Monday, April 23, 2007

North Carolina and the Great American Holiday

This is a story for Europeans (and I use here the disputed definition which includes the British) rushing to book their summer holidays in the United States as the dollar continues its race into the toilet. This is also a story about how to overcome some of the obstacles which have rightfully kept Europeans away in recent years. US Immigration procedures are notoriously off-putting, insulting, infuriating, even frightening. Some major US airports such as Miami, JFK and LAX are wretched affairs. But at some point, the logic of going where everything costs less, from hotels, food, petrol to iPods and Pumas, takes over. Plus, most Europeans recognise that once through Immigration, Americans, with their developed sense of service and friendly attitudes make excellent hosts.

In response to increasing interest in American holidays this year, everyone and their uncle is selling packages to famous American destinations. But do you really want to be part of the Euro-stampede to the most visited venues of Florida, New York, and California? To avoid your fellow countrymen, there is a lot to be said, as Mark Twain put it, "for lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest.” So here’s an idea for a fabulous, but much less obvious, vacation in the southern state of North Carolina that has it all: gorgeous beaches, amazing mountains, golf courses galore, delicious down-home cooking, interesting culture and history and some of the best discount shopping in America.

A Nice Airport

The easiest way to avoid an US Immigration disaster this summer is not to enter via a major gateway such as JFK, Miami or LAX. American Airlines runs a daily non-stop from London Gatwick to Raleigh Durham, North Carolina (RDU) and this is a better option. According to airport information, the London flight is the only international arrival so it is impossible to get behind a 747 from anywhere but the flip side is that infrastructure is miniscule. The international arrivals hall is tiny and there is not lots of staff, but waiting times are much better than large US airports in peak periods. More importantly, this is the South, and rudeness never comes easy to any Southerner, even those who work for the US government.

After clearing immigration, you still have to endure a very stupid process involving picking up your luggage, putting it back on a carousel, and then passing back through security to walk back through the airport and pick up your luggage. If it wasn’t so ridiculous, it would be charming. All I can say is that once this ordeal is over, everything else about RDU, such as picking up your rental car and getting out of the airport is super easy and you will be amazed at how hyper-helpful and friendly everyone is. There are also direct flights from European destinations to Charlotte, N.C.

Uncrowded Roads

I’ll be lambasted for this one, but in North Carolina it is still fun to take a vacation from worrying about your carbon footprint. This is the home of Nascar racing and Carolinians take their roads and cars seriously. You can drive half way across the state in the time it takes to drive half across London. Gas, by European standards, is still cheap. The “Golden Oldies” and “Classic Rock” stations are great so rent a big car for the big roads and enjoy the ride. I had a very good experience recently with Enterprise Rent-A-Car at RDU. Of course, all the major car rental companies are also represented.

Good Resorts

For anyone who has been on a European beach in August, the relative emptiness of North Carolina’s beautiful beaches blows your mind. With warm water and pristine sand stretching for miles, this is beach heaven, but there’s no one there! Coastal communities such as Duck (check our the Sanderling Resort), Bald Head Island, Beaufort and Ocracoke Island are all great options. If you play golf, the Pinehurst Resort further inland is a legendary destination. For mountain lovers, there are loads of lovely country inns and for families, the Cataloochee Ranch, bordering on Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers horseback riding, hiking, fishing and more. The Swag in Waynesville comes highly recommended by my parents as an upscale retreat for well-heeled hikers. If you get homesick for Europe, you can always head for the Relais and Chateau affiliated Ferrington House Country Inn near Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as well as RDU Airport.

Great Food

Forget counting calories or watching your cholesterol. Actually, it is best if you forget your health altogether and just enjoy the flavourful country food which was originally created to fill the tables and stomachs of hard working farmers and fishermen. My favourites “real food” restaurants in North Carolina include the Jones Lunch Room in Clayton which, since 1958, has been serving some of the finest hot dogs in America in one of the most authentic settings, Stephenson’s for sensational barbecue, Crooks Corner in Chapel Hill for the original Shrimp and Grits, the Magnolia Grill in Durham for some of the best contemporary southern cooking in the country and the Sanitary Fish Market and Restaurant in Morehead City for a southern seafood extravaganza. There are fancier places to eat, but I love these restaurants because each one tells a unique story about location, people, ingredients and the importance of food in Southern life.

