by Judy Garrison
The Southern Appalachians and the coastal playgrounds have missed you, and it’s time for a road trip to rediscover them. Spring weather is inspiring travelers to get back on the road after a year-long uninvited sabbatical to adventure through wooded forests, dine on culinary masterpieces, and experience Southern hospitality at its best.
Whether you roll from the sea to the mountains or the mountains to the sea, follow I-40 from Wilmington to Asheville (or in reverse), you’ll experience many firsts and forge many memories that are sure to last a lifetime.
From beaches to battleships, Wilmington, located about eight miles from Wrightsville Beach, provides a vibrant, walkable historic district. Sit back while the draft horses of Horsedrawn Carriage Tours clip-clop along the cobblestone streets as the driver narrates the stories of the historic district while traveling along the riverfront. You can also listen to the local maritime history aboard the Cape Fear Riverboats and the iconic Henrietta.
The Riverwalk along the Cape Fear River is a two-mile stretch full of markets, boutiques, galleries, and cafes. Along the boardwalk is the Wilmington Railroad Museum which spotlights the history of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Adjacent is Embassy Suites, which is an ideal location for access to the downtown area.
When you’ve done all the exploring you can and are looking for places to go and settle down at day’s end, check out the Cloud 9 Rooftop Bar. Here you’ll be able to satisfy your cravings with authentic pizza and signature cocktails while enjoying a dazzling view of the historic harbor and city lights.
Moored across from downtown is the Battleship North Carolina , the city’s permanent memorial dedicated to the state’s World War II veterans. Commissioned in April 1941, she was considered the world’s greatest sea weapon and served this country until June of 1947. Citizens of North Carolina fought to save the battleship from demolition. The massive ship was dedicated in her berth in April of 1962.
On this commemorative battleship, you can climb into the tiny gun turret, weave through four decks, explore the control room and magazine area below the turrets, see the officer’s quarters, visit the ship’s mess hall, tour the tailor’s and barber’s shop, and more. It’s a must-see for those interested in maritime might.
On land, you can step inside many of Wilmington’s eateries for local, modern cuisine. Beer Barrio offers modern Mexican eats with over 30 craft beers on tap. Front Street Brewery— the city’s original restaurant and brewery that’s named one of the Top Bourbon Bars in America— elevates a traditional Irish pub experience to an entirely new level. To indulge in traditional Carolina Southern cuisine after a long day of local travel, try Pilot House, The Basics, or Michael’s on the Waterfront.
To top off your stay in Wilmington, visit Arlie Gardens. More than 67 acres showcase the coastal beauty of live oaks, seasonal flowers, gardens of camellias and daffodils, the beautiful butterfly house, and the Minnie Evans Bottle Chapel. All tickets must be purchased online. This local travel gem is one of the most beautiful places where nature-lovers and city dwellers unite to spend some much needed time in nature.
A two-hour drive takes you to Raleigh. You’ll want to make a note in your road trip planner to stop and eat lunch at The Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park where nature and art collide. The greenway allows visitors to experience 30 permanent exhibits crafted by various artists and placed throughout nature in the park. Visit Wednesday through Sunday from dawn to dusk with required free-timed tickets.
During your stop, you can enjoy lunch at the museum or try North Carolina style barbecue at Sam Jones BBQ or Raleigh’s downtown watering hole: the Transfer Co. Food Hall.
Continuing westward on your road trip, you’ll drive through the picturesque University town of Chapel Hill where the Tar Heel campus illustrates the region’s history and culture.
The Colonial-era town of Hillsborough features a walk-about downtown with charming shops, galleries, and a foodie-oriented walking tour to satisfy your hunger. Take notice as you walk through the town. You might pass by one of the writers who call this mountain town home, like Frances Mayes or Lee Smith.
Staying overnight? The Colonial Inn is where you want to lay your head. It was built in 1838, survived the Revolutionary War, and was restored in 2020. It now features 28 rooms where travelers can rest, relax, and enjoy its history.
As far as Carolina towns go, Durham, along with its minor league baseball team, the Durham Bulls, has been iconic ever since Kevin Costner took the movie mound in 1988. With its walkable city streets, the live-work-play American Tobacco Campus, the recent restructuring of past relics, and the allure of young entrepreneurs, Durham is riding high.
Once the busiest industrial center in the country, Durham was a hub when tobacco was king. With the end of tobacco farming in 1987, the city forged on and kept the Lucky Stripe chimney and water tower to visually commemorate that part of the city’s history. Transformed out of an old tobacco warehouse in 2004 to house restaurants and retailers, Brightleaf Square draws locals and visitors alike. Favorite shops include Zen Succulent on Market Street with a DIY terrarium bar.
The hospitality scene has received a facelift and now provides superb accommodations for travelers. The Durham, an architectural icon, is a bank-turned-hotel as of 2015. Keeping its original exterior style, the boutique hotel collaborated with North Carolina artisans, providing a rich palette for the local story.
Most impressive are the denim blankets made by Raleigh Denim, which give sleeping in blue jeans an entirely new meaning. In the bathing department, you’ll find hometown favorite, Burt’s Bees. The ceramic trays and cups used on-site are from Haand, located in Graham, North Carolina. They also provide one of the best bathrobes in the history of hotel rooms. Overall, The Durham was built to please. You can also unpack your travel bag at Unscripted Hotels, located on Corcoran Street. This unique location was transformed from a vintage motor court into a modern space that charms locals and visitors alike.
