The Complete Guide To The Carolinas

With some of the best beaches in the US, golf courses galore, a wealth of history and one of the world's great drives, the Carolinas are a fascinating destination for a holiday. David Orkin explores the southern cousins at the heart of the American Civil War
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The Independent Travel

WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THE CAROLINAS?

WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THE CAROLINAS?

The states of North and South Carolina are located on America's Atlantic coast, midway between Washington DC and Florida, and provide visitors with an intoxicating mix of scenery (think misty mountains and deserted beaches) and heritage.

North Carolina (NC) is bordered to the north by Virginia, to the west by Tennessee and to the south-west by Georgia. The state can be loosely divided into three regions: the coast, flat and protected for its entire 300-mile length by the barrier islands known as the Outer Banks; the Heartlands or Piedmont; and the mountains. The state capital is Raleigh, but with a tower-block skyline, old characterful buildings aplenty and vibrant nightlife, Charlotte is NC's most important city and the second largest financial centre in the US after New York. The state's main draws for visitors are the mountains in the west, the stunning beaches in the east, and the golf resorts (particularly in the Sandhills area around Pinehurst). In the spring, NC is ablaze with blooming azaleas, dogwood, and rhododendron. In the autumn, thousands drive through the mountains to see an incredible display of seasonal colour.

South Carolina (SC) is smaller than North Carolina and is also bordered to the south-west by Georgia. It is known as the Palmetto State, after the Sabal Palmetto - the official state tree. It is loosely divided into Upcountry, the Midlands and Lowcountry - the latter comprising coastal plains, marshes and resort islands. The SC coast boasts many popular seaside resorts on the Atlantic that combine sandy beaches with an historical centre: it's here that you'll find Myrtle Beach and the modern island resorts of Hilton Head and Kiawah.

Inland SC, away from the luxury resorts and tourist centres, is dotted with lakes, streams and rivers. In contrast with the high finance of NC's Charlotte, much of SC is rural and simple - travelling through it gives a feel of how America was several decades ago. Columbia is the capital of SC but the main urban centre of interest is the elegant colonial coastal city of Charleston.

CAN I GET ACTIVE?

Both Carolinas are major golf destinations. NC has close to 600 courses, SC over 300 - in the Charleston area alone there are over 20 championship courses. You'll find holes in the mountains, by lakes, by beaches, all over the place.

Among the best in NC are Pinehurst Resort (001 910 235 8553; www.pinehurst.com) and Pine Needles Lodge (001 910 692 7111; www.rossresorts.com). In SC are Palmetto Dunes Resort (001 800 827 3006; www.palmettodunes.com) and the Old South Golf Links (001 800 257 8997; www.oldsouthgolf.com). The Golf Holiday Company (08701 121 314; www.golfholidaycompany.com) can organise packages. For lovers of driving with more oomph, stock car and - more importantly - Nascar motor racing are big here. The major track is Lowes Motor Speedway in Charlotte (001 704 455 3200; www.lowesmotorspeedway.com) - events here can attract over 200,000 spectators. The Hendrick Motorsports Museum (001 704 455 3400; www.hendrickmotorsports.com) is nearby, while if you're in SC, vroom over to Darlington Raceway (001 843 395 8499; www.darlingtonraceway.com). If you prefer foot power to horsepower, 200 miles of the rugged Appalachian Trail wind through western North Carolina.

Over 5,000 shipwrecks lie off the NC coast, including what is believed to be Queen Anne's Revenge - the ship of the renowned pirate Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. These are popular with scuba divers: breezy conditions are also good for windsurfing. NC's Jockey Ridge State Park, which boasts the highest sand dunes on the east coast, is a favourite spot for hang-gliding. There's also great coastal fishing, said to be at its best in October. Inland, visit Chimney Rock (001 828 625 9611; www.chimney-rock.com), which overlooks Hickory Nut Gorge in the Blue Ridge foothills. Implausibly, a lift will take you to the top of the peak. Alternatively, you can hike along trails where narrow paths take you from rock to rock. Once there, enjoy the view of beautiful Lake Lure far below.

