North Carolina – the “Tar Heel State” – divides conveniently into three sections – the coastal plain, Piedmont and mountains. The state offers some of the most unspoilt and beautiful beaches on the east coast, historic towns, and the highest mountain east of the Mississippi river. And sports fans will find plenty to occupy them – NASCAR racing, basketball and golf.
North Carolina’s famous Outer Banks were once the graveyard of the Atlantic and there are many wrecks still to be seen along the coast. You can visit the tallest lighthouse on the east coast at Cape Hatteras and the oldest, at Ocracoke Island. And the tallest sand dune on the east coast rises to over 100 feet at Jockey’s Ridge, offering kite flying, hang gliding – or just watching the sun set.
The most famous spot on the Outer Banks is probably at Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers made their inaugural flight in 1903. A memorial stands on the spot where the plane was launched from, as well as a visitor’s center which tells the story of the Wright Brother’s achievement.
Along what is known as the Crystal Coast, New Bern - once North Carolina’s capital - is the second oldest town in the state. The highlight of any visit is a tour of Tryon Palace, which was designed in the 17th century to resemble a fine London home and was the first permanent capitol in the colony. The town also boasts two rather unusual museums – a firemen’s museum and the birthplace of Pepsi.
Further down the coast, Wilmington is the largest town on what is called the Cape Fear coast. There’s plenty of history in Wilmington, from the Victorian homes in the historic district, to the battleship USS North Carolina. Within easy reach of Wilmington are a string of popular beach towns – Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach and Fort Fisher.
The largest city in the Piedmont is Charlotte, once a sleepy Southern town, now the second largest financial center in the country. The Queen City boasts the child-friendly Discovery Place – one of the best “hands-on” science museums in the south. Charlotte’s other attractions range from the Billy Graham library to Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Just outside the city is the huge Concord Mills shopping mall – the most popular attraction in the entire state.
Further east, Raleigh, the state capital has a relaxed atmosphere. Raleigh is home to several of the country’s best colleges and universities, including the prestigious North Carolina State University. Hillsborough Street is lined with the attractive red brick campus on one side; the other side of the street offers plenty of diversions for students – bookshops, coffee bars and taverns.
Raleigh is home to several excellent museums and art galleries including “Exploris” – an innovative museum with an emphasis on world cultures and the environment. It’s a great place for adults as well as children. Also worth a visit is the historic Oakwood district with its dozens of beautiful Victorian homes – many have their porches painted blue, which supposedly keeps flies away.
About an hour’s drive from Raleigh is one of the best areas in the country to play golf. Pinehurst is home to over 35 championship golf courses – most of which are open to the public - and the World Golf Hall of Fame Museum. The nearby city of Fayetteville is home to the huge military base at Fort Bragg and you can also visit the town’s Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum.
The Piedmont is better known for its cities, but this part of North Carolina boasts one of the state’s biggest outdoor attractions. The NC Zoo – one of the world’s best - displays animals in their natural habitat. Animals, reptiles and exotic birds can all be seen in the two main exhibit areas – Africa and North America. The nearby town of Asheboro is the center of the state’s pottery industry with many outlet stores and workshops.
If you are driving from the Piedmont to the mountains, don’t miss one of the country’s most famous small towns. Mount Airy was the inspiration for the town of Mayberry in the classic Andy Griffith TV show. There’s still a line of people outside the Snappy Diner every day and you can also take in a movie at one of the last remaining drive-in theaters in the state.
The western part of North Carolina contains some of the oldest mountains in the world, as well as the highest mountain east of the Mississippi – Mount Mitchell at almost 7,000 feet. Stretching for over 200 miles through North Carolina is the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway - the country’s longest designated scenic highway attracting well over 20 million visitors every year.
You can’t help but slow down when driving the parkway - maximum speed along the two lane road is 35 mph in many places. Take the time to pull off the road and admire the spectacular view at one of the many scenic overlooks, as they are called. And don’t miss the Linn Cove Viaduct; a spectacular 1240 feet elevated section of the road which skirts Grandfather Mountain.
The town of Asheville is an excellent base for exploring the mountains; the town contains many Art Deco buildings and was the home of Thomas Wolfe. You can see the novelist’s boyhood home – the setting for “Look Homeward, Angel” - and visit his grave. A few miles from Asheville is the quaint town of Black Mountain with antique shops and bookshops.
One of the biggest attractions in the western part of the state is the Biltmore Estate, America’s largest home, containing 250 rooms and covering four acres. The mansion boasts such features as an indoor swimming pool, banqueting hall with 70 foot ceilings, as well as curios from all over the world including Napoleon’s chess set.
The landscaped gardens are almost as spectacular as the house itself and there’s also a vineyard – the most visited in the country. If you get the chance, visit the Biltmore Estate during Christmas when the entire estate is lavishly decorated for the holidays. It’s the chance to enjoy that rarest of things – an old-fashioned Christmas.