Best-Kept Secrets

Best of the Best-Kept Secrets: The Crystal Coast

The Bode Island Lighthouse is illuminated as dusk falls on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the Outer Banks.
The Bode Island Lighthouse is illuminated as dusk falls on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the Outer Banks.

See & Do

Bear Island and Hammocks Beach State Park,


The largest dwellings on Bear Island are birds’ nests, conch shells and pup tents. To get there, visitors have to paddle or motor their own boat, or take the pontoon-boat passenger ferry that comes from Hammocks Beach State Park just outside Swansboro. Once they get off the ferry, they can walk the half-mile path from the marshy back side of the island across the dunes to the broad sandy ocean beach. A concession stand offers ice cream, snacks and cold drinks during the summer. Ferry runs from April to October, with reduced hours before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. 1572 Hammocks Beach Road, Swansboro. 910-326-4881.

Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras Lighthouses,

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

The Bodie (pronounced “body”) lighthouse is a charmer with a natural view of marshland, ocean and the Pamlico Sound. Tackle the 214 stairs of the horizontal black-and-white-banded beauty. (There are eight stairwell landings where you can catch your breath). Not winded yet? Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is ahead with 257 steps. N.C. 12, Cape Hatteras National Seashore. 252-473-2111,

Catfish Lake Waterfowl Impoundment,

Croatan National Forest

Many species of song and wading birds can be seen here, as well as ducks, alligators, otters, deer and other wildlife. Average water depth in the impoundment is 1 to 2 feet, and surrounding canals are 5 feet deep or more. Most hunters paddle small boats or canoes, but hikers and primitive campers can stay on high ground on the periphery. From U.S. 70 between New Bern and Havelock, turn right onto Catfish Lake Road. Go 7 miles, crossing two bridges. Just past the second bridge, turn right onto Catfish Lake Road. Go about 3 miles and turn right on FS3006.

Church ‘Moved by the Hand of God,’ Swan Quarter

On Swan Quarter’s Main Street, you’ll see Providence United Methodist Church, which gets its name through legend preserved by oral history. In 1874, the church was built, but its location was contentious. The preferred spot was on property owned by Sam Sadler, who wouldn’t sell his land. So the church was erected on donated land nearby. Then, the story has it, on Sept. 16, 1876, a storm blew through with heavy winds and flooding rains. The church began to float down the road, turning here and there until it came to rest smack dab on Sadler’s property. He was persuaded. The original church is now attached to a newer brick church. A plaque on the door proclaims, “The church moved by the hand of God.” Main Street, Swan Quarter.


The little town of Frisco features a maritime forest, quiet beaches and an artsy vibe. A few locally owned galleries cluster on N.C. 12, where you’ll also see the strangest sight on Hatteras – a round, silver spaceship, circa 1970s, that has been a family home, a newspaper office and a hot dog stand. The Futuro House is now abandoned, with alien heads peeking through the windows, an often photographed oddity. N.C. 12, Frisco.

Goose Creek State Park, Washington

This park offers paddlers a place to drop a boat or take 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. 2190 Camp Leach Road, Washington. 252-923-2191,

Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, Hatteras

In a building shaped like a wooden ship’s hull, the museum offers an eclectic collection spanning shipwrecks, piracy and diving history. One artifact will give you chills: a log entry from the Hatteras Weather Station in 1912 – the first distress call sent from the Titanic. Though the two weather watchers on duty that night reported the call, they were initially reprimanded by superiors who didn’t believe the story. 59200 Museum Drive, Hatteras. 252-986-2995,

Lucy and Ricky’s Nest,

Nags Head

At Basnight’s Lone Cedar Cafe, on the causeway between Manteo and Nags Head, ask for a spot by the southside windows. While enjoying dinner, you’ll get a gander of the resident lovebirds – a couple of osprey affectionately known as Lucy and Ricky. Their large craggy nest is perched on a pole in the Roanoke Sound, at the perfect height for Lone Cedar diners. Osprey mate for life, and they fly to South America for the winter. For several years now, they have returned to the same nest, where new babies hatch each spring. 7623 S. Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head. 252-441-5405,

Oriental Waterfront

The best way to tour the town of Oriental (named after the 1862 grounding of the iron steamer “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. 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. South Avenue, Oriental.

Red Wolf Center, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

North Carolina is the only place in the world with a wild red wolf population. Learn more at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, whose programs feature two red wolves named Hank and Betty. 1221 N.C. 94 South, Columbia.

Eat & Drink

Big Oak Drive-In & Bar-B-Q, Atlantic Beach

You’ll long remember a meal here, especially if you come at closing time, have to pull onto the shoulder of N.C. 58 to wait for another diner to vacate a space in the parking lot, and then have to queue up with the flip-flopped and hungry hoping to get your Shrimpburger order in before Big Oak closes for the day. In addition to the Shrimpburger – fried shrimp piled on a bun and served with hot sauce – Big Oak offers other seafood sandwiches, burgers and pork barbecue. 1167 Salter Path Road, Atlantic Beach. 252-247-2588,

Bill’s Hot Dogs, Washington

This little storefront has no tables, only a take-out counter, where an assembly line of employees prepares your hot dog – the bright red kind. The dogs sizzle in a pan of oil before they’re nestled in a steamed bun, slathered with mustard, a sprinkle of onions and the secret Bill’s ingredient – a spicy white chili. Don’t bother to ask for ketchup; they don’t have it. 109 Gladden St., Washington. 252-946-3343,

Brantley’s Village

Restaurant, Oriental

This locals’ favorite features a sampling of every creature that swims, skitters sideways or hides inside a shell. 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. The lemon, coconut and chocolate pies are the stuff of legend. 900 Broad St., Oriental. 252-249-3509.

Hatterasman, Hatteras

Grab a fried flounder sandwich or a softshell crab on a bun at this old-school drive-in. The burgers are hand formed and cooked to order. Try the Hatterasman burger, an 8-ounce patty with cheese, onion rings, BBQ sauce and bacon. It’s not unusual to encounter a cornhole tournament in the parking lot, where locals and tourists mingle. 57449 N.C. 12, Hatteras. 252-986-1005.

The Silos Restaurant,


Breaking with Oriental’s maritime theme, the Silos gives visitors an unexpected detour into Italian cuisine. 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., Oriental. 252-249-1050,