We stopped in three different small towns in our second week of this cruise, and between them they covered a broad spectrum of the several dimensions of small towns – culture, history, and economics. Four towns if you throw in our stay at Albemarle Plantation, an affluent country club golf community that is sort of a town of its own (discussed in the previous blog).
First a little note about all the towns/stops along the Albemarle Loop . With the exception of the true marina at Albemarle Plantation, these were all small municipal docks with less than 10 slips. As such, they are administered and staffed by town employees or volunteers who aren’t really boaters. Which meant we were pretty much on our own as far as figuring out where to dock, where to tie up, facilities nearby, etc. And it was a chance for us to practice solo docking maneuvers. One thing we noticed was that there was frequently conflicting information on the size of slips and if they could accommodate a boat our size in the various official guides, so we had to rely a lot on crowd-sourced reviews in the various apps we use and satellite views of unknown age. But again, a chance for us to be self-sufficient and creative problem solvers, so we gathered the best information we could and made our plan.
Day 7-9: Edenton, NC We departed Albemarle Plantation on a Sunday morning and headed west along the northern side of the Albemarle Sound for a short transit to Edenton, NC. It was another beautiful day on the Sound – nice flat water and light breeze. We arrived early afternoon, and the owner of the only other boat there, Jim, helped us tie up to what was a bit of a rickety looking dock with some questionable pilons. Turns out he and his wife are both retired Navy. He took some great drone shots of the marina and our boat in it and shared them with us, which we really appreciate (and it has now bumped ‘drone’ to the top of Dave’s Man-Toy Wish List).
Edenton is a lovely town with Revolutionary and Civil War history. But what really impressed us was the culture of pride and historic preservation among the locals. There were many very old homes and cultivated gardens. We took a historic trolley tour, and a common thread in the stories was that local townspeople had banded together to raise money to purchase properties or restore buildings. Considering the population has been steady at 5,000 for decades and we didn’t see anything that made us think there was an abundance of bejillionaires giving money away, this would seem to indicate that everyone in town chips in money or labor. The picturesque centerpiece of their historic waterfront is the actual Roanoke River Lighthouse that was moved from the mouth of the Roanoke River to the town upon decommissioning. It is the only one of many screwpile lighthouses from the Albemarle Sound still in existence.
The people were as charming as the town. Arriving by boat makes it flagrantly obvious that you are a tourist. We were greeted shortly after arrival by Mark, who operates an electric boat tour, and is a retired Navy Communications LDO who had served on submarines and noticed our logo. He and Dave had several conversations, figuring out their paths had barely missed several times. He told Dave about Kevin, a former submariner who along with his former submariner brother owned the local soda shop. Of course, we had to go to the soda shop for a limeade so Dave could find him and they talked submarines for an hour. The soda shop was lined with Navy and military unit memorabilia, which Kevin said was never the plan but he had hung up a few of his larger pictures while they awaited some other art prints when they first opened and didn’t want bare walls, which was soon followed by people coming in to give him various military stuff that they didn’t have room for in their home. You could say the military ties in the town are strong.
We pulled the kayaks off the roof one day and cruised up nearby Pembroke Creek. It wasn’t long before we felt like we were on the Disneyland Jungle Ride – Spanish moss hanging from trees, lily pad-lined banks, cicadas with their rhythmic chorus. I kept thinking I should be watching for alligators (there are none here) while actually seeing lots of jumping fish, sunning turtles, and strutting heron.
We did discover that small town restaurants and businesses have irregular hours that frequently defy what is posted in their window. Since we were docking for free in these towns, it was our goal to spend money in local businesses. But it was a struggle to find anything open. On the Sunday we arrived, we only found one pub that served basic bar food. On Monday night, we planned to see the new Clint Eastwood movie Cry Macho playing at the little downtown theatre. But there was no place within walking distance for dinner, so we had popcorn. (As for the movie, let’s just say the fresh popcorn was the best thing about the evening.) We finally were able to dine at the Watermen’s Inn restaurant on Tuesday, where I ordered the fresh flounder and pretty sure I got the whole fish. The best culinary find, however, was the Edenton Coffee House that was open every morning and served as the local meeting place. Best cinnamon roll I’ve had in a long time.
The only negative I would give the town was the condition of the docks. As I mentioned earlier, the docks were not in the best shape. But the biggest problem was all the ducks and seagulls that flocked to them at night, leaving their mark in the form of bird poop all over. Even Roxy picked her way along the dock on tiptoe. Dave washed it down with a hose the first day (because we really didn’t want to track it onto the boat) which helped a lot, but the next morning it was completely covered again. The marina attendant said they were going to be rebuilding the docks this year. I just hope they build in a plan to keep the birds off. Maybe one of those fake owls. Or 30. Or a live mountain lion.