Drop even further and cross into SC for a contrasting watery experience at Congaree Swamp National Monument (001 803 776 4396; www.nps.gov/cosw) where the Congaree River meanders through dense hardwood forests until it reaches its confluence with the Wateree River. This is the largest intact tract of old-growth floodplain forest in the United States, boasting some of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi. Hiking and canoeing are the best ways to see the swamp - but take industrial quantities of insect repellent.

AND IF I WANT TO STAY INDOORS?

The number one man-made distraction in the Carolinas is the Biltmore Estate (001 800 624 1575; www.biltmore.com) in Asheville, NC, the largest private home in the US. Building the 250-room "house", which is surrounded by acres of glorious gardens, started in 1889 and took six years to complete. Asheville itself is tidy, stylish and a justifiably popular place to base yourself for a few days.

On NC's coast, Edenton is a typical small Outer Banks port with colonial-style clapboard houses fronted by well-tended gardens on streets shaded by magnolia and pecan trees. Old Salem in Winston-Salem is a living recreation of the Moravian town of Salem, founded in 1766. Beaufort is North Carolina's third-oldest settlement, dating from 1713. Its 200-year-old houses and narrow streets reflect an historic way of life.

Confusingly, SC also has a Beaufort: established in 1710, where those who grew rich from cotton built lavish antebellum houses, many of which still stand today. Georgetown, SC, has surprisingly well-preserved pre-Revolutionary houses and churches, and you'll even find a 1772 Hebrew Cemetery, where the earliest graves face Jerusalem. Other SC historic towns worth a visit are Pendleton and Cheraw, birthplace of the jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, a very pretty town with gorgeous broad avenues covered by leafy canopies.

SC's man-made pride and joy is beautiful Charleston: the skyline is dotted with cathedral spires and the city evokes an air of faded European grandeur. The cobblestones, gas-powered streetlights and horse-and-carriage rides can be twee but are worth putting up with. Relatively new on Charleston's waterfront is the Fort Sumter Visitor Center (001 843 883 3123; www.nps.gov/fosu), from which tour boats - which charge US$12 (£7) - depart to the fort itself.

WHERE ARE THE BEST BEACHES?

With so much coastline, there are plenty to choose from. In NC, for example, there's Wrightsville Beach, the widest on the Cape Fear coast. SC's coast is well known for its resort islands: best known are Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand, the most popular sand strip along North America's entire Eastern Seaboard, which attracts 12 million visitors a year.

Hilton Head is a resort-studded island offering 12 miles of gorgeous white-sand beaches and tends to be more up-market than Myrtle Beach, as does Kiawah Island. Needless to say, all the resorts, accommodation and services mean that these areas are not the best for "get away from it all" types, especially in the summer.

ARE ALL THE COASTAL AREAS OVERDEVELOPED?

No, but those that have escaped are generally less accessible. In NC, Cape Hatteras National Seashore (001 252 995 4474) has some 70 miles of relatively unspoiled beaches beginning in South Nags Head and stretching down through Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. Ocracoke Island, Blackbeard's old haunt, is accessible only by boat (a free, short ferry ride from Hatteras Island or two-hour-plus trips from the mainland). Cape Lookout National Seashore (001 252 728 2250), an area of salt marshes, dunes and tidal flats, is also accessible only by water and is almost completely undeveloped. Ferries operate from mid-March to the first weekend in December. There are no roads or established trails on the islands, although some people drive along the beach in 4x4s. For somewhere more accessible but not jam-packed, in southern NC you'll find quiet, clean, peaceful beaches such as Kure. In SC, Huntington Beach State Park (001 843 237 4440; www.southcarolinaparks.com) offers pristine stretches of golden sand.

WILL I DINE WELL?

NC gave the world Pepsi and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Pepsi-Cola was formulated by Caleb Bradham of New Bern, NC, in 1898. The first Krispy Kreme doughnut was sold in Winston-Salem, NC. For more sophisticated palates, both Carolinas have wine industries, though NC's is more developed with over 30 wineries ( www.ncwine.org).

