Best-Kept Secrets

August 31, 2014

As days shorten, our series of NC’s Best-Kept Secrets comes to an end

Waterfowl, a historic Wurlitzer and a wide-open beach beckon visitors to the central coast.

The heat subsides, the shadows sharpen. Summer wanes.

But the wanderlust remains.

Since the season began – not by the Gregorian calendar, but as charted by the Memorial Day increase in beach hotel room rates – we have cruised the Blue Ridge Parkway through the mountains, sampled sugar cookies in the southern Piedmont and attended movie matinees in an old theater in the state’s northeast corner.

As always seems to happen, the days shorten, but the list of things we want to experience grows longer.

Our series featuring a gem from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties comes to a close with this installment. But take solace. While some of the most out-of-the way places in the six counties that make up the state’s central coastal region trim their hours as the season winds down, others just become more desirable. Starting around Labor Day, the tourists thin out. So do the mosquitoes.

There will be several more months of weekends in which to walk up to the window and order the best shrimp burger on the Crystal Coast, served from a converted beach house in Carteret County.

At one of the state’s most private public beaches, the concession stand will close for the summer after today, but the shoreline, and the views, will be wide open. For that, it’s worth bringing over your own cooler on the passenger ferry from the Onslow County mainland.

History knows no season; the artifacts in a friendly Pamlico County town’s tiny museum just grow a little older and more beloved. Its most prized possession, a 60-year-old Wurlitzer jukebox stocked with tunes from decades past, will be hauled outside this fall to pound the beat for a street dance.

As the weather cools, indoor hobbies regain their appeal. For lovers of model railroading, this might be the perfect time to join a group of Craven County train enthusiasts who have recreated local landmarks and rail lines in small scale.

On the banks of an old mill pond in Lenoir County, the evergreens are always dressed in the shades of summer. The big-waisted hardwoods whose leaves do change in the fall just add color to the reflections on the tannic water.

There’s a waterfowl impoundment in Jones County where summer is actually the offseason. Still and breathless in August, the expanse comes to life in winter, when migratory birds make it a temporary home.

The most distant of these places is a three-hour drive from the Triangle, which will put some calming space between you and all those back-to-school sales.

The sand is still warm underfoot, holding the sun’s heat like a pleasant memory. If you leave now, hotel room prices will have dropped by the time you check in.

95. Carteret County

Big Oak Drive-In & Bar-B-Q, Salter Path

Had enough beach T-shirts and tacky keychains? Consider a culinary souvenir instead. You’ll long remember this meal, especially if you come at closing time, have to pull onto the shoulder of N.C. 58 waiting for another diner to vacate a space in the parking lot, and then have to queue up with the flip-flopped and hungry hoping to get your Shrimpburger order in before Big Oak closes for the day. The restaurant opened at Easter 1976 when the original owners moved a small beach cottage back from the road, gutted it and outfitted it as a walk-up restaurant. In addition to the Shrimpburger – fried shrimp piled on a bun and served with hot sauce – Big Oak offers other seafood sandwiches, burgers and pork barbecue. On Saturdays, if you come early enough, there is homemade banana pudding. Hours are somewhat fluid and constrict as the weather cools. Big Oak is closed in December. Look at the menu online at and call in your order. 1167 Salter Path Road. 252-247-2588.

96. Jones County

Catfish Lake Waterfowl Impoundment, Croatan National Forest

Drive 10 miles off U.S. 70 into the Croatan National Forest, then hike another mile and hear how quiet the world can be. Absent the drone of traffic and the natter of electronics, tune in to the whisper of the breeze in the long-leaf pines, the buzz of crickets in tall grass and the hum of bees investigating wildflowers. In winter, though, migrating waterfowl raise the volume. The U.S. Forest Service says many species of song and wading birds can be seen here, as well as ducks, alligators, otters, deer and other wildlife. Average water depth in the impoundment is 1 to 2 feet, and surrounding canals are 5 feet deep or more. Most hunters paddle small boats or canoes, but hikers and primitive campers can stay on high ground on the periphery. From U.S. 70 east between New Bern and Havelock, turn right onto FS1100, or Catfish Lake Road. Go 7 miles, crossing two bridges. Just past the second bridge, turn right onto FS158, or Catfish Lake Road. Go about 3 miles and turn right on FS3006. Park without blocking the gate and hike in, following forest service vehicle trails.

