Getaway in the Mountains or Coast? Follow Your Appetite

Getaway in the Mountains or Coast? Follow Your Appetite

King's BBQ Restaurant in Kinston sources food from several local farms

Vivian Howard is a North Carolina native, chef and owner of two popular restaurants in Kinston, and is the star of PBS’ A Chef’s Life. She's also released an award-winning cookbook,  Deep Run Roots, inspired by the traditions of her home state, and is preparing to open a new restaurant in Wilmington. Lucky for us, she made time for this Visit North Carolina series on several of her favorite places, insider tips and essential experiences when you're visiting.

When planning a trip to North Carolina, you’re faced with many choices: Mountains or sea? Hiking or kayaking? Barbecue or seafood (both, of course). We asked Vivian Howard to guide you in the right direction whether you opt to head east from Raleigh toward Atlantic Beach, or set out west toward Asheville. “Our state is so incredibly diverse,” Vivian says proudly.

So pick your flavor and pack your bags for a fun-filled weekend in either direction with plenty of tasty stops and stunning views along the way. And since these are culinary adventures, progressive eating (appetizer here, entrée there) is highly encouraged.

Trip Option No. 1: Drive-Ins and Boat-side Dining

Day 1: Old-School Favorites

Depart Raleigh airport, pick up your rental car and head straight to Snoopy’s for a Vivian-recommended lunch of classic coney dogs on steamed buns. They’ve served this recipe since 1978 and have grown to five area locations. Then it’s time to head east toward “the Emerald Isle and Atlantic Beach area for an unmatched beach vacation,” Vivian suggests. En route, hit the Birthplace of Pepsi in New Bern. This old-fashioned soda counter and gift shop was once a pharmacy, and it’s where the Pepsi recipe was invented in 1898.

Big Oak Drive-In & Bar-B-Q sandwich

Located near the beach, Big Oak Drive-In specializes in sandwiches, burgers and dogs

Upon arrival to the Atlantic Beach area, take care to have one of Vivian’s favorite shrimpburgers found on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast at Big Oak Drive-In & Bar-B-Q. This combination of hot fried shrimp, tartar sauce, slaw and ketchup on a steamed bun has been a local favorite since 1976, but the oysterburger, scallopburger and clamburger give it a run for its money. Put the cherry on top of this classic food day at AB Ice Cream, with old-fashioned fudges, candies and, of course, hand-dipped ice cream. Check in to your vintage-yet-updated room at Atlantis Lodge. This oceanfront hotel opened its doors more than 50 years ago, with some original pendant lamps still hanging and kitchens in many units.

Day 2: Stroll, Sip and Savor

Start the day with a light bite from Sugarloaf Island Bakery in the form of cannolis, scones, cream puffs or fresh-baked bread. Try to resist overindulging since today you’ll be joining Hungry Town’s Foot by Foot Culinary Walking or Biking Tour. It’s tough to find a better way for foodies – or just food lovers – to spend three hours. The setup is a progressive three-course lunch that weaves guests through Beaufort’s historic district and waterfront, and it’s rated the No. 1 tour in Beaufort on TripAdvisor.

Fort Macon State Park Civil War cannons

Fort Macon State Park attracts history buffs to its Civil War-era fort, and beach lovers to its shoreline

A beachside nap might be in order after your tour, or if you’re up for more exploring visit Fort Macon State Park for a slice of American history. Dinner calls for a waterfront dining experience at The Ruddy Duck Tavern, located right on Harbor Channel. Note the antique outboard decor before digging into Cajun-influenced seafood choices served grilled, broiled, baked or fried. The pecan-encrusted flounder and duck burger or the crispy duckling are dynamite. Soak in a little coastal ambiance at Jack’s Waterfront Bar, home to live music most weekends.

Day 3: The Pig in a Puppy, a Vivian “Must-Try”

One of the best parts of many vacations, especially food-focused adventures, is a leisurely brunch, so grab a table at Island Grille for the crab cake or surf and turf benedicts. On the way back to Raleigh’s airport, stop in Kinston to learn more about the area’s Civil War history at CSS Neuse Center or Gov. Caswell Memorial and, for what Vivian calls “the best invention in barbecue history, the Pig in a Puppy” at King’s Restaurant. These ’cue geniuses slice a giant hushpuppy in half and pile on hand-chopped pork for a flavor that’s been pleasing palates since 1936.

King's BBQ Pig in a Puppy

The Pig in a Puppy at King's BBQ is the restaurant's signature dish

Trip Option No. 2: Southern Favorites

Day 1: Chapel Hill Staples

Fly into Raleigh, and make your first stop one of Vivian’s go-to lunch spots in the city, Char-Grill. This throwback 1959 burger joint has grown from one small drive-in to a 10-location, flame-grilled powerhouse. Post-lunch, head west to Chapel Hill and meander through the University of North Carolina campus, the oldest public university in the U.S. with the pillars and stately brick to prove it.

Whatever you do, work up an appetite so you can enjoy Vivian’s beloved Crook’s Corner, a James Beard “America’s Classics,” New York Times-heralded and Garden & Gun-approved dinner-only gourmet café. Select from cajun chicken livers, Carolina fish fry or hoppin’ John for a truly Southern experience. Cap off your evening at TOPO for drinks and sweeping city views. And in this quintessential college town, why not stay practically on campus at the classy Carolina Inn?

Crook's Corner patio

The patio at Crook's Corner is enclosed with bamboo and features works by "critter artist" Clyde Jones

Day 2: Baked-In Goodness

To kick-off this day, head west to Winston-Salem for Moravian sightseeing and a sweet cake – another Vivian must-try – for breakfast from Winkler Bakery in Historic Old Salem. Slow down and appreciate the restored Moravian community, filled with more than 70 percent original buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

Take off for the mountains, stopping at Smiley’s for lunch and a taste of our Southern step-sister’s barbecue style: a mustardy, vinegary version that many North Carolinians (including Vivian) can’t help but love, too. Finish the day with a sunset picnic at Blowing Rock, taking heed of Vivian’s advice to grab some fresh-pressed cider and ham biscuits first from Daniel Boone Inn. Retire with your choice of a cabin or cabin-like room at nearby Mountainaire Inn.

Day 3: Fresh with a Side of Funky

Biltmore in the fall

The Biltmore Company

Visit Biltmore, America's largest home, in fall and explore the gardens and winery

Wake up and make the hour-and-a-half drive to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, the largest privately owned house in America, for a fantastic farm-to-table brunch and live music at Deerpark Restaurant. Enjoy the free wine tasting included with a house tour – budget at least two hours to walk the house and grounds – then head back to Raleigh for departure. Stop for an early dinner at Greensboro’s Crafted: The Art of the Taco for inventive fillings like mac n’ cheese, tuna seared rare, spiced potato or beef brisket.

Shawndra Russell is a travel writer and novelist based in Asheville and has written for Forbes Travel Guide, BeerAdvocate and Travel+Leisure.

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