Carolina Living: From the Coast to the Mountains — Life in the Carolinas offers excitement and culture for all
The Carolinas (both North and South) are welcoming an influx of new residents these days and who are discovering a way of life that’s about more than just warmer weather. But there’s not a single “Carolina lifestyle,” because each of the states’ distinctive regions have something special to offer.
The Lowcounty of South Carolina
The South Carolina Lowcountry stretches along the Atlantic coast from Georgetown County to the Savannah River and includes the historic city of Charleston, the towns of Walterboro, Beaufort and Bluffton, and barrier islands from Kiawah to Daufuski.
A big part of the Lowcountry lifestyle is on local dinner tables—the savory “Lowcountry cuisine.” A variety of factors have contributed to its evolution: an abundance of local seafood resources, especially shrimp and oysters; converted marshlands that were once home to America’s original rice industry; and the influences of Caribbean and African cultures. The result has been the creation of Lowcountry dishes like she-crab soup, okra gumbo, Frogmore stew, shrimp and grits, Hoppin’ John and chicken bog that make every evening meal a tasty adventure.
With a semi-tropical climate, outdoor recreations are an important contributor to the Lowcountry lifestyle. Scottish merchants established America’s first golf club in Charleston, and the region today is home to renowned resort layouts like Kiawah’s Ocean Course and Hilton Head’s Harbour Town Golf Links, as well as many other top-rated private residential courses, especially in the Charleston and Hilton Head areas.
Likewise, the mild year-round Lowcountry climate has made the area a destination for tennis players and tournament fans. Most of the region’s resorts offer tennis facilities and instruction, while Daniel Island in Charleston is the annual host of the Family Circle Cup, a major stop on the women’s professional tour.
Charleston is also the regional hub for cultural events that play a significant role in the Lowcountry lifestyle. In addition to numerous live-music venues around town and touring shows at the North Charleston Coliseum, the Spoleto Festival USA has been an international celebration of the performing arts in Charleston since 1977.
Upstate South Carolina
The Upstate region of South Carolina (also known as the “Upcountry”) derives its name from the higher elevations in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Home to the cities of Greenville, Spartanburg and Anderson, the Upstate lifestyle is as much a product of its history as its topography.
While all Carolinians love their music, the strong Scots-Irish heritage in the Upstate seems to have produced a toe-tapping background melody everywhere you go. And not just the traditional bluegrass music so often heard in the states of greater Appalachia, though there’s plenty of that. The Upstate musical lifestyle also includes everything from the annual Blue Ridge Fest in Pickens, featuring golden-oldie performers, to the country-rock sounds of Spartanburg’s own Marshall Tucker Band to Broadway musicals and symphony orchestra performances at The Peace Center in Greenville.
In fact, a revitalized downtown Greenville has become a key component of the region’s lifestyle, with riverside nature trails, unique shops, restaurants, art museums and special attractions like “Shakespeare in the Park” performances. Open-air trolleys make it easy to get around, or the area can be explored on two wheels, as both Greenville and Spartanburg have been recognized as Bike-Friendly Cities by the League of American Bicyclists. The Upstate is also home to the USA Cycling Pro Championships.
But urban amenities are just a part of the Upstate lifestyle for folks who enjoy the great outdoors. There are more than 80 golf courses in the region, plus numerous highland streams for kayak/canoe trips and whitewater rafting on the Chattooga River. The fishing is also excellent in the crystal-clear mountain lakes. Hundreds of miles of hiking trails criss-cross the region, from leisurely state-park circuits to difficult climbs up steep slopes, some leading to one of more than 35 waterfalls in the area.
The North Carolina Mountains
While the South Carolina Upstate is a “foothills region,” the real mountains are found across the border in North Carolina. A significant stretch of the Appalachian Trail runs through the North Carolina mountains, along with hundreds of other highland trails, so hiking and camping are an important part of the region’s lifestyle. Mountain biking and horseback riding are also popular activities, as well as canoeing, kayaking and whitewater rafting. For residents who enjoy less strenuous pursuits, the local hillsides and valleys are home to numerous—and often spectacular—golf courses.
The region’s higher altitudes also make the North Carolina mountains perfect for those who love the winter-sports lifestyle. Snow skiing, snowboarding and ice skating are just a few of the cold-weather recreations that are available at a dozen destination resorts in the region.
However, the North Carolina mountain lifestyle is about much more than outdoor recreation. This is a region rich in culture and creativity, displayed at venues like The Turchin Center for the Visual Arts in Boone and the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum. Highlighting the region’s summer events calendar are the Grandfather Mountain Scottish Highland Games and Folkmoot USA, an international celebration of music and dance. The North Carolina Apple Festival in Hendersonville has been a fall tradition for more than 60 years, perhaps second only in popularity to the extraordinary autumn colors that are the signature image of the North Carolina mountain lifestyle.
