Even with all the attractions that Charlotte has to offer, Charlotteans have wandering souls – and bankers’ holidays – and enjoy hitting the road for weekend escapes from Charlotte to explore the rest of the great state of North Carolina. With a topography that ranges from sandy beaches to the East Coast’s tallest mountains, the options are nearly endless. Yet, we find ourselves following the same well-worn path to Asheville, Wrightsville Beach, and Raleigh.
It’s time to explore beyond the explored. To help you, we’ve pulled together a list of North Carolina’s most unique destinations – all within reasonable driving distance of the Queen City.
Weekend Getaways from Charlotte to the
Hendersonville: All The Mountain Charm (and Craft Beer)
While the highway from Charlotte to Asheville is well worn, the road to Hendersonville is not. Hendersonville packs all the mountain charm that weekend escapees look for in Asheville, but on a much smaller – read less touristy – scale. Life in the town of thirteen thousand centers around Main Street, which is a weaving kaleidoscope of road, parking, and pedestrian pocket parks amidst the historic red brick front buildings.
Along Main Street are over 30 independent restaurants, Team ECCO Ocean Center and Aquarium, as well as the Flat Rock Playhouse, the State Theatre of North Carolina. Hendersonville is also one of the smallest towns in America to boast a professional symphony orchestra. If craft beer is what you seek, Hendersonville is home to not only three breweries but two wineries and a cidery. Nature lovers will enjoy the views from nearby Jump Off Rock and the hiking trails in DuPont State Forest.
Where to Eat – Postero, housed in a former bank, has been catching headlines for its modern take on classic American dishes like BBQ-Macaroni Gratin. Be sure to check out the bank vault which now serves as the wine cellar.
When to Go – Held every Labor Day Weekend, the North Carolina Apple Festival celebrates the area’s over 200 apple growers.
Spruce Pine: A Mountain Artist Enclave
Spruce Pine is the mountain artist enclave that you’ve never heard of. Located an hour north of Asheville, just minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway, the town of two thousand offers a variety of artist studios and galleries. Popular shopping destinations include the Toe River Arts Council Gallery, the Market on Oak, and Moose Crossing & Co. Artwork isn’t just confined to galleries though. Because of the number of artists in the area – thanks to nearby Penland School of Crafts – public artwork is on display all over town.
The town is also known for trout fishing and gem mining. Since Spruce Pine is a Mountain Heritage Trout City, you can fish from the Toe River as it flows through the quaint downtown. For more on the Spruce Pine Mining District, one of the world’s richest swatches of gems, visit the Emerald Village and North Carolina Mining Museum. Of course, all the mountain activities that one would expect like hiking and rafting are also available.
Where to Eat – Customers from all over the state travel to Spruce Pine to eat at Knife & Fork, a restaurant from James Beard-recognized chef Nate Allen. The menu changes daily based on what’s available from local farmers.
When to Go – The first weekend of June or the first weekend of December is when the Toe River Arts Council hosts their bi-annual Toe River Studio Tour. Artists across the Appalachian Mountains open their studios up for tours, with a good number located in and near Spruce Pine thanks to Penland. As an added bonus, in December the local Christmas tree farms also allow customers to cut down their own trees.
Cherokee: Jump Into Native American Culture
You may have heard of Cherokee from your rebellious, motorcycle riding colleague. It’s where he goes on the weekends to ride the “twisties.” Other than living vicariously through his adventures, you haven’t given Cherokee much thought. But you should, not only is Cherokee a great jumping-off point for further exploration in the Smoky Mountains, it’s also a center for Native American culture.
When you’re done fishing, hiking, or rafting, plan to attend one of the Cherokee Bonfires, where Cherokee leaders dazzle listeners with oral stories from their tribe’s history. Bonfires are held from the beginning of April through the end of October every Friday and Saturday from 7-9pm. For further exploration of Cherokee Indians, visit the Oconaluftee Indian Village or the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
Where to Eat – Try some Southern classics like fried chicken at Granny’s Kitchen.
When to Go – For over a hundred years, the city of Cherokee celebrates their Native American roots with the Annual Cherokee Indian Fair. The festival combines typical fair games and rides with Native American foods, blowgun demonstrations, and stickball tournaments.
Weekend Getaways from Charlotte to the
Wilmington: Battleships and History
When most Charlotteans head to the coast, they make a beeline for Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, or Topsail Beach, passing through Wilmington as an afterthought. Huge mistake! With its rich history, sprawling Riverwalk, and claim to fame of Hollywood East, Wilmington offers enough activities to pack an entire weekend, and then some. Besides, if you want to feel the sand between your toes, Wrightsville Beach is only a 20-minute drive away.
Begin your trip to Wilmington in the Historic District, where the heartbeat of the city lives. Over 230 blocks are chock full of Antebellum and Victorian style homes and buildings, many of which you’ll recognize from the 400-plus TV and movie credits the port city boasts. Hollywood Location Walk not only provides the cinematic layout of the town but also plenty of fun historical facts.
