SPONSORED BY NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
Maybe it’s the wide-open sky that makes viewing sunsets from the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park feel so special. Bright blazes of oranges and pinks stretch up from the horizon, then darken and recede as the sun slowly fades beyond the mainland.
“When I first moved out here, I thought that, over time, watching the sunset would get old. But it never does,” says Joy Greenwood, the park’s superintendent.
Combined with nearby restaurants and one-of-a-kind performance venues, North Carolina’s natural wonders make for perennial travel destinations. Ready to experience all three in one fell swoop? From the mountains to the Piedmont to the coast, we’ve rounded up a terrific trifecta of great food, entertainment, and nature in each region.
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Fall in One Place
The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources is celebrating the fall season with new exhibit openings, music performances, fairs and festivals, and rich arts programming across the state.
Chimney Rock towers 315 feet above the mountainside. Photography courtesy of NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
From the top of Chimney Rock, the views are spectacular; the Rocky Broad River widens into Lake Lure, and the Blue Ridge Mountains seem to go on forever.
A series of 499 scaffolded steps leads to the top — but a unique elevator also zooms up through the mountain to the patio level in about 30 seconds. If you take the elevator, getting to the very top of the chimney still requires climbing 40 steps, but those with limited mobility can still enjoy the surrounding landscape from this mountainside vantage point.
The chimney is just one attraction at this popular park. Other hikes lead to the base of the lofty Hickory Nut Falls, among outcroppings, and along the skyline to the top of the falls, showcasing the area’s beauty year-round.
“Every time the season changes, I think, ‘this is my favorite season,’ says Emily Walker, general manager for Chimney Rock Management.
The park has a host of programs for visitors throughout the year. “You can take a hike with a naturalist, do a night hike, or do yoga in the park. We have lots of ways for people to be immersed in what makes Chimney Rock so special,” Walker says.
Postero serves “New American” — reenvisioned versions of classic dishes. photograph by Tim Robison
For dinner, drive to Hendersonville’s historic downtown, where the transformed First Bank & Trust building is home to Postero, serving new American cuisine in an elegant but unpretentious setting. Delectable scents waft to the mezzanine seating on the second floor, where diners have a bird’s-eye view into the bustling open kitchen.
After sipping an Old Time Rock & Roll — the restaurant’s signature old-fashioned — seasonal favorites, like braised boneless beef short ribs, pan-seared chicken breasts, or grilled yellowfin tuna arrive to fill your table. Save room for the dark chocolate pot de crème with sea salt caramel, pistachio crumbles, and sriracha salt.
The Flat Rock Playhouse is the official state theater of North Carolina. photograph by Tim Robison
After dinner, drive about 10 minutes south down Greenville Highway to the Flat Rock Playhouse. Here, the event lineup includes rousing musicals, thought-provoking dramas, and festive holiday performances in an intimate setting.
The theater owes its founding in 1952 to a troupe of performers, “the Vagabond Players,” who had performed at various locations in the Blue Ridge area since 1940. Less than a decade later, the General Assembly designated the Flat Rock Playhouse the official state theater of North Carolina.
Want to catch a matinee? Arrive early to explore the theater grounds, which include wooded gardens, rustic fences, and goat statues milling about the mossy undergrowth. While enjoying refreshments on the cobblestone courtyard at intermission, look for one of the remaining large, level granite outcroppings that inspired the town’s name, now a part of the theater’s parking lot.
At Occonnechee Mountain State Natural Area in Hillsborough, it’s easy to forget you’re not in western North Carolina anymore. Trails wind through rhododendrons and mountain laurels thickets, and past rock walls. Although the mountain only rises 350 feet above the Eno River, you can see miles of rolling hills from its overlook.
Grab a map before hitting the trails, and don’t despair if you hear road noise from Interstate 85 — it gradually quiets to a hush as you wander deeper into the forest. Paths here are hilly, rocky, and rough thanks to the roots of sourwoods, chestnut oaks, sassafras, and other hardwood trees. When you reach the peaceful Eno, a bench welcomes you to have a seat by the sun-dappled riverbank among beech trees carved with years of friends’ initials.
