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Sweet Carolina

Take a break from the quick city pace at the Old Edwards Inn and Spa. The mountain retreat in North Carolina revamps and renews—just in time for spring.


Old Edwards Inn and Spa in Highlands, N.C., sits in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Songs are written about mountain views like this—lyrics and stanzas about winding roads, deep valleys and quiet climbs up, up, up, until you feel like you’re miles above the clouds.

On a blustery afternoon beneath a cobalt blue sky, my husband and I bound up a hilly highway toward the tony town of Highlands, N.C., a two-hour-drive from Atlanta after a direct flight from Miami. The vistas on this route are breathtaking: Think John Denver ballads come to life.

The historic Old Edwards Inn and Spa, the well-deserved darling of Travel + Leisure (No. 2 Best Resort in the United States), Condé Nast Traveler (Gold List) and Forbes Travel Guide (Hot 20), has added new suites and historic guest estates for larger families to rent into its fold, and I can’t wait to see how this quaint town and resort have developed since my first trip almost a decade ago.

“We’re like the Aspen of the East,” says Director of Sales Melissa Delany, who came to the Inn with her husband, Richard Delany, president of the resort, in 2008. Since the couple’s arrival, the property has won a bevy of prestigious accolades and awards, and while it can’t quite boast the slopes of Aspen, it offers a high caliber of shopping and dining options along with top-notch amenities such as golf and spa. The area has also seen a growth in overall wealth of its residents and visitors alike, and as such, continues to grow its luxury offerings. In the last year, the Inn has added 22 new guest rooms in its Falls Cottages at Old Edwards. We find ourselves in one of these opulent suites outfitted with native wood and stone, a remote-controlled fireplace, a Keurig machine, a heated bathroom floor and a claw-foot tub, eyeing a huge downy bed that is so tufted we feel like we’ll need a running jump up before we can tuck in. Luckily, there’s an adorable stepping stool to keep such antics at bay.

When we want to slip into something else warm and cozy, just outside in the courtyard is an outdoor heated mineral pool and a whirlpool with an amiable poolside bar and cabana. But what truly beckons is the newly renovated 25,000-square-foot spa with 11 treatment rooms only a few blocks away. As part of the renovation, the former patio area outside the spa’s Fireside Lounge was transformed into The Spa Café with a wall of retractable windows that lets in the mountain air. Now you can have a bite from the light spa menu, a fresh smoothie or cocktail in between treatments and visits to the rainfall showers, whirlpools and steam rooms in the men’s and women’s lounges. One of the many charms of the Old Edwards Spa is that it’s not cookie-cutter—evident in its kitschy chocolate-colored hallways, rounded rooms (an architectural feat!) and the unique botanical treatments that come from a local garden. This spring, new services abound and include a unique herbal fusion massage offered with a bath ritual. Don’t miss the Javanese lulur body treatment—it originated centuries ago for princesses on their wedding days.

When you’re in beautiful surroundings like this, it’s no surprise that ingredients from the land are found worked into every nook and cranny. From the local turmeric and ginger used at the spa to the lavender in the room to the chef’s specials at Madison’s Restaurant, the resort takes great care in bringing the spoils of their rich environs into play. That must be why everything we enjoy on our first evening at Madison’s tastes like it was freshly caught from a local stream, just pulled out of the ground or plucked from a tree. Even the ice water is more refreshing than in the city!

We’re here for a romantic weekend, and the setting at this fine-dining resto couldn’t be more conducive for amour. The tables at this AAA Four-Diamond awarded spot are positioned around the edges of the room, and each has intimate sofa-like seating that looks out over picturesque Main Street. We begin with a transformative onion soup with red wine-vinegar gastrique topped with fried chicken and foie gras dumplings. Later, toasty homemade Gouda biscuits and bacon cornbread from the restaurant’s private bakery make their rounds. My husband goes big and orders the seared rib-eye with caramelized Vidalia onions, baby shiitake mushrooms and Marsala ragout. When he inquires about different cutlery, the server delights in saying, “You won’t need a steak knife—it’s the most tender cut of meat you’ll ever try.” And he’s right. My husband slices right through that supple piece of meat using only a butter knife. It’s a rare night out that we don’t indulge in dessert, but the meal is so perfectly robust with the chef sending out little extras—like amuse-bouche of seared foie gras with cornmeal brioche—that we opt to skip the sweets and amble out into the street to walk the few blocks back to our suite instead.

