Most people who travel to the southeastern corner of North Carolina are on their way to the beach or perhaps Wilmington with its lively downtown and the USS North Carolina Battleship.
But beyond the trees and fields that line Interstate 40 or U.S. 74 are other places worth visiting, places most outsiders have never heard about.
Every one of North Carolina’s 100 counties has them, places we’ll call “Best-Kept Secrets,” even if no one is trying to keep them a secret.
This summer, The News & Observer will take readers to some of the Best-Kept Secrets in the state, one in each county. We’ll visit a half-dozen or more each Monday from now through Labor Day and gather them all online so readers can find them whenever they want.
We start this week with six counties in Southeastern North Carolina, an area known for its wide, flat fields, seemingly endless forests and dark, slow-moving rivers that lead to the ocean.
We’ll see one of those rivers, the Lumber, from a unique vantage point, hike around a Carolina bay lake, eat in out-of-the-way restaurants that locals rave about and, yes, we’ll visit a beach, where the thoughts and wisdom of thousands of visitors have been collected in an ordinary-looking mailbox.
We know that in picking just one place in each county we’re likely to leave out some pretty cool ones. We’re expecting to hear from readers that we picked the wrong one.
What we really want to do is get people to explore their state with new eyes for the places that don’t always make the tourist brochures and websites.
And, except for the six counties we’re featuring here, it’s not too late to suggest a place we should include among our Best-Kept Secrets.
You can keep up with our Best-Kept Secrets statewide over the summer at nando.com/ncsecrets.
1. Pender County
Lanes Ferry Dock & Grill, Rocky Point
As you’re headed to the beach with determined anticipation, it’s easy to miss places worth stopping along the way. Lanes Ferry Dock & Grill, tucked into the trees at one end of the N.C. 210 bridge over the Northeast Cape Fear River, is one such place. Owner Kenny McManus serves a full country breakfast from 6:30 to 10:30 a.m., then switches to grilled hot dogs and hand-pattied hamburgers until 2:30 p.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, he serves hand-pulled barbecue that he slow cooks with hickory and apple wood in the shed out back. “We hand pick every bit of it, so you don’t get all the fat and mess in it,” he says. There has been a Lanes grocery on this spot since you needed a ferry to get across the river; the old grocery building that houses the restaurant has been here since the 1930s. It’s small – just six tables and five stools – but if the weather’s fine you can sit on the picnic tables outside. Walk down to the dock and boat launch afterward with a scoop or two of Hershey’s Ice Cream. You’ll get to the beach soon enough. The restaurant, at 11016 N.C. 210, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. 910-602-7110.
2. Columbus County
The Riverwalk, Fair Bluff
The stretch of the Lumber River that divides Columbus and Robeson counties is part of the national Wild and Scenic River system and is lined with thick cypress forest and swamps – not the kind of place you go for a stroll. But this elevated walkway carries you above the muck and the snakes. The trail forms an inverted U as it follows the looping river, and ends at an old lumber road. Gene Martin of the Lumber River Visitor Center says it’s OK to walk the road in the winter, but “this time of year, we don’t recommend it,” because of the critters, namely water moccasin. The trail begins behind the visitors center downtown, and it’s a little more than a mile out and back. Take your time; stop and watch the water flowing through the trees and listen to the birds. When you’re done, you can reward yourself with a shake or sundae at Elvington Drug, which has one of the oldest soda fountains in the state. Ice cream flavors include Southern pecan pie and strawberry cheesecake. The lumber for the Riverwalk was paid for with a grant from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund and assembled by volunteers. The Riverwalk is free and open every day. www.fairbluff.com.
