A small town amid mountain vistas
The Sevier County side of the Smokies can have the outlet malls, the fudge shops, the waterslides, and the mini golf courses. On the other side of the Smokies, in Highlands, NC, the emphasis is on a relaxed and upscale experience.
Located about an hour south of Cherokee, Highlands isn’t far from the Georgia border. We traveled on I-40 east to Waynesville, NC, before leaving the interstate for roads that became increasingly narrower and windier as we proceeded. We returned home via Cherokee and the Smokies, a trip about an hour longer than our three-hour drive over.
By the time you approach Highlands, you’re weaving past waterfalls and cascades and mountain getaways tucked behind stands of rhododendron. Several pullovers allow you the chance to get a closer look at the water as it tumbles along and feel the spray off of it.
Downtown Highlands bustled with visitors the Saturday we were there, and it’s small enough to park the car and stroll from one end to the other — just three or four blocks. In addition to mountain outfitters, you may browse boutiques, home decor stores, art and crafts galleries, and jewelry stores. Sprinkled among them are a variety of restaurants to tempt the hungry tourist.
We enjoyed lunch at Wild Thyme Gourmet, which specializes in Asian American fusion. I shared fish and chips with my daughter, but others sampled crispy shrimp, crab cake and crispy chicken sandwiches. For dinner, we had delicious wood fired pizza at Four65 Bistro and Bar and sampled Polpette, homemade pork meatballs, and garlic and parmesan breadsticks as appetizers.
The Old Edwards Inn and Spa, which was named Top Hotel in the US in 2015, dominates the lodging category in Highlands and dominates much of the town as well, with restaurants (including Four65), guest rooms, suites and cottages filling multiple blocks. We chose to stay a few miles outside of town at Skyline Lodge, a mid-century style hotel surrounded by mountain vistas and visited by the occasional hungry bear, we were warned. We sipped wine by the fire pit and played a game of corn hole (my team lost, but just barely!) in the courtyard. The next morning, before heading home, we indulged in a delicious brunch at the lodge’s Oak Steakhouse, an offshoot of the original Oak Steakhouse in Charleston, SC.
We did make time to visit The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts, and, had we stayed longer, I’d have insisted on seeing the Highlands Botanical Garden or hiking one of the many trails around the area. Others might fly fish or zipline or try a back country excursion in the Nantahala National Forest. For a small town, population 1,100 year-round, Highlands has much to offer and is a delightful getaway for anyone with a love of the mountains and a taste for the finer things.