By Teri Saylor
(Editor’s Note: If you are planning to travel this summer, it’s a good idea to contact the destinations you plan to visit to learn their hours and any restrictions they may have in place due to COVID-19. For more information about traveling in North Carolina, visit visitnc.com.
From the mountains to the sea, North Carolina is a vacation wonderland and a mecca for travel and tourism. The COVID-19 pandemic may have curtailed airline travel, and social distancing is becoming the norm, but the Tarheel State welcomes travelers from near and far to enjoy its beautiful coastline and coastal plains, its Piedmont and urban centers, and its quaint foothills and majestic mountain ranges.
Wit Tuttell, vice president of tourism and marketing with the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina and executive director of Visit NC, wants everyone to know North Carolina is open for travel and tourism. “A big part of helping statewide tourism return is about people traveling the right way,” said Tuttell. “Maintaining social distance, washing hands and wearing masks certainly will help North Carolinians travel safely, and it will also help if people spread out across the entire state, avoid crowds and take the paths less traveled.”
One way the state is working to keep travelers safe is through a partnership with the hospitality industry to create Count On Me NC, a public health initiative that offers training and guidelines for businesses, and helpful tips for the public, to help protect everyone from COVID-19. According to Tuttell, more than 1,300 businesses have already implemented best practices and procedures for sanitizing and social distancing, while continuing to ensure their guests have a positive experience.
The Blockade Runner Beach Resort serves up a taste of old Wrightsville Beach in New Hanover County. The resort, which first welcomed guests in 1964, is part of the Count on Me NC family. From reopening the 150 guest rooms in stages, to rearranging the furniture in public areas and adjusting traffic patterns in the hallways, they have gone the extra mile to make public areas more expansive, according to Scott Relan, the Blockade Runner’s marketing manager. And the results are a pleasant surprise. “The entire resort feels more spacious,” said Relan.
Decreasing the density has also caused subtle changes in the resort’s overall vibe. “The Blockade Runner feels more relaxed and laid back, almost like the resort has taken a breath,” said Relan. Guests will continue to enjoy the Blockade Runner’s unique location, where they can welcome their day in front of a gorgeous sunrise in the mornings on the ocean side and wind down the evenings in front of a spectacular sunset over the Intercoastal Waterway on the harbor side of the resort.
The Sanderling Resort in the Outer Banks community of Duck is ready to welcome guests to its luxurious 123 guest rooms that spread among three separate buildings–South, North and Beach House, according to Wendy Murray, director of sales and marketing. “Over the last several years, we have added some incredible specialty rooms with spectacular views,” she said. “Our beach is just a few steps away, and while all the beaches are public, the accesses are not. With no commercialism near us, our guests enjoy the feel of a private beach.”
Like the Blockade Runner, the Sanderling has also gone the extra mile to make guests feel comfortable as the vacation and hospitality season returns this summer. “We are fortunate to have a spacious outside patio where dining service can be sit-down or takeout,” Murray said. “The Sandbar, our casual poolside restaurant, is operating with social distancing, too.” The Sanderling’s family pool and adult tranquility pool are also open with social distancing between the loungers, and The Spa at Sanderling is open with just a few treatment restrictions.
The Blockade Runner offers an expansive guest house with 13 bedrooms, and the Sanderling Resort features five spacious vacation homes, perfect for families or vacationers who desire a more private beach experience. In addition to the efforts by hotels and resorts to entice vacationers to return, Tuttell has seen a surge in vacation rental homes too. “In private houses, people feel more isolated from others, so vacation rentals are doing well,” he said.
Sports and the Great Outdoors
North Carolina is a haven for vacationers and day trippers who love nothing more than biking, hiking, kayaking, bird watching, viewing wildlife, ziplining and doing all things outdoors. Travelers who crave a unique mountain experience may want to head somewhat off the beaten path to the southwestern region of the state.
Polk County, home to the towns of Tryon, Saluda, and the county seat of Columbus, is known as the “First Peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Tuttell said. It is an area known for amazing whitewater rafting, ziplining and waterfall climbing.
“One of the county’s main draws, the Green River Gorge, flaunts its really spectacular scenery,” Tuttell said. The Blue Ridge National Heritage website describes the Green River Gorge as a rugged landscape of steep ravines, coves and forest lands, featuring some of the most popular whitewater rapids in the eastern United States.
