North Carolina beckons to visitors longing for a taste (and the thrill) of winter
This will seem like heresy to many of you. After all, you’ve traded in your snow tires for golf carts and ice scrapers for beach chairs. You’ve uprooted your lives moving from the North—places such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and throughout New England—to enjoy the more temperate climes here along the Grand Strand. Or, you’re a Southerner who already suspects why Yankees keep moving here in droves, namely escape. Maybe you’re a snowbird, who flies south for the winter? So why would you want to visit locales where the cold and snow still rule the winter?
Others will say, “Yes! We miss a taste of the cold and snow and we get a warm, nostalgic buzz from even thinking about the need for a scarf, sweater or pair of Canadian mukluks.”
Regardless of which camp you’re in, it’s good to know that a little holiday magic and mid-winter delight await you in the higher elevations of nearby North Carolina. There, you’ll find that the wind blows much cooler, the mountains shimmer with the morning frost and the only excessive heat this time of year comes from a roaring fireplace.
Though virtually all of South Carolina, from the Upstate through the Lowcountry, has experienced cold and snow—sometimes a lot of it—the consistently icy temperatures and arctic blasts common in the northern U.S. are rare in these parts. The good news for those who get teary-eyed looking at Currier & Ives winter scenes is that wintertime enchantment awaits those willing to take an easy road trip. Here are a few of the many places relatively close to the Grand Strand offering some of that “over the river and through the woods” magic for which you may be longing.
Asheville, the city in the mountains at just under a five-hour drive time from Myrtle Beach, beckons to tourists year-round. Many come seeking the historic and astounding Biltmore Estate or the equally historic Omni Grove Park Inn. Leaf peepers take breathtaking drives along the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway in the fall, and others delight in the arts scene or a tour of the fabulous Sierra Nevada brewery (temporarily closed to touring as of press time). Downtown Asheville, too, has much to offer the visitor even in the midst of awkward social distancing rules and reduced hours at its many bars and restaurants. Whatever your reasons for visiting, Asheville is a city that comes alive, even in the dead of winter, even during a pandemic.
The Biltmore Estate
Open 365 days per year, America’s largest home, the Victorian-era Biltmore Estate, and its 8,000-acre grounds, are spectacular at Christmas time (displays are up November 6, 2020–January 10, 2021). Special Candlelight Christmas Evenings are especially Victorian and charming. Snowy horse-drawn carriage rides huddled beneath blankets, guided hikes and afternoon teas are also some of Biltmore’s wintertime offerings. The Inn at Biltmore Estate and the less expensive Village Hotel, both on the estate grounds, offer fine accommodations, excellent food and unsurpassed views. Room-only and package deals are available. (800) 411-3812
Skiing, Snowboarding and Snow Tubing
North Carolina is the nearest place from the Grand Strand for ski bums and snowboarders to find a little winter excitement. For the slightly less adventurous, snow tubing, sledding and ice skating can be an exhilarating way to enjoy the winter for the entire family, with less likelihood of breaking bones.
Beech Mountain, N.C.
With the distinction of being “Eastern America’s Highest Town,” and we assume that’s because of its elevation at 5,506 feet and not necessarily any other reasons, Beech Mountain offers serious wintertime fun at less than six hours away from the Grand Strand. Here you’ll find accommodations from ski chalets to chain motels to charming B&Bs and even private mountain retreats for rent.
The Beech Mountain Resort boasts the highest ski elevation east of the Rocky Mountains and has a wide variety of trails to accommodate all levels of skiers with high-speed quad chairlifts, snow tubing and a ski lodge. Ice skating and old-fashioned sledding are also part of the offerings. The town and resort often host mid-winter outdoor events, which may be offered again this season. (800) 438-2093
Sugar Mountain, N.C.
At 5.5 hours from the Grand Strand, Sugar Mountain is adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway and is home to North Carolina’s largest ski area, Sugar Mountain Ski Resort. With 21 trails and nine lifts, the resort has been a skiers’ and snowboarders’ treasure since 1969. Like nearly all ski resorts, Sugar Mountain Resort also offers snow tubing, snowshoeing, ice skating and a fabulous ski lodge. Cabin rentals, hotels and chalets with alpine views make Sugar Mountain a great wintertime escape.
Hawksnest Snow Tubing
In Seven Devils, N.C., around 5.5 hours from the Grand Strand, Hawksnest Snow Tubing park offers 100 percent snowmaking ability to cover more than 20 lanes of family-safe snow tubing fun. From shorter 400-foot lanes to the slippery excitement of nearly quarter-mile long lanes, Hawksnest’s tubing satisfies beginner to experienced, meaning even the thrill seekers in your crew will find it fun and exhilarating. (828) 963-6561
Inns, B&Bs and other Wintertime Retreats
Maybe all that outdoor activity isn’t up your alley, but yet you still long for a wintertime escape. We’ve already mentioned the Biltmore Inn and Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, but there are countless other charming, traditional B&Bs in other North Carolina destinations that offer pristine mountain views and clear, clean winter air.
