A new year brings new destination planning, and we're shining the spotlight on Southeast getaways that may be off your radar. Each destination has something unique to offer. From historical Virginia and dreamy Carolina Islands to beachy Florida and tiny towns in our backyard. Whether you're a foodie looking for a quintessential Southern-inspired experience, a music aficionado looking to delve into legacy, or breathe in majestic mountain air or looking for an escape to a sandy beach and big surf. Here are 9 favorite destinations of the Cape Fear Living team...
1. Macon, Georgia
Tagged as the destination "Where Soul Lives," historic Macon is making a name for itself. Macon has been featured on practically every travel list for 2023: Frommer's "Best Places to Go in 2023," Conde Nast's "23 Best Places to Go in the US in 2023," and the New York Times, "52 Places to Go in 2023." An hour's drive from Atlanta, Macon is steeped in a rich music legacy, with greats like Little Richard and Otis Redding calling Macon their childhood home. James Brown recorded his first single in the town, and in the 70s, Capricorn Records introduced the Allman Brothers Band, Wet Willie, and the Marshall Tucker Band. The Music Trail explores Macon's impact on American popular music. If you visit Macon in March and April, the Cherry Blossom Festival will swing, with more than 350,000 cherry blossoms in bloom. Macon will be celebrating its bicentennial (200 years) in 2023, and many events and celebrations are planned.
2. New Smyrna Beach, Florida
An hour Northeast of Orlando, New Smyrna Beach is one of the lesser-known Florida gems. It's an eclectic mix of old and new and subtle sophistication with a bohemian soul. It occupies a notable place in history as the second oldest city in Florida. The destination's 17 miles of hard-packed seashore and abundant biodiversity welcome seafood lovers, surfers, sunbathers, and outdoor enthusiasts. The area features flourishing local eateries, breweries, historic districts, arts communities, and eclectic shops. The New Smyrna Beach area includes Port Orange, Osteen, Edgewater, Oak Hill, and New Smyrna Beach. The city's barrier island is recognized worldwide for its incredible surf, with Surfer magazine naming it one of the "Best Surf Towns in America" and National Geographic magazine including it in its "World's Top 20 Surf Towns."
3. Edenton, North Carolina
The inner banks are quickly becoming a sought-after destination for people wanting to avoid the crowds of the outer banks of North Carolina. Loaded with Southern charm and just 2 hours from Raleigh, Edenton has been named the prettiest small town in the USA. A peaceful retreat set on Albemarle Sound, the 300-year-old town is the perfect romantic getaway. Stroll the streets or take a trolley tour to see the beautifully preserved architecture of the state's first colonial capital. If you're looking for outdoor adventure, Chowan County is home to some of the oldest inner coastal waterways in the country. The Albemarle Sound offers marinas, fishing, canoe trails, sailing tours, and just about anything else water related.
4. Daufuskie Island, South Carolina
Daufuskie Island is steeped in simpler times. With no bridge connecting the island to the mainland and only a few paved roads, it is the quintessential paradise island: white sand beaches, ancient oaks, Spanish moss. Historical landmarks and an eclectic arts scene keep the island's spirit alive and thriving. Elegant homes nestle against white sand beaches, championship golf courses challenge the willing, and life-long residents greet you with hospitality reserved for friends, not strangers. This fascinating combination of new and old, tradition and progress, means Daufuskie is the perfect destination to step back in time, unplug from every day, and reconnect.
5. Greenville, South Carolina
If you have yet to visit Greenville, South Carolina, make it a priority on your 2023 travel bucket list. Rivalling Charleston and Asheville as "the" foodie destination, it's no surprise that it's ranked in many of the Top 10 places lists to live & eat across the country. There are 36 cities named Greenville in the US, so understandably, the urban utopia that Greenville, South Carolina, has become uses the hashtag #yeahthatgreenville to differentiate itself. There are 200+ restaurants to explore, and don't miss Greenville's food festivals — euphoria and Bank of America Fall for Greenville — where tens of thousands gather over local cuisine. For a culinary itinerary, read our feature here.
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6. Chincoteague, Virginia
Chincoteague, also known as Chincoteague Island, is a charming, serene coastal town famous for its wild ponies. Chincoteague Island, at the northeastern tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore, is part of Accomack County. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is the main attraction, where you can spot birds, waterfowl, and the island's horses. The island's most famous attraction is the annual Chincoteague Island Pony Swim, which takes place in July. Thousands of people wait for hours to watch the horses make a six-minute swim across the narrow channel separating the two islands. The weeklong pony penning is accompanied by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company Carnival, a classic, old-fashioned festival with rides, games, raffles, and great food. Spring & Fall are great times to explore the island if you want to avoid the crowds. Don't miss out feasting on the island's "Patriot Oysters," named when Abe Lincoln sent a Union ship to protect the island's seafood trade.
7. LaGrange, Georgia
A small town with an extensive history, LaGrange is a hidden gem in Southwest Georgia. Learn about the storied past of the incredible Hills & Dales Estate, meander through antique shops and boutiques, enjoy local art, eat at longstanding beloved restaurants and try Wild Leap's popular beers in their hometown. Home to trails, West Point Lake, and Georgia's only Great Wolf Lodge, LaGrange is perfect for adventurers of all ages.
8. Bryson City, North Carolina
Home to the North Carolina entrance of Great Smoky Mtns Natl Park, Bryson City is a little-known gem on the Nantahala River, located one hour west of Asheville, NC. With a population of around 1,700, the little downtown has been rejuvenated with local bookstores, art galleries with working artisans, a museum, a bike shop, two fly fishing shops, two craft breweries, and a slew of eateries. The majestic mountain landscapes offer plenty of fresh-air adventures, from scenic hiking trails to the pristine waters of Fontana Lake and the thrill of whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River. There are also spectacular train excursions, with many visitors experiencing the magical Polar Express train ride (November-December), based on the popular book and movie of the same name.
9. Bardstown, Kentucky
Where all Bourbon dreams are made. Bardstown is the ultimate getaway for Bourbon lovers in the heart of the Bluegrass State. At the official start of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Bardstown is home to 11 distilleries, including Jim Beam and Makers Mark, all within 16 miles of the beautifully preserved downtown. Established in 1780, it is one of Kentucky's oldest towns. It's a slice of authentic Americana. The six-day Kentucky Bourbon Festival in September is the leading annual event filled with bourbon, food, and entertainment.