After losing everything in Hurricane Katrina, North Carolina has been kind of a second home for me by default. I have family there, a lot of work history and its where I completed my university degree. North Carolina gets a lot of good press, but I think much of it is over-rated, over-hyped, etc. I routinely hear people gawking about what a great place it is, but its really lacking in 3 important areas, particularly: culture, community and climate when compared to other options out there.
I tell people, NC is pleasant and safe but predictable. For me, North Carolina has been a place of healing, discipline and clarity and I’m totally grateful for that, however I was able to achieve these things in part because of how dull and uninspiring it actually is to live there. Basically you have no distractions from the inner life. You either go to work on some aspect of your life that needs improving or you may just go mad with boredom and social isolation, going on a steady regimen of mood stabilizers and / or anti-depressant medication(s) to cope with daily life. Bottom line, I am going after the sheer enjoyment and personality of NC in this article, giving you my personal opinions as a seasoned world traveler and what to expect if you are thinking about going there for whatever reason. You may be thinking of relocating to North Carolina or you may be an international traveler who is interested in visiting. Everything costs money and so its better to get the “low-down before you go down”…
The only real identifiable culture is “Church Culture”, particularly the Evangelical Mega Church variety where people sit in these gigantic auditoriums and watch church like its on a movie screen or something. Somehow, all 6000 of them still manage to not make eye contact or acknowledge the existence of the other person in any way. I’m slightly exaggerating but its not that far from the truth. When you are driving through Charlotte (the biggest city in NC with an over 2 million metro population) you see billboards stating that the #1 thing to do in Charlotte is visit the Billy Graham Museum. That about sums it up. Everything is planned out… corporate parks, corporate offices, cookie cutter homes, cookie cutter people. Its suburbia heaven, a great place to raise a family and settle down into a predictable daily, weekly, monthly, yearly routine.
Yes it has the mountains and the beach. However the Smoky mountains in Tennessee are nicer than NC, the Outer Banks are nice but its a very long drive to get to them. The middle of the state is called the “Piedmont”, which is pretty much just a bunch of golf courses, churches, malls, universities…and pig farms or pig slaughtering facilities where the stench can be smelled from miles away. Like so many places in America, the state has devolved into a homogeneous mall /church culture. I would rank North Carolina somewhere in the top 25 states in the country.
They have pretty red cardinals and pine trees everywhere. Not much variety in the trees except a few oak trees in Raleigh and several on the coast. In several parts of the state the pine trees have kudzu vines covering them entirely. In the spring, the entire state is caked in a mist of yellow pollen for weeks. As for the climate, you get a few days (less than 20) in the year where the weather is absolute heaven. Besides this, expect anything and everything when it comes to weather. Mostly hot and humid, tornadoes, hurricanes, massive, powerful, destructive thunderstorms and ice storms in the winter. Drought in NC is not uncommon either, depending on the year. It ices more than it snows in NC. In 2002 the entire Raleigh-Durham area was without power for three weeks because of the ice.
My review of the main cities in NC:
Charlotte – the top things to do here: go to a NASCAR race, the Mall or Church. Several locals have told me over the years that the roads in Charlotte used to be roads for pig farmers and that when they paved the roads they just laid pavement on those pig farm roads and called it a day. Well I think that is likely true with the crazy way the roads run in Charlotte and throughout the rest of the state. If you make a wrong turn you will be punished, being forced to drive a long way out of your way to correct your driving mistake.
Raleigh – Has more of a community feel than Charlotte, and is very much influenced by its neighboring Universities. I like Raleigh better than the Charlotte area. Raleigh has some nice parks, a nice art museum and an internationally diverse population. I lived in the Raleigh area on and off for many years but never could quite figure out the inner and outer loop interstate system, which I refer to as the “hamster wheel”. As in Charlotte, driving in Raleigh can be very frustrating because the roads are so confusing. Then you have all these rat mazes called parking lots. Screw the indoor shopping mall, lets now create a rat maze strip mall and everyone can drive to the store they want to go to versus walk to it. I’m describing an area of Raleigh I loathe called ‘Brier Creek’. Downtown Glenwood Avenue is cool and so is Fayetteville street and Cameron Village. Hillsborough street is ok too. Raleigh has a very good farmers market – one of the best I have seen anywhere in the USA. The Raleigh Fairgrounds is pretty cool as well – there are always things going on there. The annual Blue Grass festival is excellent. If RDU could ever build that damn light rail system connecting the three cities of the Triangle, it would be a total game changer. But they have been talking about that for over 30 years and will likely still be talking about it in another 30 years. Raleigh is my #3 favorite town in NC.
