A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. Forget the passport and plane ticket — in North

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. Forget the passport and plane ticket — in North

Our State Knows Best: Travel

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.

Forget the passport and plane ticket — in North Carolina, we’re lucky to have incredible travel destinations in our own backyard. From mountains to coast, our state is a gold mine, but if you want to know the best ways to travel the state, you’ll need advice from the folks who know its people, places, and roads best.

“I like the diversity of our state,” says Bill Russ, a professional photographer who traveled North Carolina for 30 years while working for the North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film, and Sports Development. “If you drive an hour or two in either direction, you’re in a completely different world. That’s part of the allure.”

We talked to Russ and two other experts — Jonathan Moody, assistant general manager of Holiday Tours in Randleman, and Scott Mason, host of WRAL’s Tar Heel Traveler series for more than 13 years — to find out their best North Carolina travel tips and favorite destinations. From small towns to remote islands, we’ll help you add even more special place to your travel bucket list.

Our experts

Bill Russ
Former photographer for the North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film, and Sports Development
Jonathan Moody
Assistant General Manager of Holiday Tours Motorcoach Service in Randleman
Scott Mason
Host of WRAL’s Tar Heel Traveler series

Where are some of your favorite places to travel to in North Carolina?

Bill: As a state government employee for 30 years, we don’t answer questions like that! Try asking the governor that, and he’ll end up ticking off most of the constituency. Each of our state’s areas is beautiful in its own way. The Outer Banks is a completely different world from the mountains. That’s part of the fun of travel — not knowing what you’re going to come across and discovering things that you weren’t familiar with.

Jonathan: My No. 1 favorite would have to be the coast. You could be at one beach, and then you’ll drive 20 minutes north and it’s a completely different look, feel, and environment. The second would have to be our mountain areas. The way that the Asheville area has grown over the past five to 10 years has just been incredible. It went from a mountain destination to go stay in a cabin to a place where you have culinary events happening and so many different things to do and see. It’s just one of my favorite places to go.

Scott: I have always loved the coast — I actually grew up on the water. I was born in Raleigh, but my dad was transferred when I was a little boy, and I grew up on the coast of Massachusetts, racing sailboats. The ocean and the sea kind of got in my blood. I always gravitate toward the Wilmington area or Carteret County area. My wife wants us to retire in Beaufort one day, which is a great little quaint town. I find that the coast of North Carolina is just a special place.

OK, we’re ready to hop in the car! What are some tips you’ve picked up over the years while traveling around the state?

Bill: Get off the soulless interstate and get to the more rural roads — get to the more out-of-the-way places. At one point, I used a thing called a gazetteer, which was a book of county maps. Whatever county you happened to be in, you opened this double-page, large-format book, and there were thousands of miles of rural roads in some of these counties. It seems like I never went over the same county roads twice. There was always something new around the bend!

Jonathan: Don’t be afraid to get outside of your comfort zone! I always tell people not to just stay in normal lodges or hotels. Look at the options — the Airbnbs or the Vrbos. By doing that, you get to see an entirely different take on a place. If I had to give any advice to somebody traveling in North Carolina, I would tell them that it really is about what you see between where you are and where you’re going. When people switch from driving somewhere to riding a motor coach somewhere, they get the opportunity to sit back and stop worrying about the planning and the hassle of being on the road, and they get to experience the sights and the sounds and everything else involved in the journey.

Scott: I think what always makes traveling fulfilling is meeting the people along the way. There are just so many colorful people in North Carolina, and those people always have great stories. And, of course, that’s what I do — I meet those people and tell their stories. Always be open-minded to meeting new folks and enjoying these new interactions. And it’s always good to research where you’re going before you go — particularly the history of the place. I think when you understand the history of a place, it enhances your trip so much more.

What are North Carolina’s most beautiful routes?

Bill: One is NC Highway 64, which runs from stem to stern in North Carolina. That was how you got across the state before there were interstates. Highway 64 goes through so many little towns, so if you get on it, don’t take the bypasses. Go right through the middle if you’ve got time — I mean, that’s the luxury of it. Go through the towns and stop at some little gas station that actually has a garage and some guy with greasy fingernails and ask him if you can borrow his tire gauge. Talk to people and let them do the talking. As for the mountain roads, the Cherohala Skyway in Robbinsville is beautiful.

Jonathan: Easily the most beautiful is the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is no drive that beats that one. Even if you aren’t driving in that direction, it’s worth going out of your way! And if you head toward the coast, I appreciate the drive once you get east of Raleigh. That section of NC Highway 64 from Raleigh to the coast is almost like you’re traveling back in time! You get outside of the city, and you get to see these personable, small towns. I just love that change of scenery.