Boone, Banner Elk and Blowing Rock, N.C.
Nearby to the aforementioned ski resorts, including Appalachian Ski Mountain, a smaller, beginner-friendly slope, the nearby towns of Boone (less than five hours from Myrtle Beach), Banner Elk and Blowing Rock are popular year-round destinations for their beautiful high country location and mountain ambience. Downtown Boone, Banner Elk and Blowing Rock offer low-key but fun nightlife at a few area bars, some featuring Celtic and mountain music that celebrates the area’s Scotts-Irish heritage. A range of activities, quaint shops and beautiful mountain accommodations make these high country towns worth considering. (828) 264-1299.
Hot Springs, N.C.
As the name implies, the small hamlet of Hot Springs is home to a natural wonder: hot mineral springs. Here in far western North Carolina, close to the Tennessee border but still under six hours from the Grand Strand, the Hot Springs Resort and Spa have private mineral baths for guests, along with accommodations for visitors looking to sooth aching joints and enjoy this therapeutic, restorative wintertime activity. Travelers have been visiting the naturally carbonated mineral water baths, heated only by the Earth’s underground geology, since first discovering the region in the Colonial era. Native Americans knew of its healing water long before that. Now it’s your turn. (828) 622-7676
Lady Luck Calls Wintertime Gamblers
In the ancient land of the Cherokee, in nearby Cherokee, N.C., a very modern casino resort has been hosting visitors since 1997. Now boasting the largest hotel in North Carolina, the three towers of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort have more than 1,100 rooms. With video poker and table games, the casino/resort is also home to fine dining and casual eateries, a 3,000-seat entertainment venue, the Mandara Spa, bowling and the only bar in Cherokee. At just an hour west of Asheville, the resort is also close to Bryson City, Dillsboro and Sylva. These mountain towns offer their own wintertime charm with shopping, train trips on the Smoky Mountain Railroad (through December 31) and quaint B&Bs. Elk sightings are common throughout the region for those lucky enough to spot the big-horned, magnificent creatures. (828) 497-7777
New Bern, N.C.
On the east end of North Carolina, and at just three hours from the Grand Strand, the historic city of New Bern, which was North Carolina’s first state capital, is well known for its Christmastime revelry, the Tryon Palace (a fine museum), plenty of B&Bs and hotels, antiquing, casual and fine dining, and nearby fishing.
Sitting at the confluence of the Trent and Neuse rivers, just inland from the southernmost portion of the Outer Banks, New Bern has delighted visitors since the late 1600s. Home of author Nicholas Sparks and the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola, New Bern is loaded with history, charm and small-town appeal.
The Outer Banks
With an allure dating back to the 1500s, as first documented by Italian explorers, the barrier islands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks speak of windswept dunes, pirates, uncountable maritime disasters, daring bicycle mechanics in their flying machines, wild ponies and breathtaking beauty. In many ways, the Outer Banks, which stretch 200 miles from Ocracoke Island, N.C., to Southern Virginia, still have that same allure.
Romantic adventure novelist Nicholas Sparks has made millions by setting many of his dramas on the Outer Banks’ shores. Summer tourism sees peak visitation, but often overlooked are the wintertime virtues of this nearby national treasure. At 5.5 hours to Kitty Hawk, the famous locale of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, the Outer Banks in winter enjoy moderate temperatures in the 40s and 50s, bargain basement prices (relatively speaking) on oceanfront rental homes, and still plenty to do and see.
Ocracoke Island is only accessible by boat, ferry or small airplane. Ferries run year-round to service the 1,000 permanent residents and the summer beach-goers, who remain thankfully tucked at home in the off-season. If getting there is half the fun, the other half is the quiet, rest and revitalization you might enjoy in mid-winter with morning strolls on a beach nearly to yourself, salty conversations at one of the handful of pubs and breakfast spots located along the only road on the island, and a chance to unwind. Really unwind. At nearly seven hours from Myrtle Beach, which includes a one-hour ferry ride, Ocracoke is the furthest away (in time) on our list of winter retreats, but for a certain type of grab-a-book-low-key getaway, worth consideration.
Of course we’ve only scratched the surface and left off many more destinations than we’ve named. During these uncertain times, it’s a must that travelers do their due-diligence before setting out. Operating hours are all tentative, as are possible closings. But when you find your spot and have had your fill of snow at your own mountain retreat, or soothed your aching joints in a hot spring, or sat overlooking a quiet, windswept dune, you’ll be ready to return home to the Grand Strand, where you already know you’re really at home, all year long
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF THE BILTMORE COMPANY; SUGAR MOUNTAIN; HAWKSNEST AND HARRAH’S CHEROKEE CASINO RESORT; WILLIAM HOWARD; HOT SPRINGS RESORT & SPA AND BEECH MOUNTAIN