To help you explore North Carolina’s beaches, mountains, and barbecue- and bluegrass-filled cities, we consulted a cast of experts. Here are what celebrated chefs, adventure outfitters, and other in-the-know locals recommend.
Find lighthouses and pirate history on a beach hike
To visualize North Carolina’s Outer Banks before seafood shacks and beach megamansions took over, take a one-mile hike through Springer’s Point Nature Preserve on Ocracoke Island, a wild sanctuary adjacent to the famed 75-foot-tall Ocracoke Light Station. “The peaceful, flat trail winds through 130 acres of preserved maritime forest,” says Harrison Marks, executive director of the Coastal Land Trust, which oversees the park. “It ends on the sound side beach of Teach’s Hole, where the infamous pirate Blackbeard was killed in 1718.”
Stay in a rustic mountain lodge
Historic lodges are a great way to immerse yourself in North Carolina’s mountains. Carey Baldwin, owner of lodgings consulting business InnTurners, recommends the Omni Grove Park Inn in her Asheville hometown. “The 1913 hotel mixes hospitality, history, and Arts and Crafts architecture,” she says. “Plus the Sunset Terrace has stupendous views.”
Other high-altitude retreats include the Mount Mitchell Eco Resort, with comfy suites and rocking chair-filled porches next to the Pisgah National Forest. Constructed of local bluestone with wood accents, the restored Skyline Lodge was designed by a protégé of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. A recent renovation brought a Rat Pack-ish vibe—think patterned blankets on the beds and retro cocktails (Corpse Revivers, Manhattans) beside twin fireplaces in the vaulted lobby bar.
Taste North Carolina’s famed barbecue
“The North Carolina barbecue I know and love is Eastern-style whole hog,” says James Beard Award-winning Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen. “It’s cooked low and slow over hardwood coals, chopped, and finished with a slightly spicy cider vinegar.” Her favorite spots? Buxton Hall BBQ in Asheville, where she also recommends the “smoky fried catfish and BBQ mussels with pit-smoked tomatoes,” and Sam Jones BBQ joints in Winterville and Raleigh. “Sam is a third-generation pit master,” she says. “Try the amazing ribs or the silky collard greens.”
Explore Cherokee culture
The Cherokee people lived in what is now western North Carolina for thousands of years before European colonization. Though most of the population was forcibly relocated to Oklahoma in the 1830s via the Trail of Tears, the Eastern Band of Cherokees still lives in the town of Cherokee (about 50 miles west of Asheville).
In the summer, the Oconaluftee Indian Village recreates a 1760s tribal community with interpreters in traditional dress, crafts demonstrations, and reconstructed sapling and mud cabins. From May through August, the outdoor pageant “Unto These Hills” retells Cherokee history. The Qualla Arts and Crafts center sells handmade goods such as traditional basketry woven from honeysuckle vines or white oak strips.
Kayak (and camp) on a pristine river
The north-flowing New River is the oldest river in North America and second oldest in the world. It runs for 320 miles from North Carolina to West Virginia, but the 26-mile-long stretch through NC’s New River State Park is among the prettiest, says Kelly McCoy of RiverGirl Fishing Company. “The water is gin-clear and shallow, so it's perfect for families.” Rent canoes or kayaks from McCoy or Zaloo’s Canoes, and consider taking an overnight trip, since campsites dot the riverbank. McCoy recommends reserving the site at Prathers Creek. “You’ve got to paddle to get to it,” she says, “but that’s what makes it fun.”
Discover bluegrass music’s plucky history
Bluegrass music, with its haunting vocals, banjo strumming, and guitar picking, has a long heritage in North Carolina’s hills. Dive into the Southern sound at the Earl Scruggs Center in a restored 1907 county courthouse in Shelby. The museum and concert space pays tribute to the hometown boy and legendary banjo player, who died in 2012.
You’ll also find concerts throughout the state on the Blue Ridge Music Trails or at Asheville’s free, summertime Shindig on the Green series. “You never know who you’ll see, but it’s always quality traditional music or dance,” says Brandon Johnson, program manager for the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, an Appalachian culture preservation organization.
Watch a drama about America’s ‘Lost Colony’
In 1590, one of the first English colonies in America vanished without a trace amid the forests and coastal waters of Roanoke Island. Every summer since 1937 (save for breaks for World War II and COVID-19), “The Lost Colony” drama has used dialogue, music, and grand Elizabethan-style costumes to explore what might have happened. It all unfolds in an outdoor amphitheater in Manteo, the island’s charming main town.
Delight in kinetic folk art
In the last decades of his life, farm machinery repairman-turned-folk artist Vollis Simpson created dozens of whirligigs made of old highway signs, bicycle wheels, and scrap metal. Thirty of the wind-powered kinetic sculptures—some standing as tall as 40 feet—headline at the two-acre Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson (about a 30-minute drive east of Raleigh).