North Carolina presents an incredible array of landscapes and recreational offerings. The beaches are outstanding, and they're never as crowded as those on South Carolina's Grand Strand. Broad stretches of white sand offer waves to challenge the most skillful surfer, and quiet, family-oriented seaside resorts can be found on both the Outer Banks and along the southern Bogue Banks, also known as Crystal Coast. Fishing, boating, water-skiing, and even hang gliding from gigantic dunes are all part of the fun up and down the coast.
The opposite end of the state holds the Great Smoky Mountains, with some of the most spectacular scenery in the Southeast -- not to mention ample opportunities for hiking, fly-fishing, white-water rafting, and camping.
Bicycling -- Miles of back roads and lots of flat terrain (except in the mountains) make North Carolina an ideal venue for bikers.
Those who like biking by the beach can head for the Outer Banks. Starting in Corolla, a separate bike path parallels N.C. 12 for many miles south.
The gently sloping Piedmont, with its hard-packed surfaces, is also good road-biking country. The tourist office in Winston-Salem can provide maps of the Piedmont's most scenic bike tours through the historic Bethabara and Tanglewood parks. Outside Charlotte, McAlpine Creek Park has a 2-mile trail for bikers. The nearly deserted lanes and sleepy hamlets of Pinehurst and Southern Pines are our favorite spots.
For mountain bikers, the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau offers a list of outfitters that also provide trail maps. Regrettably, the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway has no lanes for bikers, who are forced to ride single file along the side of the two-lane highway. Helmets and kneepads are required, and white lights and reflectors are necessary to go through some two dozen dark-as-night tunnels. Fog is also a frequent occurrence. Weekends, any holiday, and the traffic-clogged months of May and October are the worst times to bike the Blue Ridge.
For bicycle route maps, contact the North Carolina Department of Transportation's Bicycle Program, 250 Oberlin Rd., Ste. 150, Raleigh, NC 27605 (tel. 919/807-0777; www.ncdot.org). Bikers can also get a free catalog from VBT (tel. 800/245-3868; www.vbt.com), which offers deluxe bicycle vacations, such as a tour of the North Carolina coast.
Birding -- The Outer Banks traditionally draws birders, especially those who are interested in seasonal migrations. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on Hatteras Island hosts hundreds of species of birds. Cape Lookout National Seashore is the most remote state beach and a nesting area for piping plover. On Cape Fear, birders head for Sunset Beach. Here, on the west end, they can wade across Mad Inlet at low tide to reach Bird Island, where herons, egrets, osprey, and an array of other beautiful birds come to feed and nest.
Camping -- Campers can find very good facilities throughout North Carolina, with fees ranging from $15 to $20 per night. RV hookups, however, are available only at selected sites. For details, contact the Division of Parks and Recreation, Department of the Environment and Natural Resources, 1615 MSC, Raleigh, NC 27699 (tel. 919/733-4181; http://ils.unc.edu/parkproject/ncparks.html). The excellent Official North Carolina Highway Map and Guide to Points of Interest also has extensive information about national and state parks and forests.
The Great Smoky Mountains, named for the smoky blue haze that crowns their tops, run for more than 70 miles, picking up where the Blue Ridge Parkway ends. The 520,000-acre park lies half in North Carolina and half in Tennessee. It shelters bears, deer, wild turkeys, and grouse, among other forms of wildlife. Summer brings an ever-changing kaleidoscope of color from flowering plants. Within the park boundaries are no fewer than 130 native species of trees in 180,000 acres of virgin forest.
Camping is best along the 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail, which follows the ridge that forms the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Note: Reservations are required between mid-May and October. Contact National Park Reservation Service, PO Box 1600, Cumberland, MD 21501 (tel. 877/444-6777; http://reservations.nps.gov).
Fishing -- From fly-fishing to deep-sea or light-tackle fishing, the Outer Banks provide some of the best opportunities for anglers in the United States. You can catch channel bass in the spring; whiting, flounder, and Spanish mackerel during the summer; and small bluefish in autumn. Pompano run from spring until the beginning of winter, and big bluefish are hunted almost year-round. Unless you want to go deep-sea fishing, you won't need a boat along the 300 miles of coastline, studded with jetties and piers; some 25% of all Atlantic piers are in North Carolina. Some piers are better known than others: Nags Head for flounder, bluefish, mullet, and striped bass; and Ocracoke Island for sea mullet, bluefish, and pompano. Pursuers of big amberjack and tarpon head for the piers along the Bogue Banks in the Neuse River region.
The lakes, rivers, and streams of the mountains are the second major venue for fishers, especially for those who seek trout, muskies, catfish, and small- and largemouth bass. The best places for fishing include the Linville River, the Toe River and its tributaries, the Globe section of the Johns River Gorge, and Howard's Creek (north of Boone). Local tourist offices can supply complete details. For trout fanciers, the lakes and streams of the Blue Ridge are ideal. Trout fishers are also drawn to the Great Smoky Mountains, with hundreds of miles of streams and creeks that are home to smallmouth bass, rock bass, and brown and rainbow trout. (It's illegal to catch brook trout.) Rangers at the visitor centers provide guidelines, and serious anglers can buy Don Kirk's Smoky Mountains Trout Fishing Guide.