Find dinner in the small town of Saxapahaw, just 16 miles southwest of Occonneechee, at a gas station store turned mini mercantile and elevated food counter. Straight through the door of Saxapahaw General Store, hints of its convenience store past — like the cash register and counter tucked into the corner, and a shelf full of candy — mingle with specialty items, such as jars of artichoke chow chow and bottles of Cackalacky Pepper Sauce.
At the counter, order dinner — maybe ciabatta stuffed with tender brisket made from locally grazed beef, layered with thinly sliced bacon, and held together with melted provolone. Or there’s smoky pulled-pork barbecue topped with a tangy slaw and sandwiched in a made-in-house English muffin.
The Haw River Ballroom is located inside a former mill building on the banks of the Haw River. Photography courtesy of Haw River Ballroom
After dinner, follow the sidewalk along the rambling brick building, where the parking lot slopes down and the former mill building gains a second level. Around the side, past the giant, illuminated dye vat, enter the Haw River Ballroom — a riverside music venue — for a show.
The venue’s small and simple entrance belies the abundant space you’ll find within, with its sky-high ceilings, weathered brick walls, and double balcony. The main room is open and free of seating, with a few wooden, pew-like benches, and the lower balcony, which features a coffee bar, only has a sprinkling of tables and chairs, so come prepared to stand.
Be sure to bring cash for the bar, and keep in mind that the small parking lot fills fast. You may end up parking on the side of a narrow road, with a short walk to the venue past kudzu-covered slopes.
See colorful creatures soar at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, one of the best places in the state to fly a kite. Photography courtesy of NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
The sands of Jockey’s Ridge are ever-changing, subject to the whims of the wind. These days, scaling the main dune takes you anywhere from 60 to 80 feet above sea level, providing sweeping views of the narrow island, the ocean to the east, and the sound to the west.
“We have a lot of people come out and ask why it doesn’t all blow away,’” Greenwood says. The wind can only blow about six inches of sand from the dunes because the sand soaks up water from an aquifer under the park, she explains.
Dig into the sand, and you can see for yourself — it won’t take long to reach a damp level. “That’s why we can drive on it, and why people can walk on it, and they don’t get sucked in like in Star Wars,” Greenwood says.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park is home to the East Coast’s largest sand dune and is the most visited state park in North Carolina. Photography courtesy of NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
The 426-acre park has programs for visitors year-round. Although there are more opportunities in the summer, the off-season offerings include activities that aren’t available in the busy tourist season, like kayaking from the soundside access. You can also take full moon and night hikes during winter months to get a peek into what’s happening in the park when no one else is around.
When dinnertime rolls around, make your way over to Manteo to 1587 Restaurant & Lounge. The restaurant’s location on the waterfront — and its interior wall lined with nearly floor-to-ceiling windows — adds scenic beauty to the cozy but elegant space.
Sip a Croatan 75, a signature blend of gin, peach nectar, and lemon juice, sweetened with agave syrup and finished with Prosecco, as you gaze past the marina toward Shallowbag Bay. The menu changes seasonally, featuring seafood entrées like its Outer Banks Snowy Grouper and steaks like Sir Walter Raleigh’s Filet.
Waterside Theatre has been home to the outdoor symphonic drama The Lost Colony, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green, for 85 years. Photography courtesy of Lost Colony Production
Spend the rest of your evening on the Outer Banks beside Roanoke Sound at Waterside Theatre, home of The Lost Colony since 1937. The outdoor drama tells the story of the first English colonists who traveled to North America in 1587 but disappeared without a trace by the time ships returned from a supply run to England three years later.
A night under the stars with music, dance, and pageantry in the balmy evening air, pondering one of the great mysteries of American history, makes a beautiful end to your travels.
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One of the last old-school fish houses in Onslow County stands sentry on the White Oak River. Clyde Phillips Seafood Market has served up seafood and stories since 1954 — an icon of the coast, persevering in pink.