The lovely Blue Ridge Mountains extend from southern Pennsylvania to northern Georgia and contain the highest peak east of the Mississippi, 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, which rises from the Pisgah National Forest, 20 miles north of Asheville, North Carolina. Part of the larger Appalachian range, they owe their poetic name to isoprene, a volatile organic compound released by certain species of trees, which is responsible for their characteristic bluish haze.
My previous visit to the region was in summer 2019, when I flew to Knoxville, Tennessee, in order to stay at the superb new Blackberry Mountain resort, as well as to revisit its illustrious sibling, Blackberry Farm. Both properties are owned by the Beall family, whose patriarch, Sandy Beall, amassed his fortune as the founder of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain. Apparently, while their children were growing up, the Bealls would take an annual summer vacation at the historic High Hampton resort, located 100 miles to the southeast of Knoxville, in the highlands of North Carolina. There, they purchased a home on the 1,400-acre estate. The connection was to prove enduring. About two years ago, I learned that High Hampton had new owners and that the Bealls and the Blackberry team engaged to restore the property to its former luster. I resolved to pay the place a visit as soon as the work was complete. Then, the pandemic intervened.
In June of this year, a window of opportunity opened, so I caught a flight to Asheville. From there, I drove for 90 minutes southwest to the tiny village of Cashiers, along a road that became progressively more serpentine, with breaks in the trees revealing vistas of receding misty ridges. High Hampton is located at an elevation of 3,850 feet next to 35-acre Hampton Lake and is overshadowed by sizable wooded peaks. The principal building is an imposing bark-sided inn with wraparound porches, which crowns the top of a low hill. First constructed in 1922 and rebuilt after a major fire in 1933, the structure is now included on the National Register of Historic Places — which doubtless made its restoration a complex and somewhat problematic affair. In addition to the hotel, the High Hampton estate includes a country club and an expanding residential community.
On arrival, a team of cheerful young valets dealt with our car, swooped on our luggage and escorted us inside. Much of the first floor of the inn consists of a huge open-plan lounge with rustic wood paneling on both the walls and the ceiling, widely spaced sofas and chairs and a massive central stone chimney, with fireplaces on each of its four sides. Clearly the intention of its designer had been to create a large communal space in which families or groups of friends might socialize. At reception, we were checked in by youthful staff who seemed well-meaning but somewhat disorganized. Before heading to our room, we were ushered outside onto a lawn to be shown the truly spectacular view over the lake to the sheer cliff face of Rock Mountain.
The accommodations at High Hampton comprise 12 rooms on the second floor of the inn itself (these vary in size and layout and are accessible by stairs or elevator); 40 rooms and suites in bark-clad lakeside “cottages”; and three standalone two- to four-bedroom cabins that are suitable chiefly for families. When we made our reservation, the resort was already extremely full, so our choices were restricted. The inn rooms were unavailable, so we opted for one on the first floor of a cottage, located a two-minute walk away.
Given the association with Blackberry Farm, I had been expecting space and a degree of luxury. But although our room appeared clean and fresh, it was extremely small. Indeed, it contained little more than a king-size bed and two nightstands. The lack of any kind of table for my laptop was especially irritating. The adjoining bath has been comprehensively modernized and came with an effective glass-enclosed walk-in shower, but despite being white and gleaming, the bath was tiny, with a single sink and no separate area for the toilet. Our mood was not improved by the fact that the old wooden building creaked loudly whenever someone moved around on a higher floor. The best part of our room was its private porch, which was furnished with two rocking chairs and a daybed, and afforded a partial view of the lake through trees.
Within an hour of our arrival, we had come to appreciate the central truth about High Hampton. Taken on its own terms, it is an interesting and attractive property, but if you arrive expecting to find a place similar to the Bealls’ two resorts in Tennessee, then you are destined for disappointment. Blackberry Farm 2.0 it is not. It is also important to book one of the larger accommodations, a suite or a cabin, as the regular rooms fall well below the standard that Harper members customarily require.
The restaurant extends onto a terrace with a view of the lake, a boathouse, a swimming platform and a stretch of the new Tom Fazio-designed golf course.
