My favorite pastime is driving around an unfamiliar area and finding hidden gems — waterfalls on the side of the road, hikes with no foot traffic and out-of-the-way eateries in unexpected places, like Sand Hill Kitchen at the BP Station on the outskirts of Asheville.
A tiny town with family-owned shops and restaurants is the best find. Here are four in the Carolinas to discover:
Getting there: I-85 South to US-321 North, 123 miles from Charlotte
Restaurants, wineries, shops, activities — and Lees-McRae College — are packed into this mountain town. Hop on a horse for a one-hour guided tour with Banner Elk Stables. Visit the award-winning Banner Elk Winery & Villa for a wine tasting. Walk across the Mile-High Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain. The adventurous have access to white-water rafting trips, utility terrain vehicle (UTV) and hiking expeditions, and fishing trips with one of Banner Elk’s outfitting companies.
Food and drink: Artisanal was named Top 100 Restaurants in America by Open Table for two years in a row. Chef’s Table offers farm to table dishes and the Banner Elk Cafe & Lodge serves pizza, wraps, sandwiches, smoothies and more. Louisiana Purchase Food & Spirits’ drink menu includes 14 wines, craft cocktails and local beer. Dunn’s Deli has burgers, sandwiches and wraps. Don’t forget ice cream at the Locust Post.
When to go: Listen to local and regional bands at Concerts in the Park on Thursday evenings, June through August. Don’t miss this year’s annual Woolly Worm Festival on Oct. 19 and 20. ICYDK — a woolly worm is a caterpillar that becomes the Isabella tiger moth.
Getting there: I-77 South, 91 miles from Charlotte
Camden’s vibrant downtown has events, festivals and activities throughout the year. There’s golfing, shopping and motorsports in the area to enjoy. History enthusiasts can visit one of three museums: The Camden Archives & Museum, African-American Cultural Center of Camden and Historic Camden.
Food and drink: Broad and Market Streets feature cafes, restaurants and dessert shops. Get takeout for a picnic at Camden Seafood or Eats. Stop by Blackmon’s Little Midget Drive-In for burgers and hot dogs or DeBruhl’s Market Street Cafe for southern fare such as fried chicken, collards and pinto beans. Try one of 100 tequilas at Salud Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Lounge.
When to go: Grab a big hat and something seersucker for The Carolina Cup, an annual steeplechase horse race held at the Springdale Race Course, on March 30. Tailgate before the first race at 1:30 p.m. Pig out at the Battle of Camden BBQ Festival on May 17 and 18. Plan ahead for the Carolina Downhome Blues Festival in October.
Getting there: I-77 South, 75 miles from Charlotte.
Ridgeway is a thrift and antique shoppers paradise in South Carolina’s Old English District. Shops on Palmer Street, the town’s main street, have charming storefronts. Over the Top Emporium and Bella and Blue Boutique feature women’s clothing. Find collectibles and vintage antiques at Cotton Yard Market. Stop at the Ruff Hardware Store for an assortment of items and southern hospitality.
Food and drink: Refuel at Laura’s Tea Room, in a renovated 19th century building. Teas are served and sold there from Charleston’s Oliver Pluff & Co and other fine companies. The café menu includes soups, salads, quiche and sandwiches. Upstairs, a three-course, European-style high tea is served by reservation only. Head to the Olde Town Hall Restaurant & Pub for craft beer, steaks, seafood, pizza, wings and sandwiches.
When to go: Plan your visit around one of these festivals: Arts on the Ridge in May, Pig on the Ridge in November and Holiday on the Ridge is the first Friday in December. Or if you’re curious what a 43-mile yard sale looks like, get to the Big Grab in September.
Getting there: I-85 North, 91 miles from Charlotte
Seagrove’s population is 227 — and almost half are full-time potters; many are sixth, seventh or eighth-generation potters. Use this map to visit the studios and shops in the town. Take a hands-on workshop at the North Carolina Pottery Center or watch a free demo offered most Saturdays. Plan a “hands-on clay party” with Bobbie Thomas at Thomas Pottery for a special occasion. Schedule a private lesson on the pottery wheel at Michele Hastings & Jeff Brown Pottery.
Food and drink: Stay local for traditional dishes such as meatloaf and two sides at Seagrove Family Restaurant or Fresh Cuts Butcher and Seafood Market. Travel 15 to 20 minutes to Asheboro for a larger range of options: The Table Farmhouse Bakery, Hamilton’s Steak House, Mike’s Chicago Dog and More and Four Saints Brewing Company, featuring carbon neutral brews.
When to go: On June 1 and 2, Seagrove Wood Fire NC Weekend Pottery Tour will feature 13 local potters. On Saturday night, Starworks Cafe and Taproom in nearby Star, N.C. will feature live music, food trucks and local beer. Shop for holiday gifts at Seagrove’s two pottery festivals, both on November 23.