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North Carolina isn't a state known for high-paced cities or cultural attractions, and is ideal for those seeking unspoiled beaches and peaceful mountain scenery. The coast and gorgeous mountains sit on opposite sides of the state, with miles of sparse wilderness separating them.
The west of North Carolina is home to beautiful rugged mountains, valleys, and flower-filled meadows, where waters, streams, and rivers brim with trout. Additionally, there are some brilliant scenic drives and miles of hiking trails.
Sharing the border with Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited parks in the country, home to acres of virgin forests and some of the oldest mountains on earth. Snaking its way along the backbone of the Blue Ridge Mountain Range is the dramatic Blue Ridge Parkway road, providing magnificent scenery and elevated views on its way towards Virginia.
The east of North Carolina boasts the Atlantic coastline, complete with good beaches, fascinating historical sites, and natural refuges that stretch from the thin band of barrier islands, known as the Outer Banks, to the Cape Fear Coast and seaport of Wilmington in the south.
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore contains seaside holiday resorts, as well as protected beaches, dunes, and marsh areas. There are plenty of recreational activities, such as surfing, fishing, swimming, and bird watching.
The central Piedmont, or Heartland, lies between the coastal plains and the mountains, dominated by academic institutions of the Research Triangle. There is also a trio of university towns, including Durham, the state capital of Raleigh, and Chapel Hill.
Despite the growth and swift economic progress, a typically southern pace of life still exists among the rolling farmland and picturesque golf courses. Its landscapes are reminiscent of the writings of Southern authors such as Thomas Wolfe.
The state of North Carolina is most famous for its natural attractions, with ancient mountains beckoning hikers and climbers in the west, and pristine beaches and islands luring lovers of sea and sand in the east.
This isn't to say that the state is devoid of historical and cultural attractions. Cities like Charlotte, Raleigh, and Wilmington can hold their own when it comes to sightseeing. As a tourist destination, North Carolina benefits from a healthy dose of Southern charm and fantastic restaurants.
The modern and the rural coexist in North Carolina, much as they have for centuries. Hog farms, mountain villages, and tobacco plantations exist alongside cosmopolitan urban centres, prestigious universities, and artistic communities.
This dichotomy makes the state hard to define. Most visitors choose to explore the Appalachian Mountains or scenic coastline, most of which are protected state parks and reserves. The cities and towns operate mostly as launching pads to other attractions.
Designed as a scenic drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469-mile (755km) road connecting the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina-Tennessee border.
Running through the Southern Appalachians, most of the roadway follows the spine of the Blue Ridge Range and providing stunning scenery and magnificent vistas of distant mountain peaks. It twists and turns through mountainous country that would otherwise be inaccessible.
Created in 1935 to link the parks and also to provide employment during the Great Depression, today it attracts more than 20 million visitors annually. Its main attraction is the endless dramatic viewpoints overlooking forested mountains and valleys, and the rich autumn colours that blaze in October.
The road also provides access to many hiking trails, including a section of the Appalachian Trail that follows the parkway from Mile 0 to Mile 103, as well as unusual rock formations, impressive waterfalls, wild flowers, lakes, and camping and picnic sites.
Along the way are visitor centres, restaurants, food stalls, and modern lodgings nestled in striking mountain scenery. The parkway's highest elevation of 6,047ft (1,843m) at Richland Balsam Overlook has magnificent views.
Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts many natural assets that have made this one of the most visited national parks in the United States.
The Smoky Mountains are named for the blue smoke-like mist that frequently hovers in the air, caused by the natural oils and water vapour released by the plants. The mountains are thought to be some of the oldest on the planet.
An unparalleled diversity of wildflowers, plants, and trees showers the mountainsides, and the park is renowned for its multitude of birds, fish, and mammals, particularly black bears. Within its vast wilderness are streams, rivers and waterfalls, acres of virgin forest, and miles of hiking paths.
The Appalachian Trail runs along the crest of the mountains through the park, with remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture found in numerous historic buildings around the park, many of them found isolated in the mountain valley of Cades Cove, featuring both cultural history and recreational opportunities.
The land was once sacred to the Cherokee who were brutally removed from their ancestral home in 1838 to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. But some remained hidden in the mountains and the Quall Indian Reservation later formed, sharing part of the park's southern border.
On the edge of the park, the towns of Cherokee and Gatlinburg offer extensive visitor facilities. The smaller towns of Bryson City and Townsend are arguably more atmospheric, but with more limited services.
During summer and autumn, accommodation can be booked up for weeks, and roads leading to the park become jammed with traffic. The headquarters of the North Carolina side of the park is the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee.
Restored through a massive revitalisation effort, Wilmington is a quaint, charming, and genuine Southern town. Grand antebellum mansions sit back from shady, tree-lined lanes leading towards the Cape Fear River and historic downtown district.
Brick streets overflow with sweet shops, fashion boutiques, jewellers, and craft stores. Locals lounge alongside tourists at sidewalk cafes, resting up before taking a stroll on the system of boardwalks and promenades along the Cape Fear River.
Here, dining is an art. Genuine barbecues contain pit-cooked pork, with sides of collard greens and hush puppies. Those who are more discerning might indulge in exquisitely presented low country cuisine in beautifully restored buildings.
In recent years, this small but picturesque area has earned a major reputation in the film and television industry. It is the headquarters of EUE Screen Gems Studios and the filming for major films and television shows, like Dawson's Creek.
