Elizabeth City’s Harbor of Hospitality
Dismal Swamp Canal
Lee Gutman’s pontoon boat churned through coffee-colored waters as it cruised south, passing mystical marsh and pines that could have told a thousand tales of war, famine, feasts and fowl. This ride marked the start of an overnight escape to Elizabeth City, N.C. on a shuttle belonging to Gutman and Steve Atkinson, his assistant captain for the day.
Gutman, 73, lives on the Elizabeth City waterfront. And, as a boater, he knows that you must keep your navigational clock on time—if you want to get past the drawbridge when it’s lifted at South Mills, N.C. and then pass through the locks on the Great Dismal Swamp Canal. We do both, on a sunny afternoon, as we head down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway—a passage that can lead you to Norfolk, going north, or to the Albemarle Sound, going south.
To Atkinson, the watercourse is also part of the “Carolina Loop,” a boating trail that this former Elizabeth City mayor devised to hook boaters on coming to the city’s “Harbor of Hospitality.” There, at the Mariners’ Wharf of Elizabeth City, boaters are greeted by the “Rose Buddies,” an informal welcoming crew that comes with food and drink—“whenever at least five boats come in,” says Atkinson, a former Virginia Beach resident who has lived in both Kempsville and Pungo.
“You come to Elizabeth City. Spend a couple of days there,” Atkinson suggests. “There’s free dockage for 48 hours. You can go to the restaurants, the Museum of the Albemarle, the Arts of the Albemarle. There’s always something going on.”
Lodging and Dining
Refreshed by the water, I disembark from Gutman’s afternoon cruise and climb into a car belonging to Ray and Maureen Donnelly, the proprietors of the Elizabeth City Bed & Breakfast. The Donnellys welcome me to this Tarheel town with a can of Black Radish, a product of the nearby Weeping Radish Brewery at Jarvisburg, N.C.
“We do get the boaters who come in and stay,” Ray Donnelly says, grinning. “They want a nice shower and a comfortable bed.”
Of course, you get all that in this two-story structure plus the cozy feeling of an antique house that is spacious, private and casually decorated with photos of the lighthouses at North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Relaxing on the patio, I feel right at home.
Walking only a few minutes from the inn, I arrive back at Elizabeth City’s Waterfront Park an hour before sunset.
Then I soak up the views of the Pasquotank River from the dining room of Grouper’s, a seafood restaurant where I savor oysters on the half-shell plus a perfectly-fried flounder.
Come morning, I’m treated to a vegetable omelet at the Elizabeth City Bed & Breakfast with a side of sausage plus bananas and strawberries, served with sweetened sour cream. Ever gracious, Maureen Donnelly smiles and says, “People love Ray’s omelets.”
Elizabeth City History
Then I’m off to see the Museum of the Albemarle, a block-long attraction where you could easily spend a half-day digesting the multi-faceted history depicted of North Carolina’s coastal region. This regional branch of the North Carolina Museum of History spotlights more than 400 years of the Albemarle area. Exhibits shift, too, like the sands of the Outer Banks. But, always, count on finding an entire room dedicated to the story of the U.S. Coast Guard, in recognition of its important presence in Elizabeth City.
“We cover 13 counties of history in the Albemarle region. And, as you can imagine, the history just keeps growing,” says Mary Tirak, the museum’s administrative officer. “We try to put a piece of everybody’s story within our exhibits.”
Some of that story comes from the Civil War, a time when the residents of Elizabeth City grew tired of a tug-of-war between the North and the South. During that tumultuous time of the 1860s, Elizabeth City survived arson, ambush and guerilla warfare. And many of those stories are, now, preserved on historic markers dotting downtown streets.
Elizabeth City was occupied for a majority of the war by the Union, says Leonard Lanier, an assistant curator at the Museum of the Albemarle. “In many cases,” Lanier says, “the Civil War in the Albemarle region of North Carolina was kind of the side show to the big show.”
Kids’ Activities and Performing Arts
Taking a break from following the footsteps of history, I duck into the ultra-charming Cypress Creek Grill. For lunch, here, a plate of pasta and a rockfish sandwich can’t be beat.
Then, just around the bend, I wander into Port Discover, a hands-on science center that attracts families to its make-believe airplane control tower and ample activity stations.
Elizabeth City’s downtown looks pretty. And it owes much of that beauty to preservation projects, like how the local residents pledged money to save the century-old Lowry-Chesson building, now housing the multi-level Arts of the Albemarle. “There’s a lot of art-related businesses downtown,” says Katey Murray, the executive director of the arts center.
On the hulking building’s second floor, an old opera house has become the center’s Maguire Theatre. Much of the first floor, in turn, has been polished to showcase an array of artists, many of whom paint pictures of the local landscape. “We represent about 250 regional artists,” Murray says. “In addition to that, we also have a performing arts component of our organization.”
Murray applauds the community’s support. But, it is easy to see why so many have found artistic inspiration in this attractive neck of North Carolina, lying just an afternoon’s boat ride away or only an hour by car from the center of Coastal Virginia.