For an authentic experience of North Carolina’s beaches, mountains, and vibrant cities, we’ve reached out to local experts. Here are their recommendations for making the most of your visit.
Embark on a Beach Hike to Discover Lighthouses and Pirate History
To envision North Carolina’s Outer Banks before the influx of seafood shacks and grand beach houses, embark on a one-mile hike through Springer’s Point Nature Preserve on Ocracoke Island. This untamed sanctuary sits next to the renowned 75-foot-tall Ocracoke Light Station. “The tranquil, level trail meanders through 130 acres of preserved maritime forest,” explains Harrison Marks, executive director of the Coastal Land Trust, which oversees the park. “It leads to the sound side beach of Teach’s Hole, the site where the notorious pirate Blackbeard met his demise in 1718.”
Indulge in the Charm of a Rustic Mountain Lodge
Immerse yourself in the beauty of North Carolina’s mountains by staying at one of its historic lodges. Carey Baldwin, owner of the InnTurners lodging consulting business, recommends the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, her hometown. “This hotel, established in 1913, seamlessly blends hospitality, history, and Arts and Crafts architecture,” she says. “Don’t miss the breathtaking views from the Sunset Terrace.”
Other elevated retreats include the Mount Mitchell Eco Resort, offering comfortable suites and inviting porches with rocking chairs overlooking the Pisgah National Forest. The Skyline Lodge, constructed with local bluestone and adorned with wooden accents, was designed by a protégé of the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Following a recent renovation, it now exudes a Rat Pack-inspired ambiance. Think patterned blankets on the beds and retro cocktails like Corpse Revivers and Manhattans served beside twin fireplaces in the vaulted lobby bar.
Savor the Flavors of North Carolina’s Famous Barbecue
“The North Carolina barbecue I adore is the Eastern-style whole hog,” shares Ashley Christensen, an acclaimed Raleigh chef and recipient of the James Beard Award. “It’s slow-cooked over hardwood coals, chopped, and finished with a slightly spicy cider vinegar.” For an unforgettable barbecue experience, Christensen recommends Buxton Hall BBQ in Asheville, where you can also indulge in smoky fried catfish and BBQ mussels with pit-smoked tomatoes. She also suggests Sam Jones BBQ joints in Winterville and Raleigh, operated by Sam, a third-generation pit master. Be sure to sample their incredible ribs and silky collard greens.
Immerse Yourself in Cherokee Culture
The Cherokee people inhabited what is now western North Carolina for thousands of years prior to European colonization. While most of the population was forcibly relocated to Oklahoma in the 1830s during the Trail of Tears, the Eastern Band of Cherokees still resides in the town of Cherokee, located approximately 50 miles west of Asheville.
During the summer, the Oconaluftee Indian Village recreates an 18th-century tribal community, complete with interpreters dressed in traditional attire, craft demonstrations, and reconstructed sapling and mud cabins. From May to August, the outdoor pageant “Unto These Hills” retells the story of Cherokee history. The Qualla Arts and Crafts center is a great place to purchase handmade goods, including traditional basketry woven from honeysuckle vines or white oak strips.
Kayak and Camp Along a Pristine River
The north-flowing New River, the oldest river in North America and second oldest in the world, stretches for 320 miles from North Carolina to West Virginia. One of the most picturesque stretches is the 26-mile section within North Carolina’s New River State Park, as recommended by Kelly McCoy from RiverGirl Fishing Company. “The crystal-clear, shallow waters make it ideal for families,” she explains. You can rent canoes or kayaks from McCoy or Zaloo’s Canoes and consider embarking on an overnight trip since there are campsites along the riverbank. McCoy suggests reserving a site at Prathers Creek, noting that the paddle to reach it adds to the adventure.
