- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2007

RALEIGH, N.C. — A song of the early 1920s that has remained a favorite, with surges in popularity from recordings by such greats as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and even Bill Haley and His Comets, put it this way:

If I had Aladdin’s lamp for only a day, I’d make a wish and here’s what I’d say: Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning.

Indeed, North Carolina is a fine place to be in the afternoons and evenings as well.

For a short-haul trip from the Washington area, North Carolina has long been a favorite — especially its Outer Banks. Whalebone, N.C., south of Kill Devil Hill, is 278 miles from Washington, so the Outer Banks is a good place to start a visit.

What we call the Outer Banks received its first known rave reviews in the 1580s after Sir Walter Raleigh sent explorers to check out the sounds and estuaries alongside the area that is now North Carolina’s playground by the sea. The all-male group arrived in 1585 but chose to return to England with Sir Francis Drake in 1586. The men’s reports caused Queen Elizabeth I to commission Raleigh to establish a permanent colony in America two decades before Jamestown and three decades before Plymouth.

The second group arrived in 1587, but by 1590, all had disappeared. Every one of the approximately 120 men, women and children whom Raleigh had sent — he never set foot in North America — had vanished without a trace. Their deserted settlement site showed no signs of any trouble. Conflicting theories about what happened still abound, and the settlement remains the Lost Colony.

Outer Banks visitors can take in a well-done stage production about this mystery — Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green’s “The Lost Colony,” America’s first and longest-running historical drama performed under the stars. It has drawn large crowds and high praise for 60 years.

The Outer Banks is a string of sandy barrier islands that stretch more than 130 miles along North Carolina’s Atlantic coastline. It’s an area of great natural beauty, with mile after mile of pristine white sandy beaches and shifting sand dunes, inlet water hideaways and wildlife refuge areas, all of which make for great recreational opportunities. Surrounding water frontage exceeds 900 miles. Its estuary system — a mixing place of seawater and fresh water — is one of the largest in the world.

In Nags Head, at 400-acre Jockey’s Ridge State Park, site of the largest natural sand dune system on the Atlantic coast, visitors can go hang gliding and sand boarding, fly kites, hike along nature trails and picnic in an area that in some places looks like a big desert. Sometimes the dunes are taller than 100 feet above the ocean.

It was precisely this combination of tall dunes, good winds and soft sand that led two Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop owners, Wilbur and Orville Wright, to come here to try out their invention. They selected for their most important experiments a spot just south of Kitty Hawk called Big Kill Devil Hill, from which they made more than 1,000 glides.

Here, on Dec. 17, 1903, the two, each wearing suit and tie, flipped a coin, shook hands over the noise of the engine they had built, and with younger brother Orville at the controls and Wilbur running alongside, their machine lifted off the ground at 10:35 in the morning. For the first time, a heavier-than-air machine with a person onboard rose into the air on its own power. That first flight lasted just 12 seconds and traveled just 120 feet, not much more than half the length of a Boeing 747. You can learn all about it at the place where it occurred, at the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

It’s easy to find a nice beach close by this historic spot. There are 85 public-access beaches in this area, and they are among the best on the Atlantic coast. Relax on a beach, take a dip in the ocean, walk on the soft sand, search for shells or go surfing, windsurfing or surf fishing — this is one of the best areas along the entire East Coast for any of these activities. It’s also a great area for other outdoor activities such as golf, kayaking, canoeing and camping.

FISH AND BIRDS

Fishing, both saltwater and freshwater, is outstanding, and you can fish from along the ocean shore, from piers, in the many sounds and aboard offshore charter boats.

This also is one of the best places in the country for bird-watching, home of the 5,834-acre Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is great during the warm months but even better during the cold season, when more than 400 species of waterfowl winter here. You can go on guided or independent nature-trail tours and even sit in a blind to observe birds up close.

Along the coast, you will see some of America’s best-known lighthouses, including the 198-foot Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest in America and the second-tallest brick lighthouse in the world. It is a symbol of North Carolina.

At least 1,500 known shipwrecks lie off the coast, making the area a delight for divers. A few shipwrecks are visible from shore at low tide. Some of the ships have rested there for centuries, for it was Alexander Hamilton who dubbed the area offshore the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” A museum here bears that name. Other maritime sites include Chicamacomico on Pea Island, where you can learn about the U.S. Life-Saving Service, forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard, and the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Manteo.

Manteo, on Roanoke Island (population 6,000), is sort of the main gathering point of the Outer Banks. It’s a pleasant place with nice shops and good restaurants. Close to town are such attractions as a newly expanded aquarium, which focuses on Outer Banks waters, and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, a re-creation of the fort the first settlers built here. A classic English garden called Elizabethan Gardens is planted adjacent to the amphitheater in which “The Lost Colony” is performed.

