Drive south, dear readers.
Any Triangle dweller can catch a superhighway west or east to the famous attractions of the mountains and the coast. But North Carolina connoisseurs know there are gems of nature, food and culture in counties that reach from southern Wake to that other Carolina.
Not far from Lillington, Harnett County offers hiking fans pristine wooded paths to the towering cliffs of Raven Rock State Park. This is where the Cape Fear River heads to the sea and, we learn, the rolling Piedmont descends to the Coastal Plain.
A traveler next comes to Sanford, where a well-preserved downtown can provide delicious down-home cooking at a restaurant that will mark half a century next year. A few blocks away, another decades-old Lee County establishment presents the only banana-pudding ice cream so renowned that it’s being distributed by a grocery chain.
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Down the road through Moore County in Cameron, an eclectic group of antiques stores – one with a vintage-design deli – has created a new traveler’s destination. Continuing south, most southern central counties reflect the flat, evergreen-bedecked topography of the Sandhills.
In Hoke County, the gorgeous, once-dominant longleaf pine is making a notable comeback on more than 3,000 acres of Nature Conservancy land that’s available for hunting and hiking. But the region’s natural superstar is the officially designated Wild and Scenic River, called the Lumber on maps and the Lumbee by locals, including the large Native American population.
Heading east through Cumberland County toward the chaotically rolling traffic stream called Interstate 95, the traveler encounters a visitor-friendly district along the streets of Fayetteville, where bistros, retail and a riverside park erase long-ago memories of the area as a haven of “adult entertainment.”
“It’s changed, for the better,” said Fayetteville resident Aaron Mercer, relaxing at Rude Awakening, a Hay Street coffeehouse.
With the state’s most ethnically diverse population, deeply imbedded history and natural wonders to burn, these southern counties are ripe for discovery or re-discovery, depending on your background.
The series will continue through Labor Day, hitting each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. And except for the 74 counties we’ve already covered, it’s not too late to suggest a place we should include among our Best-Kept Secrets.
68. Harnett County
Raven Rock State Park
For memorable vistas and great hiking within an hour of Raleigh, it’s hard to beat Raven Rock State Park ( www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/raro/main.php), a 4,667-acre destination for leisure and educational opportunities. It can be easy to miss the turn off U.S. 421, but Highway 1314 leads straight to the spiffy park offices, with hummingbird feeders and an attractive exhibition space. The major attractions, however, await down a maze of trails. One leads directly to the Raven Rock formation itself, which stretches along the sparkling Cape Fear River. A caution, especially in hot weather: The dozens of steps down to the riverside – and back up – can be challenging. About half a mile upstream, an overlook offers a matchless view of the river, just getting started on its trip to the Atlantic.
69. Hoke County
Calloway Forest Preserve, Sandhills
Majestic longleaf pine once covered 90 million acres of the Southern colonies, including vast stretches in North Carolina. But various practices, including overharvesting, nearly brought an end to the forests. Today, projects such as this 3,288-acres preserve ( bit.ly/1o4WT6w) not only allow longleafs to grow, but also to burn periodically as part of their nature life cycles. The Calloway Forest was originally bought by the state transportation department as part of efforts to protect the red-cockaded woodpecker. After setting up an endowment for its stewardship, the state transferred it to The Nature Conservancy, which runs it with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The great trees’ long life cycle is on display here year-round.
70. Moore County
Antiques District, Cameron
Husband and wife Ken and Jane Fairbanks moved to Cameron in 1986 and restored the building that became their Old Hardware Antiques store ( www.oldhardwareantiques.com), then the fourth antiques store in the small town off U.S. 1. The Fairbanks added the vintage-y Dewberry Deli and Soda Fountain downstairs in 1991. Consisting of a dozen stores, the Cameron Antique Dealers Association will be putting it all on display during the Fall Antiques Street Fair from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Oct. 4. The fair will offer everything from antique tailor’s tape to high-end antique furniture to cover almost any price range. Ken Fairbanks says, “We’ve always worked with, ‘Something for everybody.’ ” Visit: www.antiquesofcameron.com.
71. Lee County
Downtown dining, Sanford
Lee County is so crammed with attractions that a traveler can head with the best of intentions for the outdoorsy Historic Camelback Bridge ( www.visitnc.com/listing/deep-river-park) and instead wind up sidetracked, feasting on a delicious, $6 plate of fried chicken, vegetables and biscuits at Mrs. Wenger’s Restaurant, 105 Charlotte Ave. in Sanford. The restaurant, founded by the eponymous Dorcus Wenger 50 years ago come February, preserves down-home hospitality and age-old recipes such as the red-eye gravy that recently earned it a spread in Our State magazine. Doors close for lunch at Mrs. Wenger’s promptly at 1:30 p.m., leaving time for another town landmark nearby: Yarborough’s Homemade Ice Cream, 132 McIver St. Hot dogs and hamburgers are on the menu, but the famous attractions are homemade ice cream flavors such as banana pudding and French silk pie, plus a variety of sherbets.
72. Cumberland County
This city has been through an intensive downtown improvement program ( www.faydta.org) involving resident input meetings, community development grants and lots of programs with hard-to-remember acronyms. But the proof of the process comes in moments such as the recent weekday afternoon when Mariel Halbruner and her toddler daughter Harper stopped to have cool drinks on the sidewalk in front of the Blue Moon Cafe on Hay Street. “We’re just on a little mommy-daughter date,” Halbruner said. Sidewalk tables and open storefront doors beckoned visitors on a string of downtown blocks where in years past strip joints and bars were common fare. Not far away, Cross Creek Linear Park ( www.crosscreeklinearpark.com) – a greenway – strings together historic sites and points of interest.
73. Scotland County
John Blue Cotton Festival, Laurinburg
The legacy of the 19th-century farmer and inventor John Blue Sr. notably resurfaces at a complex of homes, farm buildings and the Scotland County Museum at 13040 X-Way Road in Laurinburg. Blue constructed an ornate Victorian home from timber on the property and made decorative porch railings and other features by hand. Visitors can stop at any time and stroll by through the former working farm, but the best opportunity is at the site’s popular Cotton Festival ( www.johnbluecottonfestival.com), scheduled this year for Oct. 11-12. Don’t miss out on the fresh fruits and vegetables, ham and sausage at Locklear Produce, just down X-Way Road from the complex.
74. Robeson County
Lumber River State Park
Thousands of visitors annually have come to enjoy the sheltering cedars and unpredictable twists and shallows of this river as it winds for 115 miles through four North Carolina counties. “I grew up on the river, and it was kind of a local secret,” said Neill Lee, superintendent at Lumber River State Park ( www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/luri/history.php). “I think now (that) it’s a state park, it’s more widely known what a treasure it is. In about 10 paddle strokes you’re out in nature. And you need to be prepared to handle that.” Some 81 miles of the Lumber have been federally designated a Wild and Scenic River, a reminder that it’s not uncommon to have to drag a canoe or kayak overland to get around a fallen tree or other obstacle.