Day One: Lake Lure to Brevard
Distance: 65 miles
Grab your mambo partner, and kick off a mountainous road trip that begins at Lake Lure, the set of one of the most "uplifting" love scenes known to chick flicks. Time it right and you can show off your own dance moves at the Dirty Dancing Festival (August 17-18), where you can compete in a Lake Lift Contest, sign up for lessons (salsa, mambo, merengue, and cha-cha), or just pack a picnic and catch the lakeside screening (dirtydancingfestival.com).
Start your adventure in Chimney Rock Village, a three-block town with a kitschy Wild West feel, by grabbing a massive homemade cinnamon roll ($3) from Medina's Village Bistro (828/989-4529). Then head straight to Chimney Rock State Park ($15 admission; chimneyrockpark.com) for the best breakfast perch in town—the distinctive granite outcropping that gives the town its name. Stairs or an elevator lead to the top of the chimney rock and offer a bird's-eye view of 720-acre Lake Lure.
After breakfast, take an hour-long cruise ($15) through Lake Lure's emerald green back bays with Lake Lure Tours (lakelure.com). The skipper dishes local lore between well-rehearsed jokes and takes you to the very cove where Johnny and "Baby" practiced their lift. Lunch is on the water at the Bayfront Bar & Grill—located underneath Larkin's on the Lake (larkinsonthelake.com)—where the watermelon salad with mint and feta ($15) is as refreshing as a summer dip.
Follow U.S. 64 west as it climbs out of the gorge and into apple country. Orchards big and small line the road to Hendersonville, a small farming town humming with new life. Grab a summery Belgian Blonde Ale ($3.50) at Southern Appalachian Brewery (sabrewery.com) before wandering down Main Street, a lively strip with high-end boutiques and galleries. Never Blue Tapas Bar and Bistro (theneverblue.com) has tin ceilings and a garage door that opens to a garden patio. Try the Al Pastor ($3), a taco with a sweet kick thanks to adobe pork and pineapples, and a side of smoked Gouda grits ($4). If you're not the designated driver, try a glass of red or white sangría ($7) loaded with fresh fruit. Don't be ashamed to suck the last bit from the bottom of the glass—that's why they give you the straw.
Continue west on U.S. 64 to the edge of Brevard, and bed down at the Bed & Breakfast on Tiffany Hill (rooms from $185; bbontiffanyhill.com). Owner Selena Einwechter used the pages of Southern Living to inspire every aspect of the B&B, which includes round-back leather chairs, an oversize soaking tub, and rich-toned Ralph Lauren decor in the new Lexington Suite. Bonus: She's extending a 10% discount to SL readers through the end of the year. (Mention code SL2012 when you call; the first 10 readers will also receive a copy of Selena's new cookbook coming out next month.)
Day Two: Brevard to Highlands
Distance: 80 miles
After a three-course gourmet breakfast at Tiffany Hill, drive west on U.S. 64 into Brevard, a town surrounded by peaks and waterfalls. Some of the most impressive cascades are 10 miles south of town in DuPont State Recreational Forest (dupontforest.com). Head to Triple Falls, a three-tiered waterfall with a 120-foot vertical drop along the Little River, recently featured in this generation's cult hit, The Hunger Games. The hike to the falls is short and steep, but the view is worth it.
U.S. 276 will lead you back into downtown, but don't rush. The winding stretch between DuPont and Brevard is home to several art studios. Check out Mud Dabbers Pottery & Crafts (muddabbers.com) for a selection of pottery that's both folksy and elegant ($5 and up). Find a deal at the shed behind the gallery, where pieces of the perfectly imperfect pottery are shelved.
Plan to do a little shopping in Brevard's charming downtown. Locally made goods such as cute soda-bottle tea lights beckon at Eclectic Cottage (828/884-2625). Next door, Gravy (828/862-4900) houses everything from handmade aprons to hand-tied flies for the discerning angler. At Continental Divide, you'll find "big kid toys" such as working slot machines and an oversize model of the Hindenburg (828/884-5484).
Grab lunch at The Square Root (squarerootrestaurant.com), a local favorite tucked into an alley off Main Street. Pair the London broil sandwich ($9) with a side of zucchini fries ($1), or try the brown sugar-and-mustard-glazed salmon with lima bean-corn succotash ($12).
The two-lane U.S. 64 becomes increasingly mountainous as you continue west, offering periodic views of towering granite domes. Warm up your credit card for a lap around Main Street in Highlands, an upscale resort town that sits 4,000 feet above sea level. Peruse Valentino and other designer staples at Rosenthal's (828/526-2100). Spruce up your abode with fun garden accents from The Little Flower Shoppe (828/526-3650) and oversize metal pendant lamps ($272) at Dutchmans Designs (828/526-8864).
On the edge of town, you'll find The Bascom (thebascom.org), a visual arts center that specializes in the works of regional and world-renowned artists. You'll find evocative garden sculptures (think Stonehenge made from hardwood saplings), working pottery barns, and rotating exhibits of various mediums inside an airy, early 1800s barn with a bright atrium gallery.
The ambitious menu at Cyprus International Cuisine (cyprushighlands.com) changes almost nightly. Dinner might feature West African cuisine one night, South American the next. Some highlights include mussels ($9) cooked in a citrusy broth good enough to be a soup on its own and a grilled Chesapeake Bay striped bass over polenta with sweet-and-spicy sun-dried fruit compote ($28). Reserve a seat at the bar overlooking the tiny kitchen—chef/owner Nicholas Figel will walk you through the nuances of your dishes as he cooks.
Turn in at Mountain Laurel Rest (rooms from $187; mountainlaurelrest.com), a brand-new B&B 7 miles west of town with modern rooms fully equipped with steam showers and individual fireplaces. Don't miss a hearty breakfast of local sausage and French toast bake.
If it fits your trek home, tack on a leisurely drive on U.S. 64 through the Cullasaja Gorge, a chasm known for its waterfalls, one of which—Bridal Veil Falls—you can drive your car under. (Not recommended for convertibles.)