Road trip! 9 ideas for your post-Covid vacay

Plus: The top news of the week: Cooper looks to end Covid restrictions — NC economy revving back up — 2040 plan changes expected — new brewery heading to LoSo?

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Ready to get away, but not too far? You have options within a half-day’s drive: mountains, beaches, waterfalls, soda museum

by Nicholas Felten

It’s almost summer, school’s almost out, you’re almost vaccinated, and being out in public is fashionable once again. It’s time for a vacation!

But where to go? Planes are likely to be crowded (and still masked), and rental cars are hard to come by anyway once you’re there.

There has never been a better time for a road trip, and since you have the good fortune to live in the Regional Banking Capital of the World, you’ve got a lot of options! Here are a few, sorted by driving distance:

Greenville and/or Columbia (1.5 hours)

If you’ve got young kids and are put off by a big trip but want to get out of the house for a bit, why not do an overnight trip to our neighbors to the south? Columbia has the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden, which is always a hit with the kids. To the east of Columbia, there’s Congaree National Park, and while the synchronous firefly viewing has been scaled back this year on account of the pandemic, at least it’s on your radar for next year.

In the other direction, Greenville has a great, strollable downtown with a lively restaurant scene, as well as Falls Park on the Reedy, one of the finest urban parks in the country. The New York Times called it “The Next Charleston,” but it’s not, and it doesn’t have to be.

Asheville (2 hours)

If you’re new to Charlotte, you’ll probably want to spend a couple of days in our hipper neighbor to the west to see what everybody’s talking about. First of all, it’s up in the mountains, which makes it about five degrees cooler than Charlotte in the summer. Obviously, you have your pick of great restaurants and outdoor activities, but there’s also a Friday night drum circle downtown that gives a flavor of the Asheville vibe.

While downtown you can shop at the Grove Arcade and get unlimited ’80s video games and pinball at the Asheville Pinball Museum, which my kids and I all enjoyed immensely.

ASHEVILLE PRO TIP: Stop at Mount Mitchell State Park on the way over so you can say you’ve been to the highest point east of the Mississippi. Then, take the Blue Ridge Parkway all the way to Asheville for some great scenery. On the way back, take Alt-74 out of Asheville and stop at Troyer’s Country Amish Blatz in Fairview for some cheese curds and freshly baked bread. Then stop off at Chimney Rock and/or take a few pictures at the Lake Lure Flowering Bridge before heading home.

Wilmington (3.5 hours)

Historically, Myrtle Beach and Charleston have been the go-to options for Charlotteans looking for a beach trip. But with the Monroe Bypass shaving considerable time from the trip to Wilmington, should North Carolina’s port city be on your list? It’s certainly on my list, as I’m headed out there for the first time in a while next month.

While there, we’ll of course enjoy the beach. But we’ll also hit the Wilmington Riverwalk and possibly visit the Battleship North Carolina, permanently moored there and now a museum. We’ll also head south to Fort Fisher to see the fort and the aquarium. After that, it’s time to take the ferry over to Southport! For just $7, you can load your car on a boat and cross the bay. If you want something more secluded, take the ferry to Bald Head Island, where there are no cars and everybody gets around via golf cart. 

S.C. coast (3.5-4 hours)

Charleston is the big attraction here, and by all means you should tour the historic area, take a picture at the pineapple fountain, cool off at the splash fountain nearby, see a plantation (including the only tea garden in North America) and do a little shopping at the Charleston City Market. And I can attest that Rodney Scott’s BBQ, which you may have seen on the Netflix series “Chef’s Table,” is indeed the real deal.

But consider crossing the Ravenel Bridge (by foot if you want) to Mount Pleasant. There you will find Memorial Waterfront Park and Shem Creek Park, both of which are worth a look. Just a few minutes away from these is Sullivan’s Island Beach, whose gentle slope and mild waves make it great for families. Parking is tight, so get there early if you can and park at Station 18 or lower for a less crowded beach.

The author’s daughter on a relaxing morning at Shem Creek Park.

South of Charleston, there are more beaches, the quaint town of Beaufort and the resort town of Hilton Head Island (the Ballantyne of the South Carolina coast!). North of Charleston, there’s Myrtle Beach, and I’m probably not going to tell you anything you didn’t know about that place.

Gatlinburg (3.5 - 4 hours)

If Myrtle Beach had a sister city in the mountains, it would be Gatlinburg, with its main drag full of mirror mazes, haunted houses, ice cream parlors, T-shirt shops and top-rate people-watching. It’s genuinely fun and safe to walk around, and you can get away from the masses during the day by exploring the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Parking can be tight on the most popular trails, so start early.) If you’re really into the outdoors, you could try to snag a spot off the waitlist to stay at the LeConte Lodge, accessibly only by a hike in of at least four hours. A more conventional choice would be the Margaritaville Resort, which can be a pleasant base, though there are cheaper options. The Pancake Pantry is a favorite breakfast spot. If all else fails, there’s always Dollywood just 20 minutes away.