For travelers to Polk County who want a unique lodging experience, the Emberglow Outdoor Resort serves up a variety of delightful options. From luxury camping in a glamping pod, to sleeping with the birds in one of the resort’s tree houses, to going retro in a vintage camper, Emberglow is not a typical resort.
The U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte brings the great outdoors to the city. The Whitewater Center is dedicated to promoting an active lifestyle and offers more than 30 land- and water-based activities, outdoor instruction and certification programs across its 1,300 acres on the Catawba River. Visitors can enjoy whitewater rafting, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, rock climbing, a ropes course and more than 50 miles of mountain bike trails.
For travelers whose idea of getting back to nature is on the links, North Carolina’s Sandhills Region is the holy grail of golf, and home to some of the most storied courses in the United States. Golfers never tire of testing their skills on any of the nearly 40 courses in Pinehurst, Aberdeen and Southern Pines. At the Pinehurst Resort, golfers can walk in the footsteps of champions on Pinehurst’s famous No. 9 course, designed by Jack Nicklaus and site of two U.S. Open Golf Championships.
This summer, the Blockade Runner will be running a large pontoon boat between the resort and Masonboro Island, a gorgeous paradise so secluded it is only accessible by boat. At 8.4 miles in length, Masonboro Island Reserve is the longest undisturbed barrier island ecosystem in southern North Carolina. “We’ll be offering group excursions and sunset cruises for resort guests and Wrightsville Beach visitors,” said Relan. In addition to Masonboro cruises, the Blockade Runner features outdoor sports adventures including stand-up paddleboarding, sailing, surfing and fishing.
At Kill Devil Hills, travelers can visit the Wright Brothers Memorial where Orville and Wilbur Wright leaped into history on their amazing flying machine in 1903. Adventurous souls who draw inspiration from the Wright Brothers can visit Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head to take flight on hang gliders fueled by the sea breezes blowing off the Atlantic Ocean.
On site at the Sanderling Resort, Kitty Hawk Kites is there to arrange adventures like surfing lessons, as well as kayak and stand-up paddleboard tours and rentals, Murray said.
Sweethearts might find a perfect summer getaway in romantic North Carolina where they can visit Yadkin County and Surry County, home to lush wineries and lovely landscapes. This region is also home to Hanging Rock State Park, and is a perfect destination for a long weekend. Hanging Rock State Park is part of the Sauratown Mountain Range, where prominent peaks rise to from 1,700 feet to more than 2,500 feet in elevation, offering spectacular views of the valleys below.
“The Singletree Gun and Plough is a lodge near Hanging Rock,” said Tuttle. “It is a really neat place.” At Singletree, guests can choose from a variety of secluded rustic cabins or one of seven uniquely decorated rooms. The resort also features a 1,000-acre preserve on the Dan River. To make the ultimate romantic experience complete, guests can reserve a table on the riverbanks and enjoy a white tablecloth lunch.
Located along the Albemarle Sound in northeastern North Carolina, Edenton was a major port in colonial times and served as the first capital of the colony of North Carolina from 1722 to 1743. The quaint town is also home to a variety of bed and breakfast homes, as well as the Inner Banks Inn, located in the middle of the town’s historic district where visitors can enjoy romantic strolls along the town’s waterfront.
Sanderling Resort is also known as a drive-to getaway for romance and special occasions, and features the famous Spa at Sanderling and a lovely adult tranquility pool. The resort is a popular wedding destination, where couples can tie the knot in an oceanfront ceremony. “We also host many honeymoons each year,” said Murray.
Wrightsville Beach is a paradise for families. Just two hours from Raleigh, the area is perfect for a day trip or weekend getaway. The Blockade Runner resort offers opportunities for hours of family fun. “We have miles of marshes and creeks for families to explore by kayak,” said Relan. In addition, the Blockade Runner offers a refreshing family pool, and a variety of kids’ programs, including sea critter touch tanks, fishing excursions and sailboat crafting.
In old Beaufort County, adults and kids alike will delight in the pirate life as they step back in time to the days of the notorious Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard. Visitors can walk in the pirate’s footsteps as he made his last stand 300 years ago in Bath, the oldest town in North Carolina.
A visit to Beaufort County would not be complete without spending a day in historic Washington, a harbor town nestled along the Pamlico River and home to the North Carolina Estuarium, Tuttell said. “Families can ride on pontoon boats, examine the local estuaries, tides and streams, and explore the river in this watery part of the state,” he said.
