The Our State Wine Guide: In this series, we’ll help you plan a fun wine tour getaway and tell you where to go, what to do, and, most importantly, what to sip in beautiful wine regions across the state. This month, we’re heading to the Upper Hiwassee Highlands.
Spend a long weekend visiting vineyards and adventuring in the far western reaches of North Carolina. The Upper Hiwassee Highlands region spans the beautiful and mountainous terrain of the Southern Appalachians. As you explore the highlands and pop into towns like Andrews, Murphy, and Hayesville, you’ll enjoy the delicious, distinctive wine that this high-elevation region produces.
Surrounded by national forestland and numerous rushing rivers, you’ll also find bountiful opportunities for outdoor adventure, from whitewater rafting to hiking to horseback riding. And, in the most unexpected of tiny towns, you’ll find a fine-dining restaurant to rival any big-city establishment. Let’s get going!
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Go whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River
Kick off your long weekend by rafting down the cold, clear Nantahala River near Bryson City. This eight-mile guided trip, which starts and ends at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, lasts around three hours, and will lead you through an exciting section of white water and down about 20 named rapids, including Patton’s Run, Tumble Dry, and Delabar’s Rock. The trip culminates in the thrilling Class III Nantahala Falls. If you don’t feel like getting wet, hang around the riverside outdoor center, where you can dine at River’s End Restaurant or Big Wesser, shop the outfitter store, dip your toes in the river, and perch on a rock to watch paddlers navigate the final falls. If you have extra time, go zip-lining or mountain biking on the adventure center’s 500-acre property.
After a big day of adventure, relax at this charming (and tiny) winery. No, really — Calaboose is the smallest winery in the U.S. According to local legend, in the early 1920s, before the town had a proper jail, the local lawman would keep suspects locked in the structure, called a “calaboose,” until they appeared before the magistrate. Since Eric and Judy Thompson converted it into a winery in 2006, the building has a much friendlier vibe. Inside the 300-square-foot stone building covered in ivy, you’ll find a wine-making and -bottling operation, plus a tasting room. Outside, a large covered front deck and stone patio overlook a groomed lawn and small vineyard, plus stunning mountains in the distance. Try the Revinoor’s Red, a sangria-style best seller, and the Sparkling Niagara, a semisweet white infused with carbon dioxide and served from the tap. Calaboose hosts live Americana or blues music on the deck from 6 to 8 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and from 4 to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Have dinner delivered from nearby Granieri’s Italian or Monte Alban Mexican restaurants, and take in the music from a blanket or chair on the lawn.
You started your day on one river; end it on another! More specifically, at River Cove, a cluster of cabins overlooking the Nottely River. These rustic one- and two-bedroom cabins are just 30 minutes from Calaboose. Choose a cabin with a wood-burning fireplace or a jacuzzi, or just relax in a rocking chair on your covered front porch. River Cove offers plenty of activities, too: Fish for rainbow trout, catfish, and perch from a fishing dock or the river’s bank, and play Ping-Pong, darts, or checkers in the game room.
Just 12 minutes from your cabin, the laid-back, locally owned Daily Grind and Wine in historic downtown Murphy is a one-stop shop. You’ll find coffee, tea, and pastries; breakfast biscuits, burritos, and bowls; and even lunchtime fare later in the day. Oh, and books and wine. What more could you need?
Stroll the Murphy River Walk
After breakfast, take a stroll down to the River Walk. This three-mile trail (one way) parallels the Hiwassee and Valley rivers near their intersection, and spans the distance between the old train depot downtown and Konehete Park. Consisting of pavement, gravel, dirt, and long boardwalks and bridges, the beautiful and well-maintained trail traverses open meadows, marshy wetlands, and hardwood forests. Take a riverside stroll with a cup of coffee in hand.
Located atop a ridgeline just 15 minutes from downtown Murphy, the tasting room at Nottely River Valley looks out over three states — North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee — and 10 acres of grapevines. To put visitors in touch with the natural world that makes their wine possible, owners Steve and Karen Thompson regularly fling open the windows and allow the mountain breeze to blow through. They also encourage visitors to sip their wines on the back pavilion that doubles as a grape-crushing pad, or to wander among the vines. “We try to let the vineyard speak in all of our wines, and not alter it from what we harvest,” Steve says. When you partake in a tasting, expect to receive an education, if you’re interested. “We spend time and discuss the whole process and the differences and components of each wine, and how it got to be where it is,” he says.
Before moving on to Hayesville, stop in at The Murphy Co., a wine bar and bottle shop, to check out the wares of a few local wineries not on the itinerary. Order a charcuterie plate, if you like, and then settle into a comfy couch or gather around a table beneath string lights. Try some of the offerings from FernCrest, a winery up the road in Andrews, making sure not to miss their Royal White, an award-winning dry wine made with French-American grapes.
Your next destination is less than 20 minutes away. The Cherokee people have lived in this part of western North Carolina for more than 10,000 years. To learn more about their history, visit this Cherokee Heritage site, a reconstructed 17th- and 18th-century homestead. On a free, self-guided tour of the open-air exhibit in downtown Hayesville, see a summer house, winter house, food storage crib, dugout canoe, and traditional mound garden.
For dinner, take a three-minute walk to an esteemed fine-dining establishment just off the square. The Copper Door — which does, in fact, have a copper front door — offers dry-aged steaks, fresh seafood, and a sommelier-curated wine list featuring local wine options that has won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. Chef Dennis Barber, who hails from New Orleans, specializes in Cajun-style dishes like crawfish tortellini and shrimp Creole. For dessert, don’t miss the bananas Foster, prepared tableside. Enjoy the intimate dining room or the outdoor patio and courtyard, and order a cocktail from the full bar.
When the Tennessee Valley Authority constructed a 2,950-foot earth-and-rock hydroelectric dam over the Hiwassee River in 1942, they created Lake Chatuge, an almost-11-square-mile lake in Clay County that straddles the border of North Carolina and Georgia. The serene mountain lake boasts 132 miles of shoreline with many fingerlike coves and a number of islands. Walk the paved trail over the 150-foot-tall dam and through the woods at the lake’s edges. Swim at one of its beaches or have a picnic along the shore. Or rent a pontoon boat from Chatuge Cove Marina and spend the morning on the water. Enjoy the view of the mountains in the distance, and keep an eye out for deer, geese, loons, and bald eagles.
You’ll hear the music of Beethoven, Brahms, or Strauss emanating from the speakers posted throughout the grapevines at Eagle Fork. About 15 years ago, during a trip to a Tuscan vineyard, Dr. Jerry Brown, an environmental-chemist-turned-winemaker, learned that classical music’s frequencies drive insects from the vines. As a result of employing the technique at his own vineyard, Brown says, he never has to use insecticides. While Eagle Fork’s main tasting room is located on Cedar Cliff Road near its intersection with Highway 64, about a mile and a half away, you’ll find a second, smaller tasting room near the vineyards and winemaking facility. At a tasting, try white wines like Overture in White and Sweet Symphony, and reds like Mountain Music Red and Rhapsody in Red. If you want to go behind the scenes of the small operation, take a vineyard and winery tour: You’ll see the five varieties of grapes, taste aging wine from the barrels, and enjoy crackers, cheese, and a glass of wine outside by a rushing stream.
Go horseback riding through the mountains
Once you’ve spent some time at Eagle Fork, take a three-hour horseback tour guided by Chunky Gal Stables, which starts and ends at the main tasting room. Once matched with a horse that suits your experience level, you’ll head up a logging road and ramble through the mountains, returning to the tasting room for a boxed lunch and wine — the perfect way to end a weekend in the Highlands.