The Atlantic coastline is worth the drive across town. Across a short bridge spanning the Intracoastal Waterway lies the beautiful barrier island of Wrightsville Beach, a breathtakingly lovely hideaway of pastel beach houses raised on high pilings and weathered fishing piers.
A handful of upmarket shops, beach-gear outfitters, and restaurants are the only distractions from the warm waves dotted with surfers, the boats skimming along the intracoastal and endless stretches of sandy beach bordered by dunes and sea oats.
Wrightsville's reputation as a quiet, classy, family destination is carefully guarded. Farther down the peninsula toward the tip of Cape Fear, there are other pretty beaches, like Kure and Carolina, though none with quite the same charm as Wrightsville.
However, along the ocean and the myriad inlets and waterways of the Wilmington area, visitors will discover pockets of the quintessential coastal South. Oyster gatherers wade through marshland mud and shrimp trawlers cruise against the sunset.
Beautiful Bald Head Island lies off the tip of the Cape Fear peninsula, a serene retreat to a simpler way of life. Stunningly constructed homes that complement the natural surroundings are scattered along the tiny island's beaches, tidal creeks, and maritime forest. Many are available as holiday rentals. Year after year, families board the ferry at Southport for a week or two of relaxation. The ferry is the only way to reach the island, however. Bald Head is also a lovely day trip. There are no cars on the island, so visitors are free to meander along the roads on bicycles or golf carts. Other than the tiny, picturesque harbour, the country club and the Old Baldy Lighthouse, the main attractions are the sun, the sand, and the quiet.
The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has recreated a series of natural environments, complete with living animals and a 20-foot-high (6m) waterfall, through which visitors can walk and discover North Carolina's diverse geography, geology, flora, and fauna. The museum is also home to Willo, a 66-million-year-old dinosaur skeleton, and the only one in the world with a fossilized heart. Other dinosaurs are also on display, as is one of the world's finest whale skeletons. The museum's café serves tasty breakfasts and lunches. While general admission is free, donations are welcome. Special exhibitions do have cover charges.
Artspace is a pioneering visual arts centre that allows the public to become part of the creative process. As the heart of Raleigh's arts community, Artspace stages countless challenging and award-winning exhibitions, workshops, outreach programs, and public events each year. Its unique open studio environment enables artists to collaborate with one another and with visitors. Today, it is one of the largest open studio spaces in the country, and offers a variety of art classes for children and adults. The fact that there is no admission cost is an extra bonus. For details on what exhibitions are on show and what artists are in residence during your visit, check the official website listed below.
The collection at the North Carolina Museum of Art spans about 5,000 years, from ancient Egypt up to the present day. Ancient pieces include Greek and Roman sculptures and vases, and an internationally celebrated European collection. This includes significant works from the Renaissance through Impressionist periods by artists such as Botticelli, Raphael, and Monet. There's also a collection spanning 18th and 19th-century American works, as well as modern art by major contemporary artists. The museum shop offers books, posters, and other art-related merchandise, while the Blue Ridge restaurant serves delicious lunch, overlooking the lush grounds scattered with sculptures.
The Linville Caverns are an underground labyrinth of rooms and passageways moulded out of the bedrock beneath Humpback Mountain by years of flowing water. The caverns were first discovered in the 19th century when locals thought they saw fish swimming out of the mountain. Informed professionals give guided tours of the caves, explaining the various natural phenomena found within. The caverns are home to bats, with the beasts an added excitement. The cave system is about an hour and a half's drive from Asheville, making it a fun excursion from the city, especially for families travelling with kids.
Famous as the site of the Wright Brothers' first flight in 1903, Kitty Hawk is a sleepy village on the North Carolina coast that offers visitors the chance to enjoy outdoor activities such as kayaking, boating, golf, fishing, surfing, and more. The town itself has a few shops and restaurants, and family entertainment like cinemas and mini golf. The most popular attraction in Kitty Hawk is the Wright Brothers National Memorial and Visitor Centre, where travellers can learn all about the brothers and their experiments in flight. Another popular attraction is the Kitty Hawk Woods, a maritime forest home to a variety of flora and fauna. The village is a popular destination for relaxing beach holidays and boasts some interesting cultural diversions.
A tiny town in the Crystal Coast region of North Carolina, Atlantic Beach is a popular beach resort offering water activities like surfing, fishing, sailing, and kayaking. There are also land-based activities like hiking along Hoop Pole Creek Nature Trail and in Fort Macon State Park, or playing beach volleyball. The North Carolina Aquarium offers great family activities, and the Atlantic Station Shopping Center has cinemas and an arcade lined with shops and restaurants. The town of Atlantic Beach has a number of good restaurants, shops, and bars, many geared toward the influx of tourists each summer. Atlantic Beach is a great base from where to explore the Crystal Coast and other small towns like Emerald Isle, Beaufort, Harker's Island, and Morehead City, all within easy distance.
The climate of North Carolina is subtropical and humid, with hot, humid summers, and mild winters, particularly in the east and central regions. Temperatures seldom rise above 100°F (38°C) or drop below 10°F (-12°C), but conditions vary according to elevation and proximity to the sea.
Statewide, January is the coldest month, and July is the hottest. In midsummer, North Carolina generally experiences an average temperature range of between 68°F (20°C) and 80°F (27°C). Temperatures in the mountainous areas usually tend to be much lower.
Rainfall is fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, but is heaviest in the humid summer months. Hurricanes and tornadoes do affect North Carolina and the eastern region, in particular, is susceptible to high winds and flooding from hurricanes in late summer and autumn.
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