Shakori Hills Grassroots Music Festival

20 04 2011




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As the weather gets warmer and graduation draws near, a number of outdoor music events start popping up on my radar – and no, I’m not just referring to Old Duke and LDOC.  While you can surely find a wide range of mainstream concerts in major metropolitan areas like Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, or Wilmington, the true gems of North Carolina tend to be the bluegrass and country festivals in lesser known areas.

The Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival in Pittsboro is a prime example of a music and arts festival that really exposes the best of what North Carolina has to offer.  Shakori Hills is a biannual festival, taking place in the fall and spring of each year since 2003.  The event spans four days, with over 50 bands of a variety of genres (largely bluegrass and folk) performing on acres and acres of rolling meadows.  The venue features two large outdoor stages, an indoor dance tent, and a cabaret tent, as well as numerous craft shows, activities, food vendors, and environmental sustainability workshops.

And sorry for the late notice – the festival is this weekend.  At just under an hour away, however, there is no need for planning much in advance.  I’d recommend driving over for one day and purchasing a daily pass at the door.  Or, if you’re looking to immerse yourself in the entire experience, overnight camping is encouraged – so long as you purchase tickets for both the day before and after your stay.

Go ahead and take a look at the dozens of performers scheduled to appear; however, for a lot of us, most of the names are unlikely to ring a bell.  But no matter.  A trip to Shakori Hills is about the whole experience – in between musical sets, you’ll likely gobble down some kind of organic vegetarian dish or succulent dessert while enjoying some excellent people watching.  The festival draws people of all ages and walks of life, and you will surely see quite a few characters.  Check out this video of a man dancing all by himself before one of the stages:



If you’re already booked for this weekend, we’re just a week away from a similar festival in Wilkesboro called Merlefest, which also features some big name artists like Zac Brown Band.

But if you’re like me, you’ll embrace your spontaneous side and drive out to Shakori on Saturday or Sunday – see you there!


The wrap-up:

  • Distance from Duke: just under 1 hour
  • Recommended trip duration: day trip or overnight
  • Recommended season: Spring or Fall

Island Hopping in the Outer Banks

14 04 2011




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If you can take one scenic road trip in North Carolina, make it the Blue Ridge Parkway.  If you can take a second, make it the drive along the Outer Banks.  Named one of National Geographic’s “Drives of a Lifetime,” a cruise through the NC Outer Banks offers a mix of tranquility and adventure, seasoned with a rich maritime history.  It almost seems like a lighthouse tour – from start to finish, you’ll hit all four of them.

The 114-mile drive stretches from Corolla to Ocracoke Village:  start at the northern end of Highway 12, then detour along Route 158 through Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nag’s Head before rejoining Highway 12 for the rest of the journey.   Most of the drive is a flat, two-lane road, weaving through sand dunes and offering views of both ocean and sound.

Your trip starts around the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla, but the first major stop will likely be the Wright Brothers National Memorial.  For those of you who didn’t grow up taking middle school NC history courses, I’ll remind you – North Carolina was “first in flight,” and it all began in Kitty Hawk.  The memorial encompasses over 400 acres of terrain, marking the place where Orville and Wilbur Wright took their first flights.

As you continue along the route, you’ll reach Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nag’s Head, which boasts the largest natural sand dunes in the Eastern U.S. (some as high as 80 feet).  What does that mean?  You get to act like a kid all over again – fly kites, build castles, or just run up and down the sand mountains.

The 74 miles of coastline all the way from Nag’s Head to Ocracoke is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore – stop for some midday sun at Coquina beach or do some fishing in the creeks off the Albemarle Sound.  Just a few miles into this stretch sits the Bodie Island Lighthouse, which makes for a great photo at sunset, but is closed to the public.  However, keep going just a bit further and you’ll hit the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, one of the most common icons of North Carolina.  Standing 210 feet, Cape Hatteras is the tallest operating lighthouse in the country.

Your drive is complete as you take the car ferry for a 40-minute voyage from Hatteras Village to Ocracoke Island.  The town is home to the Ocracoke Lighthouse, which is both the oldest and shortest operating beacon in the state, and completes the set of four along the journey.

Get out there now to beat the summer crowds!


The wrap-up:

  • Distance from Duke: 4 hours
  • Recommended trip duration: weekend
  • Recommended season: Spring/early summer


Charleston, SC – So good it had to be included on a NC roadtrip blog.

30 03 2011




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What to do when the weather in Durham is unseasonably cold and Duke gets prematurely knocked out of the NCAA tournament? Jump in the car and drive south – south of the border, that is.

