NORTH CAROLINA, the most industrialized of the Southern states, breaks down into three distinct areas – the coast, the Piedmont and the mountains. The coast promises stunning beaches, beautiful landscapes and a fascinating history – the world’s first powered flight took place here. The inner coast consists largely of the less developed Albemarle Peninsula, with colonial Edenton nearby. The central Piedmont is less appealing, dominated by manufacturing cities and the academic institutions of the prestigious “Research Triangle”: Raleigh, the state capital, is home to North Carolina State University; Durham has Duke; and the University of North Carolina is in trendy Chapel Hill. Winston-Salem combines tobacco culture and Moravian heritage, while the boomtown of Charlotte is distinguished by little but its downtown skyscrapers. In the Appalachian Mountains, alternative Asheville makes a hugely enjoyable stop along the spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway.
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CHAPEL HILL, on the southwest outskirts of Durham, is a liberal little college town with a strong music scene – having given birth to bands like Superchunk and Archers of Loaf, and musicians including Ben Folds, not to mention James “Carolina on My Mind” Taylor, it’s a regular on the indie band tour circuit. It’s a pleasant place to hang out, joining the students in the bars and cafés along Franklin Street, which fringes the north side of campus. Franklin continues west into the community of Carrboro, where it becomes Main Street; bars and restaurants here have a slightly hipper, post-collegiate edge.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Blue Ridge Parkway
The best way to see the mountains of North Carolina is from the exhilarating Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs across the northwest of the state from Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a delight to drive; the vast panoramic expanses of forested hillside, with barely a settlement in sight, may astonish travellers fresh from the crowded centres of the east coast. This rural region has been a breeding ground since the early twentieth century for bluegrass music, which is still performed regularly; laidback, liberal Asheville is a good place to see the edgier stylings of “newgrass”.
The peak tourist season for the Blue Ridge Parkway is October, when the leaves of the deciduous trees turn vivid shades of yellow, gold and red. Year-round, however, this twisting mountain road – largely built in the 1930s by President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps – is a worthwhile destination in itself, peppered with state-run campgrounds, short hiking trails and dramatic overlooks. Although the Parkway is closed to commercial vehicles, the constant curves make it hard to average anything approaching the 45mph speed limit.
Roanoke: The Lost Colony
Roanoke: The Lost Colony
According to popular myth, the first English attempt to settle in North America – Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony at Roanoke – remains an unsolved mystery, in which the “Lost Colony” disappeared without a trace. In 1587, 117 colonists set off from England, intending to farm a fertile site beside Chesapeake Bay; however, after tensions grew between the privateers and their passengers, the ships dumped them at Roanoke Island. Their leader, John White, was stranded in England when war broke out with Spain. When White finally managed to persuade a reluctant sea captain to carry him back to Roanoke in 1590, he found the island abandoned. Even so, he was reassured by the absence of the agreed distress signal (a carved Maltese cross), while the word “Croatoan” inscribed on a tree seemed a clear message that the colonists had moved south to the eponymous island. However, fearful of both the Spanish and of the approaching hurricane season, White’s crew refused to take him any further. There the story usually ends, with the colonists never seen again. In fact, twenty years later, several reports reached the subsequent, more durable colony of Jamestown (in what’s now Virginia), of English settlers being dispersed as slaves among the Native American tribes of North Carolina. Rather than admit their inability to rescue their fellow countrymen, and thus expose a vulnerability that might deter prospective settlers or investors, the Jamestown colonists seem simply to have written their predecessors out of history.