While North Carolina is known for its mountains, it’s a common misconception that you have to head to South Carolina for beaches. Those in NC are wilder, less developed and stunningly beautiful – and sheltered by the Outer Banks. There are endless dunes, historic lighthouses, crashing surf and wrecks for divers to explore, plus you can take boat tours out to see dolphins, and hike the maritime forests.
Since 2001 the number of wineries in NC has quadrupled to over 100 with 400 vineyards – the only place in the world to produce every type of grape. While they exist across the state, the Yadkin Valley has the densest concentration, with 40 wineries. Roanoke Island is home to the enormous ‘MotherVine’ – allegedly first sighted in 1584, and still producing fruit. Vineyards host tastings, festivals, and music and craft events.
The parkway combines two of America’s quintessential experiences: the road trip and the national park. Emerging from the Smoky Mountains, the forest-lined road is a 755km linear park (split between NC and Virginia) which changes dramatically with the seasons. It tunnels through rock and traverses streams, ravines and railways, with viewpoints and places to explore along the way.
Come to NC for the mountains and beaches – stay for the culture. An unusually comforting mix of Southern hospitality and homeliness with a very English fondness for tradition and eccentricity, “Tar Heels” are understandable proud of their cuisine, quirkiness, craftsmanship and connection with the land. Guesthouse owners share insider tips and local folklore – plus the best spots for a pit barbecue.
The “Smokies” are named after the plumes of fog that rise over the mountains as its dense vegetation exhales. The national park that protects them is America’s most visited, and protects wildlife including 1,500 bears, elk and 240 bird species. But the big draw is the outdoor activities; as well as hiking and mountain biking, you can camp, kayak and raft the rapids. There are also dozens of idyllic waterfalls to cool off in.
Constructed in the 1890s, this extraordinary, chateau-style, 252-room mansion is the largest private home in the US, with a 7-storey high banquet hall and a library housing over 10,000 books. The estate was designed to be self-sufficient, with livestock, agriculture and a winery; everything you eat in the estate’s restaurants and hotel has been produced here. Explore the 8,000 acre estate on foot, horseback or raft.
Think of a watersport, and North Carolina’s got it covered. With its long coastline, barrier islands, rivers, lakes and rapids, you can be whitewater rafting in the mountains one day, kayaking through dense swamps the next – and end up surfing, kite surfing or stand up paddle boarding on the open ocean. Plenty of places offer equipment hire – as well as experienced instructors should you want to take a class.
As the site of many major Civil War and Revolution battles, NC has long been a draw for US history buffs. But there is much to entice visitors from across the globe; the first English colony was established –and vanished – on Roanoke Island. The Wright brothers made their first flight in Kitty Hawk in 1903, and Native American history is recreated in Cherokee. All of these attractions are interactive and educational; no dusty museums here.
America is the home of globalisation and big brands – but in downtown Asheville, you’ll find surprisingly few. Independent stores dominate, along with craft breweries, art studios and bookshops. There are over 250 independent restaurants, cafes and bakeries, and grassroots organisations work together to promote and support Asheville’s entrepreneurs – from longstanding mom-and-pop cafes to quirky hipster chocolatiers.
Six ski resorts are scattered across NC’s mountains, yet just one is registered by the NSAA as a Sustainable Slope, and all depend on what they describe a “killer snowmaking system” and “arsenal of snowguns” – appropriate names for these environmentally damaging artificial snow machines. As well as clearing forests, flattening slopes and installing ski lifts – some resorts also include refrigerated ice rinks – an environmental red light.
This Civil War remnant divides communities in the South, with some seeing it as a symbol of Southern pride – and others claiming it represents racism and the support of slavery– not helped by the fact that it has been adopted by white supremacy groups such as the KKK. Persistent civil rights campaigns resulted in NC removing the flag from inside its capitol building in 2013 – a wise move, as the flag has sparked further controversy in recent months.
The name “bear zoo” doesn’t exactly fill us with joy, but the reality of these facilities in Cherokee hardly deserves the title “zoo”. The square concrete ‘bear pits’ are, indeed, bare; devoid of any vegetation or stimulation. Visitors pay a dollar for a tray of white bread and lettuce to throw to the bears – who have learned to beg. One “zoo” was closed down in 2013 – but despite protests, two more remain open.