overlooking the lawn and a large wildflower garden- seasonal, of course. Each room has a televisiton and a VCR. The Inn has a good film library. And canoeing and fishing are available on the lake.
The Inn has arranged for golf privileges at Highlands Cove and Trillium Links, two beautiful, challenging, mountain golf venues. Rafting can be arranged and a fly-fishing guide service is available in town. There are other outdoor activities available through Adventure Depot, a booking service I have used for its convenience, headquartered in the area.
Natural wonders abound in the area. There are many good hiking trails as well as numerous waterfalls to visit and photograph in the surrounding mountian community. The town itself is situated on a 4,100-foot plateau- that's 3,000 feet higher than Atlanta. This results in cooler temperatures, as much as 5 to 10 degrees less than those on any given day here.
Highlands is also known for excellent shopping. During November and December, some stores have end-of-season sale events. Some Alanta shoppers make an annual trip (110 miles or so) to browse for unique holiday gifts.
Jack has an attentive, efficient professional staff, making a stay at the Inn comfortable and memorable. The atmosphere is unpretentious. The staff does not smother you with unnecessary or meaningless attention. Guests park their own car and carry their own luggage.
Yet the Inn maintains an aura of luxury and elegance, sprinkled with enough rustic touches and splendid scenery to create lasting memories. I came away feeling that nothing was left to chance. Every detail needed to create quality select lodging has been sharply honed by Jack and his staff.
Business people are beginning to discover that the Inn can provide a very relaxed atmosphere for meetings. And weddings are a growing part of the Inn's agenda. "We are so pleased with our growth," Jack says. The consultants who developed his business plan have been utterly amazed with how fast the Inn has built a devoted folloing.
Don't assume that Highlands shuts down in the winter. It does slow, with some restaurants and shops closing January through March, but winter in the mountains is a delightful experience. Add two or three inches of snow and the community moves up to another level of charm and beauty that you'll never forget.
Renovating and construction don't take a breather when the temperature drops, so Highlands just keeps on developing onward and upward. Red Skelton used to say, "Atlanta will be a great city someday . . . if they ever get it built!" I kind of hope they don't ever finish Highlands. It's a pleasure just watching the town evolve.