Most hardware and general stores supply fishing licenses, which are required for all freshwater fishers 16 or older ($15 in state, $30 out of state). With the license comes a list of rules and state laws, especially regarding fish size.
You may also buy a fishing or hunting license online at www.ncwildlife.org or by calling tel. 1-888/2HUNTFISH (248-6834) Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm. The North Carolina Inland Fishing, Hunting and Trapping Regulations Digest booklet is free to the public and may be obtained by writing to North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, 1707 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1722.
Golf -- North Carolina is one of the best states for golf in the nation. Southern Pines and the Pinehurst Sandhills are called the Golf Capital of the World -- with good reason. Some 35 golf courses fill these sandhills, which have attracted most of the greatest names in the sport. The Pinehurst Resort -- the only resort with eight signature courses -- is legendary. Equally good are the Pine Needles Lodge and the Club at Longleaf.
Charlotte is mad for the highly publicized Scottish-style Charlotte Golf Links. The Raleigh-Durham area is filled with master courses, including the one at Duke University designed by Robert Trent Jones.
The best course in the mountains is at Asheville's Grove Park Inn. Yet another high-elevation golfing destination is the town of Blowing Rock, a summer haven for golf-loving coastal dwellers who prefer golfing in the much cooler environs of the mountains. Good golfing is also possible on the coast. Cape Fear, near Wilmington, has the most courses, including a George Cobb masterpiece with ocean views at Bald Head Island. Consult the regional chapters that follow or go to www.visitnc.com/glf for further details.
Hiking & Backpacking -- The best place for hiking and backpacking in the entire state is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where you'll find approximately 800 miles of trails. The guide Walks and Hikes lists more than 60 of these trails (the best ones) and is available at the visitor centers. Another good source for hiking and backpacking information is the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, 115 Park Headquarters Rd., Gatlinburg, TN 37738 (tel. 865/436-7318; www.smokiesstore.org). For the best hiking in North Carolina, contact the Sierra Club, 85 Second St., San Francisco, CA 94105 (tel. 415/977-5500; www.sierraclub.org) and the Appalachian Mountain Club, 5 Joy St., Boston, MA 02108 (tel. 800/372-1758 or 617/523-0636; www.outdoors.org).
Horseback Riding -- North Carolina's southern mountains, linked by U.S. 64 south of Asheville, were once the home of the Cherokees, who didn't have horses. But the residents nowadays surely do. Dozens upon dozens of trails offer some of the best riding in the state. Trails are cut through both Nantahala National Forest and Pisgah National Forest. If you'd like to drive down from Asheville for an equestrian day, call the best of the stables: either Pisgah Forest Stables, 476 Pisgah Dr., Brevard, NC 28712 (tel. 828/883-8258; www.pisgahstables.com); or Earthshine Mountain Lodge, 1600 Golden Rd., Lake Toxaway (tel. 828/862-4207; www.earthshinemtnlodge.com).
Hunting -- Deer hunting is a passionate pastime for many Southerners. The mating habits and short gestation season of deer count for an overwhelming annual explosion of the population. If you're a hunting enthusiast, you already understand the conservation and preservation tenets of the sport.
Rafting -- The best white-water rafting in the state -- perhaps in the entire country -- is in the Great Smoky Mountains along the Nantahala River. Beginners can take a rafting course at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, U.S. 19/74 (tel. 888/905-7238; www.noc.com), 13 miles west of Bryson City. It offers 1- to 7-day courses. The best outfit to call if you already know how to raft is Rafting in the Smokies (tel. 800/776-7238; www.raftinginthesmokies.com), which rafts both the Pigeon and Nantahala rivers.
Skiing -- For the best skiing in the tri-state area, head for the High Country, where the mountains range from 4,000 to 5,500 feet. Appalachian Ski Mountain, Ski Beech, Hawksnest Golf and Ski Resort, and Sugar Mountain Resort offer snow-laden slopes for both beginners and advanced skiers. The major resorts are close together, and you can easily resort-hop until you find the winter conditions that are suitable for you. Beginners should try the easier slopes of Sugar Mountain. Ski Beech is the highest ski area in eastern North America; the vertical drop is only 830 feet, but it's straight down -- so it's only for daredevils. Hawksnest has two short beginner runs, and Appalachian Ski Mountain attracts families and beginners. All ski areas are open for night runs. For more information about skiing the North Carolina mountains, get in touch with High Country Host, 1700 Blowing Rock Rd., Boone, NC 28607 (tel. 800/438-7500; www.highcountryhost.com).
Tennis -- The Piedmont has the greatest number of public courts, including some 20 in the Winston-Salem area alone. All the cities, big and small, in North Carolina have courts, as do all the major resorts. Most courts in the High Country are outdoors, so you'll want to restrict your playing to spring through autumn.