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Summer entertaining around the Carolinas
From backyard barbecues to pool parties, camping, movies outdoors and fine dining outside — the opportunities are many

by Thomas Townsend
Summer in the South is just around the corner. There’s a microscopic window right now — where you can have fun outdoors before it gets too hot and the mosquitoes send you running for cover. After months spent inside defending against the cold weather, the sun’s out, the sky’s blue, the trees are full and green and flowers are blooming like mad. It’s time to get out and enjoy the scenery.

Here are a few tips on how to entertain your family and friends while taking advantage of recreation under the sky.

Backyard barbecues
Older Carolina natives generally tend to refer to backyard barbecues as “cooking out,” reserving the word barbecue as a designation that refers to a specific type of outdoor cooking. Non-Southerners use the word barbecue as a catch-all phrase for anything you cook outside. With the influx of people relocating to the South in droves just about everybody (under 50, anyway) has taken to calling cooking outside a “barbecue.”

Whatever you call it, backyard barbecues are great fun and a wonderful way to entertain your friends and family during the warmer months.

If you’re one of the the lucky ones with an outdoor kitchen that includes a built-in gas grill and sink — you’re set. If not, outdoor gas grills are available at department and hardware stores, ranging in price from as low as $30 to as high as $1,200.

Some outdoor cooking purists, however, prefer to use charcoal to cook with. If you’re one of those — charcoal grills come cheap ($18), as does a bag of charcoal ($6). You will have to buy another bag every time you cook, of course.

When outdoor cooking first became all the rage back in the 1950s, people pretty much stuck to hot dogs, hamburgers and the occasional steak.

These days, the door’s wide open as happy grillers are cooking up fish, chicken, pork and roasting all sorts of veggies to their hearts’ content.

If you want to turn an ordinary evening of cooking out into a backyard barbecue party, spruce things up a bit by adding a water feature to your yard with surrounding lounge area, pipe in some music, light up the chimney or fire pit and maybe even add a few colorful accent lights for nighttime. Call up your friends and invite them over — the more the merrier!

Evening cocktails on the patio or porch
If you’re not up to cooking but you’d still like to have friends over consider a cocktail mixer. Add to the summertime fun by moving it outdoors to your front porch or to the patio in your backyard. If you’re a condo or apartment dweller, balconies offer the same “under the sky” fun.

Set up a bar outside, complete with ice bucket, glasses, your favorite alcohols and mixers, add a few candles and some soft music and you’re good to go.

Pool parties
Pool parties are mostly daytime fun, because partygoers like to soak in as much sun as possible. However, some successful ones can stretch into the wee hours of the morning, allowing both the pool and the partiers to cool off after the sun goes down.

If you’re lucky enough to have a pool in your own backyard, invite your favorite people, be sure to have plenty of sunscreen and tanning creams on hand (so the guest can make the decision to tan or not to tan) along with snacks, beverages and that ever-important background element, music.

If you live in a complex with a pool most of the same rules apply, just make sure your guests know they’ll be sharing the environment with people they don’t know and check with management about music.

Picnic at the park
Whether you have a backyard or not, a picnic in the park can always be loads of fun. Choose a select group of friends and scout out the park of your choice. If you want to reserve a portion of the park or a particular shelter, be sure to contact your local Park and Recreations Department of your city or county government. There are two ways to handle the food issue: have each guest bring a specified covered dish, or have each guest bring a grillable dish and either take advantage of park grills or bring your own. Check with park authorities to determine if cooking over an open flame is allowed and if alcoholic beverages are permitted.

Weekend at the beach
In both North and South Carolina we have the luxury of being in relatively close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, so a quick jaunt to the beach with friends in tow requires only wheels and a hotel reservation. Wilmington, Myrtle Beach and Charleston all boast sizable gay populations and offer gay-owned and operated B&Bs, clubs and restaurants. For more details on Carolina coastal towns, visit the convention and vistors bureau websites for the towns listed above.

Weekend in the mountains
The Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina offers some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. There’s plenty of camping opportunities around and several B&Bs in the many mountain towns to be found along the way — Boone, Blowing Rock and Cherokee, to name a few.

On the North Carolina part of the Blue Ridge you’ll find many highlights:
• Mile 217.5 — Cumberland Knob, at 2,885 feet, is a delightful spot to walk through fields and woodlands.

• Mile 238.5 — Brinegar Cabin was built by Martin Brinegar in about 1880 and lived in until the 1930s when the homestead was purchased from his widow for the Parkway. The original cabin stands there today.

• Mile 238.5 to 244.7 — Doughton Park was named for Congressman Robert L. Doughton, a staunch supporter and neighbor of the Parkway. One of the best places to see deer. Includes a campground.

• Mile 258.6 — Northwest Trading Post offers crafts from North Carolina’s northwestern counties.

• Mile 264.4 — The Lump provides sweeping views of the forested foothills.

• Mile 308.3 — Flat Rock is worth the walk for the superb view of Grandfather Mountain and Linville Valley.

• Mile 316.3 — Linville Falls roars through a dramatic rugged gorge. Trails to overlooks.

• Mile 355.4 — Mount Mitchell State Park, reached via N.C. 128, has a picnic area, lookout tower, and the highest point east of the Mississippi River.

• Mile 382 — The Folk Art Center is the flagship facility of the Southern Highand Craft Guild. It offers sales and exhibits of traditional and contemporary crafts of the Appalachian region. Interpretive programs, three galleries, a library and a book store.

• Mile 408.6 — Mount Pisgah was part of the Biltmore Estate. The estate became home of the first forestry school in America and the nucleus of the Pisgah National Forest.

• Mile 422.4 — Devil’s Courthouse is a rugged exposed mountaintop rich in Cherokee traditions. A walk to the bare rock summit yields a spectacular view of Pisgah National Forest.

Outdoor movies, theater and music
There aren’t too many drive-in movie theaters left these days, but in many towns and cities around the country, civic and local arts groups often stage screenings of films in the evenings, outdoors, generally in a park or on the grounds of a museum. They’re great fun for groups and even more entertaining when you pack a picnic basket full of your favorite eats and beverages.

In Raleigh, starting June 23, The N.C. Museum of Art will host “Summer Outdoor Movies at the NC Museum of Art.” In Charlotte, the suburb of Kannapolis is hosting “Movies in the Park” every other Friday through Aug. 17 at the Village Park amphitheater. Other arts-related outdoor events for summer entertaining include outdoor theatrical presentations and live music concerts.

Check with your local convention and visitor’s bureau for details about outdoor movie screenings and theatrical presentations in your area. You may also visit www.ncarts.org and www.southcarolinaarts.com. For live music concerts, visit www.pollstar.com.

Outdoor dining
Dining out, hands down, is the easiest way to entertain your friends. You don’t have to do anything at all. Just pick the restaurant and make sure everybody shows up. In the spring, summer and fall outdoor dining is at a premium. There’s nothing more relaxing and enjoyable than sipping cocktails under the sky surrounded by friends, followed by a delicious meal. In Charlotte, try restaurants like Hotel Charlotte or Pewter Rose. In Columbia, go for Dianne’s on Devine. In Raleigh, sample the sumptuous La Résidence. Charleston boasts 39 Rue de Jean and Asheville features the upscale Cafe on the Square.

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