Burrowed between the Nantahala National Forest and Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina, the small town of Highlands maintains an artful balance between being "away from it all" and generating its own cultural magnetism.
"It's an upscale mountain retreat," said Jennifer Smathers, director of the town's visitor center and lifelong resident. "It's very pretty, and it's a close-knit town."
The area's mountain vistas, network of trails and dozens of waterfalls make for an ideal outdoor getaway. There's no end to outdoor activity: hiking, rafting, fishing -- even ice skating on a large frozen pond in winter.
But remote Highlands also has bloomed into a hub of culture. The town is a second home for many artists, actors and authors seeking respite from sweltering Southern cities and inspiration in the Southern Appalachian scenery.
"The town is populated by people who are wanting to escape, so you've got people who are very creative and very enthusiastic about preserving the natural landscape," said Donna Alley, who with her husband has run the Colonial Pines Inn for 28 years.
The compact and colorful downtown boasts theaters, a center for the arts, chamber music concerts and art galleries. There are plush boutiques and full-service spas, and the town lures plenty of golfers with its four country clubs.
But the main draw?
"It's the mountain air," says Alley. "A lot of people love the shopping and the gourmet restaurants, but really it's the clean, cool, mountain air, along with the hiking and the waterfalls that make the area really special."
AT A GLANCE
-- Population: Year-round population on the Highlands Plateau is 3,200, but it rises to more than 18,000 in the summer.
-- Best things to do: There are plenty of scenic hikes around Highlands, but make sure to visit its waterfalls. Walk behind Dry Falls, or drive under Bridal Veil Falls. In town, there's shopping, theaters and The Bascom, the town's new fine arts center.
-- Miles from downtown Chattanooga: 158.
-- Geographic features: The town is bordered by the Nantahala National Forest and Pisgah National Forest. Nearby rivers include the Cullasaja and the Chattooga.
-- Date founded: 1875.
-- Historic info: Highlands was born when two Kansas developers, Samuel Truman Kelsey and Clinton Carter Hutchinson, took a map of the United States and drew a large X reaching from Chicago to Savannah and from New Orleans to Baltimore. They predicted that the spot where the lines intersected would one day become a great commercial crossroads, and developed a resort town there in the 1870s.
-- Most-famous resident: Bobby Jones, successful amateur golfer in the 1920s and '30s who also co-founded the Masters Tournament, helped develop the Highlands Country Club.
-- Unique traditions: Highlands hosts an annual Culinary Weekend filled with wine tastings, cooking demonstrations and tastings provided by the area's top chefs.
-- Fun fact: Highlands is nestled in what is considered a temperate rain forest, meaning that in the summer it rains every afternoon. Because of this, it's become a hub of biological research and has also been dubbed both "Lichen Capital of the World" and "Salamander Capital of the World."