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The Coolest Southern Spot You’ve Never Heard Of

When I pulled into Shelby with a group of other travel writers and tour operators, I had no idea that our arrival was big news — until we wound up on the front page of the local paper. “Focus on Cleveland County: Travel pros visit for a taste of our area,” ran the headline in the Shelby Star the next morning, complete with full-color photos.

We may have been the news of the day, but this little town in western North Carolina made its own headlines a few years back with the opening of the Earl Scruggs Center, which features “music and stories of the Carolina Foothills” — including, of course, plenty of information on Scruggs himself, an internationally recognized banjo player and bluegrass musician who hailed from the Shelby area. (Among the exhibits are banjos and other instruments played by Scruggs and his contemporaries.)

Not into bluegrass? Scruggs is only one of Shelby’s claims to fame. Come to town in the fall and you could catch the annual Liver Mush Expo, celebrating one of the region’s culinary delicacies. Pig liver and other parts (including the snout) are combined with cornmeal to create a liver mush loaf, which is sliced, fried and served in a variety of ways. I tried it on bread with jelly, and then with cheese and eggs — and can affirm that it tastes better than it looks! (The flavor is a bit of a cross between sausage and scrapple.) You can sample this “poor man’s pate” all year round at the friendly Shelby Cafe.

Save some time for strolling around downtown, or rather Uptown (a moniker deliberately chosen because it was more cheerful). Shelby boasts three main historic districts as well as a bevy of cute little boutiques and specialty shops. I stopped in the Cleveland Country Arts Council building, where a pottery show and sale was running, and boggled at the low prices for beautiful, locally made art. Also worth a visit is the Don Gibson Theatre, a restored Art Deco venue that hosts musicians, films and comedy acts.

North Carolina may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of wine, but the number of wineries in the state has more than quadrupled in the last 10 years — and the Shelby area is getting in on the action. It’s easy to drive a loop around the region’s three wineries: Baker Buffalo Creek Vineyard & Winery, Owl’s Eye Vineyard and WoodMill Winery. Be sure to sample a few muscadine wines, which are local to the Southeast and offer high levels of healthy antioxidants (about 20 times as much as a Merlot).

If you’ve got kids in tow, make time for a stop at the Shelby City Park, with its historic 1920’s “carrousel” and miniature train. It’s just 50 cents each for a ride.

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