The Original Hideout

by Winston Groom - North Carolina - November 2008

Why Southerners keep flocking to North Carolina's High Hampton Inn

In a once-secluded valley high in the southern Appalachians, there’s an old hotel, a lodge, really, that’s been a summer home to countless generations of flatlanders, stupefied to this very day that there’s actually a place in the Deep South where eighty degrees in July is considered a heat wave.

To get there, go to Cashiers (pronounced cash-urs), North Carolina, a lovely little village in the process of being “discovered” by developers who, in the past decade or so, have begun crowding it with golf course developments of million-dollar homes. But a mile or two from the heart of town—which is little more than a crossroads of ever-more-trendy “shoppes”—the scene dissolves into a verdant tunnel, walled in by a hedge of giant rhododendrons shaded by 150-foot-tall white pines. Turn in to the left, right past the sunny dahlia garden, and enter the magical kingdom of the High Hampton Inn.

High Hampton is not for the faint of heart, by which I mean those who expect the exquisite luxury of the Greenbrier, the Homestead, or the Cloister at Sea Island. (But you won’t faint when you get the bill, either.) It is what it is, which is a good thing, especially if you have children, because you will see children. They may be at the Teddy Bear Picnic, hiking nature trails, swimming in the large private lake, or on the donkey-cart rides in the evenings to marshmallow roasts at the picnic grounds up in the woods. In fact, staying at High Hampton is something akin to going to camp with your kids, except you only have to fool with them when you want to. Children’s activities go on day and night.

People have been vacationing at High Hampton since 1922. Prior to that, the 1,400-acre property was the mountain retreat of South Carolina governor and Civil War general Wade Hampton III, who commanded Lee’s cavalry after J.E.B. Stuart was killed. After Hampton’s descendants died, the McKee family bought the property and built the lodge. To this day the family runs it as a resort hotel from April to November.

William “Bill” McKee, a Harvard man who was a fixture at the place for more than fifty years until his death in 2004 at the age of eighty-nine, maintained it in the delightful old Southern tradition of casual formality (e.g., jacket and tie are still required for dinner in the large family-style dining hall). On the other hand, there was until recently a certain genteel shabbiness about High Hampton.

An apocryphal story still goes around about a couple who spent their wedding night at the inn’s Honeymoon Cottage nearly forty years ago. Soon the couple noticed that one of the bedsprings squeaked—a distraction—so the guy wrapped a wire coat hanger around it to silence the thing. Upon returning to High Hampton for their thirty-fifth anniversary, the couple again asked for the Honeymoon Cottage, and, once ensconced, the guy remembered the offending spring and looked under the mattress. Sure enough, the coat hanger was still there, doing its duty.

Today, young Will McKee, Bill’s son, who is now running the inn, has completely redone the 120 guest rooms in the lodge and the seventeen guest cottages, with handmade twig and mountain crafted furniture, up-to-date baths, a first-rate health spa, and the charmingly refurbished Rock Mountain Tavern. One can safely assume the bedspring business is history.

Once I tried to hide out at High Hampton, during the height of the Forrest Gump movie mania, which recalls the story of the Impostor. As the film became a major hit, there were endless requests for interviews and appearances, and then the TV pundits turned Gump into a political football and the phone never quit ringing. I fled for what I thought would be peace and quiet. This worked for a while, but word soon leaked out that the author of Forrest Gump was at High Hampton. Suddenly there was a buzz around the place, and ladies (mostly) were going up to male guests, asking if they were me. Apparently, after a while they settled on a guy who at first had no idea what they were talking about, but soon these autograph hounds became certain, and insistent, and kept thrusting books and pieces of paper at him to sign. At last he became tired of denials and began autographing these things in my name. I watched him one night after dinner, and he actually appeared to be enjoying his celebrity.

Golf is a main attraction at High Hampton, and the up-and-down eighteen-hole course offers breathtaking vistas of surrounding mountains. Once I tricked a visiting newspaper editor into believing that the tee for the famous eighth hole (Golf Digest calls it “one of America’s greatest”), which lies on an island in the middle of a thirty-five-acre lake, was actually located in front of the main lodge—about four hundred yards away, across water—an impossible shot. The editor studied the hole in the far distance for a long moment, and then asked incredulously, “Does the ball travel farther because of the thin air up here?”

Aside from golf, tennis is a big draw, with a pro, eight clay courts, and one tournament-style French clay court. Tennis at High Hampton is not without its surprises. One chilly October morning, I walked out to the courts to hit with the pro, and there were a half dozen ladies milling around. One asked, “Oh, are you here to play with Andre?” I replied that no, I was there to play with Carlos, wondering who in the hell “Andre” was. I was not long in finding out, because soon several figures emerged in the gloomy mist, and one of them turned out to be Andre Agassi, then the best tennis player in the world. It seemed that he was scheduled to play in a tournament in Colorado, and Agassi wanted to get in some practice using high-altitude balls. After watching them hit for a while, it occurred to me that if I could ever hit one—just one—backhand as hard as he did, I would retire from the sport forever.

If tennis or golf isn’t your game, then there is the (almost) obligatory two-hour hike to the crest of 4,800-foot-high Chimney Top Mountain for spectacular panoramas of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Smokies. Fly fishing in the lake, as well as the many local trout streams, is another option—as are myriad workshops for artists, chefs, and would-be flower arrangers. Or you could just sit on the porch in a rocking chair.

When I decided to get a place there about fifteen years ago, I was having lunch with Bill McKee to discuss buying at High Hampton. The lunch he took me to was at a club just down the road, which had terrific views of the aforementioned mountains, and when the owner discovered I was “looking,” he immediately tried to sell me on his own properties.

“See the great view of the mountains from up here,” he said proudly. To which old Bill McKee, not missing a beat, replied, “Yes, it may be so. But just remember this: Those are my mountains we are looking at.”

And so they were.