There are sophisticated restaurants, particularly in Raleigh and Asheville (both NC), and Charleston. In SC, try Anson (001 843 577 0551; www.ansonrestaurant.com) but more common are simpler, cheaper but not necessarily less-tasty gastronomic experiences. Seafood lovers are spoilt for choice in coastal regions: for example on Ocracoke Island there's the Back Porch (001 252 928 6401), while in Myrtle Beach there's the Sea Captain's House (001 843 448 8082; www.seacaptains.com). At Murrell's Inlet, head for the Divine Fish House (001 843 651 5800; www.divinedininggroup.com).

Southern cooking isn't the world's healthiest. A lot of deep frying goes on, and if you're not on a diet, try the famous breakfasts at Big Ed's restaurant (001 919 836 9909) in Raleigh's City Market district or the Country Kitchen Buffet in Cheraw, SC (001 843 537 3662) for heaps of cheap southern specialities. Unlike, say, Texas, in the Carolinas "barbecue" equals "pig". There are two different styles of barbecuing pork: Lexington, NC, plays host to a huge barbecue festival to be held this year on 23 October (001 336 956 1880; www.barbecuefestival.com), that is expected to draw more than 100,000 visitors.

WHERE SHOULD I STAY?

There's no shortage of largely characterless chain hotels and motels. But the good news is that the Carolinas offer a number of other fascinating options, especially in Asheville and Charleston. In the former Old Reynolds Mansion (001 828 254 0496; www.oldreynoldsmansion.com) is one of the city's few surviving antebellum brick houses. The Cedar Crest Inn (001 828 252 1389; www.cedarcrestinn.com) is an opulent 1891 folly close to the Biltmore Estate. The Inn on Biltmore Estate (001 828 225 1600; www.biltmore.com/inn) is suitably elegant. In Charleston, try the Barksdale House Inn (001 843 577 4800; www.barksdalehouse.com) constructed in 1778, or for a more traditional hotel the Charleston Place (001 843 722 4900; www.charlestonplace.com).

AND ELSEWHERE?

In Edenton, NC, you can get that Southern feeling at Governor Eden Inn (001 252 482 2072; www.governoredeninn.com). In the heart of historic Camden, SC, the Greenleaf Inn (001 803 425 1806; www.greenleafinncamden.com) has great rooms and an excellent restaurant.

SC's islands are all about posh resorts such as Pawleys Plantation Golf and Country Club (001 843 237 6009; www.pawleysplantation.com), 25 miles south of Myrtle Beach. The Hilton Head Marriott (001 843 686 8400; www.marriott.com) has recently undergone a lavish renovation. The Sanctuary (001 843 768 6000; www.thesanctuary.com) on Kiawah Island is due to open on 20 August - look out for opening promotional offers.

Book accommodation well in advance especially for late spring, summer and autumn.

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

The easy way is to buy a package, such as those offered by Carolina Vacations (01582 469 881; www.vacationsgroup.co.uk), USAirtours (0800 195 8660; www.usairtours.co.uk) or Travel 4 (08701 550 066; www.travel2.com). As with elsewhere in the US, public transport isn't ideal for the independent traveller. Rather than being limited by Amtrak or Greyhound schedules it's easier to rent a car - try Alamo (08705 994 000; www.goalamo.com) or Avis (0870 606 0100; www.avis.co.uk).

WHAT ARE THE BEST SCENIC DRIVES?

In SC the 115-mile Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway (SC11) arcs from I-85 at Gaffney, near the North Carolina border, almost to the Georgia border at Lake Hartwell State Park, passing peach orchards, quaint towns and piercing the Blue Ridge foothills.

