Late Spring Road Trip: North Carolina Crystal Coast

It all began with an article in the May 2012 issue of Southern Living and a mutual itch to get on the road and away from it all for a few days.  We are not “foodies,” but there was no resisting a piece titled “Eat Your Way to the Outer Banks,” by cookbook authors Matt Lee and Ted Lee, who would “…take you on a culinary road trip to Carolina’s Crystal Coast.”  Turned out the article was more inspiration than roadmap.  We had to stay patient, mutter “oh well” a few times, and provide our own inspiration, but we still had a good time.  All told, a good time is the most important feature.

We began early on a Saturday morning in June, arriving too early in Goldsboro, the first stop, only 64 miles from Wake Forest.  We didn’t locate the first recommended restaurant because it appeared we were heading for a less friendly part of town, and WayCo Hams Co. was closed on Saturday.  Undaunted, after a car tour and brief stop at a church bargain sale, we put another 28 miles on the odometer and rolled into Kinston.

We were still too early for Mother Earth Brewing, but were able to dally enough at local shops to enjoy a glass of Weeping Willow Wit and an excellent and informative tour.  The brewery was established in 2008 and its motto is “Peace, Love, & Beer.”  Important note: if you go, make it a Saturday, the only day tours are offered.

With good fortune we stumbled upon a genuine highlight of our brief stay in Kinston: the Neuse Way Nature Park.  We lingered for a picnic lunch and visits to a nature museum and a planetarium presentation before checking into the EconoLodge on New Bern Road.  The Southern Living authors had recommended the Hampton Inn at $129, but that must have been the off-season rate.  The June rate was much higher.  We gambled, unsuccessfully, on a lower rate and can with all confidence recommend skipping the EconoLodge.  Suffice it to mention the least of the problems was the closed pool, which was not disclosed at reservation or check-in time.

We finally found a recommended restaurant that was open and enjoyed a fabulous dinner at Chef & Farmer; pricey but an absolute winner, although the menu didn’t show the recommended wood-roasted clam stew with ramp-new potato broth.  Not being hungry enough after a late picnic lunch at the park, we still managed to polish off several smaller dishes, including hot and sour glazed bacon meatballs; grits with sausage, mushrooms and pepper ragout; and crab cake with cucumber, kohlrabi and blackberry salad with buttermilk vinaigrette.  Yum!

Leaving Kinston Sunday morning we found the recommended Byrd’s Restaurant with no trouble, but it was not open.  Too hungry to wait, we surrendered to a place that shall go unnamed (but has a drive-through window).

Our next planned stop was New Bern, but we decided on a change of plan.  Since we were running into so many closed attractions, we did a quick drive-through, decided to put New Bern on the back end of the trip, and headed on to Morehead City, Beaufort and Atlantic Beach.  Highway 70 runs through the enormous Croatan National Park.  A few days after we returned home we saw on the news that a fire had started in the park and the scent of smoke was in the air all the way back to Wake Forest.

At the EconoLodge in Morehead City, a bit more than slightly burned up over the accommodations in Kinston, we asked to see the room before checking in.  Though we fully expected to be shopping for another room, we were pleasantly surprised – a reasonably priced room that was clean and conveniently located.  The Southern Living authors had recommended the very attractive Seahawk Inn and Villas, rooms from $90, but again we discovered that the June price was a budget-buster.

Settled into our lodging, we decided to have lunch in Beaufort and visit the NC Maritime Museum.  Once again we were too early for the Museum.  Not wanting to get back in the car, we walked across the street to Finz, a restaurant on waterfront at Taylor’s Creek.  The food was good and reasonably priced.  We dined on oyster and shrimp sandwiches while watching the crew of an enormous yacht/fishing boat prepare bait for the Big Rock marlin fishing contest.  One of the crew was busy gutting smaller bait fish and sewing the fish back up after inserting a hook.  Later we would learn that the winning boat, Flybuoy out of South Carolina (not the one we watched as we ate lunch), landed a 499.3 pound marlin worth the first prize of $444,050.

