WHY VISIT NORTH CAROLINA
North Carolina thrills you with swashbuckling pirates and spectacular mountain highways, sensational beaches, and a gamut of historic sites.
White sand and surf lure sun worshipers and adrenaline junkies to the state’s 480km (300 miles) of barrier island beaches; surfers paddle out to ride the renowned swell at Cape Hatteras; hang-gliders launch off dunes the size of small mountains at Jockey’s Ridge, and wild horses roam the beach at Corolla in the Outer Banks.
If flopping on the sand doesn’t do it for you, try North Carolina’s historic attractions. Think Europe has the stately home market tied up? Think again. Built in the late 1800s, Biltmore House is the USA’s largest home and is reminiscent of a French château. Or you can head underground at Reed Gold Mine, the site of the country’s first documented gold discovery. The state’s oldest town is Bath, but you’re more likely to find traces of Blackbeard here than in Jane Austen.
Come autumn, convoys of sightseers cruise the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 406km (252-mile) scenic drive through mountains and dense forests, to snap the state’s kaleidoscopic colors.
But North Carolina’s pièce de résistance is its world-class ice climbing. While you can stand and gaze at plummeting waterfalls in summer, hacking your way up them with crampons and an ice ax is a sure-fire way to crank up the adrenaline. Starshine, a 60m (200ft) route on Whitesides Mountain, is considered one of the gnarliest.
Looking for some city action? Famed for its NASCAR racing, Charlotte is also home to the US National Whitewater Center and the outstanding Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Raleigh meanwhile boasts over 40 free attractions, including the terrific North Carolina Museum of Art.
WHAT TO SEE IN NORTH CAROLINA
- Asheville: the largest city in western North Carolina also happens to be its best. Asheville is a superb base for exploring the Great Smoky Mountains, hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail, or whitewater rafting down the Ocoee, Green, and French Broad Rivers. The mid-size city also has a fantastic dining and drinking scene, particularly its craft breweries that rank among the nation’s best. Tour the opulence of George Vanderbilt’s home the Biltmore or shop and snack in the lovely Grove Arcade Public Market. Asheville really does cover all the bases.
- New Bern: one of the American east coast’s prettiest cities is the second-oldest town in North Carolina and its former capital. New Bern sits just in from the coast, boasting a stunning historic district filled with over 180 examples of Georgian and Victorian architecture and easy access to the beaches of the Hatteras National Seashore. Two rivers converge here, creating a pleasant watery atmosphere that is as relaxing as anywhere in the state. For a solid dose of colonial-era ambiance and coastal nature, New Bern is the place.
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park: named for the mists that often shroud their peaks, the gentle Great Smoky Mountains is North Carolina’s premier outdoor recreation destination. It’s the east coast’s most popular national park, so crowds can be an issue at certain times. But with over a half million acres of wilderness and 800 miles of trail, it is easy to escape the car campers. Anglers can enjoy 700 miles of fishable rivers, and birders can look for some of the 200 or so species that live in the park. There are also 100 species of trees and plenty of wildlife. You can go hardcore or take it easy in this well-rounded national park.
- Cape Hatteras National Seashore: starting at the northern border of the state, this 70-mile stretch of coastline is some of the most dramatic and inspiring in America. The quaint town of Nags Head makes a fine base for exploring the beauty of the Outer Banks and the Ocracoke Island (once a favorite hideout for the pirate Blackbeard). The development here is almost unnoticeable, with only sleepy beach hamlets along Route 12 providing food, gas, and the occasional inn. This is a place to escape the world, walking for miles on the sand, swimming in the warm sea, or fishing right off the shore. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is another gem along the Outer Banks worth seeking out.
- Raleigh: North Carolina’s capital is arguably the most enjoyable of the state’s major cities. Raleigh has been around since the 1700s, so there is a very pleasant historic downtown district punctuated by an attractive pedestrian mall and plenty of engaging amenities. Six major college campuses are also located right in Raleigh, giving the capital a lively creative edge over most other North Carolina cities. It is also one of the three cities of the Research Triangle, a booming region of high-tech companies and other businesses. Besides the attractions and entertainment Raleigh has to offer, it’s also an ideal base for exploring Durham and Chapel Hill on day trips.
- Pinehurst: this charming little town in the central Piedmont region feels like a New England village. Perhaps that’s because the man who designed New York’s Central Park laid out Pinehurst to be a travel destination everyone enjoys. Trees cover the town, and mild temperatures encourage many of them to flower frequently. There is a lovely downtown with all the amenities anyone would need, and great outdoor recreation in its own forest park, 200 miles of horseback riding trails, and a 200-acre lake. But golf is the real star in Pinehurst, with 35 world-class courses within spitting distance of the town.
- Wilmington: this charmingly scenic historic town is the coolest spot along North Carolina’s coast to kick back and enjoy the best of the sea and comfortable resort living. Wilmington has been around since the 16th century and boasts one of America’s largest historic districts. The residents take great pride in preserving their historic town, and visitors can’t get enough of the architecture and ambiance. Check out Orton Plantation Gardens for a look at the early days or charter a sailing boat for a trip around Cape Fear. You can lounge on the beach by day and feast at top-flight bistros in the evening in Wilmington.
WHAT TO DO IN NORTH CAROLINA
Beer your way around Asheville
The little mountain town of Asheville has transformed itself into an East Coast outpost of Colorado over the past decade or so. While the hiking and mountain biking here is first-rate, you won’t find another city with beer on this level. Asheville is a beer lover’s paradise with the second most breweries per capita of any city in America. You can start in Disneyland for drinkers at the Sierra Nevada, then move inward to other landmarks like Wicked Weed and Archetype. New Belgium has a spot in Asheville too, but if you want something a little more intimate, catch a live show at Orange Peel, then grab a pint at Bhramari out back.
WHEN TO GO TO NORTH CAROLINA
The best period to visit North Carolina is from May to October.
North Carolina has a humid, sub-tropical climate, with short, mild winters and sultry summers. Heavy rainfall is experienced in the mountains and Mt Mitchell receives an average winter snowfall of 127cm (50 inches). The coastal areas have a more moderate climate but are susceptible to storms and hurricanes moving up the Atlantic coast.
Lightweight cotton clothes and rainwear. Warm clothing for evenings in the spring and autumn, during the winter season, and in mountain areas.