With its spectacular range of topographical and cultural diversity, North Carolina is especially well-suited for group travel. And at no time is that rich medley of diversions showcased better than during one of North Carolina’s remarkable festivals, which enable those with limited time to experience some of the state’s finest offerings in one or two memorable days.
Groups can spend a few gorgeous summer afternoons listening to the melodic, mournful sound of bagpipes drifting up one of the Blue Ridge Mountains’ loveliest peaks or sample some of the world’s best seafood while watching fireworks burst over the shoreline. They can tour North Carolina’s grandest home at the most wonderful time of the year, chow down on famous barbecue found nowhere else and even learn to fly stunt kites in the hometown of the man who created them.
No matter which of the Tarheel State’s justifiably iconic festivals groups visit, they’re sure to leave with memories of their adventures that will urge them back again and again.
Grandfather Mountain Highland Games
Groups don’t need to have ancestors who hailed from Scotland to enjoy the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, which is held near Linville, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, although a fondness for kilts and bagpipes might help.
There is plenty of both at this rollicking four-day event, now in its 64th year. The celebration of all things Scottish gets rolling with the dramatic nighttime Torchlight Ceremony, used in centuries past to summon clans to battle, and ends with a triumphant clan parade. In between, there are singing, dancing, music and athletic competitions. Many of the latter involve dramatic feats of strength, like Highland wrestling, the hammer throw and the caber (log) toss.
If group members have a hankering for bannock (skillet bread), bridies (meat pies) and the like they should purchase them upon arrival — the homemade Scottish delicacies sell out quickly. Likewise, it’s best to sign up early for classes and workshops, which are offered throughout the day in everything from fiddling to speaking Gaelic.
Rogallo Kite Festival and Revolution Competition
“Go fly a kite” takes on a whole new meaning at the Rogallo Kite Festival and Revolution Competition in Nags Head. Still going strong after nearly four decades, this three-day event can draw thousands of people thanks to its nothing-quite-like-it appeal. It was founded in honor of Outer Banks residents Francis and Gertrude Rogallo, who crafted the world’s first flexible wing kite out of their dining room curtains. Without their invention, there would be no modern-day kite flying, parasailing, hang gliding or kite sailing.
Part of the fun is the location atop stunning Jockey’s Ridge, the largest natural sand dune on the East Coast. Seeing the massive display kites, which include a 100-foot-tall octopus, fill the sun-soaked, brilliantly blue sky should return groups to a state of childlike wonder, as will watching the quad-line stunt kites soar and dip like runaway roller coasters. For group members who want to get hands-on, lessons will be available.
Christmas at Biltmore
November 1, 2019-January 5, 2020
Sometimes all that glitters really is gold, as groups will discover at the 45th annual Christmas at Biltmore in Asheville. Biltmore, built by business magnate George Vanderbilt more than a century ago, will be transformed into a Yuletide wonderland, with 60 sumptuously decorated trees, 45,000 lights and 150 candles gracing the 250-room French Renaissance chateau.
This year’s theme is The Gilded Age, and Biltmore floral manager Lizzie Borchers said the design will be “very elegant, very luxurious-feeling, with lots of gold throughout the house. We’re actually already working on Christmas now. It’s going to be spectacular.”
At the country’s largest privately owned home, gold isn’t just for decor. Groups are treated like gold, with a number of exclusive offerings available; they include guided evening tours of Biltmore House with or without a private rooftop reception, guided historic garden walks, bonfires at Antler Hill Farm, beer-pairing dinners, estate-wine tastings and more.
North Carolina Seafood Festival
According to Stephanie McIntyre, executive director of the North Carolina Seafood Festival, groups will be welcomed with open arms at the Morehead City celebration.
“We look at it like when that bus comes we are flinging open the back door to the Crystal Coast and saying, ‘Come on in!’” she said. “We’ll have 200 vendors from all over the country selling arts and crafts and food. But obviously, taking the main stage is North Carolina seafood.”
In addition to noshing on oysters, shrimp and other goodies just scooped from the sea, groups can hop aboard amusement park rides and check out entertainment on three stages. Demonstrations from local chefs, a cooking competition and even a fireworks show over the water McIntyre swears is the East Coast’s best are also part of the event. McIntyre guarantees seeing lots of “heart smiles” at the event, which was canceled last year because of damage from Hurricane Florence. “If you’re happy when you’re eating,” she said, “you’re definitely going to be grinning at this festival.”
The Barbecue Festival
Just how good is Lexington-style barbecue? Good enough that the Barbecue Festival serves exactly one kind of barbecue, and that’s Lexington-style barbecue. Some 150,000 pork-hungry people flock annually to the historic little town for a full day of fun that has grown to include pig races, BMX stunt performances, a car show and concerts by up-and-comers. Taylor Swift famously played the year before she hit it big.
The varied entertainment options make the Barbecue Festival, founded in 1984, a great choice for tour groups. But the real star is Lexington-style barbecue, according to Cecil Conrad, proprietor of the Barbecue Center, one of the event’s purveyors. “You’re gonna get pork shoulder, not the whole hog,” he said of the succulent fare. “We need the extra fat that’s in the shoulder because it cooks over hickory and oak coals anywhere from 10 hours on. It’s been done that way since the turn of the last century. That’s the traditional Lexington flavor.”