Best-Kept Secrets

Best of the Best-Kept Secrets: The Coastal Plain

Willie Smith, 19, watches from his lifeguard stand as families play in the lake at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park in Seven Springs on July 24, 2015.
Willie Smith, 19, watches from his lifeguard stand as families play in the lake at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park in Seven Springs on July 24, 2015. tjohnston@newsobserver.com

See & Do

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. 1806 Goldsboro St. SW, Wilson. 252-237-0113, wilson-co.com/198/Wilson-Botanical-Gardens.

Cliffs of the Neuse State Park, Seven Springs

This 1,050-acre state park, along the banks of the Neuse River, has been home to a ceremonial ground and hunting expeditions for the Tuscarora and Saponi Indian tribes. Erosion has created 90-foot-high cliffs along the south banks of the river, and a state park was created in 1945. Grab a map at the visitors center. And if you need to cool off, head to the park’s lake for a swim or to rent boats or stand-up paddleboards. 240 Park Entrance Road, Seven Springs. 919-778-6234, www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/clne/main.php.

Contentnea Creek, 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. In downtown Snow Hill, boating access is near the county courthouse. A few miles away, beginners or those simply looking for a short trip can paddle a route between two downtown Hookerton ramps. 801 Mill St., Snow Hill; 107 N. William Hooker Drive or 532 E. Main St., Hookerton.

Four Sisters Gallery of Self-Taught Visionary Art, Rocky Mount

A collector’s donation in 1989 launched this gallery, which is tucked beside the admissions office at N.C. Wesleyan College. The artists and sculptors featured in the gallery have no formal training, and most have unconventional techniques. Tony Wise is a paralyzed drive-by shooting victim who paints colorful, abstract canvases with a brush in his mouth. Demarquis Johnson has never set foot in an art supplies store and often uses paper bags as a canvas. New artists are found through referrals or “by dumb luck.” 3400 N. Wesleyan Blvd., Rocky Mount. 252-985-5268, www.ncwc.edu/arts/four-sisters.php.

North Carolina Baseball Museum, Wilson

Baseball fans should prepare to geek out in the museum adjacent to historic Fleming Stadium, home of the Wilson Tobs. The museum has two large rooms of memorabilia – authentic uniforms, signed baseballs, baseball cards and equipment used by baseball icons, including North Carolina players Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Enos Slaughter and Buck Leonard. 300 Stadium St., Wilson. 252-296-3048, www.ncbaseballmuseum.

Tull’s Mill Pond,

Deep Run

Henry Tull was a relocated New Englander who settled in Lenoir County and created a 185-acre lake in what’s now Deep Run. 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. 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. 1594 Old Pink Hill Road, Deep Run. 252-568-4634.

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, Wilson

This park honors the work of whirligig maker Vollis Simpson, who died in 2013. Several of his whirligigs are on site, including an impressive spinning one that is 55 feet long, weighs 4,200 pounds and contains 15 to 20 different structures. 301 Goldsboro St., Wilson. 252-243-8440, www.wilsonwhirligigpark.org.

Browse & Shop

Overland Gallery and Buy Local Gallery & Wine Bar, Kinston

The main downtown drag in Kinston is filling with restaurants and unique shops. Overland Gallery displays and sells works from 65 North Carolina artists, offering jewelry, pottery, glass, paintings and textiles. Three artists have mini-studios set up, so you might get a chance to chat with them as they work. Around the corner, Buy Local Gallery & Wine Bar also sells the works of North Carolina artisans and craftspeople, including hand-crafted furniture by Venerable Bench. Overland Gallery, 125 W. Blount St., Kinston. 252-686-8007, theoverlandgallery.com. Buy Local Gallery & Wine Bar, 115 W. North St., Kinston. 919-933-8591.

Eat & Drink

Blackbeard’s BBQ and C-Food, Tarboro

You wouldn’t know it from the modest storefront, but the menu here goes well beyond the wood-fired, whole-hog ’cue. They even have healthy options like seafood salad (crab, salmon and tuna) and broccoli nut salad. Charissa Summerlin, who owns Blackbeard’s with her husband, Lewis, got her training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Much of the seafood is straight from the coast, and some of the produce is grown on the Summerlins’ own farm. 5232 U.S. 64 Alternate, Tarboro. 252-641-0103.

Bum’s Restaurant, Ayden

Latham “Bum” Dennis and his family keep things simple, serving wood-cooked barbecue, fried chicken, collards and other staples to generations of fans. Place your order at the counter, where a hand-lettered sign offering 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. 566 Third St., Ayden. 252-746-6880, bumsrestaurant.com.

Mickey’s Pastry Shop, Goldsboro

This family-run retail and wholesale bakery has provided fluffly goodness for 68 years. 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. 2704 Graves Drive, Goldsboro. 919-759-4741, mickeyspastry.com.

The Kountry Kitchen, Wilson

Owner Tim Whitley runs the restaurant, while his brother David keeps the buffet filled with fresh fried chicken, collards, hefty slices of meatloaf, sweet corn and banana pudding with extra fluffy peaks of meringue. It’s the type of place where neighbors catch up with one another and the servers know customers by name. 618 Ward Blvd., Wilson. 252-243-0715.

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