When Marc Walters and 15 of his closest friends converge on Cashiers, N.C., in June, a spirited competition awaits. Eight, two-man teams will compete in 10 events, including Frisbee golf, shuffleboard, darts, croquet, pickleball, ping pong, pool and cornhole. Mr. Walters, a 48-year-old financial planner from Tampa, Fla., is organizing the competition, one he dubbed the Tournament of Champions, complete with a trophy. A more apt characterization, however, is this: Summer Camp for Grown-ups.
Mr. Walters belongs to Mountaintop Golf & Lake Club, a private residential community located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina. While golf is a big part of the lifestyle—Mr. Walters and his 10-year-old son played 42 rounds there last summer—clubs like Mountaintop know that offering a raft of activities for all ages will attract affluent young professionals and their families. In the summertime, Mountaintop could keep even the most energetic scouts awash in merit badges—with kayaking, hiking, horseback riding, fly-fishing and clay pigeon shooting, among other options
Mountaintop is just one of a dozen or so private clubs located on what’s called the plateau of Cashiers-Highlands, N.C. With an elevation of about 4,000 feet above sea level, the plateau is popular among wealthy homeowners escaping the summer heat in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana.
“Tampa is bludgeon hot in July,” says Mr. Walters. “We’re outdoor people, and in Tampa we would walk to the garage and be dripping wet.”
He and his wife, Melissa, chose Mountaintop because it offers tons of amenities for themselves and their five children, who range in age from 15 months old to 14 years old. In 2016, they paid $675,000 for a ¾-acre lot with golf-course views and they spent another $1.5 million to build a five-bedroom home, which was completed in July.
Out of 325 home sites, 135 homes have been built and 14 more are under construction, says Rob Duckett, the general manager and chief executive of Mountaintop. The majority of second-home buyers are working professionals with children, and the community’s activities directors ensure there is plenty of programming for everyone. “We have a tremendous amount of creative events—a Fourth of July carnival with games, rides and prizes,” Mr. Duckett says. “It’s just a place where you can be a kid again.”
Last month, Mrs. Walters and eight of her girlfriends enjoyed a weekend getaway at their mountain house, and later this year they’re planning a big bash there to celebrate Mrs. Walters’ 40th birthday. The couple envisions inviting 90 to 100 friends and family members to Mountaintop, where they’ll charter a bus to take them hiking and white-water rafting, and lodge them in 10 to 15 homes rented within the development.
The market for high-end homes in the Cashiers-Highlands area has been particularly strong in recent years, according to the Highlands-Cashiers Board of Realtors. Last year, 74 homes sold for $1 million or more, up from 55 in 2013. Sales overall are up about 108% over the five-year period, the data show.
The average sale price of a luxury home in the Cashiers-Highlands area is between $1.2 million and $1.5 million, says Jody Lovell, a broker with Highlands Sotheby’s International Realty. “The most expensive homes sold last year were for $3 million and $4 million, and one estate sold last year for $8 million,” she adds.
Mrs. Lovell worked with Craig and Judy Pauly, a retired couple who sold their ranch in Crested Butte, Colo., and recently moved to the plateau. Their budget was $2 million, but in September 2017 they found one with almost everything they wanted for about $1 million. Their 5,000-square-foot home is in Stonefly, a development that—like many of the clubs and communities on the plateau—is located along Highway 64 between Cashiers and Highlands.
“Hiking, concerts, restaurants are abundant and quite varied, and many are just five minutes away from our house,” says Mr. Pauly, a former hedge-fund manager who, like his wife, is 75 years old. “Proximity to an airport was an important thing—we like to travel—and Asheville is just an hour away.”
Like many buyers on the plateau, the Paulys bought their home furnished—including everything in the refrigerator—and even bought the former owners’ car. So far, they have no regrets.
“We have a lot of kids and grandkids,” says Mrs. Pauly. “It was hard for them to give up the ranch. They were a little reticent. I told them, ‘You’re going to love it, trust me.’ And they do, they love to come here to fish and to golf. And they’ve fallen in love, too.”
Grandchildren were top of mind for Mark and Linda Cheadle, who moved from Destin, Fla., to escape the heat and tourists and built a 4,666-square-foot home at Chinquapin, a gated development in Glenville, N.C., about 10 miles north of Cashiers.
By building farther out from town, Mr. Cheadle, a retired pilot for Eastern Airlines and FedEx, says they were able to get more house for the money.
They paid $250,000 for a 2-acre lot with sweeping views of the mountains. Another $1.5 million was spent to build the house, which has massive mortise-and-tenon ceiling trusses that remind Mrs. Cheadle, a former dental hygienist, of her family home in Switzerland.
Lots at Chinquapin range from $70,000 to the $500,000s, and homes range from $350,000 for a two-bedroom cottage to $3 million for a custom-built home on up to 8 acres, says developer Mark Adkins of Cornelius, N.C.-based Waterfront Group.
The Cheadles’ location is far from the country-club scene along Highway 64—which was also important to them because at 72 years old they prefer a quieter way of life. It also saves them money because unlike most of the country clubs, Chinquapin doesn’t require homeowners to have a membership. To join Mountaintop Golf & Lake Club, for example, there’s a $150,000 membership fee for golfers or a $75,000 fee for nongolfers.
While Chinquapin offers an abundance of amenities, golf isn’t among them. The course was disabled a few years ago and replaced with activities geared toward the whole family—canoeing on the pond, trout fishing, trails for all-terrain vehicles, ballfields and even teepees and wilderness cabins that can be reserved for overnight adventures.
Mrs. Cheadle say their daughter can keep her horse at Chinquapin’s stables when she visits, and their son and grandson love the golf simulator in the amenities center. But the “great outdoors” that Mrs. Cheadle is most excited about involves adding a garden beside her new home, which was completed in December.
“I can’t wait for spring, when I can plant flowers and a garden,” she says. “I can’t wait to get in the dirt.”
The Highlands plateau is beloved for its countless waterfalls, woodland trails and abundant wildlife. Talk to almost any local and you’ll hear of a bear encounter—how one nabbed a bag of blueberries from a garage freezer or copped some dog treats out of the cab of a pickup truck.
For shopping or a bite to eat, residents typically head to downtown Highlands, with venerable outposts like MuCulley’s Scottish Cashmere, Ristorante Paoletti and Kilwin’s Chocolates & Ice Cream shop. Tourists are welcome here, but fast-food restaurants and mass-market chain stores are not.
Highlands is increasingly attracting home buyers who want to live near downtown and enjoy the cultural offerings like the Highlands Playhouse and the Bascom, a center for visual arts, says local real-estate broker Jody Lovell of Highlands Sotheby’s International Realty. Options for these buyers include the gated community of Ravenel, where homes range from $2 million to $6 million, and Satulah Village, a development of English-style homes created by insurance entrepreneur and resident billionaire Arthur Williams, who also bought the Old Edwards Inn and Spa and spent tens of millions of dollars to restore it. Cottages in Satulah Village average about $1.4 million, Mrs. Lovell says.
Even those living near downtown have ample outdoor activities, such as treks to Bridal Veil Falls or fishing and canoeing at Lake Sequoyah. “A lot of people who have worked so hard to live here missed that in their youth,” Mrs. Lovell says.
Written by Beth DeCarbo, Wall Street Journal 2/15/2019