Gainesville with a mountain view

Where can you find many Gainesvillians when summer comes? Relaxed, rested and enjoying on another's company in Highlands, North Carolina

Peggy and john Kirkpatrick own "Fellerbrook," a vacation home in North Carolina.

Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2005 at 12:26 p.m.

The Cherokee name for Highlands, N.C., was "Onteeorah," or "Hills of the Sky." In the summer, however, this mountain town could just as easily be called Gainesville North.

When Florida's heat and humidity make the lightest linen blouse feel like a wool sweater, dozens of Gainesville families find a reprieve in western North Carolina, where rhododendrons and flame azaleas dot the lush, green mountainsides.

Nestled on a plateau 4,000 feet above sea level in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Highlands is home to 2,000 year-round residents, a number that grows to more than 20,000 in the summer.

"There's a sense of freedom and peace up there," says Peggy Kirkpatrick, who spends the summer with her husband John at "Fallebrook," an English-style manor situated midway between the towns of Highlands, Cashiers and Franklin. With a guest house, formal gardens, three streams and a trout pond, as well as a wine cellar, walk-in humidor and exercise room, Fallebrook is "a dream home," John says.

Like many of the couples who escape to Highlands for the summer, the Kirkpatricks - who own several Sonny's restaurants in Florida - love the relaxed atmosphere of days spent hiking and gardening, with outings for Fourth of July fireworks over the lake and chamber music under the stars.

"The people there socialize on a very informal, comfortable scale," Peggy says.

Gainesvillians are everywhere in Highlands and the surrounding areas: At a party last summer, Peggy counted 70 guests with Gainesville connections. Many have long-time roots in the Highlands area, as well. Sam Holloway, president and CEO of Holloway Financial Services, first vacationed in Highlands as a child growing up in Jacksonville.

"I loved it," he says. "It was very green, very cool in the summers, and unlike Florida, it wasn't flat."

He and his wife, Connie, found their Highlands-area home in 1996, in a golf community where 12 other couples hail from Gainesville. Each summer, the Holloways enjoy visits from their four children and seven grandchildren, as well as a slower pace of life.

"It's a very restful thing to sit on the porch overlooking the lake," Sam says. "All the roads are two lanes. You just don't get in a hurry. It's not like 34th Street at 5:30 in the afternoon." Carolyn Fouts has been vacationing in Highlands since the 1950s, when her parents, searching for a place to escape the heat, discovered the area.

"Not a lot of people had found Highlands in the early `50s," she says. "Since that time, it has really become a mecca for people in Gainesville."

They come for the same things her parents found 50 years ago: direct access from Gainesville and a lofty elevation, nearly 2,000 miles higher than Asheville.

"It's the highest incorporated town east of the Continental Divide," Fouts says. "it's always cool and comfortable." The Foutses have introduced many friends to the Highlands area, some of whom have decided to buy vacation homes themselves. Fouts recalls one guest who came for the weekend, somewhat unwillingly, expecting a backward mountain town with limited potential for fun.

"Then she saw the golf courses, the gorgeous, pristine mountains, the swans on the lake. By Sunday, they were looking for properties," she says.

The critical mass of Gainesvillians means a busy social season of events both grand and informal.

Fouts says. "It's just one round of get-togethers after another."

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