The good news is we’re sipping champagne and munching icy Dove bars. Both treats are complimentary as we check into Old Edwards Inn and Spa in the scenic mountain resort town of Highlands, NC.
The bad news is firefighters are battling some incipient wildfires in the surrounding Nantahala National Forest. Persistent drought and unseasonably warm temperatures have created dangerously dry conditions.
While the hospitable staff at Old Edwards greets us on our arrival, so, too, does the faint, unmistakably acrid smell of burning wood. I first thought it might be lingering evidence of fireplaces in use by guests at the Lodge Cottages where we’re staying. The fires are far enough away that we don’t see flames or dark plumes of smoke, but the staff solemnly confirms the smell indeed emanates from the blazes. It wafts through the air, shifting in strength and direction with the light breeze.
Old Edwards Inn and Spa, listed on the National Register for Historic Places, sits atop the southwest plateau of the state’s Blue Ridge Mountains amid pristine wilderness, hiking trails, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls. My husband, Bill, and I have come to both Highlands and this hotel the first of November with our friends Carole and Keith to immerse ourselves in a brief getaway and some high-country hiking as the end of fall nears. Our visit is proving to be one of great contrasts, a reminder that nature’s unpredictability can be both awe-inducing in its beauty and distressing in its destruction.
Highlands boasts a unique geography. As its name implies, the town is at altitude, straddling the Eastern Continental Divide at just over 4,100 feet, a point noted on a sign during our drive in. Temperatures in July range in the high 70s to low 80s during the day, and drop to 40-50 degrees at night, making it a cool retreat from hot and humid southern summers. In addition, Highlands has a temperate mountain rain forest climate. An average abundant rainfall of more than 87 inches per year (second highest in the continental U.S.) contributes to dense foliage and colorful plant life.
Except this year is far from average.
Only about half that amount of rain has been recorded by the time of our stay, hence the increased threat – and reality – of wildfires. Ironically, the average annual snowfall is a surprisingly low six inches. Highlands’ southeastern position in the Appalachian Mountains generally offers more protection from occasional swoops of arctic air than northwestern towns experience.
I temporarily set aside my thoughts regarding the vagaries of nature as we explore the premises.
Old Edwards Inn and Spa exudes warmth
Prior to today, my knowledge about Old Edwards Inn and Spa was sketchy, other than having friends who sigh contentedly and rave enthusiastically about their time spent in this elegant European-style inn. Color me surprised and excited to find that Travel + Leisure magazine rates this Relais & Chateaux property the No. 26 Best Hotel in its The 100 Best Hotels in the World rankings for 2016. Other accolades are just as noteworthy: Old Edwards is Trip Advisor’s 2016 #23 Best Hotel in the U.S., and Business Insider’s 2016 Best Hotel in North Carolina.
Given its mountain location and the romantic-sounding descriptions from my friends, I had fancied the property would be nestled in a secluded pine grove off some narrow, twisty road. My imagination, however, is off track, for the inn lies smack in the middle of downtown Highlands, anchoring the southwest corner of Main and 4th Streets.
Far from being disappointed, I find this placement fronting Main Street to be ideal.
The Historic Inn with its brick and stone façade, the farm-to-table Madison’s Restaurant, the open-air Wine Garden, and the deluxe Acorns boutique, all wrapped within woodsy landscaping featuring a trickling brook, have vibrant curb appeal and complement Highland’s postcard charm. Additionally, spanning a full three blocks northward are various guest rooms, suites, and cottages, along with Hummingbird Lounge, a rooftop terrace, outdoor heated mineral pools, whirlpools, spa (where I succumb to a customized massage), spa café, fitness center, game room, and other cozy, relaxation-inducing amenities.
Old Edwards Inn and Spa is mere steps away from neatly maintained low-rises housing upscale designer boutiques, eclectic shops, and art galleries. Several restaurants, including the standout Ristorante Paoletti’s just across the street, have secured the coveted Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. Given the U.S. Forest Service owns some 68% of the land in Highlands Township, it’s unlikely commercialization will run amok and spoil the area’s natural appeal.
The hotel’s centerpiece positioning in the town harkens back to its beginnings as Highlands’ earliest boarding house. Central House, the original wood frame structure built in 1878, is much refurbished and home to Madison’s. In 1935, the then-owners constructed the adjacent Hotel Edwards, now the Historic Inn, in the classical, traditional style. Subsequent owners and their investments have brought expansion and renovations, elevating Old Edwards Inn and Spa to its current stellar state of rustic luxury.
High-country hike and insight
The cold front weather experts forecasted isn’t materializing. Rather, the temperature is unseasonably warm, sunny, and windy, with highs in the 70s during the day, and dropping into the 50s at night. Perfect conditions for our upcoming hikes, fortunately. Also perfect conditions, unfortunately, to fan the fires and make containment and closure even more problematic.
I ask staff members for updates, and they relay reports they’ve heard from the N.C. Forest Service and regional fires departments. A new fire has started close to On The Verandah, a restaurant overlooking Lake Sequoyah where we dined one night. Hiking, they say, is certainly feasible, although they suggest we might want to forego trails that would normally take us to waterfalls, like Bridal Veil Falls. Not much water is actually falling, thanks to the drought.
We opt for the out-and-back, two-mile loop trail on Whiteside Mountain, situated midway between Highlands and the nearby town of Cashiers. We begin our ascent on an old logger trail that also was used to shuttle people by bus to the top of the lookout point. I can see why those folks preferred the ride. I’m breathing heavily, eager for my second wind to kick in because the trail is relentlessly, steeply uphill for the first mile. As a hiker, biker, and former runner, I don’t like to stop on a climb, because it’s harder for me mentally to regain my momentum.
Journeying to the top I notice more sad signs of dryness – the musty scent of decaying leaves, a fine dust kicking up and coating my boots, and drooping, shrunken laurel and rhododendron leaves, still green and resolutely clinging to branches.
We reach the top of Whiteside’s sheer 1,000-foot high cliffs and absorb the sweeping panorama, slightly hazy, perhaps, from drifting smoke. The trail leads us for about a half mile right along the ridge of the mountain. Fencing protects us from the sheer drop off. Several lookout points afford ample opportunity to view the rock face, which resembles draped sheets of ice. We negotiate the steep, wooded downhill that returns us to the trail head.
Whiteside Mountain, a magnificent landmark, is more than 390 million years old. I see a reassuring metaphor of strength and resiliency in this mountain, a solid 4,930 feet at its highest point. I’m hopeful the burning and endangered woodlands will rise in the long run from whatever challenges Mother Nature puts in their path.
Now back home after two weeks, the wildfires have become one of the country’s lead news stories. The blazes are intensifying, multiplying, and advancing in western North Carolina and neighboring states. Some are reportedly the result of arson. Here in Charlotte we’re having code orange and red air quality alerts, for wind is blowing smoke down the mountains and over us.
Faced anew with the dual effects of nature, simultaneously forceful and fragile, majestic and maltreated, my memories of Highlands and Old Edwards Inn and Spa are all the more poignant.