The pearl of the Southeastern states, North Carolina makes for a truly incredible road trip. Over hill, over dale, thorough bush, thorough brier, there’s every such landscape the flit around in the Old North State. And when travelers aren’t exploring the mountain ranges, beaches, rivers, urban sprawls and lakes, there’s enough history to keep one’s mind active: historic Civil War forts, state parks to follow the mystery of the Lost Colony in Roanoke; house museums and open plantations to dig up the stories of what became of the lost, the successful, the free and the enslaved. And being North Carolina, each major exploration is not without a stop in a local barbecue joint to try the famous Carolina barbecue style! Plotting your family’s next trip? How about a drive to the Old North?
Photo by Serithian/Flickr.
Upon stepping foot on Outer Banks, or even just setting a gaze on the map, visitors understand why the area was the place where the Wright Brothers first took flight on the world’s first airplane. The long chain of barrier islands off the East Coast is the intersection of history and natural activity; with strong winds propelled into Pamlico Sound offering thrilling opportunities for hang-gliding or kite flying from the East Coast’s highest sand dune, Jockey’s Ridge. Beyond providing the perfect setting for the pre-eminent urge to take to the sky, Outer Banks was also the home of the Roanoke Colony, a 16th century English colony which disappeared during the Spanish-American War, taking with them a small child famously known as Virginia Dare. This and other rich stories from Outer Banks history can be uncovered during its many historical tours and museums, particularly around The Lost Colony and Roanoke Island Festival Park. Otherwise, a visit around Outer Banks invariably involves wandering its diverse regions, surfing or beachcombing along its long strips of coastline, shoving down as much seafood as one can possibly fit, and perusing the art galleries speckled up and down the beach.
Down part of the southern Outer Banks is a glistening 85-mile strip of coastline encompassing 56 miles of beaches that absolutely comes to life in the summer. A perennial hit with summer-home owners and tourists, the area offers a diverse community, all welcoming amenities and tons of summer activities beyond the beach. Major culinary and cultural festivals occur all year long, while seafarers and seafood-lovers alike find nirvana on the piers and boats bobbing along the shoreline, or the dining rooms which pride themselves on heaping platefuls of Southern comfort fare with a shrimpy kick. To work off the shrimp and grits, travelers more active find themselves scuba-diving, wandering around the villages in the Core Sound region, fishing or hiking around the maritime forests; while the beachcombers take their sun dappled opportunities to graze along the brilliant coastline and collect seashells.
The quintessential North Carolina coastal town, Carolina Beach is a colorful and picturesque beach town located on a peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and Cape River Fear. Abuzz with students and tourists in the summer, the area organize festivals, weekly film screenings and fireworks series’ through the high season. Much of the excitement is centered around the Boardwalk, which offers old fashioned family fun by way of vintage-style amusement rides, delectable Americana snacks, gift shops and more. The 75-year-old Britt’s Donuts has been recognized by national media outlets for hand-making some of the best donuts in the country and regularly draws a line down the boardwalk. However, beyond the boardwalk, the real gem of the area is the foamy clear waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River that washes ashore on the clean, but darkened sand of Carolina Beach. There, visitors can tan on the beach, hit the surf, fish, and generally just cement some family memories down by the shore.
People have called Asheville the "Paris of the South" and "San Francisco of the East"; Rolling Stone called it "America’s New Freak Capital" while Money magazine recently appointed it one of the "Best Places to Retire". Along with a whole host of other claims made by others, including "Best Vegetarian-Friendly Small City" and America’s "Micro-Brewing Capital" as well as its "Happiest City", Asheville’s reputation easily precedes itself. The city is gorgeous spread of Art Deco buildings, parks and museums and a haven for culture vultures and new agey liberals, nestled in the shadows marked by the Blue Ridge Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains. The fresh glacial waters freely flowing from the surrounding peaks lend themselves very well to a rich and healthy beer culture, attracting the most discerning beer aficionados. Beyond the city limits, visitors and residents alike take advantage of the breathtaking naturescape by fishing, rafting, hiking galore, mountain biking and even just observing the excellent foliage in the fall; while in town, the supremely elegant 8000-acre Biltmore Estate offers a look into the life and times of Gilded Age luminary, George Vanderbilt.
Surrounded by beaches and thus beach communities, Wilmington is a major port city on the southeastern tip of North Carolina. Its long history can be traced throughout its downtown, a mishmash of genteel Colonial-style houses, Antebellum mansions and more than a few plantations. Families can dig deep into the history of Wilmington at its many museums and historical tours; like the unmissable Bellamy Mansion Museum of History & Design, housed in a model example of antebellum architecture, with Greek Revival columns surrounded by pristine Victorian gardens and 150 year old magnolia trees; inside, visitors learn about the Bellamy family and the free and enslaved black artisans who built the home. Kids will get a real thrill from the Haunted Cotton Exchange Tours, which takes place in one of the oldest and haunted buildings in the city. Outside of the historical attractions, families can hit the surrounding beach communities and sip on sweet tea in the dockside restaurants by Wilmington’s picturesque Riverwalk.
Located on an inlet just east of Wilmington proper, Wrightsville Beach offers tons of larger than life activities just off its shores, including fishing in the Gulf Stream, island-hopping on a tour boat, kayaking down intricate salt marshes, surfing, swimming and a host of other water activities. One experience visitors shouldn’t miss is scuba diving around hundreds of shipwrecks off the coast in what is now known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic – afterwards, those who are fascinated can check out recovered artifacts and learn more about the sunken ships at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras Village. In fact, there are so many ways to get around both on the island and off, that visitors can pretty much just park their cars and get biking, hiking, and strolling for the rest of their visit. Those who enjoy more local cultural pastimes can hit the boutique shops in the villages in town, or enjoy a big meal after an active day at any of their local historic eateries, serving Caribbean-tinged seafood fresh-caught by the Gulf Stream.
