A column of boats creeps through
a watery avenue of trees hung with Spanish moss and mistletoe. The
tea-colored water ripples as the cruisers pass. The thick swamp on either
side teems with wildlife. Deer and raccoon, bear and bobcat cast watchful
eyes on the passing vessels.
Hard to believe that this
primeval scene takes place just a few miles from I-95 and the busy Hampton
Roads area. For 200 years, travelers have made their way by boat through the
Great Dismal Swamp, a land of cypress and cedar and enormous ecological
diversity, lying along the North Carolina-Virginia border.
About 2,000 cruising vacationers,
snowbirds (travelers who go south in the winter and north in the summer),
and water gypsies of every sort steer their yachts and powerboats through
this secluded wilderness each year. “It’s like the dawn of time,” says Ken
Frausel, creator of Snowbirders.net, a web site dedicated to life on the
Thousands of travelers a year
make their way across the state on the waterway. Many more vacationers come
to eastern North Carolina to enjoy fishing, birdwatching, cruising, kayaking
and sightseeing in its well-maintained waters.
Penny Leary-Smith, longtime
director of the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center, and recently elected to
the board of directors of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association,
believes it doesn’t receive enough credit for its economic impact on Eastern
North Carolina. “Many people depend on the waterway for their living. Marina
operators, boatbuilders, dockside restaurants and shops all benefit,” she
“Recreational boaters aren’t
given credit for the money they put into our economy,” she says.
“These people spend big bucks.”
Most travelers make a stop at
North Carolina’s Dismal Swamp Welcome Center, the only facility in the
country that greets guests arriving by both water and major highway.
Historic US 17, often called the Ocean Hiway (the way it’s spelled on old
maps), parallels the canal along most of its length.
The Great Dismal Canal is one of
two routes followed by the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW) through
northeastern North Carolina. This great water highway, originally
established in 1940 to provide a submarine-free route for commercial barge
traffic, runs through inland waters from New England to southern Florida.
As boaters emerge from the Dismal
Swamp, they tie up at Elizabeth City, one of the most hospitable towns along
the waterway’s entire length. A visit from the volunteer group the Rose
Buddies punctuates the return to civilization. They host wine and cheese
mixers for crews who tie up at the free municipal docks.
Leaving the Dismal Canal,
cruisers find themselves in the heartland of North Carolina’s earliest
history. Some of the oldest towns in the state lie along the sounds and
rivers connected by the waterway. In fact, many towns in Eastern North
Carolina are more easily reached by water than by road.
Several historic towns hug the
shores of Albemarle Sound including Edenton, called the South’s prettiest
small town and site of the Edenton Tea Party. Also nearby are Hereford,
Plymouth and Columbia.
To the east lies Manteo, home of
the doomed Roanoke colony. Today, the island recreates those days of 1587
with a replica of the Elizabeth II, the ship that brought the first
colonists here, and with the state’s premier outdoor summer drama, “The Lost
Colony,” which tells their story.
The waterway next leads south
through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, home to a rare pack of
endangered red wolves. Beyond the shores of Pamlico Sound lie scenic
Belhaven and Bath, the state’s oldest town. Founded in 1705, Bath became our
colonial capital in 1746. Blackbeard the pirate made his last home here.
Bath celebrates its Tricentennial this year with monthly celebrations and a
September Maritime festival.
Across the sound, the village of
Oriental lives up to its reputation as “Sailing Capital of North Carolina”
with just 900 residents and nearly 3,000 boats. New Bern, the second-oldest
town in the state, is a short sail up the broad Neuse River. Tryon Palace,
the State Historic Site here, meticulously recreates life in the 1770s at
the colonial governor’s residence.
Further south, more historic
seaports entice waterway travelers to spend a night or a season. Beaufort,
third oldest city in the state, and Morehead City across the inlet, are
favorite stops for boats bound for the Caribbean. Tall ships from around the
world will converge on Beaufort in the summer of 2006 for Americas’ Sail.
A popular side trip takes
waterway cruisers up the Cape Fear River to Wilmington. The coast’s biggest
city boasts one of the largest historic districts in the nation, more than
300 blocks situated along its downtown Riverwalk. Closer to the South
Carolina border, Southport charms visitors with its antique stores and sandy
Civil War buffs find much to see
along the waterway. Sites such as Fort Macon near Beaufort, Fort Fisher and
Fort Benjamin near Wilmington, tell of the vital role the North Carolina
coast played for the Confederacy.
Twentieth century history buffs
enjoy touring the blimp factory near Elizabeth City, sighting tanks as the
waterway passes Camp Lejeune, and visiting the Battleship North Carolina
across from Wilmington’s historic waterfront. The Missiles and More Museum
on Topsail Island documents Operation Bumblebee, a missile testing program
conducted here after World War II.
Lighthouse fans prefer the
waterway’s more easterly course hugging the inner edge of the barrier
islands that form the Outer Banks. One after another, North Carolina’s
lighthouses come into view, from Currituck in the north to Old Baldy off
Southport. This route takes cruisers along a string of national seashores
and national wildlife preserves, mostly unoccupied except for wild ponies
and huge flocks of migrating wildfowl. Popular harbors include Kitty Hawk,
Hatteras and the sleepy town of Ocracoke.
Recently, the waterway began
hosting a different class of cruiser. Golfers can now reach some of the
area’s finest golf courses by boat. St. James Plantation, Oak Island and
Bald Head Island offer championship golf just minutes from the docks.