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NC has one of the country's most beautiful rest stops – and it's next to a swamp

As buildings go, those at the state welcome center at Dismal Swamp on U.S. 17, just south of the Virginia state line, don't seem all that special — two single-story structures connected by a breezeway.

But the setting, including a boardwalk and benches along the Dismal Swamp Canal, earned the center a spot among the 15 most beautiful rest stops in the country, according to Architectural Digest magazine.

The list includes some pretty spectacular places, including on the Florida Keys, along a glacial lake in Alaska and atop the Continental Divide in Colorado. The magazine introduces the list by saying the road-side stops are "likely more beautiful than the traveler's final destination."

The N.C. Department of Transportation's welcome center overlooks the only swamp on the list.

“I know the word 'dismal' does not sound like something you would consider unusually beautiful or even desirable to go visit," said Donna Stewart, director of the center. "We were just super excited, especially to see the other company that we were included with.”

The first building at the welcome center opened in 1989 and was quickly deemed too small. A second building, now devoted to North Carolina tourist information, went up a few years later, leaving the original devoted to restrooms.

But Stewart says the surroundings are what strike people most, particularly this time of year with the flowering dogwoods under the towering pines and the dark, reflective water of the canal nearby.

“It’s just very picturesque," she said. "We often hear what a pleasant surprise we are. I think we’re like a little oasis that people happen upon on this busy highway.”

The welcome center also serves as a gateway to Dismal Swamp State Park, just across the canal, a 22-mile stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway that connects the Elizabeth River in Virginia with the Pasquotank River near Elizabeth City. Some of the center's visitors arrive by boat; Stewart says 1,800 to 2,000 recreational boats passed through the canal each year before Hurricane Matthew clogged the route with shoals and downed trees in the fall of 2016.

Architectural Digest has produced numerous "most beautiful" lists over the years, in such categories as hotels, chapels in Europe and college dormitories, but this is the first for rest stops. Author Kristine Hansen said she looked at a building's "architectural pedigree and design," but noted that the "views of nature" were also important.

Her description of the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center doesn't mention the buildings.

"Motorists can pull over and treat themselves to a stroll along a nature trail," she writes. "Or a quick dip in the water if they've got their own kayak or canoe."

To see the full list of beautiful rest stops, go to www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/most-beautiful-rest-stops-in-america.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling
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