High Country Driving Itinerary
Our excursion through the ancestral land of the Cherokee, the High Country in the westernmost part of North Carolina, included winery visits, pottery studio tours, memorable hotel stays and more. This area is beautiful to visit year-round; it is a place to slow down and relax amid the magnificent backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A leisurely drive through the High Country, with its scenic pastoral landscapes, hazy mountains, lush woodlands, seasonal floras, small charming towns and exceptional local artisans shops, is a sure way to soak in the grandeur of the highlands and feel connected to the land and the history of this part of the state.
Day 1 : Fly into Charlotte
After you land at the international airport in Charlotte, pick up your car and drive to the main downtown city center, where the NASCAR Hall of Fame museum, the 7th Street Public Market and the Discovery Place museum are located. Busy Tryon Street features shopping arcades, little cafés and The Green, a petite sculpture park lined with benches.
I recommend heading to Halcyon, Flavors From the Earth, located in the Mint Museum Uptown. This farm-to-table eatery serves excellent salads, sandwiches and raw oysters. The roasted free-range chicken with its crisp, flavorful skin was a welcome addition to the farro-and-kale salad.
After lunching downtown, connect to Highway 321 from Interstate 85. Hilton Pottery, a family-run establishment off the main road in Newton, is a wonderful place to interact with local artisans and buy high-quality ceramics.
From there, continue northwest to Westglow Resort & Spa in Blowing Rock, a wellness retreat that was once the home of artist and writer Elliott Daingerfield. I recommend booking a suite in the more contemporary Lodge at Westglow Village across the street from the estate.
Though the rooms in the 1917 Greek Revival mansion are charming, I found them to be in need of major refurbishments. The main reason to stay at this hotel is for its fine-dining establishment, Rowland’s. The exceptional cuisine surpassed our expectations, and the conservatory-like room in the back was beautiful.
Day 2 - 3 : Westglow
Spend the next couple days relaxing at Westglow or in the surrounding area. Plan on a few hours to read or nap in the sunlit “resting room” in the spa area or, for those seeking a more active vacation, schedule a private hike with the charming guide, Gwen.
If you are interested in spending time off-property, I recommend booking a horseback-riding excursion through Dutch Creek Trails. The owner, Keith Ward, is an interesting character, and if you can spare the time, take a seat beside him on the porch and let him tell you all about the history of the land and even read you some of his cowboy poetry. A wine-tasting at Grandfather Vineyard and Winery, a terraced mountain spot in Banner Elk, is another pleasant way to spend a few hours.
Day 4 : Biltmore Winery
Start off bright and early to avoid traffic on the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. This byway has overlooks from which to stop and enjoy uninterrupted views of the majestic Appalachian Mountains, where fog curls up like smoke and deep-green peaks appear and disappear within minutes.
After two hours on this parkway, which winds through Grandfather Mountain State Park and Pisgah National Forest, you will arrive in Asheville, a mountain enclave favored by artists. Head directly to the Biltmore Estate, a family-owned mansion completed in 1895 on an 8,000-acre property on the outskirts of town. The manor, reminiscent of a 16th-century castle in the Loire Valley, is worth touring, and the manicured gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted are a perfect place to stretch your legs after the long drive.
Next, head up the road to Biltmore Winery in Antler Hill Village for a complimentary tasting and dine on contemporary American cuisine at adjacent Bistro, a casual restaurant that primarily employs ingredients from the estate’s farm.
Afterward, make your way to Asheville’s downtown area and park in one of the garages around South Lexington Avenue and Aston Street. Stop in at Lexington Glassworks to watch artists create colorful glass sculptures in an open studio. Walk north on Biltmore Avenue to Blue Spiral 1, a three-floor gallery concentrated on contemporary Southeastern fine art and crafts.
From there, visit Mountain Made in the historic Grove Arcade for locally made jewelry, wooden art and stained glass. East Fork is a wonderful shop to buy simply designed, handcrafted pottery made with North Carolina clay. (Visits of the studio in the town of Marshall can be arranged.) It is also worth heading to the River Arts District and stopping in at the Jonas Gerard Fine Art gallery. Gerard is a creative sculptor and painter, and his vibrant, one-of-a-kind pieces are striking.
Though we do not recommend any properties in Asheville, if you are interested in spending the night, we would recommend The Omni Grove Park Inn. It is set in Grovewood Village, an enclave with an antique-car museum, working artist studios, a sculpture garden and the well-stocked Grovewood gallery for fine American arts and crafts. The hotel features an 18-hole golf course, a full-service spa and an expansive sports complex, but accommodations feel utilitarian and lack a sense of place.
From Asheville, drive one hour directly west to our recommended property, The Swag. This beautiful mountaintop hiking refuge in Waynesville is our favorite property in North Carolina.
Day 5 - 6 : Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Spend the next couple days hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, dining on gourmet cuisine and relishing the calm and quiet in an Adirondack chair on the scenic lookout point, Gooseberry Knob.
The convivial house-party atmosphere of The Swag, the charming owners and the outstanding attention to detail make this an idyllic retreat. You will have no desire to leave the property.
Day 7 : Head to the Highlands
Depart The Swag and drive two hours south to Highlands, a sleepy hamlet close to where North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia converge. Check into the elegant Old Edwards Inn and Spa, which spans three blocks in a series of varying structures that have been designed to blend in with the elegant European style of the town. I recommend reserving a Spa Suite. Be sure to also arrange for a spa treatment in advance, as they tend to book up quickly.
Day 8 : Explore
Wander the picturesque mountain town of Highlands, which is filled with quaint shops, antiques stores and art galleries.
Outdoor activities include easy hikes to stunning waterfalls within the Nantahala National Forest, fly-fishing and golf at private courses in the area.
Day 9 : Drive to Charlotte
The drive back to Charlotte from Highlands is a three-and-a-half-hour journey, but the road is so beautiful that it goes quickly. I recommend eating lunch at Old Edwards’ alfresco Wine Garden, with its trickling fountain, koi pond and light fare, before you get on the road.
You could either take an evening flight out of Charlotte or spend a night in town to unwind after the drive. If you choose to stay in the city, The Duke Mansion is the best option I have found so far. Nestled in the prestigious Myers Park neighborhood, the two-storied Colonial Revival mansion houses 20 rooms. The hotel lacks a spa and restaurant. A short walk away, you can enjoy dinner at the Mediterranean bistro Aix en Provence.
Day 10 : Return home
Drive to the airport, return your rental car and head home feeling invigorated by the fresh mountain air and High Country cuisine.
High Country Driving Itinerary
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