This is a travel story about home, and that is not an easy assignment. North Carolina has let me, in my 33 years here, grwo accustomed to its loveliness. Idrive roads I have driven before, preoccupied, bored, listening to the radio, not looking.

Now I'm going to try to look. If I can so clearly recall Kovalam, where I spent one night on the Arabian Sea, surely I can write about Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington where I spent all the years of my growing up and Raleigh where I live.

The state itself, to unjaded eyes, is quite lovely. I hear people say this very often. And I see it myself sometimes, particularly in spring when the dogwood trees and azaleas bloom. For years North Carolina was promoted as a "variety vacationland." And it is that. The terrain includes a bit of everything but glaciers and inland seas, and the big coastal sounds could almost pass for oceans.

The geography includes the following: a narrow band of barrier islands, the Outer Banks, separated from the mainland by sounds; the southern beaches such as Wrightsville; the coastal plain, flat flue-cured tobacco territory and small and medium-size towns; the rolling, most metropolitan section, the Piedmont, a district of large universities and small cities; a patch of warm and piney country called the Sandhills; and the mountains, Smokies and Blue Ridge, round, forested and very old.

Colonists came early. The first English attempts to colonize were here on Roanoke Island: Walter Raleigh's settlement disappeared and became known as the "lost colony." The Wright Brothers' first flight rose high as a sand dune on the beach at Kitty Hawk. Wars, the one between the states and the one with Britain, have left some landmarks. And the Battleship North Carolina, a veteran of later conflicts, is berthed here for visitors to board. The state's heritage also includes old coastal towns--Bath, Edenton, New Bern, Wilmington--and their large old shady trees. Old Salem within Winston-Salem is a restored Moravian town.

Art is collected, displayed, performed and occasionally created here. The North Carolina Symphony, one of 31 major symphony orchestras in the country, is based in Raleigh. The North Carolina Museum of Art was the nation's first state art collection. The North Carolina School of the Arts trains performers. The American Dance Festival performs in Durham. Community theater groups and dance troupes are plentiful and active. Broadway road shows and artists' series bring in entertainment from other parts of the country. A price for a road show is likely to be about $12; for other performances a more typical price is $6 or $7.

Nightlife of other sorts has recently changed in this state. Liquor laws have only in the past few years allowed the sale of mixed drinks. This is still not done in all counties. In some areas, you can buy a drink, in some you can't.

Outdoor activities are probably one of the state's prime assets. The varied geography offers the proper kinds of lands and waters for rafting and canoeing, fishing for mountain trout or white marlin, sailing, playing golf, hiking the Appalachian Trail, hang-gliding, rock climbing, or taking a swim. Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cape Hatteras National Seashore sit at opposite ends of the state.

North Carolina is large. The roads are reasonably good and free of tolls. The Blue Ridge Parkway is the nation's most traveled parkway. And there are lots of other scenic mountain and coastal drives--though I still find, no matter how I look at it, that there are sizable stretches in the flat country that are a trifle dull.

There are some other things that bug me about North Carolina. Summer is muggy. There's not much ethnic variety among the population. There are no big cities. Yet I live here. And on the whole, I like it very much.

The state's official spokesmen talk a lot, in ads and otherwise, about the variety of natural resources and the hospitality. These are the underlying themes of promotion efforts, according to Charles Heatherly, director of the state Division of Travel and Tourism.

"Welcome to the Land of Milk and Honey," says one modest color spread with a biblical tone in the copy. "North Carolina. It is a land of promises kept. A land of plenty . . . And it is a land that reaches out and invites you to come and share."

On May 1, the 1982 World's Fair will open across the western state line in Knoxville, Tenn. One of the major efforts of the state agency and of the state's western travel industry is to house World's Fair-goers in North Carolina and show them the attractions of this state. The idea, Heatherly said jokingly to the Governor's Advisory Council on Travel and Tourism recently, is to keep these travelers from "suffering the indignity of spending a night in Tennessee."

North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, at that same meeting, emphasized the theme of hospitality, telling the group: "I want us to be the best hosts we can be." He said he wants the traveler's reaction to be: They're the "nicest folks I've ever seen."

Hunt had asked to be on the agenda of the meeting, and stayed through the session until the end, making occasional comments. Hunt's own priority of economic development inevitably makes him interested in tourism, Heatherly explained later. Travel is the state's third largest industry. Textiles and tobacco are the two bigger businesses.