Sunset over Gatlinburg: View from LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Waterfall country: Helen, Ga. / N.C. mountains (3.5 - 4 hours)

Fact: there are two temperate rainforests in the continental United States. Most people know about the one up in the Pacific Northwest, but not as many people know about the one in our own backyard. Right about where N.C., S.C. and Georgia meet, the mountains catch a lot of rain, enough to merit a rainforest designation. Among Pisgah National Forest, Nantahala National Forest and Chattahoochee National Forest, you’ll find a lot of mountains, a lot of nature and a lot of waterfalls. One possible base from which to explore the area is the town of Helen, famous for its German architectural veneer. 

Fun fact: Helen happens to be right next to the Tallulah Gorge, made famous by the movie “Deliverance.”

Atlanta (4 hours)

Do you like traffic? If so, you need to get down to Atlanta pronto! The city known as “The Charlotte of Georgia” boasts some of the nation’s finest interchanges and traffic jams, plus that one section of I-85 that’s about, and I’m going from memory here, 38 lanes wide. It’s a must-see for civil engineering enthusiasts.

Friendly jabs at our geographical rival aside, you can have lots of fun there. Even though it was years ago, my kids still talk about the World of Coca-Cola museum. Specifically, they talk about the tasting room, also known as The One Place in the World Where Mom and Dad Let The Kids Drink As Much Soda As They Want. I’ve done the CNN studios tour a few times and always enjoy it. (The CNN center is closed due to Covid at the moment, however.) The fairly new Georgia Aquarium is nice, as is the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. And Stone Mountain Park is just east of the city and worth exploring. And of course there’s big city shopping, dining and so forth. Apparently this “Buckhead,” as it’s known to the locals, is almost as nice as Phillips Place!

Georgia coast (4-6 hours)

This is a big area, and the drive time depends on how far you want to go. Let’s start with Savannah, since it’s closest and it really isn’t much farther than Charleston. On balance, I like Charleston a little better, but Savannah does have its own charm — and by “charm” I mean “open container drinking law.” Besides that, the city has enough history that you can walk around by day to do the tourist thing and soak it in, or by night on one of those ghost tours.

If you want something more laid back, then you should head down to the southern Georgia coast. I’ve driven I-95 all the way from Miami to Connecticut, and this is the only part of it that makes me say, “Wow, this is a really nice drive.” There’s something about those coastal plains. If you head all the way to the southeastern tip of the state, you’ll be at Cumberland Island National Seashore, a protected, undeveloped 17-mile-long island that is accessible only by boat. Just across the channel from it is Amelia Island, the northern tip of Florida. North of there begin the Golden Isles, starting with Jekyll Island, formerly a playground for the wealthy as well as the birthplace of the Federal Reserve. The island has a charming, laid-back vibe as well as some enjoyable biking paths.

Just north of there, you’ve got St. Simon’s Island, where you can climb to the top of the lighthouse for a great view, and north of that is Sea Island, a luxury five-star resort. How luxurious? They have “falconry” listed as one of the activities there. Checkmate, Hampton Inn!

Bonus day trip that not enough of you have done

South Mountains State Park: It’s about 75 minutes northwest of Charlotte and has lush scenery, an amazing waterfall trail, surprisingly tall hills/mountains for being east of Asheville and a clear creek you can splash in on a hot day. I don’t know why everybody hasn’t been here. 

Nicholas Felten is an occasional contributor to The Charlotte Ledger.

Today’s supporting sponsor is Soni Brendle:

This week in Charlotte: Cooper expects to ease up on Covid restrictions, 2040 plan could see some compromises, bad stink still wafting at SC border

On Saturdays, The Ledger sifts through the local news of the week and links to the top articles — even if they appeared somewhere else. We’ll help you get caught up. That’s what Saturdays are for.


  • 2040 plan compromises: (Ledger 🔒) The city’s planning department is considering changes to the proposed 2040 Comprehensive Plan — compromises that could win the support of a majority of council members, even on the most contentious issue: Should duplexes and triplexes be allowed in all single-family neighborhoods?

  • Harris visits N.C.: (Observer) Kamala Harris made her first visit to North Carolina as vice president on Monday, visiting the downtown Greensboro historic F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime, which is now the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. Harris sat at the historic lunch counter where four Black college students sat on Feb. 1, 1960, leading to a wave of sit-ins across the country during the civil rights movement.


  • S.C. schools required to go full-time: (WFAE) S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster signed a law Thursday requiring South Carolina schools to offer in-person classes to students five days a week starting April 26 and for all of next school year. The resolution also included a requirement that districts pay teachers more next school year if they have them directly teaching students who are in person and those online at the same time.

  • Teacher contracts: (WFAE) Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders are wrestling with changes to a teacher contract policy because of concerns that the proposed change might be racially biased.

  • HBCU enrollment change: (Observer) North Carolina’s public historically Black universities will be able to enroll more out-of-state students than ever before under a new UNC system policy. The UNC Board of Governors approved a policy change to raise the cap on out-of-state freshman undergraduate students from 18% to 25% for the five HBCUs in the system. 