This weekend I did just that, taking a somewhat impromptu trip to Charleston, SC for the weekend (the pictures above were actually taken on my iPhone).  Despite the fact that this blog centers around North Carolina road trips, I deemed that Charleston still merits an entry.  At just over 4 hours away, Charleston is closer than some in-state destinations, and provides an experience that I could best describe as similar to Wilmington, but better.

Charleston is famous for its rich history and unique culture, blending Southern American, French, West African, and English traditions.  A walk through the downtown historic area will lead you past multiple grand city churches, stunning Southern mansions, and vibrantly-colored townhouses with flowered window boxes (be sure not to miss the famous “Rainbow Row” of majestic, multi-colored homes).  The cobbled streets are shared by cars, pedestrians, bikes, and horse-drawn carriages.

Home to the pristinely-dressed, preppy College of Charleston, this destination allows you to embrace your inner Southern belle or gentleman – if only for a few days.  Renown as “The Cradle of Southern History and Charm” and once named the “best-mannered” city in the country by Marjabelle Young Stewart, the highly-published expert in etiquette, Charleston begs that you leave the sweats in the car and break out your sundresses and hats.  If you don’t have a sun hat, not to worry – I picked one up at an open-air shopping mall upon arrival.

Compared with some of TRLT’s more adventurous excursions, a trip to the city of Charleston demands that you slow down and relax.  The most active thing you’ll likely do is take a bike ride – people in Charleston love to bike, especially on city streets, sidewalks, and piers.  Grab a swinging bench on the pier and gaze out upon the marshy water and the sailboats passing beneath the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, the longest cable-stayed bridge in this hemisphere.  Enjoy long, drawn-out brunches – beware, Toast of Charleston offers bottomless mimosas with brunch – and delectable dinners of traditional Southern style or seafood (my personal favorite was Cru Cafe, a tasty and reasonably-priced restaurant tucked inside a historic home, somewhat like Four Square here in Durham.)  As you meander the evening streets, it won’t take long to stumble upon one of the many bars or pubs – check out Big John’s Tavern, a dive bar featuring one of the most extensive beer selections I’ve ever seen.

The upcoming weekend weather in Durham isn’t looking too good either, so try this one yourself!


The wrap-up:

  • Distance from Duke: 4.5 hours
  • Recommended trip duration: long weekend
  • Recommended season: Spring/summer

The Eno River Rock Quarry

14 03 2011




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While most of the trips listed on Tobacco Roads involve some sort of substantive drive, there are certainly a few nearby places worth mentioning.  One of these destinations is the Eno River Rock Quarry, a springtime staple of the more adventurous Duke student.  Located just off I-85, the quarry feels as if it is hours away from campus life, yet only requires a 15-minute drive.  Now that 80-degree days have returned, it’s finally time for the first afternoon trip of 2011.

The four-acre pond has a long history, created in the 1960s as rock was removed from the trail to aid in the construction of I-85.  Since then, the quarry has formed an entrenched and beloved part of the active lifestyles of Triangle residents.  I had actually never visited the quarry prior to my arrival at Duke, despite the fact that it lies so close to my home in Chapel Hill.  I had, however, been on many excursions to the Eno River State Park in general – the quarry lies along just one of the many trails within the park.

My lack of childhood visits was likely due to the controversial nature of the quarry compared to other portions of the park.  I understand that there have been drownings in years past, and in 2009 visitors were warned not to swim because of potentially dangerous blue-green algae blooming in the water (ironically, my first visit occurred in 2009 – and no, I didn’t get sick.)  Furthermore, the swimming hole is ringed by steep sides and offers virtually no areas of shallow water, making it somewhat treacherous for the leisurely visit.  Despite discouragement from park staff, most visitors to the quarry take a running leap from the cliffside, narrowly clearing the ground below and plunging into the water.

Contrary to the formidable description above, I personally find the quarry to be safe (given the necessary precautions), incredibly relaxing, and an essential destination for any Duke student.  While some locals talk of over-regulation that has ruined the quarry of years past, I have found visits to be relatively uninterrupted, still allowing for peaceful enjoyment of the natural surroundings.  Wait for a warm day and bring along a few friends, inflatable rafts, and some snacks – I wouldn’t recommend bringing alcohol, as miscalculating a leap into the water could end pretty horribly.  Keep in mind that there is a short hike to reach the quarry, so sneakers are your best choice of footwear.

One spring day at the quarry and you’ll remember why you chose Duke instead of… Cornell.