97. Onslow County

Bear Island, Hammocks Beach State Park, Swansboro

While some coastal communities boast houses so big they could be zoned as hotels, the largest dwellings on Bear Island are birds’ nests, conch shells and pup tents. To get there, visitors have to paddle or motor their own boat, or take the pontoon-boat passenger ferry that comes from Hammocks Beach State Park just outside Swansboro. Once they get off the ferry, they can walk the half-mile path from the marshy back side of the island across the dunes to the broad sandy ocean beach. A concession stand offers ice cream, snacks and cold drinks during the summer season. In other months you can bring your own repast to enjoy on the beach or while sitting at one of several sheltered picnic tables on the plank boardwalk. Ferry runs from April to October, with reduced hours before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. Sept. 18-21, the park will hold the N.C. Paddle Festival, featuring kayak and paddle board races, paddling classes and scavenger hunts. 1572 Hammocks Beach Road. 910-326-4881.

98. Pamlico


Oriental’s History Museum, Oriental

On this peninsula, where the Neuse River runs into the sea, sits a small town that took its name from another collision: the 1862 grounding of the iron steamer “Oriental” off Bodie Island. The ship, built to haul sugar and named for a town in Cuba, had been conscripted to transport Union troops and supplies during the Civil War, but it hit the shoals in bad weather on its second journey. In 1866, locals took its name, and generations since have embellished its Asian cultural connection and made a Chinese dragon an unofficial town mascot. The museum’s docents and artifact donors convey the story of the ill-fated vessel, the dragons, and the fishing and lumber industries that defined the waterfront before it became a popular pleasure-boat stop. Collection highlights include signs from Red Lee’s Grill that offered hot dogs and burgers for the never-increasing price of 25 cents, and his 1954 Wurlitzer jukebox, recently repaired. Plans are to roll it into the parking lot for an old-fashioned street dance from 4 to 7 p.m. Oct. 11. Afterward, and every Saturday through October, take a ghost tour that starts at the dinghy dock at 8:30 p.m. Museum is at 802 Broad St.

99. Lenoir County

Tull’s Mill Pond, Deep Run

Henry Tull was a relocated New Englander who settled in Lenoir County and became its largest landowner and slaveholder in the first half of the 19th century. Locals say it was his slaves who did most of the work in 1850 to build the berm and the dam that created a 185-acre lake in what’s now Deep Run, southwest of Kinston. The water powered grist and saw mills, but those buildings were torn down in the 1950s. What remains on the edge of the privately owned lake is a tiny former house where visitors can buy a cold soft drink and a honeybun and enough bait to fish all day for bream, bass and crappie. Fishing costs $5 if you bring a boat, $3 if you cast from the bank. Or just pack a picnic and enjoy it on the lake’s shore, admiring the old cypress trees and listening to the rush of the water over the dam. Open daily March 1 to Nov. 30, 7 a.m. to dusk. 1594 Old Pink Hill Road. 252-568-4634.

100. Craven County

Carolina Coastal Railroaders, New Bern

If you love the sound of a train in the distance, think how much fun it could be to hold a locomotive in your hand. Open to anyone interested in model railroading, this club has more than three dozen members, some of whom worked on real railroads or grew up around them and never shook the fascination. In their 1,700-square-foot clubhouse, the Coastal Railroaders have built a layout that recreates the major architectural and geographical landmarks of New Bern, and depicts other real and fictional cities between Morehead City and Asheville as they might have appeared around 1950, except they’re 1/87th actual size. The club holds regular “operating sessions,” during which participants are assigned a diesel or steam train hauling tiny passengers or freight and try to make their deliveries on time. Members hold clinics and open houses, and the group holds an annual train show. The 2015 show will be at the New Bern Riverfront Convention Center Feb. 20-22. For information, contact club President Joe Hofmann at 252-638-8872 or go to The group meets at 2001-B South Glenburnie Road, at the back of the Eye Care Center building. The clubhouse is open Saturdays 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., and Mondays and Thursdays 7 to 9 p.m.

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