Discover the Plucky History of Bluegrass Music
With its haunting vocals, banjo strumming, and guitar picking, bluegrass music has a rich heritage in North Carolina’s hills. Immerse yourself in this southern sound at the Earl Scruggs Center, housed in a beautifully restored 1907 county courthouse in Shelby. This museum and concert space pays tribute to the legendary banjo player, Earl Scruggs, who hailed from the region and passed away in 2012.
Throughout the state, you can also enjoy bluegrass concerts on the Blue Ridge Musical Trails or attend the free summertime Shindig on the Green series in Asheville. “You never know who you’ll see, but it’s always a showcase of quality traditional music and dance,” shares Brandon Johnson, program manager at the Earl Scruggs Center.
Witness a Drama Depicting America’s ‘Lost Colony’
In 1590, one of the earliest English colonies in America vanished without a trace amidst the forests and coastal waters of Roanoke Island. Since 1937, “The Lost Colony” drama has captivated audiences with its dialogue, music, and grand Elizabethan-style costumes, delving into the mysteries of this historical event. The performances take place in an open-air amphitheater in Manteo, the charming main town on the island.
Delight in Kinetic Folk Art
In his later years, Vollis Simpson, a former farm machinery repairman turned folk artist, created numerous whirligigs using old highway signs, bicycle wheels, and scrap metal. The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson, about a 30-minute drive east of Raleigh, showcases thirty wind-powered kinetic sculptures, some towering up to 40 feet in height. This two-acre park is a testament to Simpson’s artistic vision and a delight for visitors to explore.
Andrew Nelson, a former National Geographic travel editor and a writer and professor based in South Carolina, has shared these valuable insights. You can follow him on Instagram for more travel inspiration.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about North Carolina travel
Q: What are some recommended activities in North Carolina?
A: Some recommended activities in North Carolina include beach hikes to discover lighthouses and pirate history, staying in rustic mountain lodges, savoring the flavors of North Carolina’s famed barbecue, exploring Cherokee culture, kayaking and camping along pristine rivers, immersing yourself in the plucky history of bluegrass music, watching a drama about America’s “Lost Colony,” and delighting in kinetic folk art.
Q: Where can I find the best barbecue in North Carolina?
A: For the best barbecue in North Carolina, you can visit Buxton Hall BBQ in Asheville for Eastern-style whole hog barbecue and delicious dishes like smoky fried catfish and BBQ mussels. Sam Jones BBQ joints in Winterville and Raleigh also offer amazing ribs and silky collard greens, prepared by a third-generation pit master.
Q: What cultural experiences can I have in North Carolina?
A: In North Carolina, you can immerse yourself in Cherokee culture by visiting the town of Cherokee, where you’ll find the Oconaluftee Indian Village that recreates an 18th-century tribal community. You can also experience Cherokee history through the outdoor pageant “Unto These Hills” and explore traditional arts and crafts at the Qualla Arts and Crafts center.
Q: What are some outdoor activities in North Carolina?
A: North Carolina offers a range of outdoor activities. You can embark on beach hikes along the Outer Banks, go kayaking or camping along the picturesque New River, and enjoy the beauty of the mountains through rustic mountain lodge stays. Additionally, there are opportunities for exploring nature in the Pisgah National Forest and enjoying outdoor concerts and events.
Q: Where can I experience bluegrass music in North Carolina?
A: To experience the rich heritage of bluegrass music in North Carolina, you can visit the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby, which pays tribute to the legendary banjo player. You can also attend concerts on the Blue Ridge Musical Trails or enjoy the free summertime Shindig on the Green series in Asheville, featuring traditional music and dance performances.
Q: What is the recommended lodging option in North Carolina’s mountains?
A: If you’re looking for a memorable lodging experience in North Carolina’s mountains, consider staying at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville. This historic hotel, dating back to 1913, offers a blend of hospitality, history, and Arts and Crafts architecture. The Sunset Terrace provides breathtaking views. Other options include the Mount Mitchell Eco Resort and the restored Skyline Lodge with its Rat Pack-ish vibe.