Travel Plans: 5 Must-See NC Festivals

The mountains are calling, and I must go: So said American naturalist John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club.

Maybe your preference is heading to the coast instead, or somewhere in between. Whatever your favorite destination, North Carolina has it.

As you hit the road for spring and summer adventures, here are five must-see festivals across our beloved state — stop by as you’re passing through, or make them the go-to reason for your trek!

Easels in the Gardens, Edenton  

Recognized by as one of America’s Prettiest Towns, historic Edenton is home to this biannual event benefiting the 1758 Cupola House, a National Historic Landmark.

“Tours of fine gardens lush with beautiful spring blooms will be offered, while noteworthy artists paint interpretations of these horticultural gems en plein air,” said Nancy Nicholls, Chowan County Tourism Development Authority director.  

Celebrate at the Garden Party, offering fabulous food and an art auction, enjoy strolling musicians, learn from workshops such as Floral Design, Gardening, and Outdoor Entertaining, and let the kids take up a brush at the children’s plein air painting corner.

The Cupola House has stood watch from the north shore of Edenton Bay since 1758, and has been dubbed the most studied building in our state for its unusual architectural features, original furnishings including a 1750 London clock, and its Colonial Revival Gardens.

Easels in the Gardens also features tours of private gardens, and the family-friendly Boogie on Broad street dance, this year featuring The Band of Oz.

Nicholls also notes another Chowan County gem: Its longest-running event is the Pilgrimage Tour of Homes & Countryside, begun in 1949 and next set for April 2017, offering tours of private homes at least 100 years old, hosted by docents in period costume.

More area fun: Derby Day, May 7,; Edenton Music & Water Festival, June 3-4,; Heritage Farm Fest, June 4,

North Carolina Azalea Festival, Wilmington

The charm and pageantry of this week-long celebration draw people from near and far, to take part in more than 50 events ranging from concerts and art shows to visiting ships, a street fair and the arrival of Queen Azalea to the annual garden party. It’s been named a Top 20 Event in the Southeast by the Southeast Tourism Society.

“The North Carolina Azalea Festival is Wilmington’s longest-running festival, now in its 69th year,” said Connie Nelson of the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Several factors contribute to its longevity, not the least of which is the commitment by festival officers, staff and volunteers.

Photos courtesy Wilmington and Beaches CVB.

“The festival continues time-honored traditions such as the garden party, Saturday parade, two-day street fair along Wilmington’s award-winning riverfront, and associated events such as the Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Garden Tour and the Historic Wilmington Foundation’s Azalea Home Tour.”

Headlining this year’s festival are acclaimed Carolina quartet The Avett Brothers on April 7, and country singer Chase Rice on April 9. Featured artist for the 2016 fest is watercolorist Mary Ellen Golden of Wilmington.

More area fun: 2016 Carolina Cup stand-up paddling competition, April 19-24,; Coastal Carolina Trainfest, April 23-24,; Carolina Beach Music Festival, June 4,

Carthage Buggy Festival, Carthage

Once upon a time, carriages were essential to life in rural North Carolina, and the “Cadillac of carriages” was made in Carthage at the Tyson and Jones Buggy Company, the largest factory in Moore County until the advent of the auto.

The town’s annual festival celebrates this heritage; over the years locals have sought out and acquired more and more T&J buggies to view and to ride — and kids always ride free.

Along with buggy rides, the day includes vintage tractor and classic car shows, children’s activities, arts and antiques, live bands, and more than 125 food and craft vendors.  

Photos courtesy of Carthage Buggy Festival Committee.

This year’s fest, the 28th annual, promises to be the best yet, says Karen O’Hara with the Town of Carthage, with entertainment from the Union Pines High School Band, Martin Luther King Children’s Choir, and more.

“To truly appreciate what the Buggy Festival means to the community and to visitors, it has to be seen firsthand,” she said. “Only then can you see the historic buggies, classic cars and exquisite arts, crafts and antiques, hear the sounds of bands playing, smell the aromas from the food vendors, and experience the joy and pride of an entire community celebrating its heritage.”

