The calendar says the solstice is still a month away, but in the South, summer is not just a season. It’s a state of mind.
Students and teachers have been counting down to the end of the school year like prisoners waiting for parole. Children are registered for summer camps and churches are finishing up months of preparation for Vacation Bible School. Bathing suits and sunscreen are on sale.
Finally, it’s nearly Memorial Day weekend, when more than a million North Carolinians will hit the road for the unofficial start of the summer travel season.
Experts say 2017 should be another record year for North Carolina’s travel industry, with visitors staying longer at their destinations and spending more money than in years past. If you’re inclined to join them, here are some of the things you need to know before you load up the car. .
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Relatively inexpensive gas
AAA Carolinas notes that while gas prices nationwide are slightly higher this year than last, they are about a penny lower in North Carolina, averaging $2.20 per gallon. That’s good news for travelers here, who rely on their cars to get from Murphy to Manteo.
Higher holiday-weekend room prices
Saving money on gas might make it hurt a little less at check-in, when travelers will find that rates have gone up about 18 percent at three-diamond-rated hotels. AAA says the average room rate will be $215 for this holiday weekend. Hotel and motel operators and rental property managers across the state will offer specials throughout the rest of the summer, however, as they try to capture those travelers who prefer to make reservations at the last minute.
Wit Tuttell, executive director of the state’s travel and tourism marketing agency, says travelers increasingly wait until they know what the weather is going to be before they reserve a room, rescheduling if there’s too much rain in the forecast.
For the Memorial Day weekend, the N.C. Department of Transportation will stop work on construction projects, though lanes may still be narrow in some places. Also, law enforcement across the state will have an eye out for drivers who aren’t buckled up and will ticket those they find, especially through June 4.
Travelers along the Blue Ridge Parkway, that meandering roadway that runs 469 miles from the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Cherokee, will find no closures or detours this year, unless some new problem appears. The Parkway maintains a real-time map (http://nando.com/4sh) showing spots where drivers have to detour around repairs, but at the moment, the only thing that will impede your 45-mph ridge-top tour is a bear sighting or a slow-moving Winnebago.
Coastal roads are in good shape as well. Tropical weather pushed sand and water onto N.C. 12 on Hatteras Island last year, but fortified dunes built to protect the road did their job and all that was needed to restore traffic was for bulldozers to clear the way.
Drivers onto the island will notice nearby construction as they cross Oregon Inlet: The replacement for Bonner Bridge is being built, with an expected opening in 2018.
Throughout southeastern North Carolina, there remain a few closures on roads that were damaged by flooding from Hurricane Matthew in October. Steve Abbott of the N.C. Department of Transportation said the number is below 10. At the height of the deluge, more than 600 roads were closed. Abbott said there is also one Matthew-related closure in near Falls Lake in Durham County, where a new bridge will have to be built.
A hurricane’s remains
While N.C. had its share of tropical weather last year – storms Hermine and Julia, and Hurricane Matthew – damage from wind, rain and flooding has been repaired in the areas where tourists are most likely to light. Travelers may still notice damage on their way to the beach as they pass through towns such as Goldsboro, Rocky Mount, Fayetteville and especially Lumberton. In some places, repairs are underway. In others, property owners are still trying to decide what to do.
The bad news for anglers is that one of Oak Island’s fishing piers is closed. The Oak Island Pier was damaged by Hurricane Matthew and remains closed. The Flying Fish Cafe and tackle shop adjacent to it is open. The island’s other pier, the Ocean Crest Pier, which according to its website is the longest fishing pier on the Southern Cape Fear Coast, is open.
Up from the ashes
Wildfires that rolled across thousands of acres of forests in Western North Carolina last fall blackened the earth and the bottoms of trees, sent ash flying and tainted the air with smoke nearly 200 miles away.
But the vigilance of federal, state, local and volunteer firefighters kept the flames away from homes and resort communities. Clint Calhoun, biologist for the town of Lake Lure, reports in his blog at http://nando.com/4si that already, signs of the fires are being camouflaged by new growth in the forest. Businesses and rental properties throughout the mountains are open for business as usual.
Just remember: Be cautious about activities that could produce fires, and extinguish tobacco products and camp fires. And take care if you drive your car on dry grass; hot exhaust pipes can catch the grass on fire. Keep track of current conditions at http://ncforestservice.gov/.
If those miles of trail through the mountains — and elsewhere in the state — beckon, N.C. State University entomologist Mike Waldvogel suggests you carry along insect repellent. That’s even more important if you are inclined to venture off trails and into the deeper grass, where ticks await with their creepy little legs outstretched, hoping to catch a ride.
“We don’t really call it ‘tick season,’ ” Waldvogel said, “but we do start to see a pickup in some of the tick-borne diseases this time of year. We had a pretty mild winter so things have accelerated somewhat.”
In addition to the festivals and events, attractions and natural scenery that have long made North Carolina a popular tourism destination, there are some new features to plug into the GPS this year. Wit Tuttell of visitnc.com says travelers might be particularly interested in a huge water park set to open this summer in Currituck County. Currituck also is home to a new type of vineyard tour, which combines a scenic boat ride with a visit to winery.
After suffering the loss of major sporting events and having high-profile artists refuse to play the state last year because of HB2, known as “the bathroom bill,” state legislators repealed part of the law this year. As a result, the state will welcome back ACC and NCAA events.
The original bill mandated that transgender people use public bathrooms corresponding to their birth sex, and among other things, it barred local governments from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances.
Some business communities across the state are still working to welcome those who felt alienated by HB2 and are not satisfied with the partial repeal, which dropped the bathroom stipulation but places a moratorium on local anti-discrimination laws.
A popular campaign used by businesses opposed to HB2 was the placement of yard or window signs that say, “Y’all means all.” Some of those remain in place, especially in downtown Raleigh and Asheville.