You can stroll from the center of Manteo across a bridge to Roanoke Island Festival Park, a living-history museum with an interactive museum and a film theater. Visitors can climb aboard the Elizabeth II, a sailing ship reflecting the type of vessel on which those first settlers crossed the Atlantic. Re-enactors in the dress of the late 1500s perform woodworking and blacksmithing chores and show guests the sort of accommodations settlers inhabited.

It was at this living-history museum that we learned about something that certainly must have amazed and delighted those first English settlers: The natives were very happy to acquire low-value items from the settlers in exchange for something they called a “Roanoke.” It was their word for a pearl.

A gem those early settlers didn’t know about is the great beauty of western North Carolina. It’s a long haul from the Outer Banks to the state’s mountainous west, so we recommend breaking up the journey with a stay in Raleigh, about a three-hour drive from the Outer Banks.

PARK IN CITY

Just about every publication that rates U.S. cities ranks Raleigh — 202 miles from the Outer Banks — among the top few. It’s a great place to live — but would you want to visit? Absolutely.

Raleigh is a park with a city in it, as locals often boast. Of course that’s an exaggeration, but it seems almost believable when you begin to notice that even from many spots close to downtown, your views of the city are blocked by trees. It has a surprising number of interesting sights and activities.

Stop by the Capital Area Visitor Center downtown in the North Carolina History Museum (5 E. Edenton St.) and pick up free walking and driving tour guides. Many of the major attractions are close by the Visitor Center and within fairly easy walking distance of one another.

Few cities of its size (population 350,000) can boast such an array of truly fine — and free — museums. The whole family, but especially children, will enjoy a visit to the state’s most popular — the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, home to “Terror of the South,” the world’s only display of an Acrocanthosaurus. That tall, nearly 40-foot-long, 2½-ton dinosaur roamed Earth more than 100 million years ago and predated the T-rex by 45 million years.

The nearby North Carolina Museum of History focuses on state history, but remember, this is the state in which aviation took off, so a centerpiece of this museum is the display about the history of aviation, which features a model of the first Wright brothers aircraft.

A short drive across town, the North Carolina Museum of Art houses a fine collection of antiquities and paintings covering the 5,000-year period from ancient Egypt to the present. It includes Greek and Roman works, Renaissance paintings and sculpture, 18th- and 19th-century American art, African art, and modern European and American art. It features works by such greats as Botticelli, Raphael, van Dyck, Monet, Chardin, O’Keeffe and Winslow Homer.

Something is always going on in Raleigh in the arts, culture and sports. The city is home to the Carolina Ballet, the North Carolina Symphony and the North Carolina Theatre. Traveling Broadway shows and big-name concerts often appear in town. One or more of its area universities always seem to rank at the top in college football, basketball and baseball, and its professional hockey team is the 2006 Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes.

CAPITAL SIGHTS

Of course, because it is the state capital, Raleigh has government landmarks. The Capitol, a National Historic Landmark, is considered an especially good and well-preserved example of an American civic building in the Greek Revival style. Under a grand 97-foot copper dome stands a copy of Antonio Canova’s marble statue of George Washington dressed as a Roman general.

Nearby are statues of the three U.S. presidents who were born in North Carolina: Andrew Jackson, James Knox Polk and Andrew Johnson. Guided tours are available, or visitors can roam the building and its grounds on their own.

The State Legislature Building is nearby, as is the Executive Mansion, an outstanding example of the Queen Anne style of Victorian architecture that offers tours of its grounds. A few blocks away are the cobblestone streets of City Market, a favorite with locals and visitors, where renovated period buildings house boutiques, art galleries, a small brewery, restaurants and a small farmers market. Often on weekends throughout the year, the neighboring city block and park are turned into an arts-and-crafts market.

Anyone who likes flea markets and farmers markets will love Raleigh. Every weekend at the State Fairgrounds, you can experience one of the country’s largest and best flea markets — or in October, come to the 10-day State Fair. When it comes to farmers markets, its State Farmers Market, open every day except Christmas, is as good as they get — with a massive selection of fresh produce, indoor and outdoor plants and crafts, complete with one restaurant specializing in Southern cooking and another in North Carolina seafood.

MOUNTAIN TOWN

Travelers to North Carolina’s mountainous west can make Asheville (population 72,000) their convenient base. It’s 222 miles from Raleigh and, for the trip home to Washington, it’s 381 miles. Nestled in the southern Appalachian Mountains at a spot where two rivers — the French Broad and the Swannanoa — meet, it has the appealing feel of a small town.

