Gaston County – just across the Catawba River from Charlotte – is a gateway to outdoor fun, good food and stimulating ways to learn about the region's past.
Start with a drive through quaint small towns like Belmont, Mount Holly, Cramerton and McAdenville.
Then get out and explore. You may be surprised at what you find.
In Cramerton, for example, Floyd & Blackie's Coffee & Ice Cream offers outdoor seating by the South Fork River, and rentals are available there from Floating Goat Canoe and Kayak.
The Floating Goat name comes from the town's new public park on Goat Island, right across the South Fork River from the coffee shop. The 30-acre island has playground equipment, picnic shelters, an observation deck, canoe and kayak launches, trails and 18-hole disc golf course.
The river – once considered among North Carolina's most polluted – has rebounded. Other public connections with the river are available at the South Fork Park near Gastonia and the 2-mile South Fork Trail between McAdenville and Lowell. This natural trail follows the river banks and is reachable off Interstate 85 in McAdenville.
If you're interested in textile industry, Gaston is the place to visit. The county was once the center of the U.S. textile business. There's a good textiles overview at the Gaston County Museum of Art & History in Dallas, the former county seat. “The Ties That Bind” is a permanent exhibit that includes video interviews and rare artifacts like Thomas Edison's original generator used at McAdenville Mill.
The Belmont Historical Society Cultural and Heritage Learning Center offers insights into the town mill villages and even has a restored mill house on site. And the museum is within easy walking distance of downtown Belmont. There, you can shop for antiques, grab a sandwich at Sammy's Deli & Neighborhood Pub on South Main Street and let the kids play in Stowe Park across the street.
While in Gaston, you'll want to sample some of the signature local fare.
In recent years, Gaston's traditional fish camp restaurants have thinned out, but a few, like Twin Tops on South New Hope Road, are still around. The famous Lineberger's Fish Camp that closed in 1998 has reopened on Union Road with the candy shop that used to have customers standing in line.
Lineberger's originally opened in the late 1940s, a few years after RO's Barbecue, another Gastonia landmark, opened for business. RO's is still going strong, and so is Tony's Ice Cream, a legendary eatery with fans like Nashville country music singer/songwriter Jimmy Wayne, who has local ties. And for world-class fried chicken, try The Shrimp Boat in Gastonia.
One of my recent discoveries was the CDA Store. The sign gave no clue as to what was inside. As I later learned, this popular sandwich shop has been around for 65 years. The name comes from the initials of Gastonia's former Clara, Dunn and Armstrong cotton mills. The shop serves everything from bologna and liver mush to country ham and boiled ham – all on a toasted hamburger bun.
It's not all fried fish and liver mush in G-town. You can dine on organic fare at Sprouts Café, Gulf seafood at Sharkey's Place and Mediterranean-American cuisine at Rodi's in the Historic Ashley District.
Before or after a meal, take a walk along the Avon/Catawba Creek Greenway – one of the city's greatest resources. The paved trail off Garrison Boulevard skirts neighborhoods and goes under several major roads, but outside noise isn't a problem. It's one of my favorite Gaston getaways – convenient, refreshing and free.
Quality time on the greenway is a great introduction to an area with much to offer.
Joe covers Gaston, Lincoln, Catawba and other areas for the Observer.
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