Having chatted to the manager and learned that none of the more spacious accommodations was available, we headed to the Tavern for a light lunch and a consoling glass of wine. Situated on the lower level of the main inn building, the restaurant extends onto a terrace that commands a memorable view of the lake, with its boathouse and swimming platform, as well as a stretch of the new Tom Fazio-designed 18-hole golf course. The day was warm and sunny, and after an excellent bowl of mussels and a glass of Sancerre, I began to feel a good deal more cheerful. The food at High Hampton would prove to be of a consistently high standard, which is unsurprising given that one of the two executive chefs, Scott Franqueza, was transferred from Blackberry Mountain, having previously worked in such distinguished restaurants as Per Se and Café Boulud in New York City and Benu, Saison and Coi in San Francisco.
After lunch, we set out to explore. Guests at the inn are able to share the amenities of High Hampton’s country club, including its large fitness center with Technogym equipment, tennis courts, swimming pool, golf course, kayaks and boats and three additional dining options. Strolling around the estate, however, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a country club with an inn attached, rather than the other way around. (The woman in charge of the fitness center told me that inn guests were infrequent visitors and that nearly all the people who used the facility were club members.) And the slightly peripheral status of the inn is accentuated by the sizable real estate development that is currently underway. Although the new homes are screened by a line of trees, it is possible at times to hear the distant rumble of construction equipment.
On our arrival, we had been allocated dinner reservations for each evening of our three-night stay. Despite protracted negotiations with the front desk, we had been unable to alter the times, the latest of which was 6 p.m. Like the main lounge area, the Dining Room is on the first floor of the inn and is an expansive space with a paneled ceiling and walls. Long lime-green drapes can be drawn to create more intimate enclaves, while elaborate blue chandeliers and contemporary paintings provide hints of modernity. One advantage of our annoyingly early reservations was being able to secure a table by one of the huge windows that afforded bewitching views of the lake and Rock Mountain.
For our first dinner we ordered appetizers of ahi tuna crudo, with charred zucchini, radishes, cucumber and rice cracker, and grilled pork belly with pickled vegetables and grilled grape jelly. Both were exquisitely presented and utterly delicious. Main courses of guinea hen with Sea Island peas, charred endive, grilled radicchio and mustard jus, and rack of lamb with polenta, caper relish, charred shallot ragu and morels were similarly outstanding. The Dining Room’s wine list is extensive but surprisingly expensive. For example, it offers only one American Pinot Noir for less than $100 a bottle, while the French Pinot Noirs range in price from $178 to $838. Throughout our stay, the service was reliably inconsistent. Some staff members were highly proficient, but most seemed to be college students working during their summer vacation. Although friendly, they were extremely inexperienced. On one occasion I had to rescue the young woman wrestling with a corkscrew and open a bottle of wine myself. “I don’t drink alcohol,” she explained, “so I’ve never used one of these before.”
On the plus side, High Hampton offers a spectacular natural setting, rustic architecture of great character, an atmospheric small spa, a comprehensive menu of activities, including a fine golf course, and sophisticated cuisine. However, the inn is primarily intended for family and multigenerational vacations, and couples may well feel out of place.
The grand interior spaces of the main inn building; the exceptionally scenic location; the distinguished cuisine; the array of amenities and activities.
The small cottage rooms; the frequently amateurish service; the lack of flexibility with restaurant reservations; the inappropriately expensive wine list.
This is essentially a place for families, not for couples. (On our summer visit, the main pool was full of rowdy children.) The inn is just one element of the estate, which is dominated by its country club and residences.
From Cashiers, it is a 20-minute drive along winding U.S. Highway 64 East to the charming small town of Highlands, which lies at an elevation of 4,100 feet. This situation guarantees cool summers (and winter snowfall), with the result that the town has long functioned as a kind of seasonal retreat for residents of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, where they can exchange sweltering heat for dense forests, trout streams, waterfalls and gardens bright with flowers. (A 10-minute walk from Main Street, the gardens of the Highlands Biological Station provide a showcase for botanical diversity of the Blue Ridge Escarpment.) The original intention of the town’s founders was rather different. In 1875, Samuel Truman Kelsey and Clinton Carter Hutchinson drew lines on a map from Chicago to Savannah and from New Orleans to New York City, on the presumption that the place where they intersected would inevitably become a flourishing center of trade. Today, 146 years later, Highlands has a population of just under 2,000.
