To get to Oriental, a town named for a sunken ship, you’ve got to wander east down a thin finger of land, watching the Neuse River grow from a muddy brown trickle to a wide, blue waterway dotted with whitecaps.
Out here, where Pamlico County turns into Pamlico Sound, it’s more practical to float than to drive, so most everybody keeps a boat at least parked in the driveway – even if it’s just a dinghy with peeling paint.
The region’s whole history flows through water, from the aquatic dinosaurs whose teeth still turn up in the soil to Blackbeard the Pirate, who famously buried treasure under an oak tree here. Its first modern settler, “Uncle Lew” Midyette, washed ashore in an 1870 storm and never left, persuading his family to follow him to the fair riverbank.
Still tiny after more than a century, Oriental hosts a chowder cook-off, a croaker festival, a tarpon tournament and a cup regatta – all tributes to its river and creeks. Here the front yards have anchors for decorations. The signs advertise sail repair, boat slips, kayak rental and yacht sales. One of the most popular stories in town centers on the time Ken Midyette accidentally hooked a long-sought tarpon while sunbathing naked.
Oriental marks the end of the road. Miles of flat Pamlico County farmland surround it, pulling travelers to the river. And once they reach town, they face a pair of options: push out into the water or join the crowd on the shore, enjoying tall drinks in high-backed chairs, watching the sun turn the river orange and pink.
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Oriental’s History Museum
This small but quirky museum makes a good introduction to the town, offering a visual display of Oriental’s watery folklore. It offers maps for a pair of walking tours, pointing out the former location of Teach’s Oak, where Blackbeard allegedly stashed his pirate loot, and the duck pond dragon, the town’s unofficial mascot. An eclectic sample of local artifacts includes buttons from colonial long underwear, a fishing dory and prints from the sunken steamer Oriental, which gave the town its name. You’ll see oyster scoops, anchors and nets – all essential to Oriental living. You’ll get introduced to Red Lee, who sold hot dogs and hamburgers costing a quarter for half a century. And you’ll get personalized directions from the friendly and knowledgeable staff. 802 Broad St. Open Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is free.
Brantley’s Village Restaurant
This locals’ favorite features a sampling of every creature that swims, skitters sideways or hides inside a shell. From the oyster burger to the catfish, from the flounder sandwich to Ms. Sil’s Famous Down East Clam Chowder, you get a lemon or tartar-flavored taste of Oriental seafood. The soft-shell crab sandwich comes with legs protruding, as it should. But the homey restaurant is also popular for its grits and gravy biscuit breakfasts and its fried chicken and collards for buffet lunch. It’s simple and inexpensive inside, not designed for the diner who demands fancy décor. Brantley and Sylvia Norman opened the restaurant in 1978, formerly calling it Ms. Sil’s Kitchen, and have left it several times only to return. Ms. Sil’s lemon, coconut and chocolate pies are the stuff of legend. Our State magazine named the lemon meringue the best dish in Pamlico County. 900 Broad St. Open Monday to Thursday, 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday and Sat, 7 a.m . to 9 p.m.
The best way to tour Oriental is to drive until you hit water, then get out and walk or paddle. The Neuse River wraps around the town’s south end, and from the public boating access on Midyette Street, you can row up one of several small creeks and watch fish jump. You’ll find all manner of craft for rent at Bow to Stern Boating on Blackwell Point Loop Road. South Avenue makes for a good walk, passing by a series of guideposts. There’s the old Artesian Well, where locals built a concrete bench under a willow oak and which once served as an informal gossip and sweetheart-kissing spot. There’s the Lost Block, where in 1933 a hurricane took out houses and roads. And there’s Lou-Mac Park, which offers riverside deck chairs perfect for telling fish stories. A sign there notes that the park was beautified in 1921 for the princely sum of $27.99. But it doesn’t cost a cent to sit and watch the river pass.
The Silos Restaurant
Breaking with the maritime theme, the Silos gives visitors an unexpected detour into Italian cuisine, a distinction that got it named best restaurant in Pamlico County by a Charleston, S.C., food blog. Favorites include the specialty pizzas, homemade meatballs and dollar beers on Thursday. The craft beer selection is deep here, which can be rare for a rural county. Triangle travelers will recognize many of their home brands. 1111 Broad St. Ext. Open Tuesday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Goose Creek State Park, Washington
Oriental offers charming stays in bed and breakfasts, but the more rugged visitor may opt for a night in a tent an hour or so away. Goose Creek State Park offers paddlers a more rural place to drop a boat or a dip in the Pamlico River. Hiking trails, all of them on the short side, lead through wetlands and under oaks draped with Spanish moss. The Native Americans who predated Oriental’s settlement experienced the marshy coast this way, as did Blackbeard. Try seeing it through their eyes. 2190 Camp Leach Road, Washington. Summer hours run from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
You might also try...
▪ Aurora Fossil Museum. This tiny and remote Pamlico County town is famous for its rich deposits of fossils, unearthed by a local phosphate mine. Sprawling over three buildings, it shows visitors prehistoric shark teeth, walrus tusks and shrimp.
▪ Birthplace of Pepsi Cola, New Bern. The store in the soft drink’s place of origin sells vintage Pepsi products, including postcards and soda fountain tumblers. Don’t ask for a Coke.
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