Scott: When you talk about noteworthy roads in North Carolina, I’m always reminded of the Tail of the Dragon, way out west on the Tennessee line, in Robbinsville. It’s this great motorcycle route, probably one of the swerviest roads in all of America — it’s got all of these twists and turns, and motorcycle riders just love it. You need to have a strong stomach when you take that route! And then there’s the coastal roads, too! What I do is take the back roads and meet these people along the way in places that are more mom-and-pop. For example, when we’re going to Wilmington, instead of traveling I-40, we take U.S. Highway 117, which runs parallel to 40. On Highway 117, you’ll find the little town of Rocky Point. There’s this restaurant called Paul’s Place Hotdogs — just a great landmark, some of the best hot dogs you’ll ever find — and they’re famous for their special relish. That’s a landmark that people on I-40 may not even know about. You’ve just got to be open to taking the back roads — that’s where you will often find the special places.

What details are important to you when you plan a trip?

Jonathan: I like planning to be in an area where I have options. Whether I’m renting a house or staying somewhere like a hotel or condo property, I like to know that within a 20- or 30-minute drive, I have a wide variety of things that I can do. There might be days when I do absolutely nothing, but I want to have options! I like that variation.

Scott: When you travel a lot, you really do get to know the hotels to stay in. When we go to Asheville to shoot stories, we normally stay in Marion. Asheville is just 20 minutes down the road! The hotel in Marion is actually a lot less expensive, and it’s just more relaxing. Also, when we go to the Outer Banks, we stay at the Comfort Inn in Nags Head. It’s actually a pretty good place to go because the pier is right next to it, and almost across the street is one of the best fish places in the state: Sam and Omie’s. Sometimes, the places a little farther away from the actual destination can be the best ones to stay at!

A sandy drive down NC Highway 12 on Pea Island reveals that on this particular stretch of the Outer Banks, despite the state’s best efforts, nature rules. photograph by Chris Hannant

What’s your favorite mountain destination?

Bill: There’s Roan Mountain, Cold Mountain, and, obviously, Grandfather Mountain. But picking a favorite mountain is like picking a favorite child — you just don’t do that! Roan is kind of special in that it’s grandiose. There’s actually a view of Roan Mountain from the back side of Beech Mountain. There’s a ski slope back there in a place called the Land of Oz, and only during certain times of the year is that one particular ski lift open. I remember one time I took it, and I saw Roan Mountain was sticking up, covered in snow, and I thought, “Oh my God, that is magical.”

What about a favorite beach?

Bill: Every beach has its own individual personality, accent, and allure. I mean, there’s places like Harkers Island, where they build the boats — how cool is that? Each beach has its own individual personality, so just try not to lump all of the beaches together.

Scott: Sunset Beach is a really pretty and unique area, and it’s well known for the Kindred Spirit mailbox, which is perched on a post about a mile and a half down the beach. People write these really heartfelt notes and put them in the mailbox for others to read and be inspired by.

Care to share North Carolina’s best-kept-secret destination (pretty please)?

Bill: Places like the North Carolina Zoo amaze me. You might think, “Oh, the zoo — that’s not a secret. Everybody goes there.” But then you realize that there’s so much more to it! The same thing is true with our aquariums. You never know what you’re going to get when you go. Another answer is just the unique, small little ditty shops and stores and mom-and-pop joints — there are secret places like that — but don’t take the “big” places for granted.

Jonathan: If I want one of the more unique beach destinations in North Carolina, I look at Bald Head Island. That’s a trip and experience that not many people know about, but one of my favorite trips and memories is going over on the ferry and staying there for a night or two. The beaches are largely empty, and there aren’t a lot of people there because it’s an island. It definitely gives you more of that exotic, secluded feel, versus the busier beaches in North Carolina. You take the ferry out of Southport, and then when you get there, the only gas vehicles on the island are emergency services — everybody else is on a bicycle or golf cart!

Scott: Mount Airy, of course, is known for being the model for Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show, but there are so many other things in town that people may not know about. For example, Mayberry Spirits Distillery makes moonshine — and the guy who runs it is a former monk! He left the monastery and opened a distillery, so that’s just such an interesting, bizarre story. Also, Mount Airy is well known for this dessert called sonker — it’s like cobbler, but not quite cobbler. You can only find sonker in one place in the world, and that’s Surry County!

What’s your favorite road trip snack?

Bill: Oh, I’ve actually thought about this a lot! Anything made by Lance — they’re a North Carolina company. Especially those orange Nabs! They’re handy, they’ll pop in your mouth, they’re ubiquitous — you can find them anywhere in North Carolina. All of my state cars had those orange Nab crumbs in them. Pair them with a big cup of iced tea, and you’re good to go.

This story was published on Aug 19, 2020

Anna Grace Thrailkill

Anna Grace Thrailkill is Our State’s Newsletter and Social Media Producer.