Take Five: Escape to Highlands & Cashiers, N.C.

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While much of the Southeast will soon be suffering through some intense summer temps, one area in Western North Carolina continually defies the seasonal swelter, keeping its cool almost all season long. Highlands and Cashiers, N.C., are about 10 miles apart, and while they have distinct personalities, they share stunning scenery and pleasant weather courtesy of their lofty location in a temperate rainforest perched way up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. But if simply beating the heat isn’t enough to get you “gone to Carolina,” there are plenty of other reasons to visit. Here are five of our favorites.

1. Cool Views

In between Highlands and Cashiers, Whiteside Mountain (pictured above) straddles the Continental Divide and features one of the tallest sheer rock faces east of the Rockies. Hike the two-mile loop trail to the top to take it all in and watch for peregrine falcons floating above. The endangered birds nest on one section of the exposed cliff. The walk up to Sunset Rock is easier, but the unobstructed, panoramic view of downtown Highlands would be worth a much harder climb. Plan your trek for late afternoon; the vista is at its breath-taking best when the sun starts sinking, setting the sky ablaze with color.

2. Cooler Waterfalls

Sparkling cascades of all sizes are abundant in the area thanks to ample rainfall and the rocky terrain. Dry Falls thunders over an extended ledge that lets you walk behind the water and relax in its refreshing mist. The delicate droplets of Bridal Veil Falls twinkle in the sun on the side of Highway 64, giving you a glimpse without even leaving your car. A good look at Glenn Falls requires a little more effort, but the steep walk down a shaded trail rewards you with the serene scene and sounds of water rushing in milky curtains over platforms of ancient stone.

3. Culinary Highs

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Photo: Jennifer Stewart Kornegay

In Highlands alone, you’ll find several Wine-Spectator-awarded fine dining establishments including the intimate Lakeside (go for steaks and seafood here); Wolfgang’s (upscale German-American bistro fare); and Madison’s, housed in the Old Edwards Inn. Specializing in cuisine made with fresh and local ingredients (many from OE’s own farm), Madison’s executive chef Johannes Klapdohr creates innovative dishes like Cashew-Dusted Sunburst Trout resting on a rustic leek and potato cake. But you don’t have to don dressy attire or make a reservation to enjoy some good eats. A fine example of Carolina-style ‘cue is waiting at On the Side (pictured), a walk-up shack attached to the Cashiers Farmers Market that promises—and delivers—tender pulled pork accented with tangy mustard-based sauce and classic sides like potato salad and sweet cole slaw. Or check out Mountain Fresh Grocery in Highlands. Its selection of pressed sandwiches, baked goods, filling breakfast favorites, wood-fired pizzas and more outshines the shelves of staples.

4. Calming Luxury

One of the country’s most praised properties anchors a corner of downtown Highlands. The historic Old Edwards Inn (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) excels in providing top-notch service and elegant accommodations. The OE Spa is a large part of the Inn’s appeal, annually garnering awards from national travel media. This 25,000-square-foot tribute to tranquility puts the rejuvenating powers of its surroundings to good use with treatments like Sweet Mountain Metamorphosis, which incorporates locally grown herbs and plants in a body scrub finished with full-body massage.

5. Crazy Thrills

Photo: Jennifer Stewart Kornegay

Soar above it all on one of the highest ziplines in the region at Highlands Aerial Park. Sitting atop High Holly Mountain, the park has expert guides who lead you flying over and through old-growth forest, deep ravines, the soft curves of summits and slices of open sky. The longest zip on the course is the appropriately named Screaming Mare; its combination of serious heights, dizzying speed and bird’s-eye perspectives will leave you speechless (except for your screams).

Jennifer Stewart Kornegay is a freelance writer based out of Montgomery, Ala. She writes about food and travel and traveling for food.