My existing recommendation in Highlands is the Old Edwards Inn and Spa, a 93-room hotel that extends across three blocks in a miscellany of structures. (The concierge provides a map so that arriving guests can find their way around.) The historic inn itself, a brick-and-stone building dating from the 1870s overlooks the attractive Main Street with its small restaurants, high-end boutiques and galleries. Aside from atmospheric lodgings, it contains the magnificent wood-paneled Hummingbird Lounge, for cocktails and live music, and Madison’s, an attractive formal restaurant serving regionally inspired cuisine.
Because the property is so spread out and offers such a variety of accommodations, it is important to specify precisely where you would prefer to stay. On our recent visit, the resort was completely full and the only available room, “Hemlock,” adjacent to the Lodge, was inconveniently small. In contrast, on a previous trip in 2017, we stayed in the Falls Cottage complex. There, our Falls Cottage King Room was spacious and came with a living area and a fireplace, plus a marble bath appointed with dual vanities, a freestanding tub, a glass rainfall shower and a heated floor. The Falls Cottages are situated a two-minute drive from the restaurant, spa and fitness center, which can be mildly inconvenient. On the other hand, they provide a high degree of privacy and offer their own central courtyard with a mineral swimming pool. The Hickory Cottage complex is closer to the resort’s center of gravity and has a larger swimming pool. Its disadvantage is a relative lack of privacy, since guests walk on paths that allow clear views into accommodations. Those primarily in search of charm and atmosphere should opt for the lodgings in the historic inn. In contrast, the nearby Spa Suites feature a more contemporary design and come with fireplaces, four-poster beds and private balconies. The 25,000-square-foot spa itself offers a solarium, a cozy lounge with a fireplace, a sauna, a steam room and a hot tub.
The ideal central location on Main Street; the atmospheric historic inn building (especially the beautiful Hummingbird Lounge); the excellent Madison’s restaurant; the charming Wine Garden; the splendid spa.
The property is very spread out, which can be inconvenient; the lack of valet parking.
The Old Edwards Golf Club is located a seven-minute drive away. The facility also features the Grill Room, an outdoor heated mineral pool, clay tennis courts and a fitness center.
Having briefly renewed our acquaintance with the Old Edwards Inn, we transferred our belongings to the 18-room Highlander Mountain House, a boutique property situated a mere 300 yards away. Highlands is such an attractive and charming little town it deserves a hideaway of the first rank. Our initial impressions of the leading candidate were generally positive, despite a steep and crowded parking lot that required a good deal of maneuvering. The main structure of the inn is a clapboard farmhouse that was reportedly built for a retired sea captain in 1885. Painted an appropriately oceanic shade of deep grayish blue, it stands on an elevated site overlooking a relatively tranquil stretch of Main Street, surrounded by trees and protected by a low stone wall. At unadorned wooden tables set beneath five large white umbrellas, half a dozen guests could be seen drinking wine and relaxing in the late afternoon sunshine.
A cozy lounge with a beamed ceiling, a large stone fireplace, leather armchairs, oriental rugs and a kilim-covered sofa struck me as a perfect place in which to settle in with a book on a fall or winter day.
We were greeted inside by a friendly manager, who showed us around the inviting public areas on the first floor. A cozy lounge with a beamed ceiling, a substantial stone fireplace, leather armchairs, oriental rugs, a large kilim-covered sofa and framed black-and-white photographs struck me as a perfect place in which to settle in with a book on a fall or winter day. Adjoining it were a stylish and convivial bar (part of which serves as a breakfast room each morning) and the dining room of the Ruffed Grouse Tavern. There, a striking leaf-green banquette ran along the entire length of the room. Simple but elegant wooden tables and chairs were complemented by framed oil paintings, while another large sofa stood in front of a second log fire. Vitrines of Victorian-style taxidermy created an atmosphere vaguely reminiscent of a superior country pub in England’s Cotswolds.
