North Carolina covers a lot of territory from its long coastline to its soaring Appalachian peaks and the wide Piedmont area in between. Here are some ideas for a family getaway in each section of the state, some destinations well-known, others less so but worth discovering.
Blue Ridge Parkway getaway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is such a rare thing in our modern, ultra-connected world. This two-lane blacktop cuts across a high-altitude landscape with no development and a maximum speed limit of 45 mph for 469 miles, over half of those miles in North Carolina. Much of the time, people are driving even slower than that gawking at the view and enjoying an unhurried pace of life behind the wheel without white knuckles or a hint of road rage. It’s a road built for sightseeing. If someone’s tailgating you on the parkway, they probably shouldn’t be there. Established in 1936, it wasn’t fully complete until 1987 when the revolutionary Linn Cove Viaduct made the final connection of this linear park. The parkway remains a breathtaking oasis in the Appalachians. Though it runs far into the mountains of Virginia, its highest points are in the Tar Heel State.
The parkway can be divided into three major sections in North Carolina: above Asheville, around Asheville, and below Asheville. The highest points are in the “below Asheville” section in Jackson County. Richland Balsam marks the highest point directly on the parkway at 6,053 feet near milepost 431. Waterrock Knob at milepost 451 offers some of the most stunning panoramic scenery where multiple mountain ranges are visible, including most of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the west. Heading into Asheville, there’s Mount Pisgah and the famed Pisgah Inn (rates start at $160 and include a full breakfast; 408 Blue Ridge Parkway, Canton. 828-235-8228, www.pisgahinn.com), one of the few lodging options located on the parkway and the highest. The inn’s restaurant sports a fantastic view and serves three meals a day seven days a week. Closer to Asheville, stop in at the enormous Folk Art Center for a display of regional arts and crafts and demonstrations from working artisans. Farther north, Grandfather Mountain is a must-stop destination along the parkway that includes the Mile High Swinging Bridge and plenty of outdoor activities, events, and wildlife viewing opportunities.
Holden Beach in the Brunswick Islands
Less crowded and easier to reach than the more famous and remote Outer Banks beach towns, the beaches of the southern stretch of coastal North Carolina have an appeal all their own, especially for families looking for a low-key, nature-infused beach vacation. The southernmost stretch of the coast below Wilmington is a string of five scenic barrier islands known as the Brunswick Islands that include Bald Head Island, Holden Beach and Ocean Isle Beach, among others.
Holden Beach makes a great spot for a family vacation with its small-town feel free of high-rises, and pristine, uncrowded sands. It’s easy and safe to explore the island by foot or bike. It’s a short distance from the pounding surf to the calm, peaceful waters of the Intracoastal Waterway on the other side of the island where you’ll find dockside seafood restaurants and watersports opportunities. This middle section of the Brunswick Islands provides a rare treat for East Coast beaches in that it faces south, so you’ll get great views of the sunrise and sunset from the beach. Alan Holden Vacations (1-800-720-2200, www.holden-beach.com) is a top provider of vacation rentals on the island, offering a wide array of properties and price points, including pet-friendly and handicap-accessible beach houses with elevators.
For many families, summer wouldn’t be summer without a visit to High Hampton Inn (rates start at $155 per adult; 1525 Highway 107 S., Cashiers. 1-800-334-2551, www.highhamptoninn.com). A stay at this lakeside mountain retreat near Cashiers is a tradition for a lot of clans escaping the heat. Generations of families have been visiting since the 1920s when the former hunting grounds for the Hampton family became home to an inn. These days, the property makes a concerted effort to make your stay feel like yesteryear. There are no TVs or telephones in the rooms or common areas. The distractions of the modern world are kept at a minimum, and cell service is spotty in this remote area.
While the kids may fret at first over digital un-connectivity, real-life connection with others at the beach and boathouse on the shimmering emerald lake might win them over, as will one-of-a-kind activities like a llama hike. The llama hikes have proved especially popular. You’re assigned a llama, given a leash to walk the fascinating long-necked creatures up to a mountain meadow where they can eat the good grass. The llamas love it and so do the kids.
Like legions of young ones before them, they may even look forward to an annual return visit. Three meals a day in the lodge dining room are included in your room rate, home-cooked food served buffet style. There’s a dining room dress code for adults in the evening (dinner jacket for men, no hats). That’s part of the appeal of High Hampton, where conversation and interaction with fellow guests are encouraged.
Constructed in the early 1890s by George Vanderbilt, who aimed to create a self-sustaining English-style manor with an adjacent village like he had seen on his overseas visits, Biltmore was built too late to fulfill its original vision. As anyone who’s seen “Downton Abbey” knows, this feudal-like system saw the end of its centuries-long run at the beginning of the 20th century. Asheville’s Biltmore may not have lasted that long as a private residence for blue blood, but it still stands in all its glory for the public to enjoy and marvel at.
If you’re of a certain age and haven’t been to Biltmore since you were a kid, there’s a lot more to do now. If you’ve never been, it’s worth a trip, especially since overnight accommodations are now available on the grounds at the luxurious Inn on Biltmore Estate and the more casual Village Hotel (rates start at $217; 1-866-336-1245, www.biltmore.com/stay). It’s still the same grand 8,000-acre estate containing the largest private home in America open for tours with large, immaculate gardens and a winery, but now you can also go horseback riding, river rafting, Segway touring, Land Rover ranging and stand-up paddleboarding. Antler Hill Village next to the winery has plenty of shopping and dining options, as well as the Outdoor Adventure Center to book your outdoorsy fun. The Christmas at Biltmore events are especially popular and run from Nov. 3 through Jan. 6.
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