The News & Observer is bringing back its Best-Kept Secrets summer series. But instead of visiting all 100 counties, as we did last summer, we’ll be taking readers on day trips in different corners of the state, highlighting things to do, see and eat in one very packed day.
We begin where North Carolina got its start, around Albemarle Sound, where restless Virginians began to wander south into the region in the 17th century. The first town on the sound, Edenton, was founded in 1712 and served as the colony’s capital from 1722 to 1743.
Today, the area north of the sound draws retirees and, increasingly, commuters from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, but many people here still make a living from agriculture. The landscape is a mix of wide, flat fields and brackish rivers and creeks lined with bald cypress trees and thick swamps.
Edenton is a natural stop for history buffs. Its streets near the waterfront are lined with beautiful homes and landmark buildings, including the state’s oldest courthouse, built in 1767. One of its newest attractions is a 19th-century lighthouse, restored and open for visitors.
Elizabeth City is the big town in this part of the state, home to a university, the largest Coast Guard base in the country and the Museum of the Albemarle, a branch of the state history museum that focuses on the cultural history of the northeast corner of the state.
Our series will appear online and in print each Monday through Labor Day.
Dismal Swamp State Park, South Mills
Not as dismal or as swampy as the name implies, this part of the swamp was heavily logged in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the roads and ditches the loggers built helped make it drier. The most common tree found now in the thick, regenerated forest is red maple. The park is home to bears, river otters and lots of birds. You can rent canoes and kayaks to explore the Dismal Swamp Canal at the park’s entrance, but you will never get far from the sounds of traffic on U.S. 17, which parallels the canal. To do that, bring or rent a bike to ride two miles along the canal to Kim Saunders Ditch, an unpaved road that cuts straight across the park for 5.4 miles through forest and pocosin. The canal road is well-drained, hard-packed sand and gravel, but Kim Saunders is a little softer and bumpier and slower going after a rain. But the crowds thin out and the whine of traffic falls away, leaving only the sounds of birds, the wind through the trees and the occasional snap of a twig that will have you peering into the woods looking for a bear. Off U.S. 17 just south of the Virginia state line. www.ncparks.gov, 252-771-6593.
Nothin’ Fancy Cafe & Market, Edenton
After a morning in the swamp, seek out this unassuming restaurant in a modest strip center outside the historic district for a bowl of really fine Brunswick stew and corn bread. The restaurant specializes in Southern cooking with an emphasis on fresh vegetables. But when co-owner Gail Singh recognized she didn’t have a good meatloaf recipe, she borrowed one from the mother of her daughter’s friend. It’s a “Northern” recipe, she says, and appears on the menu as Cathy’s Mom’s Meatloaf. Dessert selection changes every day. And if you’re itching to shop while you wait for your food, the dining room is lined with antiques and gifts. Open Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday and Monday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 701-C North Broad St. 252-482-1909.
Roanoke River Lighthouse, Edenton
The lighthouse was built in 1886 and for 68 years sat on pilings where the Roanoke River meets Albemarle Sound near Plymouth. There’s a replica of the lighthouse in Plymouth, near the Roanoke River Maritime Museum, but Emmett Wiggins bought the original in 1955 and had it moved by barge to Edenton, where he made it his home until he died 40 years later. The Edenton Historical Commission bought the building in 2007 and had it moved last spring to a new set of pilings at the town’s waterfront park, where it’s now a state historic site. The four-room lighthouse has been filled with period furniture and is open for daily tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Don’t miss the outhouse perched over the water. Admission is $3 for adults, $1.50 for teens 13-18 and free for 12 and under. www.edentonlighthouse.org, 252-482-7800.
Newbold-White House, Hertford
Built by a Quaker family in 1730, this compact farm house overlooking the Perquimans River is the state’s third oldest house and the oldest one open to the public. It was designed to look like an English cottage and is made of brick, which helped it survive. About 90 percent of the brick is original, as are the roof and rafters and some internal woodwork. What didn’t survive has been painstakingly recreated, including the leaded-glass windows made by a company using 280-year-old methods. There’s a colonial kitchen garden and a muscadine grape vineyard, as well as a visitor’s center, gift shop and a replica of an 18th-century dugout riverboat called the Periauger. Owned and operated by the nonprofit and volunteer-run Perquimans County Restoration Association. 151 Newbold-White Road, off Harvey Point Road. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, April through October. Admission: $5.50 for adults, $3.50 for students through college age. Groups of 10 or more, $3.50. 252-426-7567, www.perquimansrestoration.org.
La Tiendita Carniseria Y Taqueria,
After a long day chasing history or exploring the swamp, head to Elizabeth City for a real Mexican dinner. No Tex-Mex here. Tina and Hector Preciado Sr. and their three sons and one daughter opened the tienda 13 years ago after moving from California, then added the restaurant five years later. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the restaurant has built a reputation locally for its tortas, tacos and tamales, which Tina Preciado makes every Sunday. The appearance will soon change as the family prepares to move to larger, more upscale digs a block up the street later this summer, but for now it’s at 432 S. Hughes Blvd., Elizabeth City. Open Sunday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. 252-338-5376.
You might also try....
▪ Toyama. A Japanese restaurant and sushi bar with an avid local following on a side street in downtown Elizabeth City.
▪ Layden’s Supermarket in Belvidere. A country store with an impressive selection of smoked pig parts and store-made candies.
▪ The Jim “Catfish” Hunter Museum in downtown Hertford. Shrine to the native son who won the World Series with both the Oakland As and the New York Yankees.
Coming next Monday: