Along the Inner Banks and Outer Banks of North Carolina, you can climb a lighthouse, spot a black bear or while away the afternoon on the sands of some of the East Coast’s most beautiful beaches.
There is something magical about the land of sunken ships, pirate tales and wild horses that roam the shoreline. Even the names of places evoke a time of swashbucklers and legends. Alligator River. Kill Devil Hills. Chocowinity. Nags Head. Mattamuskeet.
While the Outer Banks have become a tourist mecca, with a Wings store every few miles along Highway 158 in Dare, there are also massive national wildlife refuges, protected seashores and conservation areas that hug the waterways. There, red wolves and bald eagles have a world almost to themselves.
Exploring the IBX and OBX (Inner Banks and Outer Banks, for those unfamiliar with the lingo) usually involves water. Hop in a canoe, board a ferry or drive the sleepy, swampy roads in search of North Carolina’s wild scenery and mystery.
The counties of Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Martin, Tyrrell and Washington provide all kinds of opportunities for the adventurer, from fishing to windsurfing to hang gliding. You can dig for fossils in Aurora, visit an oddball museum in Belhaven or trace the trail of the fearsome Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard), who settled in Bath and died in a gun battle in Ocracoke. Climb the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Pay homage to Orville and Wilbur Wright, who made aviation history with the first flight at Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17, 1903.
Or, follow our advice and check out these truly out-of-the-way places.
The series will continue through Labor Day, hitting each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. And, except for the 67 counties we’ve already covered, it’s not too late to suggest a place we should include among our Best-Kept Secrets. Let us know by going to nando.com/bestkept, sending an email to email@example.com or by calling 919-829-4751.
Bill’s Hot Dogs, Washington
Since 1928, Bill’s Hot Dogs has served up hot dogs and only hot dogs (except for a case of sodas and a rack of chips). This little storefront has no tables, only a take-out counter, where an assembly line of employees prepares your hot dog – the bright red kind. The dogs sizzle in a pan of oil before they’re nestled in a steamed bun, slathered with mustard, a sprinkle of onions and the secret Bill’s ingredient – a spicy white chili. Don’t bother to ask for ketchup; they don’t have it. You’ll have to wait in line, and the restaurant takes cash only. There’s an ATM in the shop. Take your dog, in a small paper bag, to the benches on the charming Washington waterfront and watch the boats drift along the Pamlico River. 109 Gladden St., Washington. 252-946-3343. For daily hours, check www.facebook.com/billshotdog.
63. Martin County
Deadwood, Bear Grass
Deadwood is the Disney World of Martin County. Down a country road in Bear Grass, not far from Williamston, there is a small, clever Old West-style theme park with a train, kiddie roller coaster and mini golf course. The storefronts include an arcade, ice cream shop and the Smokehouse Grill Restaurant, which is packed on weekends. Once a month on a Saturday night, the steakhouse becomes a dinner theater with the production of the “Trial of Jack McCall.” The show tells the tale of the man accused of killing gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok. It starts outside with hollerin’ and shootin’ by amateur actors. Then inside, during dinner, audience members are picked to serve on the jury. Open Thursday through Sunday. 2302 Ed’s Grocery Road, Bear Grass. Call 252-792-8938 for the park or 252-792-8516 for the restaurant, or go to www.deadwoodnc.com.
64. Dare County
Lucy and Ricky’s nest, Nags Head
Talk about a table with a view. At Basnight’s Lone Cedar Cafe, on the causeway between Manteo and Nags Head, ask for a spot by the southside windows. While enjoying a splendid seafood dinner, you’ll get a gander of the resident lovebirds – a couple of osprey affectionately known as Lucy and Ricky. Their large craggy nest is perched on a pole in the Roanoke Sound, at the perfect height for Lone Cedar diners. Osprey mate for life, and they fly to South America for the winter. For several years now, they have returned to the same nest, where new babies hatch each spring. When the restaurant, owned by former state Sen. Marc Basnight, burned to the ground in 2007, Lucy and Ricky were probably bewildered. But they didn’t abandon their perch and stayed to supervise reconstruction. With the help of restaurant patrons, this year’s three chicks have been named Arthur, Ralph and Ethel. If you’re lucky, you might see Ricky plunge feet first into the water to snag the family’s own tasty seafood dinner. Open 4:30 p.m. each night for dinner. 7623 S. Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head. 252-441-5405 or go to www.lonecedarcafe.com.
Red Wolf Center, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
North Carolina is the only place in the world with a wild red wolf population. In Tyrrell County, you can learn about the endangered red wolf with education programs on Saturdays at a center in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The programs, by the nonprofit Red Wolf Coalition, feature two red wolves named Hank and Betty, born in captivity and kept in an outdoor enclosure. While you’re in the refuge, you’re very likely to see black bear, deer and perhaps an endangered red cockaded woodpecker. You can drive through the refuge on gravel roads, and get out of the car with your camera. But don’t venture into the wilderness without some bear spray. Red Wolf Coalition viewing facility, 1221 Highway 94 South near Columbia. Open Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and check www.redwolves.com for other times.
66. Washington County
Water Street museums, Plymouth
In a three-block area on Water Street in picturesque downtown Plymouth, you can stroll among three museums. The Roanoke River Maritime Museum, across from the adorable Roanoke River Lighthouse, explores the heritage of the area’s waterways. In the water, check out the replica of the Civil War ironclad, the CSS Albemarle. Down the street, wander deeply into the Civil War era at the Port O’ Plymouth Museum, with its cannon balls and other artifacts. But the most unusual and entertaining spot is God’s Creation Wildlife Museum at 111 Water St. There, you can see an impressive array of mounted and model animals from four continents, including the “Big Five” African animals. There are great specimens from the American west – moose, elk, sheep. The North Carolina species on display include a 708-pound black bear bagged by a teenage girl in Washington County in 2010. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children. For information on the Plymouth museums, go to www.visitplymouthnc.com.
67. Hyde County
The church ‘moved by the hand of God,’ Swan Quarter
The tiny village of Swan Quarter is mostly known for its ferry landing, where you can climb aboard a state ferry for the leisurely transport to Ocracoke. But on the town’s Main Street, you’ll see Providence United Methodist Church, which gets its name through legend preserved by oral history. In 1874, the church was built, but its location was contentious. The preferred spot was on land owned by one Sam Sadler, according to church history. Sadler wouldn’t sell his land, though, so the church was erected on donated land nearby. Then, the story has it, on Sept. 16, 1876, a storm blew through with heavy winds and flooding rains. The church began to float down the road, according to legend, turned here and there until it came to rest smack dab on Sadler’s property. He was persuaded. The original church, a plain wooden structure, later became a barn, but is now attached to a newer brick church. A plaque on the door proclaims, “The church moved by the hand of God.” Main Street, Swan Quarter.