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Turning over a New Leaf in Winston-Salem

It’s official. Winston-Salem has kicked the habit. Not so much literally; but figuratively speaking, this North Carolina city, once known as the center for the tobacco and cigarette industries, has officially turned the page. Look no further than the sleek Kimpton Cardinal Hotel, which recently opened in the architecturally acclaimed R.J. Reynolds headquarters building, as the most recent manifestation of what’s taking place here.

Based on the trip I took to Winston-Salem in March, I’d say the this city’s new vibe is being created by the growth of a vibrant craft-brewing scene, a burgeoning arts district coming online downtown, an urban sophistication fed by highly regarded Wake Forest University and homegrown music emanating from generations of Appalachian musisc traditions.

“I hear it all the time — from both locals and visitors. Everyone is coming back downtown,” said Marcheta Cole Keefer, director of marketing and communications for the Winston-Salem Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This city has become so walkable. There is a historic Southern feel here that people are reacting to. We’re not weird, we’re not even groovy, but we have definitely become fun and funky.”

A Brewing Boom

Foothills Brewing Company heads a cast of craft brewers, and visitors to Winston-Salem are making a point of tasting their beers. Keefer cites Small Batch and Hoot’s Roller Bar and Beer Company as two others that have definitely found a following with locals and their guests. In fact, all of western North Carolina, from the Smoky Mountains across to Winston-Salem and neighboring cities, is becoming a national leader in the craft-brewing movement.

Craft brewing as an industry has a certain laissez-faire charm that makes competing breweries more like drinking buddies than rivals, it seems.

“I call it ‘co-opitition,’” said Eric Peck, chief tapnician for Foothills Brewing Company, during a tour of the facility. “We work with our competitors in craft brewing.

“Here at Foothills, we specialize in high ABV [alcohol by volume] beers that taste smooth. We’re regional — we’re in five states now and are expanding. IPAs are where the industry is going — and adding fruits like grapefruit.

“North Carolina is becoming a leader in malts,” Peck said. “Europe is the king of malts. I’ll tell you something else about us — farming and craft brewing are compatible and feed off each other. That’s why locally grown crops and foods work well with local brewers.”

Speaking of local restaurants, our group enjoyed a great one for breakfast — Mary’s Gourmet Diner, in the city’s growing arts district. We were treated to homemade French toast, sausage and biscuits and other Southern delicacies in this artsy eatery.

“Mary and her two daughters moved downtown from their former location to be in the arts district,” said Keefer. “Her current building was the former bank where farmers came in and dropped off their tobacco and deposited their money. I recommend her Texas Pete pimento cheese sandwich for lunch.”

The shiny new Kimpton Cardinal is definitely an option for overnight stays. Opened a few months ago, its retro factor is off the charts. For instance, guests can bowl in an updated basement bowling alley and game room originally created by the R.J. Reynolds Company. The building itself was the architectural forerunner to the Empire State Building. The same architect built this one first and its famous sibling later.

“The Cardinal is sophisticated but cool,” said Keefer. “Their restaurant, The Katharine, has two personalities — the bar is all about mixology and hip new creations. The restaurant itself is more traditional and is a very popular now for lunch. It takes its name from Katharine Reynolds, one of the city’s most notable matriarchs.”

Moravian History

Not everything in Winston-Salem is new and trendy. Perhaps its most cherished visitor site is quite old and plans to stay that way. Old Salem Museum and Gardens is an internationally recognized restoration and preservation of the Moravian community that thrived there in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Moravians were and are Protestant Christians. Those who built this community emigrated originally from eastern European countries of Germanic influence, including what is now the Czech Republic. In 2016, the community celebrated the 250th anniversary of its founding in 1766.

Our group toured the church; several interpretive structures used for cooking, school and meetings; and the garden that is maintained using traditional garden methods and crops.

“President Washington visited this site in 1791,” our guide told us in the tavern. “You’re standing on a floor he stood on. Moravians were neutral in war and were caregivers. They were innovators in the use of indoor water and plumbing, were progressive in giving women leadership positions in the church and, fortunately for us, were meticulous record keepers. We have 79 original buildings here today.”

Today, this National Historic Landmark entertains 35,000 to 40,000 schoolchildren each year, holds ceremonies for about 75 new citizens each July 4, and offers a wide array of workshops and summer camps for guests of all ages.

And for culinary enthusiasts and trivia buffs, it’s worth noting that Krispy Kreme doughnuts originated in Winston-Salem and were first made in 1937 at a site in Old Salem.

Mac Lacy

Mac Lacy is president and publisher of The Group Travel Leader Inc. Mac has been traveling and writing professionally ever since a two-month backpacking trip through Europe upon his graduation with a journalism degree from the University of Evansville in 1978.