The food scene is highlighted by innovative cocktails and creative spaces. Try the Durham Food Hall for to-go specialties or head over to Alley Twenty Six to partake in its decade-designed cocktail concoctions. Here you’ll take a mental trip all the way back to the mid-1800s, and drink your way into the modern era, from the Mint Julep to Corn & Oil. The cherry on top? Virtual cocktail classes each month. Dining outside in an alley has never been more delightful.
The historical experience at Old Salem Museum & Gardens explores the lives of the people in the American South who settled in this area, including African-American and Moravian peoples. Although most of the buildings, activities, and restaurants are closed due to the pandemic, the grounds remain open.
Launched April 1, 2021, Salem Pathways, through the Relive App, allows you to virtually walk with seven people who were instrumental in the Salem community. Designated as a National Historic Landmark, Old Salem is worth a second road trip after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
If the Moravian culture interests you, visit Mrs. Hanes’ Moravian Cookies and tour the family business. Watch bakers roll out paper-thin cookies, wrap them in parchment paper, and arrange them snuggly in red tins for distribution. From ginger crisps to black walnut cookies, deciding upon just one flavor to take home is nearly impossible.
Other notable attractions in the area include the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, a 60 room bungalow built by R.J. Reynolds that houses masterpieces of American art. If you’re looking for beautiful places to enjoy nature and manmade art, check out ARTivity on the Green. This art-themed park features misting towers and murals that are bound to capture your eye. For a quaint version of a big city experience, stay at the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel, which is a smaller version and was the muse for the design of the NYC Empire State Building.
Be it Hildebran or Hollywood, the 72-acre Henry River Mill Village personifies both. In 1905, the village grew up around a cotton mill that manufactured cotton yarn, which provided all the necessities for local mill workers. At its inception, the town comprised 35 houses, a boarding house, a company store, and a brick mill. Operations ceased in the early 1960s, and by the late 1980s, the site was abandoned.
Hollywood took notice and saw promise in the ruins of the mill village as the setting for the derelict District 12 in the Hunger Games franchise. Shortly after Jennifer Lawrence skirted through the derelict houses, the mill owner took advantage of the hype to sell the village as a must-see destination for local travel.
Enter Calvin Reyes and his family. Dismissing the obvious and opting for the promise, Reyes looked at the houses, the company store, and surrounding lands as a history lesson with stories that must be told. Promoting tours and events, the Hildebran staff takes renovation one day at a time as funds become available. One home has been completed renovated and is available for overnight stays.
A detour in Greensboro allows time for a bit of history and lunch. Worth penciling into your road trip planner, The Magnolia House is one of only four Green Book sites that’s still open and operational in North Carolina. Inside the renovated home are exhibits from the Civil Rights era and the Gist family who operated the Magnolia Hotel, as well as a list of who’s-who, like James Brown, Ray Charles, and Jackie Robinson, who have stayed there. It opened in 1949 as one of the only hotels between Atlanta, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia.
When Green Book sites were unavailable, women prepared shoe box meals with foods that were less likely to spoil. Today, The Magnolia House still serves a Shoebox Lunch similar to what families used during segregation. Along with the lunch, purchase a replica of the 1959 Green Book to take home with you. If Greensboro is the stop for the night, consider Proximity Hotel, the world’s first LEED Platinum hotel.
A little further down the road is the small town of Morganton that appears like a breath of fresh air. As the flatlands begin to fade to mountains, the downtown offers locally-owned shops and eateries. If pizza and beer is your favorite combination, dine at Root & Vine and order their wood-fired pizza while pondering their list of 42 beers on tap. For serious beer drinkers, a nightcap at Fonta Flora Brewing is a must. The tasting room is downtown, but it’s Whippoorwill Farm, where the rustic and savory libations come to life.
This farmhouse brewery is surrounded by Lake James State Park, another delightful stop. For the wine lover, visit Silver Fork Winery and discover how a New York vintner is making grape gold. Rest your head at the new Fairfield Suites, conveniently located in the downtown historic district before getting back on the road in the morning.
As far as the list of things to do in Asheville goes, it’s as long as a Southern summer. Explore the Southern Appalachians as you hop onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the US.
Take a hike to Craggy Gardens which rises to an elevation of 5,892 feet. Any season is ideal, but most agree that June, when the rhododendron is in full bloom, is most spectacular. There are thousands of miles of hiking and biking trails so you can choose your experience level, and hit the trails.
Back in town, explore the River Arts District , a visual feast that’s a local travel favorite. Here, you can test your skills by taking a class, or light a spark of childlike wonder while watching a glassblower complete his creative process. With over 150 artisans on-site, the possibilities are endless. The River Arts District is located on Clingman Avenue and deserves a bookmark in your road trip planner.
For an overview of the city, opt for a hop-on-hop-off GrayLine Asheville tour. On this tour, you’ll be overwhelmed with decisions surrounding places to go and things to do. But, do not leave the city without visiting Grover Arcade’s Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar. This quaint locale is where you can spend an afternoon surrounded by thousands of best-selling books and exquisite first editions while sampling champagne flights and munching on novel-inspired sandwiches and book boards, like the Pride and Pimento Cheese or Beauty and the Meats.
For local travel lodging, The Log Cabin Motor Court, a Historic National Landmark, provides “today’s comfort with yesterday’s ambiance” and is located just six miles from downtown. For low-key lodging that can’t be replicated, book a room at The JuneBug Retro Resort. This unique resort places ten restored 1950s campers in a valley to create an overnight experience you’ll never forget.
Photography by Seeing Southern Photography