Still stuffed the next morning, we enjoy a light breakfast of yogurt and Madison’s homemade granola in the Hummingbird Lounge and decide to get active. The fitness classes on property are prodigious—yoga, spin and Zumba classes are all in a state-of-the-art center and outdoor workout terrace housed in its own building a few blocks from our suite. The layout of the resort encourages walking around the mountain town. Not far away, you’ll also find world-class fly-fishing, whitewater rafting, almost 250 waterfalls and a new zip line course that was imagined by M.I.T. professors. But it’s the golf course that stuns. All hotel guests have access to the Old Edwards Club, which opens this month after a massive renovation. Overlooking the Tom Jackson-designed golf course, there will be a new grand porch, sun porch, an enlarged bar and dining room, as well as a larger fitness center.

Post a long day outside experiencing all that Highlands has to offer, we find Champagne glasses waiting in the lobby and snag one and head to our room. There, we put on our snuggly mountainwear (cozy sweaters are de rigueur, even in spring) and order a plate of housemade old-style charcuterie crafted on-premises with seasonal garnishes. It arrives with a side of homemade spicy buttermilk crackers and pimento cheese—something this Southern girl can’t resist—and we curl up in the living room by the fireplace for the evening. The best thing about Old Edwards Inn and Spa? Even when you’re doing nothing, it feels like an incredible something. Historic Inn one-bedroom suite from $355 per night, Falls Cottages one-bedroom suite from $385 per night, 866.526.8008

Homeward Bound

Got cabin fever? If a roomy private vacation house with friends or family appeals more than the Inn, you’re covered. Old Edwards Guest Estates now includes historic and notable homes such as the eight-bedroom Rockwood Lodge, which is a short drive from downtown Highlands. The home of Atlantans Buck and Ann Woodruff has jaw-dropping 360-degree views atop one of the highest peaks in the area. The interiors are world-class chic with one-of-a-kind touches and a fireplace you can practically stand in. $4,000 per night >>> The picturesque, four-bedroom Hutchinson House, which was the third residence ever built in town, sits on almost 4 acres and has been completely refurbished with an upscale kitchen, larger bedrooms and an outdoor pavilion with fireplace. $1,800 per night >>> The Victorian Piermont Cottage, with its four bedrooms, wraparound porch and large stone terrace is perfect for girls’ or guys’ getaways. $1,800
per night

Insider Go-To Guide

One of the finest shops for high fashion in town is Rosenthals Boutique—where Tory Burch, Diane von Furstenberg, Kate Spade, M Missoni, Armani and Valentino are all on display. Also fabulous is Acorns Boutique, which offers fine jewelry from Slane, Jude Frances and Elizabeth Locke, along with eclectic brands such as Minnie Rose Cashmere. The guys will fare just as well at TJ Bailey for Men, which stocks designers such as Peter Millar, Donald J. Pliner and Zianetti.

For 28 years, Ristorante Paoletti has anchored the fine-dining scene in Highlands. Delicate French-inspired small plates such as crispy artichoke leaves stuffed with crabmeat and escargot alla bourguignonne mingle with heartier mountain fare such as the spiced cervena elk rib chop. A night at Madison’s Restaurant is a right of passage in Highlands. The dining room is helmed by brilliant chef Johannes Klapdohr. The wine list doesn’t disappoint either. It’s been a Wine Spectator award-winning restaurant for the past five years with Best Of awards for the past two. Down the way, Executive Chef Justin Burdett, formerly of acclaimed Miller Union in Atlanta, is at the helm of Ruka’s Table. He won an episode of Chopped with his farmstead cooking: think roasted bone marrow with tomato jam and South Carolina quail with onion soubise.

Stop In
The Bascom is a six-building, 6-acre campus that draws art-enthusiasts from all over the Southeast. Diverse exhibitions and studio-art instruction are always available, plus seasonal experiences such as the premier Collective Spirits Wine and Food Festival (May 15-17) are a can’t-miss. If you’re a fan of those precious gourmet shops that carry expensive cheeses; artisanal meats; and organic, biodynamic wines, Mountain Fresh Grocery and Wine Market has all of those perfect provisions.