Our second floor Deluxe King room was reached by an inconveniently steep and narrow staircase. Inside, however, it proved to be a decorative tour de force, with exquisite floral wallpaper in multiple shades of blue, a striking velvet headboard depicting an idealized landscape, wingback armchairs, vintage kilims and framed antique prints. Although the king-size bed took up much of the room, there was still space for a long, narrow plexiglass table and a substantial wooden chest of drawers. We would have preferred our accommodations to be larger, but they were so stylish that we were prepared to overlook their dimensions. Alas, this was not the case with the bath, which was minute, with a single sink set in a gray marble surround and little shelving. The glass-enclosed walk-in shower worked well, and the Moroccan zellij tiles and Malin+Goetz toiletries were nice touches, but they were insufficient compensation for the lack of space.
We had not expected the inn’s restaurant, the Ruffed Grouse Tavern, to be quite so popular and had failed to make a reservation. Fortunately, despite its being fully booked, the obliging manager was able to juggle the tables and eventually find a slot for us. By 7 p.m., the dining room was packed and extremely animated, making conversation something of a struggle. The food was delicious, however. Chef Charles Hudson serves dishes made with seasonal ingredients from local farmers and growers. Both our Manchester Farms quail, with roasted fennel, pancetta and roast potato purée, and beef tenderloin, with mushroom ragout, whipped potatoes and asparagus, were attractively presented and exceptionally flavorful. At breakfast the following morning, the croissants were the best I have ever tasted outside of France.
The Highlander Mountain House offers no other amenities, but staff are happy to help guests arrange guided hikes and fly-fishing outings. A charming and admirable property in many ways, it ultimately falls slightly short of the standards of comfort and convenience that would qualify it for an official recommendation.
Exceptionally inviting and stylish public areas; exquisitely decorated accommodations; friendly and obliging staff; the fine restaurant.
Rooms tend to be on the small side; our bath was tiny. The old building has no room for an elevator, and the stairs are quite steep and narrow.
The Ruffed Grouse Tavern is deservedly popular, and reservations are essential.
From Highlands, it was a leisurely two-hour drive back to Asheville, a lively and bohemian college town, with a population of around 90,000 people. Known for its thriving food scene and Downtown Asheville Arts District, Asheville also provides a base from which to explore the Blue Ridge Mountains — the Blue Ridge Parkway visitor center is located at the edge of the city — and visit George Vanderbilt’s immense Biltmore mansion.
We had decided to try two contrasting hotels: the 210-room Inn on Biltmore Estate, set amid serene parkland, and the 14-suite Windsor Boutique Hotel, which is situated on Broadway Street, close to its intersection with College Street, Asheville’s two principal thoroughfares. Arriving at the latter, we discovered that its central location on a busy road was not without drawbacks. The only place to unload our luggage was on the sidewalk outside the front entrance, and not only was there no valet service or bellman, but the solitary receptionist refused to budge from behind his plexiglass screen, despite being unoccupied. Parking for our car turned out to be a couple of blocks away, which required a three-minute walk back to the hotel. Fortunately, given my increasing irritation, our suitcases had made their way upstairs by the time we returned to check-in.
Our 950-square-foot Executive Suite proved to be one of the more eccentric accommodations I have stayed in for quite some while. Clearly it had been designed for extended stays, as it contained both a full kitchen and a washer-dryer, but it was hard to imagine who would want to live there for more than a day or two. The art deco-inspired décor of the living room was attractive enough, as were the exposed brick walls of the corridor that led to the bedroom. However, it was impossible to see out as the windows had either translucent screens or frosted glass. (The only way to discover what the weather was like was to consult my phone.) This meant that despite its generous dimensions, the suite felt rather claustrophobic. One might assume that the long-stay executive would need a large work desk, but the table, in the bedroom, was inconveniently small. Furthermore, the weary traveler, far from home, would doubtless appreciate a spacious and well-appointed bath. Alas, she or he would be out of luck, as the suite lacked a tub and provided only a walk-in shower with feeble water pressure and an alarmingly flexible plastic floor, plus a single sink and virtually no storage space aside from a lone shelf in a rather battered glass-fronted wooden cabinet attached to the wall. (I imagine the management prefers to think of this pointless amenity as one that displays an abundance of individuality and charm.)
