You don’t have to go far from the Triangle to officially arrive in Eastern North Carolina.
But breeze through too fast and you’ll miss the chance to explore agricultural communities and small towns in six of the state’s Coastal Plain counties that are an easy day trip from the Triangle.
Instead, wind down country roads past hog farms and old tobacco barns and warehouses to meet the people who call this land home.
By the time you’ve made your way to fast-growing Greenville in Pitt County, you’ll have explored bakeries and restaurants, soaked in the natural beauty of creeks and gardens, and spent time in one town you won’t find on any ordinary map.
Begin in Wilson, where the Children’s Secret Garden has treasures to suit any mood. Jump and dance to set off a rain wall or walk through the labyrinth surrounded by flower beds.
Then, head south to Mickey’s Pastry Shop, where generations of bakers craft desserts that have kept customers coming back for decades.
From Mickey’s, swing down to tiny Beulaville and the Bulk & More Store, where you’ll find rows of neatly arranged pantry staples and old-fashioned treats sure to inspire your inner cook.
Head back outside to Contentnea Creek, where a few hours spent paddling in a kayak or canoe will leave you ready for a meal of wood-cooked barbecue at Bum’s Restaurant.
Close out your trip with a visit to Shadowhawk, an Old West town built by a North Carolina native who wanted to bring some Tinseltown magic home.
The series will continue through Labor Day, featuring each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. And, except for the 80 counties we’ve already covered, it’s not too late to suggest a place we should include among our Best-Kept Secrets.
75. Johnston County
Tucked at the end of a residential road in Johnston County, Shadowhawk is an Old West town that resident cowboy William “Wild Bill” Drake built by hand in his backyard. Saunter down the main street lined by storefronts in red, yellow and blue to the chapel where couples regularly say their vows. Then, grab a barstool at the saloon or hotel, where past visitors have scrawled their names on the wooden beams or on dollar bills tacked to the walls. Be careful not to cause a ruckus, though, or you could find yourself in the town’s two-celled jail. Drake, an actor who spent much of his career in film and television westerns, wants everyone to enjoy a small piece of the frontier life. “It was free and easy,” he said. “You made your own way, or you didn’t make it.” Much of Shadowhawk’s charm comes from its no-frills, no-fuss atmosphere, so let your imagination roam. Good guy or bad guy? That’s up to you. But Wild Bill says the outlaws usually have more fun. Open daily beginning at noon. 494 Bonnie Ave., Smithfield. shadowhawk.us.
76. Wayne County
Mickey’s Pastry Shop, Goldsboro
The sweet smell of Mickey’s Pastry Shop envelops visitors before they open the doors of this family-run retail and wholesale bakery, where fluffy goodness has been on order for 68 years. Once inside, rainbow rows of handmade treats – cream puffs, doughnuts, cakes, tarts, muffins and more – beckon from the glass display case. Through a window behind the counter, catch a glimpse of the bakers decorating birthday and wedding cakes or making cream-filled doughnuts called long johns that are sold in convenience stores. Mickey McClenny opened his shop in downtown Goldsboro in 1946 after he returned from World War II, and his son-in-law, Jerry Ray, joined the operation in the 1960s. Mickey’s granddaughter, Melanie Daniels, did the same almost 20 years ago. Today, Mickey’s operates across town in a new building, but with some of the same trusty equipment McClenny first used. Daniels and her brother, Jerald Ray, rise with the sun – or sometimes before – to keep the bakery running. “It’s hard work,” she said. “If we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t be here.” Open 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. 2704 Graves Drive, Goldsboro. 919-759-4741 or mickeyspastry.com.
77. Wilson County
Children’s Secret Garden at Wilson Botanical Gardens, Wilson
This garden within a garden is full of surprises for children and the young at heart. Who wouldn’t be delighted by a clubhouse with a motion-activated rain wall or a banana split sundae garden where all of the plants share a connection to the classic dessert? A music court and a dinosaur dig also can be found among the flower beds and tree stands. For those in search of a quieter moment, circle through the labyrinth ringed by low-lying shrubs to reach the gong at its center. From the children’s garden, it’s a short walk to the botanical gardens that surround the Wilson County Agricultural Building. Check out the native plants garden, medicinal and culinary herb garden, or heritage garden with heirloom vegetables and traditional row crops. In both the children’s garden and herb garden, find some of Wilson’s not-so-secret favorites: Vollis Simpson whirligigs. Two pieces of the brightly colored artwork rise from the landscape. Open daily, dawn until dusk. 1806 Goldsboro St. SW, Wilson. For tours, call 252-243-8440. wilson-co.com/198/Wilson-Botanical-Gardens.
78. Duplin County
Bulk & More Store, Beulaville
Neat rows of baking and cooking supplies, dry goods, dairy, candy and homemade breads line the shelves of the Bulk & More Store, a small country outpost painted a cheerful red and nestled against a cornfield in southern Duplin County. The store is run by the Mobley family, who bring in a variety of goods from Mennonite and Amish communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well as from North Carolina farms. Buy in quantities from a few teaspoons of delicate, decorative sugar crystals to a 50-pound bag of flour. The family also makes a line of breads in an open kitchen adjacent to the main shopping area. Time your visit right and a still-warm loaf of the Mobleys’ best-selling sourdough bread could be yours. 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. 889 Fountaintown Road. 919-298-2183.
79. Pitt County
Bum’s Restaurant, Ayden
No trip to Eastern North Carolina is complete without at least one stop for barbecue. At Bum’s Restaurant, Latham “Bum” Dennis and his family keep things simple, serving wood-cooked barbecue, fried chicken, collards and other staples to generations of loyal fans. Place your order at the counter, where a hand-lettered sign for the restaurant’s homemade banana pudding is almost impossible to resist. The restaurant grows or buys what it can locally, including collards at Dennis’ home a few miles away. He brings in a 55-gallon barrel full of collards daily. Dennis opened his first barbecue shop in 1963 and moved to the current location in 1966. He and his wife, Shirley Dennis, ran the restaurant for decades before handing off much of the day-to-day work to their son, Larry Dennis. But you can still catch Bum chatting up customers and fixing plates most days. Open 4:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, and Wednesday through Friday; and 4:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday and Saturday. 566 Third St., Ayden. 252-746-6880, bumsrestaurant.com.
80. Greene County
More than 40 miles of Contentnea Creek meander through wetlands and farmland in Greene County, offering paddlers in canoes and kayaks hours of shady solitude. The banks of the creek, a major tributary of the Neuse River, are lined with water oaks, loblolly, sycamores, cypress and other hardwoods, draped in a cascade of Spanish moss in some spots. Visitors to the Contentnea can find entry points all along the creek, including in the towns of Snow Hill and Hookerton. In downtown Snow Hill, boating access is near the county courthouse – along with a stone monument to the Snow Hill Billies, a baseball team that was part of the Coastal Plain League for several years beginning in 1937. A few miles away, beginners or those simply looking for a short trip can paddle a route between two downtown Hookerton ramps and hop off the creek to enjoy a walking trail at Daughtry’s Boat Landing. In Snow Hill, go to 801 Mill St., and in Hookerton, to 107 N. William Hooker Drive or across from 532 E. Main St.