History and Culture

Coming from Europe, you might think that a southern state like North Carolina would be short on things to do of an intellectual nature. Not true. North Carolina has historic houses and buildings such as Tryon Palace in New Bern, the Biltmore Estate (America’s largest home) and the house Thomas Wolfe memorialised in “Look Homeward Angel” in Asheville and Old Salem, a Moravian restoration, in Winston Salem (which also has the original 1937 Krispy Kreme Doughnut shop). You can visit the Bentonville Battlefield, the site of the last full scale engagement of the Civil War. There is also a brilliant aquarium on Atlantic Beach which has undergone a $25 million expansion and a newly opened art museum at Duke University as well as an excellent symphony in Raleigh (with a Welsh conductor). Best of all, compared to entry and ticket prices in Europe, these cultural treasures are a bargain and mostly uncrowded.

Shop till you Drop

Speaking of bargains, North Carolina is a virtual souk! There is North Carolina Premium Outlets in Smithfield with over 80 stores such as Nike, Ralph Lauren, Gap and Samsonite (don’t try this on the weekends in the summer). There are plenty of Target stores across the state where a great little black dress by Isaac Mizrahi will only set you back $39.99. Super cheap electronics can be found at Best Buy and Wal-Mart. There are upscale malls and downscale malls and everything in-between. They are open day and night. I was last in NC for Easter and even though I was in the Bible Belt on the holiest day in the Christian calendar, Carolinians were shopping up a storm. You can shop forever and with the current exchange rate, you will save on absolutely everything. Your biggest problem will be getting it all home, so be sure and stop at the Samsonite outlet store in Smithfield and buy another bag.

So there you have it, an American vacation paradise that has everything, at the right price with the right attitude but won’t be on the top of everyone else’s list. While your next door neighbor is waiting in line at JFK or LAX, you’ll already be on the open road, heading for the one of the best vacations you ever had.

And you don't have to take just my word for it. Right after NoCrowds published this post, the New York Times Travel Section was inspired to publish an article on the many benefits of taking a family holiday in and around the Raleigh area. It was a nice article, and there is lots of good ideas about things to do, but of course, they got the barbeque info all screwed up. For the best barbeque in North Carolina, go to Stephensons. Details below.

Useful Addresses

North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development
4324 Mail service Center
Raleigh, North Carolina 27699
Tel: 919 7338372
Fax: 919 715 3097

Places to Stay

Cataloochee Ranch
119 Ranch Drive
Maggie Valley, NC 28751
828 926 1401

The Ferrington House
2000 Ferrington Village Center
Pittsboro, NC 27312
Tel: 919 542 2126

Pinehurst Resort
1 Carolina Vista Drive
Pinehurst, NC 28374
Tel: 910 235 8507

The Sanderling Resort & Spa
1461 Duck Road
Duck, North Carolina 27949
Reservations: 877 650 4812
Info: 252261 4111

The Swag
2300 Swag Road
Waynesville, NC 28785
Tel: 828 926 0430
Fax: 828 926 2036

Places to Eat

Crooks Corner
610 West Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, NC
Tel: 919 929 7643

Jones Lunch Room
415 E Main Street
Clayton, NC 27520
Tel: 919 553 7528

Magnolia Grill
1002 9th Street
Durham NC
Tel: 919 286 3609
Reservations essential

The Sanitary Fishmarket and Restaurant
501 Evans Street
Morehead City, NC 28557
Tel: 252 247 3111

Stephenson’s Barbeque
Highway 50 North
McGee’s Crossroads, NC
Tel: 910 894 4530


  1. Nice. The Brits will never understand a word we are saying; nor we them. We'll get along great.

  2. Greetings! This is my 1st comment here so I just
    wanted to give a quick shout out and say I really enjoy reading through your articles.
    Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that deal with the same topics?
    Thanks for your time!

    Here is my site private krankenversicherung ohne gesundheitspr├╝fung