In the Yadkin County town of East Bend, families will delight in visiting Four Ladies & Me Farm, touted as the largest llama farm in the southeast, where they can commune with a herd of friendly llamas. This unique farm will pair its guests with llamas that make exceptional companions for scenic hikes around the farm. At the end of the hike, the adults can enjoy a refreshing glass of wine from the farm’s on-site winery.
On the Outer Banks, the Town of Duck is just a 5-minute bike ride from the Sanderling Resort, according to Murray. Families can stroll along the quaint town’s boardwalk, lined with shops and restaurants. “And of course, no visit to Duck is complete without stopping for a world-famous Duck Donut,” said Murray.
History and Heritage
North Carolina’s rich history is on full display in its nooks and crannies and small towns. The state is home to more than 550 historic sites.
Tuttell points to Shelby, in Cleveland County, for its famous native son, Earl Scruggs, banjo picker extraordinaire and one of the most important figures in North Carolina music. “Shelby is home to the Earl Scruggs Center, and it’s a really cool place to visit,” he said. The center tells the story of Scruggs’ life and weaves in the history of the town and the textile mills that influenced Scruggs’ music. “Museum curators actually put a camera inside a banjo offering a view of Scruggs famous picking technique from the inside of the instrument,” said Tuttell.
Along I-95, many travelers may cruise past Historic Halifax when heading north to Virginia, Washington, D.C., and beyond. But Halifax is a significant destination, an important Revolutionary War site where colonists first called for independence from Great Britain by signing the Halifax Resolves on April 12, 1776. A 15-minute video and 2,000 square feet of exhibits transport visitors back to this historic event.
The unique Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck is home to 2,000 birds, including some of the planet’s rarest species, making it North America’s largest bird park. A network of paths takes visitors through recreations of native habitats, which frame the resident birds’ bright plumage for gorgeous pictures and exceptional selfies.
Arts and Entertainment
For Wake County residents looking for a day trip, Tuttell points to the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson. This one-of-a-kind park provides artistic, educational and recreational opportunities at the intersection of art and science in the heart of downtown Wilson.
The park sprang from the creative mind of farm machinery repairman Vollis Simpson, who began making gigantic kinetic sculptures at his family farm in Wilson County when he was nearing retirement age. He kept making his whirligigs until about six months before he died in 2013 at the age of 93. His whirligigs have been displayed at some of the most prestigious art museums in the United States.
For a longer journey, travelers can head west to Lenoir in Caldwell County, home of the Western North Carolina Sculpture Center and Park. Set on the grounds of the former Patterson School in Happy Valley, the 1,400-acre property offers an annual rotating outdoor sculpture exhibition and beautiful landscapes.
According to Tuttell, a trip to the North Carolina mountains is not complete without a journey along the North Carolina Barn Quilt Trail. More than 300 brightly painted squares grace barns, businesses and homes throughout Yancey, Ashe, Mitchell and Haywood counties in the western part of the state.
North Carolina State Parks
In addition to 10 national park sites and four national forests, North Carolina is home to 34 state parks that offer a range of outdoor escapes where you can paddle, picnic, hike, bike, camp, ride, fish and swim.
North Carolina State Parks officials report they are delighted that residents are visiting the parks in high numbers. They also encourage visitors to seek out parks that are off the beaten path and therefore not as crowded as the more popular park destinations.
“Merchants Millpond in Gates County, Goose Creek on the Pamlico River, Medoc Mountain near Rocky Mount, and New River near West Jefferson are all quieter parks that have not seen a large increase in visitation,” said State Parks public information officer Katie Hall. “Other quiet parks include Elk Knob near Boone, Jones Lake in Bladen County, and Gorges State Park in Transylvania County.”
Hall also encourages park visitors to put some fun in their park visits with the popular North Carolina State Parks Passport Program. To participate, visitors need to pick up a passport from any state park, visit the parks and take in the great outdoor experiences they offer. Then stop by the park’s office or visitor center for a passport stamp. Park visitors can qualify for a variety of prizes based on the number of stamps they collect on their passports. “The Passport program is a great way to encourage people to visit parks that are a little more out of the way, and that they might otherwise miss,” said Hall.
Just Do It
Tuttell is viewing the summer of 2020 as the year of the road trip, and North Carolina is uniquely suited for Tar Heel travelers to experience adventures in their own home state. “We have an amazing highway system and people can get anywhere across the entire state relatively easily,” Tuttell said. “Hit the road and discover something you have never done before, because you might find a place or activity that will become your new favorite.”