Food Feature: On the road to Highlands

A tiny mountain town offers curious history, beautiful scenery and excellent dining

The car sputtered to a stop on the dark mountain road. We were in the middle of nowhere it seemed — stars, trees and darkness as far as the eye could see.
Save for the paved road, there was no evidence of civilization.

My friend Jack muttered something about the movie Deliverance before I reminded him that I thought we weren't far from a small town.

Surely we could limp the car the next few miles if we let it cool off for a while.

Our trip had gone awry when we were re-routed from the main road an hour or so earlier. A bus carrying a traveling symphony orchestra ran off the mountainous road and a rescue effort was in progress. We made a wrong turn somewhere along the way and the car decided it was no longer interested in taking part in our plans.

It was the last leg of a gotta-get-outta-town journey we'd started the morning before. To offset a bad case of urban overkill, we'd headed to Highlands, N.C., about three hours from the city.

Founded in 1879, town legend has it that two developers from Kansas, Samuel Kelsey and Clinton Hutchinson, drew a line on a map from New York to New Orleans and from Chicago to Savannah. They surmised that the location would be the perfect spot for a vacation community because it was so strategically located.

Being nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains certainly doesn't hurt. That morning we trekked to one of the highest sites in the area — a long abandoned Wizard of Oz theme park my friend had visited as a child. About all that was left was a rusted steel replica of the Wizard's air balloon. Though that childhood memory was a bust, another childishly simple point of interest did the trick. Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina all intersect in this general vicinity and you can literally hop from one state to the others.

We were back in Highlands proper, a tiny swell of 3,000 residents, in time for lunch. Located in the historic Highlands Inn, a 120-year-old hotel that's listed in the national historic register, is Kelsey Place. The food here is deluxe, mostly upscale American, but the atmosphere is relaxed and casual. We opted for the highly touted mountain clam chowder and the pecan-crusted mountain trout. I'd make the drive back just for the latter.

The Highlands Inn itself is quite an attraction for visitors and locals. Originally built in 1880 as a three-story wood-frame hotel with a two-story front porch, the hotel is the site of an 1885 incident in Highlands known as "The Moccasin War."

As the story goes, revenue officers crossed the state line to Georgia to arrest two bootleggers who were later incarcerated in the Highland Inn.

Trouble erupted when the Billingsley brothers blew into town from Moccasin to protest the arrest of the two. Shots were fired and marshal law was declared. One of the Georgia boys died in the ensuing violence.

The episode resulted in a blockade to the town from the Georgia border. When town resources began to dwindle, Highlands resident Joel Lovin, a Confederate war veteran, decided to challenge the Billingsley brothers.

On the road to Georgia, he encountered the two — nothing happened — and the affair was settled, resulting in the end of "The Moccasin War."

The hotel continues to welcome less violent guests to stay in period-restored rooms that boast antique furnishings, colonial paints and authentic wall-coverings.

Besides dining and exploring the local history, there's a lot of natural scenery to enjoy. Many of the surrounding mountains rise to 5,000 feet above sea level and the region is heralded throughout the country for its abundance of waterfalls. We took in quite a few of them.

The easiest to get to is Bridal Veil Falls. Originally it fell directly over U.S. 64 — you quite literally drove underneath the falls. The highway has since been re-routed ever so slightly, but you can still pull off the highway and drive your car directly beneath the falls even today.

Dry Falls is also on U.S. 64. It's a bit of a walk — but a nice one — from where you park your car. It's worth the effort. A path that goes behind the magnificent 75-foot waterfall offers a visual experience like no other.

Glen Falls can leave you completely out of breath — from the one-mile hike down steep paths to get there and from the sight you see once you arrive. It's actually three large falls that drop 60 feet at a fork on Overflow Creek.

After an extended day of sightseeing, we drove back into Highlands for dinner at one of the little town's most acclaimed restaurants.

Wolfgang's on Main is warm and comfortable but not pretentious. You can dine inside by the fireplace in the cooler months, or outside on the garden terrace in the mountain air in the warmer ones. The chef here was formerly with Commander's Palace in New Orleans, one of my favorite dining spots. I recommend the steak whole-heartedly. After a bottle of Chardonnay and a particularly tasty meal, we headed back to Atlanta.

As I look out into the mountain darkness, I'm amused by the notion that the ghosts of the Billingsley brothers might still haunt these hills, and I'm curious about a strange light up ahead.

It's a policeman with a flashlight telling us we have to take another direction — there's been a wreck and the road is blocked.

Fifteen minutes later, the car sputters to a stop on a dark mountain road. travel@creativeloafing.com

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