Although we were not actively uncomfortable — the bed was inviting, the air-conditioning functioned efficiently, and there was a generous walk-in closet — other aspects of The Windsor Boutique Hotel conspired to annoy us. Not only does the property lack a restaurant, it is not even possible to get so much as a muffin for breakfast. (A station at one side of the lobby provides coffee, sodas and bottled water — and that’s it.) Guests either have food delivered or head to one of the numerous nearby cafés and restaurants. Housekeeping also did its best to disappoint. Having asked at reception for our room to be serviced, a taciturn young man duly appeared. We left so he could get on with his work and returned an hour later to find that his efforts to make the bed had been perfunctory, the towels on the vanity remained unfolded, the damp bath mat had not been replaced, and the morning’s coffee grounds were still in their soggy paper filter. When the time came to check out, an event that I was anticipating with enthusiasm, I discovered that I had some unexpected emails demanding replies. Reluctantly, I asked the receptionist if it would be possible to keep the room for an additional hour. “Well, the latest I could give you would be 11 a.m.,” he replied, in a tone of voice that clearly implied he was doing me an unprecedented favor.
The convenient city center location; the contemporary art on display in the attractive public areas.
The extremely eccentric layout of our suite; the paucity of staff; the lack of a restaurant or café; the inconvenient parking.
The Benjamin Walls Art Gallery and Wine Bar is accessible from the lobby — Walls is a noted photographer and environmentalist — as is the C&Co Natural Spa.
The Biltmore Estate lies a few miles to the south of Asheville and extends over 13 square miles. Its focal point is the 179,000-square-foot châteauesque mansion, built for George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895 and still the largest privately owned house in the United States. Today, the estate is managed by the Biltmore Company, a trust set up by the Vanderbilt family. As well as a winery, a “village” contains a hotel, restaurants and shops. About a mile away, The Inn on Biltmore Estate provides the more upscale of the two lodging options.
Only in the context of Biltmore gigantism could a 210-room resort be accurately described as an “inn.” Still, that’s what it’s called on the website, which also describes its huge Vanderbilt Ballroom, “accented by four grand chandeliers,” to be “ideal for 50-80 guests” at a seated dinner. On arrival, the property proved to be a grand four-story structure, surveying the grounds from an elevated position, with a spacious marble-floored lobby of a kind familiar from grand hotels around the world. However, it was immediately apparent that old-fashioned grandeur was complemented by old-fashioned professionalism and formal politeness. The valet parking attendant, the receptionist and the bellman were all efficient, as well as charming in a slightly distant kind of way.
In truth, the glory of The Inn on Biltmore Estate resides in neither marble nor chandeliers, but in the gasp-inducing beauty of the landscape, which extends from the hotel’s disciplined lawns, across the grassy expanse of the estate, to untamed woodlands, backed by layer after hazy layer of the mysterious and beckoning Blue Ridge Mountains. Emphatically, this is a place where you should insist on a room with a view. At the far end of our Terrace Room, doors opened onto a small graveled enclave, screened by trimmed hedges, from where we could sit and gaze at the scenery — which we did for hours at a time, glasses of wine in hand.
Inside, the décor was uncompromisingly traditional, with mahogany headboards, quilted armchairs and a bed adorned by a crimson cushion embroidered in gold with the letter “V.” The bath was not especially spacious, with only a single sink set in a black marble counter, but it had clearly been recently modernized, and the glass-enclosed shower delivered an invigorating punch.
Amenities at the inn include an outdoor swimming pool, a spa and a grand formal restaurant that employs estate-grown vegetables, berries, eggs, lamb and even hybrid wagyu beef. A majority of people, I suspect, stay at the inn with the sole purpose of touring the Biltmore mansion, but it would be perfectly possible to extend one’s stay for a day or so, to take a carriage drive, hike or ride horses on the estate, or relax with a book by the pool. The Inn on Biltmore Estate doesn’t provide the pinnacle of luxury, but it is an extremely comfortable, well-run and reassuringly old-fashioned resort in a setting of heart-stirring natural splendor.
The glorious panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains; the friendly and efficient staff; the old-fashioned comfort of the accommodations.
The breakfast buffet in the Dining Room was lavish but untidy and in need of greater supervision.
The concierge has privileged access to entry tickets for the Biltmore mansion, which in season can otherwise be hard to come by.