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Tar Heel Travels

Wonders on the Waterway

By boat is the best way to travel from the Great Dismal Swamp to Old Baldy

By Renee Wright


The Elizabeth II, a replica of the ships that              brought the first colonists to North Carolina's shores, will visit Bath during its Tricentennial celebrations.

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, a web site dedicated to life on the Intracoastal Waterway.

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 says.

“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 lanes. 

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.



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Last Modified: April 20, 2005
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