The thriving city of Asheville offers residents a variety of urban lifestyle options, from the lively downtown area with its concert halls, art galleries and award-winning restaurants to the exquisite Biltmore Estate located just outside of town. And the mountain lifestyle can include visits to a one-of-a-kind Carolina destination at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.
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The Piedmont of North Carolina
North Carolina’s central region is The Piedmont, and sports of all kinds are a big part of the local lifestyle. The National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes are based in the state’s capital city of Raleigh. Charlotte, the largest city in the Carolinas, is home to the National Football League’s Carolina Panthers and the National Basketball Association’s Charlotte Bobcats, plus the Charlotte Motor Speedway and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Collegiate sports in the Piedmont, however, seem to be closest to the heart of the region’s lifestyle. Duke University, North Carolina State University, UNC-Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University are probably the best-known of the Piedmont’s universities when it comes to passionate in-state rivalries in football, baseball and basketball.
But it’s about more than just sports because the region’s dozens of major universities and liberal-arts colleges add an air of sophistication to the Piedmont lifestyle. In addition to the area’s many historical museums and art galleries, international artists appear regularly at Chapel Hill’s Carolina Performing Arts at Memorial Hall and The Durham Performing Arts Center, the largest facility of its kind in the Carolinas. Nor is the Piedmont lifestyle exclusively a black-tie affair: film festivals and farmer’s markets are weekly events in the Piedmont, a region that has also gained notoriety for its plethora of micro-breweries and brewpubs. And Piedmont residents like to get their hands dirty, too: a drive through just about any local neighborhood on a spring or summer day reveals well-tended azalea bushes and flowering dogwood trees around private homes in an area of renowned botanical gardens and florid public parks.
The Piedmont lifestyle is also filled with annual events, from the Mayberry Farm Fest and Tractor Parade in Mount Airy and the National Folk Festival in Greensboro to the Renaissance Fair in Fayetteville and the Annual Barbecue Festival in Lexington.
The southern Piedmont includes the Sandhills region and the Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen area, with its world-class golf resorts and country-club residential communities. The area also hosts a year-round calendar of cultural activities and family-friendly events.
The South Carolina Midlands
Between the coast and the foothills lies the Midlands region of South Carolina. The area’s hub is Columbia, the state’s capital city and home of the main campus of the University of South Carolina, as well as a number of smaller colleges. And because South Carolina provides a tuition exemption for residents 60 years of age and older to attend classes at any state college or university, continuing education is a noteworthy component of the Midlands lifestyle.
Cultural activities and events are also significant in the Midlands lifestyle, from musical concerts and shows at the Koger Center and exhibitions at the Columbia Museum of Art, to a lively variety of annual celebrations like the Okra Strut in Irmo and the Peach Festival in Gilbert. Local events also include a number of military-themed tributes because the Midlands area is home to Fort Jackson, the U.S. Army’s largest training post, and Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter.
The temperate climate in the Midlands encourages outdoor-lifestyle recreations like golf and tennis, plus trail hiking in the Congaree National Park and the Sumter National Forest. But water sports are by far the local lifestyle recreation of choice: countless streams and rivers provide a variety of canoe and kayak trip opportunities and the area includes some of the South’s best freshwater lakes. On any given day and nearly every weekend, the Midlands lifestyle revolves around water skiing, jet skiing, sailing and power boat races. And the freshwater fishing is literally world-class, especially in Lakes Marion and Moultrie, from which a number of record catches have been landed.
The equestrian-oriented lifestyle is also a Midlands feature. Camden hosts two major annual steeplechase horse races—the Carolina and Colonial Cups—as well as polo matches and other events. The Midlands’ other equestrian center is the Aiken area, which is home to a number of horse farms and hosts its own impressive calendar of events.
The North Carolina Coast
The North Carolina coast is probably best-known for the Outer Banks, a 200-mile-long series of barrier islands at the edge of the continent. Accessible from the north by car and from the south by ferry, the Outer Banks beaches are among the nation’s most pristine and the off-shore fishing in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream are an exciting lifestyle attraction for many residents.
Less well-known, but increasingly popular for retirees, is the “Inner Banks” region along the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, as well as rivers like the Roanoke and Chowan that flow into them. Along the Neuse River, still part of the Inner Banks, you’ll find Oriental, a waterfront community known as the “Sailing Capital of North Carolina.” The waterfront lifestyle in this region includes fishing, sailing, boating, kayaking, parasailing and every other water sport imaginable. Fresh-catch seafood is available year-round, and local farmers produce an abundance of vegetables for the dinner table.
In the region’s wildlife refuges and nature preserves, there are numerous hiking and biking trails to enhance the outdoor lifestyle. But for those who like more sedate pursuits, the area’s many historic small towns have earned a reputation with antique enthusiasts and collectors as prime destinations. Several festivals devoted to local arts and crafts are annual events that highlight the coastal lifestyle. In addition, more than 20 community colleges in the area offer continuing education programs for retirees and other new residents who still have a love of learning.
