Day 2: Sample gourmet shopping and down-home cooking
The 12-mile route on US 15 takes you north past the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus. Turn right at North Estes Drive, and continue two miles to A Southern Season (919-929-7133). With 59,000 square feet of retail space featuring nearly every gourmet food imaginable, kitchen accoutrements, tableware, and hundreds of products from North Carolina, including 46 different kinds of barbecue sauce, your holiday shopping and shipping can all be taken care of in one visit.
With your appetite piqued, travel six miles via rural NC 86 to Allen and Sons Barbecue (919-942-7576). Once seated in the quaint seafoam-green dining room, you'll be among locals who come for the tender Eastern-style chopped pork barbecue, hush puppies, and warm sweet potato pie that may force you to reconsider pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dessert.
Another 52 miles west, Guilford Courthouse National Military Park (336-288-1776) commemorates the battle in 1781 that helped expel the British army from the South and, soon after, the country.
Where to stay: The Proximity Hotel in Greensboro (from $229; 336-379-8200) is working to become the first certified Platinum-Level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) hotel in the United States. Green design elements include solar-heated water and an elevator that captures and reuses its own energy.
The adjacent Print Works Bistro (336-379-0699) has plenty of fine options that offer a break from barbecue, like steak frites or chicken paillards with preserved lemon and red cabbage. After dinner, ask for one of the hotel's complimentary bikes and enjoy an evening ride.
Day 3: Walk through time and paddle through rapids
Rise early and head 27 miles west on I-40 to the historic Old Salem Museums and Gardens (336-721-7300) in time for breakfast. Stroll down Main Street past blocks of handsomely restored 18th- and 19th-century Moravian immigrant dwellings. The aroma of warm cinnamon-laced sugar cakes baking in a 200-year-old brick oven will lead you to Winkler's Bakery for pastries, coffee, and a souvenir tin of Moravian ginger cookies.
From here, take NC 8 south 21 miles to Lexington, the unofficial barbecue capital of North Carolina. Every year the tiny town draws more than 150,000 visitors on the fourth Saturday of October for a festival that celebrates Lexington's barbecue prowess. Other days of the year, a stop at the quaint drive-in diner called the Barbecue Center (336-248-4633) will give you a good idea of why the town is famous. Here, Eastern North Carolina–style barbecue gives way to Western―pork shoulder served with a thin ketchup-based sauce and tomato-tinged coleslaw. When you order, be sure to ask for a bit of "outside brown," the crisp outer parts of the pork shoulder.
Finish your trip with heart-pounding outdoor fun at the U.S. National Whitewater Center (704-391-3900), 67 miles south just off of I-85. Raft the world's largest man-made whitewater river, or kayak on the calm Catawba River. If splash sports aren't your thing, the facility also offers a rock-climbing structure, mountain bike rentals, and eco-caching, a high-tech adventure that uses handheld GPS receivers to guide visitors on treasure hunts through the center's 307-acre wilderness.
Where to stay: Rest and relaxation wait 20 miles south on the I-485 loop at the Ballantyne Resort (from $229; 704-248-4000), where a spa and daily yoga classes will help you end your tour rejuvenated.