When you tire of craning your neck, head down to the Riverwalk for a boat ride along the Cape Fear River or catch a water taxi across the river to tour the Battleship North Carolina. Or, just meander among the many fun shops, breweries, and ice cream parlors. Other fun Wilmington attractions include the Children’s Museum of Wilmington and the Cameron Art Museum.
Where to Eat – Begin at least one morning with doughnuts from Wake ‘N Bake Doughnuts – some of the most creative and delicious doughnuts you’ll taste.
When to Go – Avoid the crowds and the humid North Carolina summers and head to Wilmington during the shoulder seasons of April or September.
Bald Head Island: No Cars Allowed
For residents of the Queen City, the Outer Banks exists as a mythical creature. We hear rumors of its remote serenity, but that’s all they are – legends that we can’t confirm because the Outer Banks are too stinking far away for a weekend retreat. I have a secret to share though. You can experience the same idyllic paradise of seclusion on Bald Head Island. But shhh… don’t tell anyone and spoil the secret.
The island, which was once a pirate hideout, is only accessible by boat and no cars are permitted on the island. Golf carts, bikes, and your feet are the preferred forms of transportation. Once on the island, there isn’t much to do other than bask in the glory of being there. In other words, be a beach bum. If you tire of waves and sand, check out the Old Baldy Lighthouse, North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse.
Where to eat – Dine on quintessential coastal cuisine at Mojo’s on the Harbor, where you can feast on a steamer pot while watching boats come in and out of the harbor.
When to go – Experience the pirate side of Bald Head Island at the annual Bald Head Pirate Invasion held each June.
Weekend Getaways from Charlotte to
Central North Carolina
Yadkin Valley: Vineyards and Civil War History
You don’t have to fly all the way to Napa to enjoy wine country when there are plenty of delicious wineries an hour and a half north of Charlotte in Yadkin Valley. It’s a little-known fact that prior to those dark days of Prohibition, North Carolina was the largest wine producing state in the country. While it took North Carolina longer to recover thanks to its reputation as the buckle to the Bible Belt, local wineries are once again producing world class wines.
Enjoy a wine experience right out of Tuscany at Raffaldini Vineyards and Winery, sip French-style wines at Jones von Drehle Vineyards and Winery, or catch breathtaking views from the porch of Dobbins Creek Vineyards. When you need a break from the grape, there are plenty of historic sites to explore along the Civil War Trail.
Where to eat – Might as well dine at a vineyard, right? Harvest Grill at Shelton Vineyards is one of the only vineyards to offer a full kitchen on-premise.
When to go – The Yadkin Valley Grape Festival takes place each October. It’s a great way to taste the area’s many wineries all in one setting.
Kinston: Cultural Center of the Coastal Plains
The town of Kinston has risen up from near extinction to a cultural center for North Carolina’s Coastal Plains. The once vibrant town was devastated by the loss of both the textile and tobacco industries and flooding from two hurricanes in the late 1990s. The people of Kinston are resilient though and worked together to rebuild their town. Today, Kinston stands proud as a weekend destination to experience the history and culture of the region.
History lovers will enjoy sites like the CSS Nuese II Civil War Battleship, Harmony Hall, which served as the capital of North Carolina during the American Revolution, and the Wyse Fork Civil War Battlefield. Cultural lovers will take pleasure in the all new Kinston Music Park, a stop on the African American Music Trails of North Carolina, and the Community Council for the Arts, a National Register of Historic Places building and fine art museum. If you’re traveling with kids, check out the Lions Water Adventure. End the day with a pint or two at Mother Earth Brewing.
Where to Eat – People from all over the country come to Kinston just so they can eat at the Chef and Farmer. After one bite of their Blueberry BBQ Glazed Yard Bird, you’ll understand why.
When to Go – Get a taste of North Carolina during the annual BBQ Fest on the Neuse, which takes place each May.
Durham: Eat, Drink, and Play
When I first moved to North Carolina 10 years ago, you didn’t want to be caught in Durham after dark. Today, Durham is a cultural hub for the Triangle, filled with trendy apartments, renovated bungalows, and more bars, restaurants, and breweries than you can squeeze into a weekend. The downtown vicinity boasts two entertainment districts, both centered around former tobacco buildings, The Brightleaf District and American Tobacco. Anchor your weekend with a show at the historic Carolina Theatre or a game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Outside of eating and drinking, history lovers enjoy Historic Stagville, remnants of one of the South’s largest plantations, and Benet Place State Historic Site, home of the largest troop surrender during the Civil War. For cultural buffs, there’s the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University for art history and the 21c Museum for Contemporary Art. Children of all ages enjoy the hands-on learning experience at the Museum of Life + Science.
Where to Eat – Matt Kelly, another James Beard recognized Chef, serves up authentic Spanish tapas with a Southern twist like grilled octopus or pork ribs with pepper jelly at his restaurant Mateo Bar and Tapas.
When to Go – Might as well head to town during the summer to catch a Durham Bulls baseball game – the team made famous by the movie Bull Durham.
Where will you escape to from Charlotte on your next long weekend?