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.
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.
Organized outdoor pursuits available along the Blue Ridge Parkway include whitewater rafting and canoeing, most of it on the Nolichucky River near the Tennessee border, south of Johnson City, Tennessee, but also on the Watauga River and Wilson Creek. Companies running trips include Nantahala Outdoor Center (888 905 7238, noc.com) and High Mountain Expeditions (800 262 9036, highmountainexpeditions.com), who also offer biking, hiking and tubing trips. Expect to pay around $85 per person for a full day of rafting.
Winter sees skiing at a number of slopes and resorts, particularly around Banner Elk, sixteen miles southwest of Boone. Resort accommodation is expensive, ski passes less so. Appalachian Ski Mountain (appskimtn.com) is near Blowing Rock and Ski Beech (beechmountainresort.com); the highest ski area in the east, is at Beech Mountain. You can pick up full listings at visitor centres, or check highcountryhost.com.
Rough Ridge, at milepost 302.8, is one of several access points to the 13.5-mile Tanawha Trail, which runs along the ridge above the Parkway from Beacon Heights to Julian Price Park, looking out over the dense forests to the east. Another good hiking destination is the Linville Gorge Wilderness, at milepost 316.4, a couple of miles outside Linville Falls village. There are two main trails; one is a steep, 1.6-mile round-trip climb to the top of the high and spectacular Linville Falls themselves. Breathtaking views from either side of the gorge look down 2000ft to the Linville River below. An easier walk leads to the base of the falls. You can also climb Hawksbill or Table Rock mountains from the nearest forest road, which leaves Hwy-181 south of the village of Jonas Ridge (signposted “Gingercake Acres”, with a small, low sign to Table Rock).
Gurney Franklin Rd, via Hwy-221 828 765 2681, linvillefalls.com. This friendly campground in amiable Linville Falls village is shaded by mountain laurel and offers laundry facilities, grills and hot showers. Open May–Sept. $20
Linville Falls Lodge
48 Hwy-183 800 634 4421, linvillefallslodge.com. Peaceful, family-owned mountain lodge with nine cosy quarters and a restaurant, Spears Grill, which serves microbrews and good country cooking, including fresh trout and hickory-smoked pork BBQ. Open April–Nov. $95
Laidback Black Mountain, sixteen miles east of Asheville on I-40, hosts the hugely enjoyable Leaf Festival (theleaf.org), a folk music and arts and crafts gathering, held in mid-May and October. Showcasing Appalachian and world folk music, it attracts major European and African musicians. There’s little to do here otherwise, but the town has a few good music venues, restaurants and coffee shops.
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.
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.