For many tourists, small town America is making a comeback. From quaint towns nearly forgotten to time to some of the best food in the country, less-visited destinations around the country are now amongst the most popular for would-be visitors. North Carolina in particular has many fun towns and villages to explore, including these three that are not to be missed.
Kannapolis: A NASCAR fan’s dream destination
In Kannapolis, hometown hero Dale Earnhardt Sr’s memory is alive and well along the Dale Trail. The Dale Trail features 19 locations that tell the story of Earnhardt’s life, his legendary NASCAR career and his old stomping grounds. In the heart of the city, a 9-feet tall statue of the racing legend stands watch over his namesake tribute plaza. The figure faces Idiot's Circle—the moniker for the town's main street as a nod to the 60s & 70s when a young Dale and his buddies spent their Friday and Saturday nights circling up and down the street to show off their cars and check out the young ladies. Some say Dale made more laps around Idiot Circle than he did at the nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway. Diehard fans follow the Dale Trail to Punchy’s Diner where Dale’s favorite lunch was a humble tomato sandwich with Miracle Whip on white bread.
NASCAR and music fans unite at the Curb Museum for Music and Motorsports. Founded by Mike Curb of Curb Records, a country music label with such notable artists as Tim McGraw, Hank Williams, Jr. and Wynonna Judd, the museum reflects his business interests and passions. As a longtime motorsports enthusiast, Curb has owned cars driven by NASCAR legends including Dale Earnhardt. Those cars along with other racing memorabilia he’s acquired over the years make up one half of the museum. The other half is devoted to music as North Carolina’s Music Hall of Fame. Music legends Charlie Daniels, Nina Simone, Andy Griffith, Randy Travis, Eric Church and Fantasia are among the inductees in the impressive Hall of Fame. Instruments, costumes and an abundance of gold and platinum records are among the musical memorabilia showcased within the museum's walls.
Cornelius: Taking advantage of the lakefront lifestyle
Boasting 520 miles of shoreline, man-made Lake Norman lies at the heart of the communities outside of Charlotte. Here a booming culinary scene complements an active community and it’s all centered around an idyllic lake. Cornelius lays claim to 75 miles of the coveted shoreline and is home to the Port City Club—a lakefront dining experience you don’t want to miss. Owner/chef Nick Lyssikatos developed his love of all things culinary in Greece where he cooked for his grandmother and her friends. He’s never stopped experimenting with unique flavors to the delight of all his dining guests. The restaurant is a favorite of local pro-sports celebrities whose homes line the lakefront. You never know who you’ll run into at Port City Club.
Although Nick’s food is dangerously delicious, there are plenty of watersports available to help you work off the extra calories. Head over to Aloha Paddle Sports for kayaking and stand-up paddleboard lessons or test your coordination with a SUP Yoga class. Rentals are also available for independent time on the water.
If you'd rather pedal a little and cruise a little, check out Charlotte Cycleboats. A first in the Carolinas, the custom-made, Coast Guard certified, eco-friendly boats are equipped with a high-top galley bar that is lined with five pedal stations on each side. Bring your own beer or wine and join a cruise or reserve the boat for your group. The catamaran operates by pedal power, but there’s an electric motor for back up in case your group’s focus turns more toward the beer than the bike.
Hillsborough: Where history and creativity meet
At first glance, Hillsborough looks like any other quaint little town in America. But dig deeper and you’ll uncover a treasure trove of creativity, history and hospitality. Hillsborough is a unique juxtaposition between old and new. The past is evident in the downtown historic district which showcases more than 100 homes, churches and other structures from the late 18th and 19th centuries. Most notable is the enduring clock positioned above the old courthouse that dates back to the 1700s.
Uncover more history at the Burwell School Historic Site which preserves the setting for one of the state’s earliest schools for girls, The Burwell Academy for Young Ladies. Within the site’s two-acre property is the Burwell residence which was once home to Elizabeth Hobbs, a Burwell family slave. A talented seamstress and determined young woman, Elizabeth later married, bought her freedom and became a successful businesswoman and a confidante of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
Riverwalk, a paved urban greenway along the Eno River, stretches nearly two miles through the town. It’s here that you’ll find the stunning stickworks sculpture by Patrick Dougherty, “A Sight to Behold.” Beckoning from within a copse of trees, this captivating creation is built entirely of local twigs and roots along with three truckloads of Southern sugar maple, sweetgum and elm saplings. It features five small towers surrounding a central barrel. An oculus at the top of the central tower opens to the sky creating a natural observatory.
More evidence of the community’s creativity is found along the charming downtown streets which display intriguing works of public art and a plethora of galleries. Hillsborough is the kind of town that entices you to come in and linger awhile.
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