The wrap-up:

  • Distance from Duke: 15 minutes
  • Recommended trip duration: day trip
  • Recommended season: Spring/summer

Coastal Daytrips: Emerald Isle and Beaufort

3 03 2011




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20,000 people, 75 art and food vendors, and a Saint Patrick’s Day beer garden, combined with gorgeous springtime beach weather – doesn’t sound half bad.  Unfortunately, I’ll still be out of the country for Spring Break, so I’ll be living vicariously through the rest of you who are back in time for the Saint Patrick’s Day Festival at Emerald Isle on March 12th.

As far as coastal destinations go, Emerald Isle is a bit more on the family-friendly side, at least compared to Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, and Myrtle Beach to the south.  It suffices to say that Emerald Isle was my family’s favorite beach town for relaxing summer vacations when my siblings and I were between the ages of 3 and 12.  While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for an overnight, weekend, or week-long stay, it might just be perfect for a fun day trip (say, March 12?).

I haven’t been to the Saint Patrick’s Day Festival since middle school, but I would imagine that it is quite a different experience now that I am approaching adult age.  Most notably, the majority of us are now old enough to enjoy the beer garden (not that I still don’t love face painting and games).  I grew to love the atmosphere of beer gardens while studying abroad in Australia last year – they are relaxing and uplifting, allowing you to enjoy the company of your friends, while also meeting countless strangers as people filter between tables.  While there are, of course, plenty of opportunities for celebratory day drinking here at Duke, taking a good springtime drive to the east only adds to the experience.

Alternatively, another coastal town that begs for a quick visit is Beaufort, just 20 minutes or so away from Emerald Isle.  One of the oldest towns in North Carolina, Beaufort is home to the NC Maritime Museum, as well as the 18th century homes of sea captains and pirates (including Blackbeard).  You can also visit Cape Lookout Lighthouse or catch a glimpse of one of the last groups of wild horses in the US, located on Shackleford Banks.  A lot of students get the opportunity to live in Beaufort for an extended period of time while studying at the Duke Marine Lab, which is part of the Nicholas School.  A few summers ago, a good friend of mine participated in a summer program at the marine lab and invited me to drive out and visit, which provided a chance to explore the town all over again – definitely worth it.

I’ll be taking a week off from the blog while in Honduras, but look for a new post the following week –  Happy Spring Break!


The wrap-up:

  • Distance from Duke: 3 hours
  • Recommended trip duration: day trip
  • Recommended season: Spring/summer


Blowing Rock: My Second Home

25 02 2011




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Nestled off the Blue Ridge Parkway just outside the college town of Boone sits its quiet, unassuming neighbor, Blowing Rock.  This town holds a very special place in my heart – my family spent virtually every Thanksgiving of my youth in Blowing Rock, always settling into a rented mountain cabin to escape from our hectic lives and enjoy the extraordinary natural surroundings.  Each visit, my parents would peruse the real estate listings in the hopes of finding their dream vacation home.  Just as I left for college, they began construction on our beautiful new cabin, custom designed by my father, a residential architect in Chapel Hill.

Since then, I have found time to drive to Blowing Rock several times a year, often bringing friends along.  My sophomore summer, a group of nine of us took over the cabin for a few days, retreating into the mountains to escape the sweltering Durham heat.  The group hailed from hometowns as widespread as Seattle, New York, Miami, and Houston, so having the opportunity to introduce them to this remarkable little town was so rewarding – and everyone is dying to go back.

The name Blowing Rock comes from its legendary tourist attraction – the Blowing Rock.  Just outside town, a strong wind blows along the gorge, traveling up the slope and creating a vertical wind that can float small objects.  According to legend, a distraught Cherokee brave jumped off the rock, only to be carried back up by the wind and returned to his lover.  While the Blowing Rock itself doesn’t necessarily merit a visit, the story certainly adds some interesting color.

The inflated real estate market of Blowing Rock hinges on two criteria that buyers most desire: panoramic gorge views and the shortest possible distance to the quaint town center.  Similarly, on any weekend visit, you should try to balance the incredible outdoors with time spent on Main Street.  The charming town features a public park, small shops and boutiques, and a number of restaurants.  My personal favorite food is the famous chili at Knight’s on Main Restaurant, followed by delectable fudge or ice cream at Kilwin’s.  For window shopping, I’m partial to Celeste’s, a quirky boutique chosen as one of Southern Living’s favorites, or Sunset Tees & Hattery, which features the largest and most diverse hat collection imaginable (you could spend an entire afternoon just trying them on).  Venturing out of downtown, an unbeatable spot for dinner and live music is Canyons – since its construction in 1936, the building has housed a speakeasy, brothel, dancehall, grocery, casino, tavern, and currently, a restaurant and bar.  Canyons boasts one of the most extraordinary views in the entire Blue Ridge Mountains, so make sure to get there before the sun goes down.

