On any given day, dozens of locals and visitors take in "downtown" Saluda, N.C., exploring its antique shops, restaurants, general stores and curios.

The main street's "two and a half blocks long," says Nitsa Demos, who manages the family's mountain house for lease in the quaint hamlet near the South Carolina state line. "You can walk up one side and down the other," she says.

Except during Coon Dog Days, that is. For the big parade, "There's over 12,000 people in this little town," Demos says.

The festival exemplifies the year-after-year interest in western North Carolina's mountain country. Saluda, the closest high-elevation town to Charleston off Interstate 26, lures many vacationers from the Lowcountry. Area residents for decades have traveled north to get any from the coastal heat or to see the leaves change in the crisp fall months.

"It's always 10 degrees cooler up here," she says.

The Demos family, who are from greater Charleston, are an example of the South Carolina coast-North Carolina mountain connection.

They've rented out their second residence for years, even establishing a website at www.saludamountainhome.com. The weekend rate is $395 and the weekly cost is $825. "That works out to $125 a night. You can't get a (hotel) room" let alone a house for that price, she says.

Yet while the family has kept the rent stable for eight years, the property-leasing sidelight hasn't been as vibrant as in the past.

"Since the recession, we haven't had as many renters," she says, although noting that the numbers have started climbing again in the past 18 months. There's plenty to do: kayaking on fresh water streams, "an easy walk" to Pearson's Falls, and zip-lining over the Green River Gorge.

"It is so wonderful," she says.

Moreover, the mountain ranges are so expansive. For instance, the 6,200-acre Blue Ridge Mountain Club offers spectacular views from its perch six miles equidistant to "Mayberry-like" Blowing Rock and college town Boone, N.C., (home of Appalachian State) and in turn more than an hour north of the Saluda-Tryon area.

"You can actually see Charlotte (60-90 miles southeast)," says Jim Pitts, general manager.

Located in what's known as the "High Country," the six-year-old outdoor oriented village just off the Blue Ridge Parkway consists of close to 250 property owners. Buyers can choose from acre-or-larger lots priced $100,000-$700,000, cottages at $400,000-$800,000 and just-launched condominiums from $200,000 to $600,000.

"We have a real variety," says Reggie Bray, marketing director, who grew up in Hilton Head Island and spent 24 years vacationing in the High Country.

The householder list, derived from 19 states, includes owners from the 30s to 70s in age. "This is a big community," Pitts says, noting that the village has a number of buyers from the South Carolina coast and looks to create a second-home "pipeline" from the Charleston area.

Unlike the many golf course-centric mountain neighborhoods, Blue Ridge Mountain Club focuses on outdoor life.

"Hiking is very big," Bray says, noting that the club oversees 10 miles of trails. Homeowners drive ATVs and UTVs rather than golf carts. "We fish; we are currently in the process of starting a sporting club" where members can shoot clay pigeons. He likened it to a "gun and garden" community.

"If you are bored, it's your own fault," Bray quipped. Learn more about the place at www.blueridgemountainclub.com.

Meanwhile, a new ownership group has transformed The Cliffs, which develops seven high-end properties from north of Greenville to outside Asheville.

"Obviously, it's been around a long time; a great history," says Robert Wright, managing partner.

The Cliffs includes 2,700 homes with another 600 lots available in ongoing development phases. Builders framed 81 houses last year, up considerably from previous years, says Mike Agee, director of marketing.

Homes range in price from $500,000 to "several million dollars," Wright says. Neighborhoods include residences for retirees and "second homes in the mountains," he says.

Despite the boost in activity, mountain property sales can be hit or miss - more than six years after the national housing slide.

"It has been a very slow year," says Doris Lunsford, of Lunsford Realty. She lists a 4,000-square-foot home with breathtaking views across the peaks and next door to Mount Mitchell Golf Course, for a bargain $390,000. "It's a very good deal," she says, while noting that the house needs some work and could use a "staging."

Lunsford says she's had three showings on what she believes is a $1 million property. "I think it's just the economy. Banks won't lend the money," says Lunsford, who's been in the real estate business for 32 years. "It's a strange market."

Demos, in Saluda, stays upbeat. Her family blocks off dates at the mountain house for themselves, such as Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and of course, Coon Dog Days. They rent out the house most of the remaining times except the winter months.

"We get mostly families," she says. Another popular group are "girlfriends who want to get away for the weekend, leaving their husbands and children," including one group now with mothers who are old friends arriving from three different cities.

Things are looking up at Blue Ridge Mountain Club, too. "We are trying to create a sense of space," Bray says.

To reach the mountains from Charleston, take I-26, crossing into North Carolina near Columbus, N.C. There are hundreds of routes from there, mostly north and west.

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.