3. Bladen County
Jones Lake State Park
Look at a satellite image of Bladen County and you can see dozens of ovals of varying sizes in the land. These are Carolina bays, shallow ancient lakes whose origin remains a mystery. Most of the lakes are small, have become swamps or filled in altogether. A handful of Carolina Bays remain open water; the best known in Bladen County is White Lake, which is surrounded by cottages, RVs, motels and other diversions. But to experience an undeveloped Carolina bay, head to nearby Jones Lake State Park, which has two bay lakes, Jones and Salters, largely surrounded by forest. Jones Lake was developed as a recreational park for blacks in the 1940s, and its large parking lot shows the popularity of its beach and boating (no more than 10 horsepower motors allowed). But it’s easy to get away from the crowds on the four-mile hike through the bay forest around Jones Lake, which leads to a spur tail to Salters Lake. For the less ambitious, there’s the one-mile Cedar Loop trail, lined with ferns and fragrant with fallen cedar trees and offering occasional views of the lake and the Spanish-moss-draped pond cypress trees along the shore. The park is free and open year-round, except Christmas. www.ncparks.gov/
4. Sampson County
Sampson County History Museum, Clinton
What began in 1997 as a five-room history exhibit in a turn-of-the-20th-century home a few blocks from the county courthouse has morphed into Sampson County’s version of the Smithsonian history museum. There are now 11 buildings on the 2-acre lot, with special exhibits on the military, agriculture, law enforcement, medicine, sports and the Civil War. Hundreds of artifacts and all the buildings have been donated over the years, including Wooten’s country store from the community of Timothy, a 70-year-old outhouse and a working blacksmith shop. A cabin from the 1750s called the Bunting House was found inside a much larger house that was taken down to make way for a subdivision. The museum has three part-time employees but is mostly run by volunteers, including a volunteer board that has eyes on expansion. They’re looking for money to bring an old doctor’s office to the grounds to house the medical exhibit, and to build a proper place for the 1930s fire truck. The museum, at 313 Lisbon St., is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and groups of six or more are asked to call ahead for a tour date: 910-590-0007. Admission is free, so you can stay as little or as long as you like. You can always come back. http://www.sampsonhmc.com/.
5. Brunswick County
The Kindred Spirit Mailbox, Sunset Beach
If you drive to where the road ends on Sunset Beach and then keep walking down the sand toward South Carolina, you’ll eventually come to the Kindred Spirit Mailbox, tucked up into the dunes in the Bird Island state nature reserve. Here, inside a rural mailbox next to a wooden bench that faces out to sea, you’ll find about a dozen pens and several notebooks where people have written their thoughts. It’s a public diary of sorts, where people write prayers and poems, give thanks for being alive, reach out to lost loves or lost relatives, or ask for the strength to get through an ordeal – all written by hand in this spot a mile from the nearest building. “What a beautiful way to connect to the universe,” a family from Virginia wrote this month. A woman and her boyfriend put up the first Kindred Spirit Mailbox more than 30 years ago, local author Jaqueline DeGroot writes in her history of Sunset Beach, but it is maintained by anonymous volunteers who restore the box and the bench after big storms and replace the filled notebooks with fresh blank ones. Most entries begin, “Dear Kindred Spirit,” but others are addressed to someone special. “Carl, I love you and always will,” one woman wrote this month. “I can’t believe you are gone.” Parking is tight in the summer, and it’s a half-hour walk on the beach to the mailbox. Look for the American flag flying in the dunes.
6. New Hanover County
Casey’s Buffet, Wilmington
Larry Casey envisioned himself becoming a fancy chef one day, before he decided to focus on what he knew and loved: soul food. So nine years ago next week, Larry and his wife, Gena, opened Casey’s Buffet in Wilmington. Chicken and barbecue are the top sellers, Casey says, but pigs feet is a close third, and some days he sells more chitlins than barbecue. There’s also spiced catfish, whiting, fatback, clam strips and 20 kinds of vegetables, including his best-seller, pan-fried okra without breading. Many of the recipes are derived from dishes his mother and grandmother made when he was growing up in New Bern. The restaurant’s slogan is, “Miss Ya Mamma’s Cookin’? Come Home to Casey’s!” Though Casey’s packs ’em in, the restaurant isn’t on the way to or from the beach for most visitors, so you’ve got to know where to look for it. It’s at 5559 Oleander Drive, or U.S. 76, about 1.5 miles east of South College Road. It’s open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. 910-798-2913.