To get your fill of the outdoors, I’d recommend hiking along one of the nearby waterfall trails.  Most of the waterfalls lie not too far from the road, so you can make your hike as strenuous or relaxing as you choose.  Once the weather gets a bit warmer, pack some snacks or a picnic and spend the afternoon sprawled out on one of the huge rocks amidst the cascades.  If it’s still a bit too cold for hiking the waterfalls, enjoy some easy-going skiing (keep in mind, this is North Carolina) at Appalachian Ski Mountain, which is open until late March and located immediately outside the town.

Even after  over 20 years of visits, this town never gets old.


The wrap-up:

  • Distance from Duke: 2.5 hours
  • Recommended trip duration: weekend
  • Recommended season: Spring/summer

White House: Meet Biltmore House

18 02 2011




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One stop in Asheville, and you can’t help but return – and if you don’t believe me, take it from President Obama.  After visiting briefly in 2008 while on the campaign trail, Obama vowed to bring his family back for a more relaxing visit.  Just last spring, he and Michelle returned for a quiet weekend getaway (at least as “quiet” as the first family can ever hope to achieve.)

Returning to the same barbecue spot he visited in 2008, Obama exclaimed, “I told you I was coming back!”  12 Bones Smokehouse offers classics like pulled pork and mac & cheese, as well as clever options like award-winning chipotle-blueberry ribs and jalapeno cheese grits.  My visits to this awesome joint predated the President’s, so I too can testify that Southern food doesn’t get any better.  The Obamas feasted on ribs, mac &cheese, greens, cornbread, and baked beans for a grand total of $24.36 – catch the video below!

After filling up at 12 Bones, I’d suggest sticking around for the afternoon in the River Arts District – full of old warehouses and factories transformed into artist studios, craft shops, music venues, and even a microbrewery (known as Beer City USA, Asheville has more breweries per capita than any city in the US).

Now, as college students, your trip will likely differ a bit from that of President Obama – starting, of course, with accommodations.   The Obamas checked in to the historic Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa, built in 1913 and offering breathtaking views and a phenomenal golf course (or so I’m told).  In fact, Obama’s two stays at Grove Park make him the 10th President to vacation there.

For most of us, a stay at the Grove Park Inn is a bit out of our price range – but that doesn’t mean you should leave it off the itinerary!  I’d recommend coming in for brunch (the Bloody Marys are incredible) or just to explore the grounds and sip hot chocolate in the famous Great Hall, which features two colossal fireplaces built of granite boulders hauled from nearby Sunset Mountain.  Rather than an afternoon spent on the golf course like the President, enjoy the stunning views from a hike through the Blue Ridge Mountains (try the Mountains to Sea trail).

Now of course the Obamas couldn’t go home without a private tour of the legendary Biltmore House, the estate of the Vanderbilt family and the largest private residence in the country.  Your tour, however, is likely to be a bit more crowded.  Regardless, it is quite the experience, and differs substantially from season to season.  During the winter holidays, the house features remarkable decorations and enormous Christmas trees; in springtime, the conservatory is filled with lush flowers and plants; and in warm summer months, you can catch the outdoor concert series.

Lastly, complete your trip to Asheville by soaking in some live music – whether it be bluegrass, blues, rock, jazz (if you didn’t get enough last weekend at the NC Jazz Festival), reggae, or electronic, the music fervor in Asheville is infectious.  In fact, just a few years ago the Orange Peel was named one of the five best rock venues in the nation (yes, in the nation) by Rolling Stone.  In some ways, it reminds me of the Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill – intimate, yet high energy.  The article explains, “In the Seventies, the Orange Peel was a premier funk-and-soul club. Since it reopened five years ago, Bob Dylan and Smashing Pumpkins (who picked the spot for their nine-show reunion run last year) have gone out of the way to play the Peel — drawn by Asheville’s bohemian vibe and attentive crowds.”  More to come on the Asheville music scene in future posts.

Enjoy your Presidential weekend!


The wrap-up:

  • Distance from Duke: 3.5 hours
  • Recommended trip duration: weekend
  • Recommended season: The Obamas chose April!