The travel industry is expected to show, when all the figures are in, at least $2.5 billion in revenue for 1981. The figure for 1979 was $2.1 billion; for 1978, $1.97 billion; for 1977, $1.77 billion. The budget for the state's promotion agency is $3.5 billion, most of which is spent on advertising.

Another indication of the growth of the industry occurred in late December, when the budget for toilet paper for the state's Welcome Centers ran out halfway through the fiscal year. "There are many ways of keeping up with the success of this particular industry," Heatherly noted.

The western part of the state is already taking reservations for the World's Fair period. The 11 westernmost counties banded together, raised $150,000 and got a matching amount from the state for promotion, according to Garrett Alderfer of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. The approach in their advertising campaign is "Turn in Here for the World's Fair."

Hotels and the area's attractions feel the crowd approaching. In mid-January, the Biltmore House, the palatial Vanderbilt home open to the public, had 12 times the number of advance tour group bookings than at the same time last year, Alderfer said. Young Transportation Co. in Asheville has bought 40 new air-conditioned buses, Alderfer added, and will run $27 trips (including transportation and admission) to the fair.

The attractions of the entire state will be displayed at a $414,000 North Carolina exhibit at the fair. Hunt has asked local governments to send live entertainment to perform on the day that is dedicated to their county.

More general promotional efforts are designed to get the state included in group itineraries and to make of the Piedmont a regional convention center. New hotel beds are making the area a more attractive convention site. A thousand new rooms are under construction in Raleigh, according to Heatherly, and there is also a lot of building activity in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

Another state agency, the department concerned with natural resources, is involved in yet another promotional effort. The theme is "Outdoors North Carolina," according to Sharon Perry, director of the Travel Council of North Carolina, which is working with the state agency and other groups on this project. A promotional display will be held in Raleigh on March 25-28, with exhibits including a small stretch of trout stream to advertise the possibilities here for outdoor sports.

And planning has begun for the celebration of America's 400th anniversary, commemorating the colonization. This is to begin in 1984 and last three years. The building of a replica ship is to start at a public location on the Outer Banks this summer.

Beyond the proximity to the World's Fair and the strategies of promoters, what North Carolina offers and what brings people here doesn't seem to change dramatically in any one year. Wrightsville Beach has a lot more buildings on its island than it did 30 years ago; so do a lot of the other towns, coastal and inland. But the beaches and the mountains continue to be major attractions for travelers.

For people in the Washington area and north, the most popular area is the Outer Banks, according to Heatherly. The mountains continue to bring in the Floridians.

The Sandhills also offer an 81-year-old resort that claims, with 108 holes, to be the world's largest golf facility. Pinehurst began before the turn of the century when Bostonian James Walker Tufts decided to try to build a replica of a New England town in this sandy central part of the state. Now the Pinehurst Hotel and Country Club likes to call itself by several nicknames: "the White House of golf," "grand dame of the South," "golf capital of the world."

The big white hotel is in the process of extensive renovation. And there are more activities here now than simply golf. Two dozen tennis courts, croquet, sailing, fishing, riding, trap and skeet shooting are offered. There is formal and informal dining, dancing and a dinner theater; and tea is served in the main lobby in the afternoons. Spring rates include a package that costs $124 for two nights, including breakfasts and dinners. That drops to $100 on June 17 for the summer season.

Hotel prices in North Carolina are generally going up in response to inflation, according to Sharon Perry at the Travel Council. The increase last year was about 15 percent overall. She expects prices to continue to rise.

If you're considering coming to North Carolina, write the North Carolina Travel and Tourism Division, Department of Commerce, Raleigh, N.C. 27611. If you are interested in arts activity in a particular town, you can find out whom to contact in that town through Ardath Weaver, North Carolina Arts Council, Department of Cultural Resources, Raleigh, N.C. 27611.

If you're interested in beaches or history, here's a sample circle trip that includes a lot of both. The trip I suggest begins on Roanoke Island and the northern Outer Banks beaches. This is the area of the Lost Colony summer outdoor drama, and of popular beach towns. Move south then through the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, with its miles of wilderness beaches and dunes.

Take the ferry from the town of Hatteras to Ocracoke, a long thin island reached only by ferries, with one small town around a harbor. A ferry ride back to the mainland, a roughly two-hour trip, ends at low marshy land. Head west then to the mainland town of New Bern with the restored palace of the 18th-century royal governor William Tryon. The route north can include stops at the little towns along the sounds--Bath, Edenton and other old waterfront communities.