The High Country -- The Blue Ridge Parkway seems to touch the sky as it traces the jutting peaks and rising plateaus of the North Carolina mountains. Set in the splendor of these hills are the mountain folk, who strive to retain their lifestyle despite the headaches and traffic caused by tourists taking in the sights along the parkway.
The peak time for entering the parkway is May through October, when hotel accommodations are plentiful and visitor facilities are open. Fall is when the landscape is at its best. The natural foliage of the mountain evergreens is magically enhanced by a brisk palette of reds, yellows, oranges, and golds. Although winter rates are appealing, cold-weather conditions may make roads inaccessible. As though the mountains were not inspiring enough, North Carolina also offers other sites filled with natural splendor.
You can create your own script for this 470-mile drive -- called the "Most Scenic Highway in America" -- by entering at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park near the Virginia border. The slow drive that follows the road's sharp curves and narrow straightaways is full of serendipitous discoveries, from fresh-grown apples sold at stands along the roadside to rustic "junk" stores.
The rolling pasturelands of the Blue Ridge's northern access lie in Allegheny and Ashe counties, picture-perfect with grazing cows and lichen-covered split-rail fences. As you approach Watauga, Avery, and Mitchell counties, the mountains seem to rise like images in a fast-paced video game. Grandfather Mountain is the site of a staggering engineering feat: a roadway that swings treacherously 1,243 feet around the curve of the craggy mountain. With down-home eateries, inns, panoramic views of misty blue mountains, and hiking trails spread along the length of the parkway, plus the highest peak in the eastern United States at Mount Mitchell State Park (6,684 ft.), you'll be amazed by the sights you'll see along the road, in spite of the traffic.
There are ways to avoid crowds and traffic even during the peak season. Park rangers suggest that you drive the parkway Monday through Friday, when the roads are less congested. Avoid Sunday afternoon altogether, and be adventurous: Go off the beaten track. Numerous side roads run parallel to the parkway or branch off from it. Visitor centers furnish detailed maps, but rangers recommend that you get specific instructions before venturing out onto one of these roads.
Plan on spending at least 2 days in the Cherokee area. Although the town is a little touristy, a smattering of intimate hideaways is concealed along the back roads of Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee.
Set just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 40 miles east of Cherokee, is Asheville, a stunning small city worthy of a 3-day stay, with attractions such as the Biltmore Estate, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, and the Folk Art Center.
The Piedmont -- After you visit the mountains, head east to Winston-Salem, our favorite Piedmont City. The former seat of the powerful Reynolds tobacco fortune, Winston-Salem is also home to Old Salem, a restored 18th-and 19th-century village settled by German-speaking Moravians, and Wake Forest University.
Another component of the Piedmont is the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, often referred to as the Research Triangle. This area has attracted all sorts of high-tech industry to the state -- no wonder, because three of the premier universities in the South (Duke, the University of North Carolina [UNC], and North Carolina State) are located here, within a stone's throw of one another. The proximity of Duke to UNC has given rise to perhaps the greatest rivalry in college-basketball history -- although State's consistently competitive hoops program can never be counted out of the equation. Chapel Hill is the charming college town, Durham the up-and-coming hot spot, and Raleigh the bustling state capital.
The largest city in the Piedmont is Charlotte. Surprisingly cosmopolitan and set amid rolling hills, this fast-paced city rivals Orlando or Birmingham and dismisses the down-home label. It's a major banking center and transportation hub, and its diversified manufacturing capabilities include machinery, textiles, metals, and food products. Charlotte has also been transformed into a big-time sports town: The state's first pro-football team, the Carolina Panthers, continues to draw fans to its state-of-the-art open-air "retro" stadium.
The Coast -- A trip through North Carolina wouldn't be complete without sticking your toes in the brisk Atlantic. The largest city on the coast is Wilmington, although much of North Carolina's shoreline remains much less developed than the frenetic scene along South Carolina's beaches. In spite of the slowpoke summer traffic, Nags Head especially has a little something for every family member, from a rustic fishing pier to nearby video arcades. It also offers some of the finest seafood restaurants on the East Coast, many in modest settings. Local specialties include Hatteras-style clam chowder, crab cakes, and deep-fried hush puppies. Surprisingly, Nags Head lacks one thing that most of its rival resorts do have: high-rise condos. Instead, towering overhead is Jockey's Ridge, a giant sand dune that forms the tallest médano (large, isolated hill of sand) in the East. Climb to the top of the mile-long dune for outstanding views of the ocean and sound.
Another wonderful spot is Ocracoke Island, a 45-minute ride across the waters of Pamlico Sound. A free ferry departs Hatteras village every 30 minutes, beginning daily at 5am. Disembark at the north-end ferry visitor station, and head for the village of Ocracoke while enjoying the expanses of wild dunes and forests of cedar and pine. The beaches leading into Ocracoke Village are some of the best on the East Coast.
Much of the island is a National Seashore area where large development is prohibited. While this is a place where you still can go into the post office barefoot to check your mail, it's not the sleepy little backwater it was even 10 years ago. The town of Ocracoke has ceded to the demands of tourism, building several multistory hotels around Silver Lake; restaurants; and shops selling the requisite beach hammocks, taffy, T-shirts, and souvenirs. In the summer, the tourist crush can be overwhelming; visit in the fall, when you'll see the island at its best, a real North Carolina charmer.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.