Local news

  • Covid restrictions ending: (Ledger) Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday that he expects to be able to lift all mandatory social distancing, capacity and mass gathering restrictions by June 1. State figures show that 47% of North Carolina adults have received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine, and 36% are fully vaccinated. Among the age group most vulnerable, 65 and up, 77% have received at least one dose, and 71% are fully vaccinated.

  • NC reacts to Chauvin verdict: (Observer) Local civic and social justice leaders reacted to Tuesday’s conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. “I hope everyone respects the result and understands this will not be the last time we have to address a situation like this. Change is needed and we should all be a part of that change,” Tweeted Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles.

  • Helping the homeless: (Articles: Axios CharlotteCharlotte ObserverWFAE) Bank of America executive Cathy Bessant and Atrium Health CEO Gene Woods will lead a new effort to coordinate a comprehensive approach to combating homelessness in Charlotte. A group of nearly 50 local leaders will devise a five-year plan by October that will “offer aligned strategies, unified goals and clear funding pathways.”

  • Stink coming from SC: (Ledger 🔒) Residents of Indian Land, Waxhaw and Ballantyne say they’re fed up with the continuing noxious odor that keeps permeating their neighborhoods and homes. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control believes it’s coming from the New Indy Catawba paper plant in Catawba, S.C. Plant officials say they don’t believe their facility is to blame. The Environmental Protection Agency is also looking into it.


  • State economy on rebound: North Carolina added 17,300 jobs in March and has recovered 73% of the jobs lost since the start of the pandemic. “Hiring appears to be revving back up,” economists at Wells Fargo wrote. They project the state will add 176,000 jobs this year, more than making up for the jobs lost since March 2020.

  • BofA offices to start filling in September: Bank of America plans to start returning to offices in earnest after Labor Day, CEO Brian Moynihan said. “We’re a work-from-office company because the productivity and the culture and the mentoring that can take place is just better,” he said in an interview. But he added that the bank has also reduced the amount of square footage it needs for offices and can “keep making that real estate more efficient.” (Bloomberg)

Good reads

  • A look back at Park-N-Shop: (Charlotte is Creative) With the announcement that the original location of the former grocery store chain Park-N-Shop will be redeveloped into office space, writer Page Leggett takes a look back at the chain’s history and what it meant to the community. The chain started in the 1950s when big, modern supermarkets were the rage, and the Wilkinson location welcomed the famous conjoined twins and vaudeville stars Violet and Daisy Hilton as employees after they were stranded in Charlotte by their agent in the early ’60s.

  • 50th anniversary of Swann ruling: (Observer) Last Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of the landmark Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education ruling, which created a busing plan to desegregate the school district. But that ruling was essentially reversed in 1999 by a new court decision, and now, CMS is the most racially segregated school district in the state.

  • Profound lessons in subtle packages: (NC Rabbit Hole) Jeremy Markovich writes in his newsletter about the time he did a police ride-along in side-by-side neighborhoods of wealthy Eastover and impoverished Grier Heights, and offers an important reminder that sometimes paying attention to the little details can lead to important questions.

Ledger originals

  • College job market: (Friday 🔒) College seniors and university career centers have had to adjust as job-hunting has moved online. Students can’t network in-person as much, and career centers are holding more virtual programs, as hiring for new college grads hasn’t fully recovered.

  • German brewery coming? (Friday 🔒)A big German beer-maker has bought a site in LoSo. It previously announced plans for a taproom followed by a massive brewing operation that can crank out 25x as much beer as Olde Mecklenburg Brewery.

  • The rise of newsletters: (Monday) Like blogs in the ’00s and social media of the ’10s, newsletters are the fashionable way to communicate with an online audience. They’re even, gasp, moving down to the local level in Charlotte. But why? We explain the trend.

  • Carmel Country Club gets swanky new addition: (Friday 🔒) Carmel Country Club just finished a major renovation and a 27,000 s.f. addition, which includes a new “men’s grill” with a bar and dining area, TV and doors that open onto a cigar patio. It’s just in time for some A-list Panthers to move into the neighborhood.

  • Apartment tower plans: (Friday 🔒) The CEO of Northwood Ravin tells us details on the new 20+ story apartment tower approved this week by the Metropolitan in Midtown — and says why he wants it to be “iconic” and “special.”

  • Weatherman out: (Monday) “Dancing weatherman” Nick Kosir is out at Fox 46. He developed a big social media following and was known for mimicking the outfits of former Panthers QB Cam Newton.

  • Sports business trends: (Monday) The Charlotte-based managing director of U.S. Bank’s sports and entertainment group breaks down some of the biggest trends in sports business, including a shift toward media revenue, an interest in sports betting and the increased desire by pro sports teams to develop real estate.

  • Rental car prices: (Monday) Travelers are finding that rental car prices are sky high and availability is low these days, for a couple of reasons. Rental car companies sold off much of their inventory during the pandemic, when demand was low and the industry was struggling. Now, travel is picking back up, due to vaccines becoming more available — and so is demand.

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