Scenic Highlands, N.C. full of festivals, relaxation

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 07/03/08

Highlands, N.C. — Drive about 130 miles north of Atlanta, across industrial stretches of north Georgia on U.S. 23 and up a winding road to an elevation of 4,000 feet. Park your car and let it hit you — fresh mountain air, the kind that takes a broom to your lungs and mind, sweeping away city smog and stress.

This quaint spot has for years drawn Georgians and Floridians to take their ease in the town's mountain views, waterfalls and myriad golf courses.

"Every time we would come up here, we'd see the mountain range and all of our stress would start coming down," says Joyce Franklin of Brookhaven.

She and her husband, Dr. Ernest Franklin, bought a mountain cottage in 1999; his family has vacationed in Highlands since childhood.

Now from May to October, the couple leaves behind their city condo for their summer garden estate near downtown Highlands shopping and restaurants.

"You get spoiled up here," Joyce says.

The Franklins' home and garden (once owned by Highlands Mayor Henry Bascom in the 1880s) will be featured in the Mountains in Bloom Garden Festival next week, one of several summer events sure to draw visitors from lower elevations.

Historically a vacation spot for folks from Savannah and the South Carolina Lowcountry, Highlands has boomed with Atlanta tourists since the 1960s, says Bob Kieltyka, executive director of the Highlands Chamber of Commerce.

They flock here for weekends or long summer stretches, when the town's population swells from 3,200 to more than 18,000, according to the chamber.

Some stay in town, while others retreat to mountain cottages or majestic cliffside homes.

And when they're not unwinding at one of the area's more than 15 country clubs or hiking a mountain trail, you might find them on Main Street, the hub for restaurants and shopping.

In the space of three traffic lights, you can go from boiled peanuts at a corner gas station to Burberry at Rosenthals, a high-end boutique.

In a sense, Highlands is a Carmel of the South, sans the Tiffany's, Starbucks and ocean.

"I think there's something here for everyone," says Tim Francis, a realtor from Sandy Springs. "The price is the challenge."

The median home price in 2005 was $662,000, according to the chamber of commerce.

Francis and his wife, Michelle, have been visiting Highlands for more than a decade, and just three years ago built a home in the nearby town of Cashiers.

It's home away from Atlanta home for the couple and their three preteen children, who take advantage of kid-friendly activities such as summer camps and the aptly named Bust Your Butt waterfall.

And when family members aren't enjoying the town's recreational attractions, they turn to local theater, such as the Highlands Playhouse, for entertainment.