Take a Tour of One-of-a-Kind Museums and Festivals

Take a Tour of One-of-a-Kind Museums and Festivals

The Big Chair in Thomasville is an ode to the city’s furniture-making heritage and has been a popular tourist attraction for decades

North Carolina is known for its striking beauty thanks to features like vast mountains, forests and miles of gorgeous coastline. Yet, sometimes the perfect road trip means getting a little quirky and venturing off the beaten path. This three-day trip will create lasting memories, whether you’re snapping photos in front of an incredibly large piece of furniture, visiting a town that inspired a classic TV show or attending a long-running festival that features strange competitions.

3-Day Itinerary

Day 1: Make your head spin at the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson.

Day 2: See the lemurs in action at the Duke Lemur Center and mark two more “world’s largest” items off your list.

Day 3: Get your nostalgia on in real-life Mayberry and discover enchantment in the mountains.

Day 1: Prepare for Zaniness

Artist Vollis Simpson, whom The New York Times described as a “visionary artist of the junkyard,” left a legacy in Wilson as the creator of whirligigs – giant sculptures made from recycled industrial parts. Several of his creations can be found throughout the eastern North Carolina city, including the historic downtown area and at the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum. The park project has been under development over the last several years, with many of the acclaimed whirligigs on display during that time. Now, its grand opening is taking place November 2, 2017.

The park's grand opening will usher in a multi-day celebration in Wilson as the annual North Carolina Whirligig Festival is happening November 4 and 5. The family-friendly festival celebrates Simpson’s unique mind and bizarre creations made from scraps that he turned into rocket ships, horse carriages and other windmill-like structures. Attendees will enjoy arts and crafts, three live entertainment stages, 200-plus vendors, food and drinks including a beer garden, and the Whirli-Kidz Zone. Admission is free.

Whirligig at Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park

Many of Vollis Simpson's whirligigs are raised several feet in the air

After you’ve had your fill of things twirling, spinning and jangling, grab lunch at the Beefmastor Inn. This place only offers one dish, steak, served with a salad bar and baked potato. It’s delightfully old-school and simple.

Your next stop off the beaten path is only 15 minutes away in the small town of Bailey. Here you’ll find the Country Doctor Museum, dedicated to the history of America's rural healthcare. Since the 1960s, the museum has amassed more than 5,000 medical artifacts from around the country. The museum site is comprised of three buildings spread across two acres, featuring late 19th-century doctors' offices, a carriage house with two Ford Model T vehicles that physicians once traveled in to visit patients’ homes, exhibits, a gift shop and more.

Next, you’ll drive south for a little more than an hour to Rose Hill, where the world’s largest functional frying pan awaits. Sheltered in Rose Hill’s town square gazebo, the frying pan can be viewed any day when it’s not being used at a festival to cook up 365 chickens at a time prepared with 200 gallons of cooking oil. The behemoth weighs two tons and is 15 feet in diameter, and folks have been enjoying its spoils for nearly five decades, usually at special events such as the North Carolina Poultry Jubilee, also taking place the first weekend in November.

Then, if you head about an hour and a half west to Durham, you’ll be minutes away from your first adventure tomorrow at Duke University. Consider staying at the eclectic-yet-luxurious 21c Museum Hotel, where you can sleep inside a contemporary art museum that would make Vollis Simpson proud with its quirky pieces such as the Fuchsia Penguin, Southern Belle figurines and bedazzled guns. Or, just stop by for a visit as the galleries are open year-round and admission is free.

Day 2: Big Eyes and Big Furniture

Today is all about going big, first with a stop at Scratch – a locals’ favorite – with its anything-but-ordinary breakfast options like a Po’ Boy Benedict made with pork belly, a fried duck egg sandwich or shakshuka. After you’ve fueled up, it’s time to visit the lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center. Tours are by appointment only and book up months in advance, so call ahead for a traditional tour or go for something a little more off-the-wall like the chance to paint with lemurs or take a guided stroll with them. You can even “adopt” your very own lemur with a donation.

Next, you’ll head west to two RoadsideAmerica.com-touted gems. First, pull off Interstate 85 at High Point – the Home Furnishings Capital of the World – where the world’s largest chest of drawers stands 80 feet high. This stop makes for a fun photo op and doubles as an informational one, too, since the oversized chest of drawers also functions as an information center. Then, continue on 15 minutes to nearby Thomasville, home of the world’s largest Duncan Phyfe chair. The chair visitors see now is actually a sturdier reincarnation of the city’s original big chair, which was built with wood. Today’s version was constructed with cement and then painted to resemble the original.

World’s largest Duncan Phyfe chair in Thomasville

Visitors aren't allowed to sit in the Thomasville chair, though presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1960

Finish the day by getting a jumpstart on tomorrow and driving northwest 20 miles to stay in Winston-Salem. Choose one of several bed and breakfasts there, many with their own ornate furniture, like the Augustus T. Zevely Inn – the only B&B in town that’s on the National Historic Register. Or, stay on a vineyard at Medaloni Cellars and sample some of its 16 red and white wines. The winery sells locally made snacks and often has food trucks on-site. You could also order dinner from Ciccione’s Italian Restaurant or The Greek Grill.

Day 3: TV in Real Life

Today begins with another only-in-North-Carolina experience: the last Shell Oil clamshell-shaped gas station. The oil giant erected several of these working stations in the 1930s, but now the abandoned bright yellow building only serves as a unique photo-worthy stop on a quiet residential corner.

Your next destination, Mount Airy, will be reached fittingly by Andy Griffith Parkway. The iconic TV show star grew up here and many visitors feel as if they’re strolling through the fictional Mayberry. In fact, Mount Airy’s nickname is Mayberry RFD (Rural Free Delivery). For lunch, go back in time at Walker’s Soda Fountain, complete with black-and-white floor tiles and bright red countertops straight out of the 1960s. All the classics are here (malts, shakes, hot dogs and fries), plus a gift shop filled with Mayberry goods. Plus, spend some time touring The Andy Griffith Museum, which completed renovations in summer 2017 and now houses more than 1,000 pieces of memorabilia from its namesake's life, in exhibits that resemble storefronts.

Statue in front of Andy Griffith Museum

The TV Land network commissioned a statue of Andy and Opie Taylor at the museum

For the last leg of the trip, you’ll move from the small screen to the silver screen. Drive about two hours into the Western North Carolina mountains to check in at Dorothy’s House at The Land of Oz. Once a theme park in Beech Mountain, the location now only grants limited access, either to visitors staying at one of the vacation rentals on the property, or for private group tours (minimum of 15 people). Or plan your trip during a different time of year to attend the annual Autumn at Oz festival, taking place in mid-September, or the Journey with Dorothy event series that's held each Friday in June. During these open-to-the-public events, guests dress up and tour the grounds – lingering on the yellow brick road, of course – which include replicas of Uncle Henry and Auntie Em’s farm and a mobile museum containing artifacts and photos gathered during the years.

But if you find yourself in the area in October, nearby Banner Elk has been hosting the Wooly Worm Festival for four decades. The event attracts more than 20,000 people during the third weekend in October, and one of the highlights is the wooly worm race. Here, the winning worm’s trainer earns $1,000 and the honor of having his worm predict when winter will end. The festival also includes about 175 craft vendors, food, live entertainment and rides.

Enjoy all the area has to offer by mixing and matching activities and events to your particular interest. Be sure to check days and hours of operation for each venue.

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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