Like in most small towns in North Carolina, you can easily while away a day in Smithfield, a little town on a big river. But there's one real reason that draws visitor here. She was a knockout.
From Charlotte, Smithfield is about 199 miles (just shy of 3 1/2 hours), one-way, via I-85 North and I-40 East.
To see and do
On most days, you'll find at least a few couples strolling downtown Smithfield. There are obvious attractions in this old town perched on the Neuse River that can lure the casual tourist.
The compact downtown has several unique shops. There's the Johnston County Heritage Center on the main drag, Market Street. Smithfield's heritage includes a serious bid to be the state capital, losing to nearby Raleigh. There's a pleasant river walk along Front Street.
Nothing really special. Want to grab a bite? The diner on Main Street is named The Diner.
No, the main reason Smithfield draws a steady stream of tourists is the Ava Gardner Museum. Yep, that Ava.
The movie legend was born a few miles outside of town, but soon moved to the city after the family's cotton gin burned to the ground. While visiting her sister in New York City in 1939, Ava's photographer brother-in-law took a series of photos of the teenager and displayed one in the window of his studio. The photos found their way to the MGM studios. A year later, the small-town girl signed a seven-year contract with the studio for $50 a week.
The museum houses a number of personal items from the movie star's life (1922-1990). There's a short video biography. There are movie posters and portraits of the beauty. Other displays trace her three marriages, to actor Mickey Rooney, bandleader Artie Shaw and singer/actor Frank Sinatra. She called Sinatra the love of her life, and never remarried after the six-year relationship ended in divorce.
Set aside 60 to 90 minutes to tour the museum. The memories and memorabilia are worth the tank of gas.