Durham – My #1 town in NC. It scores high on the cultural scale. Heavily influenced by black culture, nice downtown, and home to Duke University. Durham has soul. Higher crime problems here but its nowhere near as dangerous as a Baltimore or New Orleans. Duke Gardens is beautiful, lots of good food options here, more open minded people, lots of interesting things to do, lots of music festivals.
Chapel Hill – Not much of a personality really. Kind of meh. Franklin street is cool if you can ever find a parking spot and if there is not bumper to bumper traffic. Carrboro is kind of an interesting hippy spot if you happen to be in Chapel Hill, give it a look. But don’t blink or you may miss Carrboro completely, its that small. If you don’t go to UNC or have not graduated from UNC, you are not one of “them”, meaning that you will not likely be accepted into the local “in-group”.
Cary – Corporate everything, Church everything. If you work at SAS you can get the ASS. Meaning, if you are a hetero male that works as SAS, the local females will want to mate with you and have tons of babies. SAS is Cary’s premier employer.
RTP / Morrisville – Corporate everything, cookie-cutter everything. A high concentration of Hindus live in Morrisville. Notice I did not say there is necessarily anything wrong with that. But many of RTP’s (Research Triangle Park) best and brightest programmers and engineers happen to be of Indian descent.
Greensboro – Elm street downtown is cool. That’s about it.
Asheville – Every time I go here, I’m like, what do people love about this place so much? Biltmore Estates is cool but like what else? There’s a rustic hostel in the center of town called Sweet Peas. Expect to pay premium prices for a bunk bed and constant noise from the bar downstairs. The town of Black Mountain nearby is kind of an interesting new agey place to check out.
Cherokee – Its got a Harrah’s casino with some old timer musical acts and some nice streams running through the town center.
Blue Ridge Parkway – A pleasant drive in the Fall.
Fayetteville – Heavily military and redneck. Very depressing
Winston-Salem – Not even worth getting off the interstate to explore. I guess you could visit the Krispy Kreme museum or the local mall. Warning, you may be approached by beggars while eating in the mall food court. Wake Forest University is here. If you did not graduate from there don’t expect to make any friends in Winston-Salem.
Wilmington – I would rank Wilmington as my #2 favorite city in North Carolina after Durham. It has an interesting downtown, lots of oak trees, great seafood spots and beach areas, especially Wrightsville Beach or Oak Island. I really cannot recommend the other beaches in NC, except maybe Ocean Isle, 45 minutes south of Wilmington. The main thought that comes to mind regarding the other NC beaches is “depressing”. They get a lot of snowbirds from dreary states like North Dakota, who frankly would be happy with any southern beach situation at all compared to what they have to deal with. You can also enjoy all the helicopter and jet plane sounds coming from the nearby massive military complexes while you unwind in the local pool of the 2 star hotel that is filled with brats peeing in over-chlorinated water. Afterwards you can go out for a buffet at the local Golden Corral while nursing your sunburned and peeling skin. The outer banks is nice but its a really long drive and when you get there, its pretty desolate and very windy. You are essentially on a sand bank that could be submerged by the Atlantic Ocean at any time. If you are rolling in dough then you can live out your own private Richard Gere movie, ‘The Nights in Rodanthe’. Otherwise, I’d skip the OBX unless you really need to be alone and completely isolated from the modern world.
In all fairness, the Carolina Bluegrass music scene is world class and they do have Carolina BBQ, which is an acquired taste as the sauce is more vinegary-mustardy-sour tasting than Texas or KC BBQ, and is often served with coleslaw to offset the sour taste. The best Carolina BBQ joints are generally to be found in the eastern part of the state.
To the south you have South Carolina. Technically Charleston is the best city in the Carolinas as it reeks of class and old world charm. Its a totally original and laid back city with none of the cookie cutter crap you will see everywhere else in the Carolinas. But its kind of a closed, elitist society if you don’t know anyone there. And its expensive. There are a couple of hostels in Charleston I believe but the nicest hostels in the Carolinas are in Asheville, hands down. Folly Beach and Thousand Oaks are great spots outside Charleston. There are big waves in Folly beach, watch out for the undertow and watch out for the sharks. Every summer there are several shark attacks in the Mid-Atlantic area and many are fatal. I loathe Myrtle Beach, its a giant cheesy circus that is way too big. As you drive through Myrtle you can enjoy miles and miles of shitty roads that will damage your vehicle and a thunder-dome of Harley Davidson motorcycles down the main strip. The beaches in Myrtle suck, its grossly sticky hot in the summer and its called the ‘Redneck Riviera’ for a reason. There are many more marshlands and swamps in South Carolina than North, and they definitely do have alligators and swamp creatures down there. Finally, I will give Greenville, SC an honorable mention. Not a bad day trip option outside Charlotte.