North Carolinians are beautifully blasé about how hip the state is. Raleigh, Asheville, and Highlands are cool communities filled with friendly locals, hearty food, and cashmere-swaddled lazy afternoons.
From its buttery biscuits to its bustling brew houses, Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital city, offers lively southern charm in a relaxed urban landscape. The ideal kickoff to explore this Smoky Mountain state is the Umstead Hotel and Spa, a mere 15-minute drive from downtown Raleigh. The hotel boasts one of the best spas in North Carolina, and, like any hotel worth its coarse-ground Himalayan salt, the Umstead’s signature restaurant, Herons, is ground zero for locally-inspired fine dining. Executive chef Scott Crawford is one of Raleigh’s most courted arbiters of taste; a meal here is an adventure in slow-braised Southern nibbles.
Under an hour’s drive west leads to the Fearrington House Inn in Pittsboro, ideal for travellers who like a bit of modern convenience comfort with their country living. The village vibe captures the new North Carolina lifestyle, if this ethos was dictated by Emily Post. Such well-mannered appeal is likely what gained the 32-room property entry into the ranks of Relais & Châteaux, though executive chef Colin Bedford’s fare likely sealed the deal. Bedford has created a culinary destination out of a relatively remote locale, winning national accolades for his farm-to-fork plates—no small feat in this close-knit community of just over 3,800 residents. The restaurant itself is chic English country, surrounded by arching magnolia trees, robust rhododendrons, and coiffed green lawns, and still reflects the restored farmhouse’s history. Records of the Fearrington farm date back to the 1770s; after a fire destroyed the original property in 1925, the homestead that is now the Fearrington House Restaurant was built in 1927. Developer R.B. Fitch purchased the property in 1974, and the Fearrington House Restaurant and Village Center opened in 1980. Today, it contains plenty besides the inn and restaurant to explore, including McIntyre’s Books, which has stood firm in the village since 1989.
A few hours west of Pittsboro is the city of Asheville. From spa hedonism to homegrown craft beer to the great outdoors, Asheville takes its sensual delights very seriously. When President Barack Obama took his family to this vibrant, cultural city, he joined a list of 10 United States presidents who have stayed at the Grove Park Inn. From J. Calvin Coolidge to Franklin D. Roosevelt to Dwight D. Eisenhower, a pantheon of presidential portraits line the corridors here. Of note is the inn’s 4,000-square-metre subterranean spa. The maze of therapy pools was designed to cocoon guests in a grotto-like setting, with winding paths through embedded boulders and cavernous tunnels leading to the spa’s 20 water features. The main indoor pool area includes two therapeutic waterfall pools: a warm mineral pool and a bracing cold plunge to contrast. Both are chlorine-free, with trace minerals of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and zinc to boost the condition of skin and hair.
Farther west, after passing through Nantahala National Forest’s deep gorges and old-growth forests, and climbing to an elevation of 1,255 metres, is the Old Edwards Inn & Spa in the mountain town of Highlands. The stone and brick property, festooned with black shutters and hand-forged iron railings, was originally built in 1878 as a boarding house. This ivy-clad haven makes an impactful first impression with its warmth and old European character. Inside, common areas are dominated by a looming gulag of colonial aristocrats, keeping a watchful eye from their portraits should a silver teapot go missing. Each room in this historic inn is like an Andrew Wyeth painting: luminous interiors give way to deep, pensive shadows. Newer cottages, styled like English manors, surround the original historic structure and feature wide screened terraces with tree fringed views of the surrounding town. And, continuing the trend of southern hospitality, each of the 68 accommodations include champagne upon arrival and access to 24-hour complimentary butler pantries.