The Southern coastal region includes the thriving port city of Wilmington, a diverse community that hosts annual flower festivals and music events, as well as the largest film and television production studios in the Southeast. The revitalized riverfront district in downtown Wilmington offers a variety of specialty shops and casual restaurants, while the region’s sunny spring-to-fall weather encourages a local lifestyle with day trips to nearby Wrightsville Beach or Carolina Beach.
Brunswick County, the southernmost area on the North Carolina coast, is often considered to be part of the Carolina Grand Strand that stretches across the South Carolina border along 60 miles of coastline. With more than 100 golf courses available for public play and a growing number of golf-centered residential communities, the links lifestyle is an attractive part of the area’s appeal.
Life in the Lowcountry
“I’m definitely a city girl gone country now,” says Bonnie Fell. Neil Fell’s mother was from the South Carolina Lowcountry, and he introduced his wife, Bonnie, to the region during summer vacations on Fripp Island. While raising their family in the Chicago area, Neil was a store owner and Bonnie worked in child advocacy programs until they decided to retire last year to Pinckney Retreat, a waterfront community on the site of an antebellum plantation located near the town of Beaufort.
“This is such a different lifestyle for us,” Bonnie says, “because we’re outside all of the time. The pace of life is slower and there’s time to relax and appreciate the amazing beauty around here. Our favorite activity is ‘dock talk.’ We come out on the dock and just talk and watch the birds—we saw a bald eagle yesterday!—and at night we look at the stars because it’s so dark you can see them all. Tonight, we’re going with a group to watch the space station pass over. You can’t see that in Chicago!”
“And the food is fabulous! We catch our own shrimp and crab, bring them home and clean and cook them. We’re right here on Battery Creek and the view changes every hour, every day. You feel like you’re part of the cycle of life.”
The Fells have also discovered the area’s cultural richness: they’ve attended a film festival, history lectures and a writer’s conference at the nearby University of South Carolina-Beaufort campus. Bonnie has also taken a felting class, watched local artists at work and is looking forward to studying to become a “master naturalist.”
“There’s no other place in the whole world I’d rather be,” she says.
Life in the Sandhills
McLendon Hills is a premier lakefront community located just up the road from the Pinehurst area. Among its featured amenities is a full-service, state-of-the-art equestrian facility that includes more than eight miles of bridle trails. Peter and Marilyn Dotto moved to McLendon Hills from the San Diego area, where he had been a military contractor after his active-duty service as a Marine.
“We looked all over the country for the right place to retire,” Peter says, “before deciding on this area and McLendon Hills. We wanted a place that was south of the ‘snow line,‘ that was tax-friendly, had good medical facilities and was away from the big city, but not exactly rural. And that’s what we found here, [along with] great neighbors who have become great friends.”
In an area renowned for its golf courses, neither of the Dottos are golfers, but they’ve found plenty to keep them busy in their Carolina lifestyle. Marilyn is very active in the “Sophisticated Ladies,” a local senior dance group that performs at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well as events in nearby towns.
She’s also a member of the community “Lunch Bunch” group and the garden club. Peter has served on a couple of local boards and is active with several military organizations that raise money and provide assistance for veterans. He also teaches a class at the Campbell University extension located at nearby Fort Bragg. Both enjoy kayaking and boating on the McLendon Hills community lake, as well as a variety of social events.
“Whoever said retirement had to be boring?!” Marilyn chuckles.
Life on the Sound
“Moving to Albemarle Plantation gave me the opportunity to learn how to sail and kayak. Most of my activities revolve around our community’s Osprey Yacht Club,” says Nancy Whelan, a retired school administrator. “There are three other clubs in the area, and we have two regattas every June and two in September. And our kayak group takes a couple of trips out a month… I’m happiest when I’m on the water.”
Albemarle Plantation, a waterfront community located near the town of Hertford, NC, is owned and managed by its property owner’s association. Amenities include a Dan Maples-designed golf course and full-service marina on the Albemarle Sound.
While her water sports activities keep her busy, Whelan noted that the community lifestyle includes men’s and women’s golf groups, bridge clubs, a bocce ball league and more. “It’s a very social lifestyle here,” she says. “People are exceptionally friendly and well-educated. They leave behind their high-pressure careers and relax and enjoy life. We have a lot of dinner parties—there are some really good cooks here!—as well as neighborhood gatherings and holiday events. And, of course, social activities at the yacht club.”
“This is a really beautiful place physically,” Whelan adds. “And the people are very welcoming.” She cited as an example the fact that the golf club will be hosting a big tournament this summer, in addition to the scheduled sailing competitions. “And we’ll put the golfers up in our homes when they’re here, just like we do the visiting sailors,” she says. “It’s just that kind of place.”
By JG Walker Previously published in the 2015 Spring Issue.