The Blue Ridge Parkway (001 828 298 0398; www.nps.gov/blri; www.blueridgeparkway.org) is one of the great drives of the world. Beginning in Virginia, the parkway winds and twists along mountain crests for some 470 miles. It passes through most of western North Carolina before halting at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (001 865 436 1200; www.nps.gov/grsm) near the Tennessee border, where 16 southern Appalachian peaks soar skyward to 6,000ft. A blue, smoke-like haze almost always hangs over the mountains and has done so for centuries - the name is translated from that used by First Nations tribes in days of old. Nature lovers should be aware that there is much commercialisation in the surrounding area.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

Fly - a mode of transport pioneered in NC. At 10.35am on 14 December 1903, Orville Wright - a bicycle maker from Ohio - started up a flimsy contraption and edged it forward. It left the ground at a speed of 8mph, and 12 seconds later it touched down 120ft away. To be frank, Kitty Hawk Field is one of those sites whose historical significance totally outweighs what there is to see there. There's a granite pylon and a small museum at the Wright Brothers National Memorial (001 252 441 7430; www.nps.gov/wrbr); admission is US$3 (£2). Incidentally, though primarily focusing on military aviation history, the North Carolina Aviation Museum (001 336 625 0170) in Asheboro displays the last aeroplane flown by Orville Wright.

A century after the first powered flight, there are two non-stop departures a day from the UK to NC, both from London Gatwick. US Airways (001 800 428 4322; www.usairways.com) flies to Charlotte, which is very close to the SC border. American Airlines (08457 789 789; www.aa.com) operates to Raleigh-Durham. In addition, many airlines offer connecting services to SC regional airports such as Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Greenville.

Some East Coast Amtrak trains (001 800 872 7245; www.Amtrak.com), which pass along the line linking New York and Washington DC with Georgia and Florida, pass through the Carolinas. There are also various Greyhound bus services (001 800 229 9424; www.greyhound.com).

MORE INFORMATION

For details about North Carolina call 08705 333 123 or go to www.visitnc.co.uk; for South Carolina information call 0800 783 1172 or go to www.discoversouthcarolina.com.

CAROLINA HISTORY

The colony of Carolina, on North America's Atlantic coast midway between present-day Washington DC and Florida, was originally named in honour of France's Charles IX. When England acquired the territory, the name was conveniently appropriate for Charles I and Charles II.

To backtrack for a moment: pre-European history goes back thousands of years. The traditions of First Nation peoples such as the Catawba live on, and are best seen at the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project in Rock Hill, SC (001 803 328 2427; www.ccppcrafts.com). Despite repeated attempts to force them out, many Cherokee still live in NC, especially on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. If you're at all interested in Cherokee culture, visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian (001 828 497 3481; www.cherokeemuseum.org) and the Oconaluftee Indian Village (001 828 497 2111; www.oconalufteevillage.com).

The first recorded European visitor to the present-day Carolinas was a Spaniard, Francisco Cordilla, in 1521. In 1585 Sir Walter Raleigh established the first English settlement in the Americas, a colony on Roanoke Island (NC). Shortly afterwards the governor sailed back to England for supplies, leaving 116 settlers behind; he returned three years later to find the settlement deserted. The site survives as the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site (001 252 473 5772; www.nps.gov/fora). In 1670 a new settlement called Charles Towne was established on the Ashley River. Ten years later the village was moved to the site of present-day Charleston (SC).

The division into the separate states took place in 1729. In 1788, SC became the eighth state; NC became the 12th a year later. SC seceded from the Union in 1860, and joined the Confederacy of "slave states". The first shot of the American Civil War occurred when Confederate forces fired at the Union-occupied but not fully built Fort Sumter (Charleston) on Boxing Day, 1860. The Confederates took the fort but were then subjected to an interminable siege. When they finally evacuated the fort it was little more than rubble.

The largest Civil War battle was fought at Bentonville, NC: to commemorate the battle's 140th anniversary there will be a huge recreation on 18-20 March 2005 (001 919 989 8687; www.johnstoncountync.org).

In 1868 General Sherman blazed through SC, torching towns and plantations in his path. More recent destruction has been by acts of God; in 1989 Hurricane Hugo hit, causing billions of dollars of damage to SC, and 10 years later Hurricane Floyd had a similarly devastating effect on NC.

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