Asheville long has been a resort town, since the late 1800s when an extremely wealthy man named George Washington Vanderbilt II began bringing his mother here for a tuberculosis cure in the mountain air. People still come for the fresh mountain air as well as Asheville’s arts and music festivals.

Most visitors to Asheville come to tour the famous, massive chateau Vanderbilt built — Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned home in the United States. Biltmore attracts more than 1 million visitors a year. It is astonishingly opulent: 175,000 square feet, 250 rooms, sited among 8,000 acres of forest and meticulously manicured lawns with 75 acres of beautiful gardens. Here, in a gorgeous spot, Vanderbilt created his dream replica of a great European working estate..

Biltmore originally stood amid 125,000 acres, stretching for about 20 miles and taking in much of what today constitutes Pisgah National Forest. Vanderbilt wanted the estate to be self-sufficient, so he included on it a dairy operation, cattle farms, hog farms and a forestry management operation. It had its own village for estate workers, complete with a church.

Today its best known side operation is its highly regarded winery, which, it surprises most people to learn, is America’s most visited winery. Adjacent Biltmore Village is home to boutique shops and fine restaurants.

Visitors to Biltmore marvel at its size — the footprint of the mansion covers 4 acres. What lies inside is equally amazing: an incredibly large foyer, priceless art and antiques, 65 fireplaces, a grand pool, a bowling alley and a two-story wood-paneled library that would be the envy of many cities.

Biltmore on its own is well worth visiting, but stick around and visit this area also for what drew Vanderbilt here in the first place, the pleasant city of Asheville and the beauty of the surrounding area.

The downtown area abounds with art galleries, all sorts of specialty shops and quality restaurants. A particularly good place to shop in town is at the beautifully restored 1929 Grove Arcade. There are lots of Appalachian crafts, including those in stalls set up outside on weekends. A short drive out of town is the Folk Art Center.

Asheville is an unusually popular city with visitors interested in authentic period architecture. That’s because after Biltmore was finished, many architects and skilled craftsmen stayed on and worked on other projects in town, including public buildings such as the art-deco City Hall, a Catholic church with a grand dome and Spanish baroque towers, and an art-deco Baptist church. The city also is known for its abundance of well-maintained turn-of-the century houses.

A downtown attraction of special importance is the Thomas Wolfe Memorial in the nicely restored boardinghouse that the novelist’s mother owned and operated and in which he grew up. The wood house was called the Old Kentucky Home, but in Wolfe’s most famous novel, “Look Homeward Angel,” he named it Dixieland.

Asheville was one place where that book was not well received. Residents and some relatives were incensed by Wolfe’s portrayal, and the author did not go back there for several years. He wrote another famous book about that experience, borrowing its title from a remark made to him by a friend: “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

He is home now, buried in Riverside Cemetery under a modest marker that states his parentage and dates of birth and death, identifies him as a “Beloved American Author” and contains brief quotes from two of his works. Nearby in the cemetery is the grave, also modestly marked, of another figure in American literature, William Sidney Porter, better known by his pen name, O. Henry.

Porter’s link to Asheville is that his wife was from here. He hated the place and said he could not stand to look out at the mountains. “They depress me,” he said.

Few people share Porter’s sentiments. The stunning beauty of the mountains that surround Asheville make it a popular spot with visitors and retirees. One such mountain not far from Asheville was the title of Charles Frazier’s best-selling novel “Cold Mountain” and the movie made from it.

Asheville is a great base for exploring some of nature’s splendor. Just outside town, adventure travelers find great spots for hiking, mountain biking and white-water rafting. Many stunning views are minutes from town on the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most scenic routes in America.

Mountains, streams, lakes, forests — this area has all the ingredients, including waterfalls, that make spectacular scenery. A short drive northeast of town is Linville Falls, one of the prettiest in the region; south of town and within an hour’s drive is Transylvania County, “the Land of Waterfalls.” No other county in the United States has so many waterfalls. Its Whitewater Falls, considered the highest cascades east of the Rocky Mountains, plunges 411 feet, and Looking Glass Falls is one of America’s most photographed waterfalls.

Frommer’s travel guide company has picked Asheville for its Top 12 Must-See World Travel Destinations of 2007. Visitors may want to inform Frommer’s that Asheville is in the Appalachian Mountains, not the Smokies, which are an hour away to the west, and writer-poet Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Ill., not Flat Rock near Asheville, but he did die in Flat Rock. Frommer’s is correct that Asheville is a great place to visit.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide