June 22, 2008

A Cheap Summer, Just Down the Road

By Gerald Witt, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.

Jun. 22--GREENSBORO -- Is the cost of filling up the family car for summer vacation making you wince?

You're not alone. People are stretching their dollars in ways that would impress a yoga instructor.

And they're searching close to home for cheap summer excursions.

In Little Switzerland, a hillside town near Mount Mitchell, a hotel room can be had for half the cost of a night in Asheville. "You can stay on top of the world for pocket change," says Thomas Wright, the owner of a used book store in Little Switzerland.

More North Carolinians than ever are making in-state travel plans, says Carol Gifford of AAA Carolinas. "They may cut their vacation short a day or two, or even try to bunk up with family and friends."

Looking for a fun getaway that won't wipe out the bank account?

We found a few. And on the cheap.

Interactive Google map of these locations and more

Prop your feet up for a spell

TODD -- Grown-ups and kids float on tubes down a clear, shallow river. Anglers wet a line for trout.

Others laze in sunny spots in the cool green parks around Todd, on the shore of the New River's south fork in Ashe County.

"It's a good place to come prop your feet up," says Paul Caudill of Mocksville.

You won't fight summer crowds in Todd, except on Fridays, when it becomes a bluegrass madhouse. Hundreds pack the Todd General Store, site of the bring-your-own-instrument pickin' sessions at 7 p.m.

There's a cheap dinner before the jammin' begins, but it goes quickly, says Gini Mann, the store's co-owner. A recent menu featured herb-encrusted chicken, black beans and rice, and "some vegetable yet to be named."

If you're into the outdoors and a clean environment, hit up River Girl Fishing Co. on the first Sunday of each month, when kayak and bike rentals are free to the first people who come to pick trash from the river.

From Boone or West Jefferson take a shady, snaking drive along N.C. 194, and turn onto Railroad Grade Road to find Todd. The trek takes about two hours from Greensboro.

Looking to party after a take-it-easy day? Head to Boone, where music such as old-timey bluegrass and progressive rock can be found most weekend evenings in the college town's bars and restaurants.

At Sunset Beach, it's easy to relax

SUNSET BEACH -- Not much happens on Sunset Beach. And that's how people here like it.

For a beach getaway that's still close to civilization (for necessities like beer and ice cream), renting a house at Sunset could be the ticket. And rentals here can be cheaper than resorts in Myrtle Beach or elsewhere in the Southeast.

"Don't drive to Florida anymore. Come to Sunset," says Marc Kaplan, who owns the island's 1,000-foot fishing pier. "You can fish or lay in the sun. You're forced to relax."

A family can stay for under $1,000 a week, but ask for special deals. By July, many companies offer discounts to lure tourists.

You have to cross the island's single-lane pontoon bridge to get to a restaurant, but that's part of the charm.

Or you can stock up on groceries on the mainland and save by cooking in.

There's not much nightlife on Sunset, but Myrtle Beach and Wilmington aren't far.

Many Sunset regulars prefer a morning walk to Bird Island, a nature preserve that's home to a mailbox for the "Kindred Spirit."

Notebooks in the mailbox are scrawled with messages to lost lovers, found fathers and wishes for things to come.

The mailbox, posted in 1981, is a tribute to young lovers who frolicked in the dunes, says Buddy Scruggs, a retiree who walks the preserve every day with his wife.

"It's a place of reverence," he says.

Pirate history lives on in Bath

BATH -- Are the kids all pirate-crazy after seeing "Bloody Blackbeard" at Triad Stage?

Put a real scene to the story. Stop by Bath on the way to the Outer Banks this summer.

The town was a haunt of Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. And the property he once prowled is visible from Historic Bath.

Pirates brought stolen goods to trade in Bath, which got a little wild when the bawdy bunch landed.

And Bath holds other historic distinctions.

John Lawson, author of an early and detailed state history, co-founded Bath in 1705, making it the oldest town in North Carolina. The state's oldest church, St. Thomas Episcopal, built in 1734, still stands.

Once a trading hub, Bath was considered for the state capital, but these days the town maintains an easygoing pace.

Take a peaceful stroll down shady lanes to Bonner Point, a good spot for a picnic. From there, look south across the Pamlico River to Plum Point, where Blackbeard kept shop.

If Bath doesn't offer enough history, take U.S. 64 on the trip home and visit Somerset Place in Creswell, an Antebellum-era plantation. Active from 1785 to 1865, more than 200 people, enslaved and free, worked the land at the peak of its productivity.

Now visitors can tour the grounds, mansion, slave quarters and outbuildings.

Somerset and Historic Bath, both North Carolina Historic Sites, are free and open every day.

Little Switzerland offers big charm

LITTLE SWITZERLAND -- Here's Little Switzerland in a nutshell: a market, a tavern, a cafe, a few inns and a bookstore.

Maybe it sounds as if the town could fit in a nutshell.

But there's plenty to do to fill a day or two in this no-stoplight town in Mitchell County that sits 3,500 feet above sea level.

A typical lunch costs less than $10 at the Little Switzerland Cafe, where the trademark dish is a smoked trout BLT, the creation of chef and co-owner Lora Lanier.

"She tries to create meals for a sophisticated crowd," says Ann Kernahan, Lanier's business partner. "The menu puts lots of different flavors together, but they work."

Upstairs, Zackery's Pub pours microbrews and hosts local musicians on weekends.

"We basically get inexpensive travelers," says Thomas Wright, owner of Little Switzerland Book Exchange, where book purchases come with a free cup of coffee or ice cream.

Find a good page-turner and sit a spell in the reading room, where worn leather chairs, Tiffany lamps and windows open to mountain breezes -- a welcoming spot to hang out.

Hikers can find waterfalls near the town, and Mount Mitchell is a short drive away.

Little Switzerland is about three hours from Greensboro. Or make it a detour that's 30 minutes off the road to Asheville.

And while you're there, put a card in the mail to Mom postmarked from "Little Switzerland." Now, that's a cheap souvenir.


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