While at lunch we noticed a fellow diner’s t-shirt with a line that quickly became one of my all-time favorites: “Beer.  Not just another breakfast drink.”   I want one.  Not a beer right now, but a t-shirt with that on it.

After lunch we enjoyed the NC Maritime Museum, learning about the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” and the few thousand ships sunk along the NC coast.  The museum also offered an excellent video and detailed exhibits about Blackbeard and his pirate ship, recently discovered sunk off the coast near Beaufort.

Next on our list was one of the NC aquariums in Pine Knoll Shores, overlooking Bogue Sound just down the road south from Atlantic Beach.  We beat the crowds at the aquarium and enjoyed the displays, including a presentation by aquarium staff in and out of the water in front of a huge tank containing a reproduction of a living shipwreck and, among other fish, several sharks.  There were three divers: one did the talking (using a microphone in his diving mask), while the other two held long-handled prods to make sure the sharks didn’t get too close.

Somewhere along the line we learned that the Neuse River Basin refers to a wide swath of NC land in which all the smaller rivers, creeks and other bodies of water drain into the Neuse River.

Food: another lunch at Finz and dinner at Mykonos Grill – authentic, tasty and reasonably priced Greek fare.

On getaway morning we had breakfast at a the Four Corners Diner in downtown Atlantic Beach.  Our friendly waitress came up with a whopper of a fish story.  She told us her father had competed in the Big Rock Contest a while back and brought in half a marlin. Painting a picture as vivid as Hemingway’s fisherman’s plight  in The Old Man and the Sea, she told us the half that didn’t make it to be weighed at the dock was taken right off the line by a “great white shark.”

After the fish story we took a walk to the beach before driving back through the Croatan National Forest to New Bern to experience the History Center, the Tryon Palace,  the birthplace of Pepsi, and lunch.

New Bern’s Tryon Palace is something all NC natives and others who have adopted the state as home should visit and learn about.  We could have spent the entire day at the History Center and its attractive and informative exhibits.  The well-prepared, friendly, and period costume dressed Tryon Palace tour guide and other staff made for an enjoyable and informative experience.  The Palace, outbuildings and grounds were restored in a 30-year campaign begun by Mrs. James Edwin Latham.  Tryon Palace was the governor’s residence and the site of the NC general assembly following the revolution.  State governors lived in the Palace until 1794.  In 1798 the original Palace building was destroyed by fire.  The restored Palace reopened in 1959.  (On the way home we heard a radio broadcast about the NC budget problems and a proposal to cut funding the maintain Tryon Palace and grounds.  Why do many legislators take aim first at the arts and education?  It’s no comfort supposing they do that to alarm and gain attention.)

Try Morgan’s Tavern in New Bern for a good and reasonably priced lunch in a restful and interesting setting.  Don’t miss the shrimp taco in a flaky flour tortilla.

After lunch we visited the Birthplace of Pepsi, festooned with every manner of product featuring the familiar Pepsi logo, from Pepsi belt buckles to baby bibs, nostalgia calendars, Birthplace of Pepsi aprons and ball caps, bottlecap earrings, and so on, all while listening to hit songs from days gone by.  Caleb Bradham invented “Brad’s Drink” at the soda fountain in his drugstore in 1893 using carbonated water, pepsin, kola nut extract, vanilla and “rare oils.”  He renamed the drink “Pepsi-Cola” in 1898 and described it as healthy and an aid to digestion because it contained pepsin.  All of this makes great sense to lifelong Pepsi drinkers such as myself.

On the way home we drove around Greenville a bit, mainly to see the East Carolina University campus.  We veterans of life got a bit tired, however, and only saw the stadium and other athletic buildings before the heavy traffic persuaded us it was time to continue on home.

Despite the lack of detail from the Southern Living authors, we enjoyed our little getaway.  Next time we’ll do more research before we leave.  And sleep in more…..