If you have engaged in conversation with me you may recall it did not take long before I brought up Highlands, NC.
I was fortunate to have lived in Highlands for 15 years and to have raised our family there. Fortunate is the key word. I would have never been able to afford living in Highlands if I had not been sent there by the company I worked for at the time to develop a gated community featuring an Arnold Palmer golf course. There is a saying that if you want to live in Highlands, you better bring a job with you. That is why most of the shops and restaurants are independently owned. Over the years people have fallen in love with the town and carved out a place for themselves.
Highlands is a little over 600 miles south of Chestertown, but a world away. Like Chestertown, you have to want to go there. It is not a town you would necessarily pass through on your way to some other place. That is about where the comparison ends.
If you need a getaway as badly as I do, then I highly recommend Highlands. It is not an easy road trip, but traveling by car is the only way I really feel safe these days. Investing in a four- or five-day trip is well worth it.
In the past, fear of the mosquito and yellow fever brought the wealthy from the coastal south to the mountains as far back as the 1800s. For over a hundred years, Highlands was a sleepy village that attracted second homeowners and visitors in the summer months, mainly from Georgia and Florida. In many respects it is still a quiet mountain town, but now there is a sophistication that adds another level of enjoyment.
The number of Florida summer residents has increased over the years. They are called “halfbacks”– people who retired from the north and soon realized the Florida summers were unbearable, so they came halfway back–at least for the summers. They still do, and real estate prices have increased along with their numbers.
Well into the 1980s when we lived there, the second-home people were on their way back down the
mountain before the last leaves of fall hit the ground. The town shut down after the last Thanksgiving meal was served. With fewer than 800 permanent or year-round residents, few businesses stayed open–only one restaurant and a couple of grocery stores. There was a dog that chose to sleep in the middle of Main St., and he did not need to move often. It was not uncommon for a member of a family to slip out of Church early in order to hold a table at the restaurant and order fried chicken before they ran out.
We had two children who both started their education in the Highlands’ public school. The school was K through 12 in one building with fewer than 500 students from the town and surrounding area. The first grade would start out with two classes, but the graduating class was always fewer than 30, a fifty-percent reduction. A lot of the mountain kids dropped out as soon as they could drive a dump truck or a backhoe. The local mountain people are descendants of the hardy Scotch-Irish and good hard-working people.
A couple quick stories I loved telling my Atlanta friends who were always bitching about traffic.
My pregnant wife was on her way to town with our 3-year-old daughter in her car seat. Arnold Palmer was coming to town to promote the new golf course community. His helicopter was landing on the town baseball field about the time my wife was passing by. The car in front of my wife slowed down to see the helicopter, and my wife rear-ended him and the third car rear-ended her and so on. From then on, my wife was known as the lady who caused the only four-car accident ever in Highlands.
There was a small weekly newspaper that was fun to read. A want ad I loved, read, “Church pianist needed, small salary and an occasional chicken.”
One front page story showed a girl with a gun standing over a bear.
The headline was “Former Homecoming Queen Kills First Bear.”
Today there are still no fast-food chains. The only businesses whose names you will recognize are a couple of national banks and oil company service stations. There are no movies, but a good summer stock theater. The restaurants now number more than 225, varying from sandwich shops to world-class fine dining. There is one Four Star Hotel with a wonderful spa and several smaller hotels and rental cottages along with B&Bs and Airbnbs. Most businesses now stay open year-round, even though the permanent population is still under a thousand. The 900 residents who make Highlands their year-round home are determined to protect their town. It will never become a tourist trap.
I could go on for hours telling about Highlands, but the internet does a better job of that. Try Highlands.net, a website produced by the Chamber of Commerce. There are also many more sites and reviews.
I hope you will put Highlands on your list of “must visit.” If you feel safe flying, Allegiant Air flies from BWI to Asheville, a really fun city only about an hour and a half from Highlands. If you would like more first-hand information than you find on the web, you can reach me by leaving a comment following this article.
PS: During this hot summer, Highlands was consistently 20 degrees cooler than Chestertown.
Bill Minus lives in Chestertown and can be found wandering around Kent County.