The crowning of Ms. and Mr. Buggy Festival takes place too, thanks to nominations by students at Carthage Elementary School on why their favorite adult should win.

And in true community spirit, the all-volunteer Buggy Festival Committee saves only enough proceeds from the festivities to launch the next year’s fest. The rest of the monies go — where else? — back into the community.

By the way, Carthage is just eight miles from Pinehurst, host to world-class golf courses and site of the 2014 U.S. Open.  

More area fun: Stoneybrook Steeplechase, April 9,; Spring Antiques Street Fair, May 7,; Revolutionary War re-enactment, Aug. 6-7,

Brevard Summer Music Festival, Brevard

Name a genre, and this festival has it: Each summer more than 400 gifted students study at the Brevard Music Center under renowned faculty and guest artists to present more than 80 concerts across multiple genres, for your under-the-stars listening pleasure.

This year marking its 80th anniversary season, the festival offers firsts including the operatic world premiere of Falling Angel, the inaugural Jazz Institute, and the Dvořák in America Festival, plus artists like Grammy-winning banjoist Béla Fleck and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, performing Gershwin.

Artistic Director Keith Lockhart leads the Brevard Music Center Orchestra in the 2015 season finale. Photos courtesy of Brevard Music Center.

“This year more than any other, we celebrate the thousands of BMC alumni — talented young men and women who have taken the stage here and around the world to raise classical music to new heights,” said Brevard Music Center President and CEO Mark Weinstein.

“Bring a friend and enjoy a spectacular season of symphony, opera, pops, chamber and jazz. On the lawn, under the stars, or in an intimate hall, this is the place to witness performances as captivating as the view.”

Another highlight of this year’s fest is the return of celebrated Brevard alumni including conductor Robert Moody and composer Mason Bates, who will perform Bates’ Rusty Air in Carolina, a piece inspired by his time at Brevard Music Center.

Left: A performance of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte; photo by John Allen.

Right: Banjo stars Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck.

Best of all, nearly half of the festival’s concerts are free and open to the public, and picnics are welcome on the lawn.

More area fun: White Squirrel Festival, May 27-29,; Evening at Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, second Fridays,

2016 Waldensian Festival, Valdese

Traced to the days of the Biblical apostles, the Waldensians suffered years of religious persecution and exile in Switzerland. This unique festival celebrates their “Glorious Return” to their native Northern Italy, following a remarkable mountain battle.

The first group of settlers to Burke County arrived in 1893, where locals continue to craft the wines of their heritage and have recreated the buildings of the Waldensian Valleys in Italy.  
“From the traditional Waldensian Meal to the British Car Show at the Old Rock School, the whole town is open to celebrate,” said Morrissa Angi, community affairs director for the Town of Valdese.

Photos courtesy Town of Valdese.

“The Waldensian Festival is an event to bring back friends of the past and at the same time make first time visitors, repeat visitors.”

The festival features tours of the Waldensian Heritage Museum, Trail of Faith and the winery, built in 1930, where an all-volunteer staff still employs manual methods of wine production.

The festival’s bocce tournament, aka lawn bowling, is in keeping with Valdese tradition, and the day includes the Great Waldensian Footrace, an open air art competition, live music, and more than 170 food and craft vendors.     

From This Day Forward, an outdoor drama written by Burke County native Fred Cranford, performed mid-July through mid-August each year, depicts the tale of the Waldenses.    

More area fun: Red White & Bluegrass Festival, July 1-3,; Piedmont & Western Railroad Museum Open House, Aug. 13,

More Festival Fun

Fire on the Mountain Blacksmith Festival, Spruce Pine
April 23

MerleFest, Wilkesboro
April 28-May 1

Hang Gliding Spectacular, Nags Head
May 13-16

Plott Fest, Maggie Valley
June 18-19
Celebrating the official state dog, the plott hound!

N.C. Black Bear Festival, Plymouth
June 3-5

Sneads Ferry Shrimp Festival, Sneads Ferry
Aug. 13-14

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