Once the City of Tobacco and now the City of Medicine, Durham has had a perplexing and rich history. It grew into wealth and prosperity through Washington Duke, who grew a single farm into American Tobacco, which at the height of its success controlled 90% of all cigarette production in the United States. Duke gave much of his money and his name to Duke University, the home and training grounds talented and studious medical professionals and researchers. Elsewhere in the area, Research Triangle Park was formed to attract high-tech jobs to the area, which increased the medical research in the area. Visitors to this fascinating Central North Carolina city will find rich and architecturally diverse streets, a trendy and liberal arts culture which lends itself well to arts and culture festivals (ilke the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival) and cool music venues, as well as even North Carolina’s largest pre-Civil War plantation, a staggering 71 acres of slave houses, farmer’s house, slave-built barns and the 18th century Bennehan House, all traversable for free.
Visitors on a road trip through North Carolina would be remiss to pass Concord, Cabarrus County, near the center of the state, without stopping to stretch their legs for at least a day. Great for kids, the county offers big time fun and simple and local thrills, from the multiple waterpark opportunities at the 80,000 square foot Big Wolf Lodge and the NASCAR Speedpark, to the more low-key Frank Liske Park, a lakeside park which encompasses a mini-golf course, picnic shelters, an amphitheatre, fitness trail, walking trails, sports fields and playgrounds, and paddleboat rentals for the lake. Known specifically as the home of the Charlotte Motor Speedway as well as some professional race teams, including Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports and others, Concord is a great place for speedsters to spectate a bout of fast cars.
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Located along the southern tip of Pleasure Island just below Wilmington, Kure Beach (pronounced "Cure-ee") is a small and extremely relaxed spot to while away a morning or afternoon, admiring the beach and water fauna of Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, an old historic fort which was the setting of two battles during the Civil War and now a scenic sprawl of beach, forest and, mysteriously, a hermit bunker which was once the home of Robert E. Harrill, the Fort Fisher Hermit. Teenagers and nostalgic gamers will love the Hi-Tech Arcade, an unassuming unornamented blue building next to the pier marked by simple pasted-on letters but inside, a haven of vintage arcade games. Absolutely unmissable is the Kure Beach Fishing Pier, the oldest fishing pier on the Atlantic Coast, built in 1923 and currently measuring 711 feet, which is perfect for sunrises.
A tiny village hidden in the Blue Ridge mountain range, Blowing Rock has the perfect balance of quaint Victorian Americana downtown (year-round bubble machine perched on the street! Bottles of Cheerwine in the soda shops! A local beloved ice cream parlor!) and immensely dramatic mountain ranges, perfect for hiking and waterfall chasing. For a thrilling day out in the wilderness, hikers and visitors shouldn’t miss a trip to see the Hebron Rock Colony, all gushing water over fresh boulders; or the Mile High Swinging Bridge, a 228-foot suspension bridge at more than a mile high above the valley under Grandfather Mountain. Views found just around Blowing Rock demand to be photographed, like the genuine mountain crystals found under the rocks in the streams in Fairy Hill, or the diver-friendly Trashcan Falls. Culturally, Blowing Rock beats to its own cool drum, all through venues and stages riddled all over the town and the yearly Appalachian Summer Festival. And for a town of this size, one might not think much of the food scene, however Main Street presents a diverse array of cafés and bakeries, bistros, wine bars, laidback pizzerias and barbecue blues joints.
Photo by James Willamor/Flickr.
The largest city in North Carolina, Charlotte, is a still-growing city in the southern part of central NC. Comprised of many suburban blocks and condensing in their Uptown area, where the crush of buildings belie the rapid development of the city. True to its Southern roots, visitors will uncover Colonial and Antebellum houses, as well as plenty of historic sites; however, the city is also easily distinguishable by its new, modern developments and unique modern public installations found in the city center, like the iconic "Metalmorphosis", a rotating, spitting, forming and reforming fountain in the Whitehall Technology Park. Culture-following travelers need only walk two miles north to NoDa, an artistic district that centers around a large textile mill, where artists live and open street-level galleries in the neighborhood’s historic brick buildings and mill houses. Like any mid-sized city, the food offerings in Charlotte are diverse but prominently regional at once – diners can go out and find everything from Vietnamese to Indian food, while those who really want to taste North Carolina will find excellent barbecue, done NC style – that is to say, chopped coarsely, heavily sauced and served with red slaw.
Lodged in the center of a center of rivers and mountain ranges, including the Great Smoky Mountains, the Cowee Mountains and the Plott Balsams, picturesque Bryson City, population 1,500, offers a quaint downtown with simple turn-of-the-century brick buildings with vintage signs, looking very much like Yesteryear: there’s a quaint looking barbershop, a local hardware store with vintage-decaled windows, the Bryson City Drug Co., even a soda shop serving good old fashioned malts, sundaes and flats. Local and native American art abounds in the town, and just as easy as it is to shop around downtown, one can easily take a ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, a 52-mile journey through the winding tunnels and deep gorges of the Great Smoky Mountains. Out in the surrounding naturescape, visitors can hit the rushing waters at Lake Fontana and ride the rushing mountain waters by raft, or hike to clear creeks for peaceful fishing or swimming.