Day 10-11: Plymouth, NC With winds and thunderstorms moving in later in the day, we departed very early for the short trip across the western Sound and then seven miles up the Roanoke River to Plymouth. The ride up the deep and wide river was beautiful. This was another marina where we weren’t sure we had the best information. But as the only boat there, we found a way to dock. The new, sturdy cement floating docks were free. They were managed by the non-profit little Maritime Museum across the street, which included the historic Roanoke River Lighthouse in the park by the marina. The new museum curator, Tad, gave us a personal tour of the small museum and the lighthouse. The bathroom and free laundry were in an old storage area across a parking lot, and we loved being privy to the old classic wooden boats in storage there when we used the privy.
Plymouth’s claim to fame is the CSS Albemarle, an ironclad ram that was built just up the river and key to the Confederates early success in driving out the Union Navy. It was actually still being outfitted as they brought it down the river to the battle at Plymouth, where it rammed and sank one vessel, then damaged another when the shell it fired point blank literally bounced off the Albemarle’s armor and exploded on the ship that fired it. It continued to wreak havoc on the Union Navy until a daring nighttime raid on it in Plymouth six months later, in which an ingenious Union Navy officer led a small contingent and managed to detonate an explosive device under the Albemarle’s armor, thereby sinking it and paving the way for the Union to retake the town. We learned all this in the small Port O’Plymouth Museum, where they had a scale model of the CSS Albemarle and do an excellent job of focusing on the local events, people, and artifacts. It also told of the long-standing conflict of the locals on whether to vote for secession in the first place. A quote from the exhibit that really stuck with me was from a town leader arguing against the secession ten years before the start of the war, saying it would be a ‘rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.’
The town of Plymouth stood in stark contrast to Edenton with regard to economics. Where Edenton had preserved its buildings, there were many literally fallen down buildings in Plymouth. While it looked like this had been declining for many years, other businesses along the small main drag appeared to have been shuttered more recently. We counted more police cars in the station parking lot than open businesses on Main St. We did discover the River View Café and met the owners, Lou and Jill, when he came over to us excitedly asking if we were on the catamaran that he had seen go up the river an hour earlier. They had converted an old grocery store into a comfy café with floor to ceiling windows looking out over the river where all the locals came. Dogs were welcome in the café, and their dog Abby held court over by the windows. Jill was a fantastic baker, and we enjoyed good coffee, breakfast sandwiches and fresh pastries every day we were there. They even had a local piano player doing live music!
Plymouth is also known for the highest density of black bears in the area along the Roanoke River. We went to the Bear-ology Museum where we learned more about black bears than we probably really wanted to know, such feasting on corn in the local fields leave what looks like alien crop circles from the air. Unfortunately, the only bear we saw was of the two-dimensional type attached to some pilots. The only wildlife we saw was a bunch of turkey buzzards making a communal meal from a ginormous dead catfish that washed up on the boat ramp, with Dave taking particular interest in tracking the ever-increasing number of birds participating.
Astute readers might have noticed that I mention the Roanoke River Lighthouse as being in Edenton AND in Plymouth. It’s not a typo — it’s in both. Edenton, which is not on the Roanoke River, has the actual lighthouse. (Technically, it’s the third actual lighthouse because the first one burned down and the second one was hit by an ice floe and sunk. Talk about the full spectrum of destruction – fire AND ice!) Plymouth, which ison the Roanoke River, is a replica but is of the original lighthouse because they had the original blueprints. How’s that for some ironic twists and turns?
Day 12-13: Hertford, NC and we get to see old friends! Had a bumpy ride back across the Sound to the mouth of the Persquimans River. But once in the river we were protected from the winds and it was a pleasant trip the rest of the way up to Hertford. We pulled into what once again looked like relatively new docks and we were the only boat there. We walked Roxy past Civil War era homes in their historic district, well maintained with signs indicating the date built. Whether it was a lasting effect of COVID or the labor shortage, the restaurants and shops downtown were mostly closed on Saturdays and Sundays – even the local coffee place. We just couldn’t find anyone to take our money! We did buy a pumpkin and homemade pickled jalapenos from an elderly gentleman with a flatbed trailer loaded with pumpkins on the corner. He wore overalls and a Navy Veteran ballcap, and it wasn’t long before he and Dave were talking Navy.
We enjoyed an afternoon dinghy ride further up the Persquimans River. But the best part of Hertford was a visit from some Navy friends who drove from Elizabeth City to see us! We have known Debbie and Murray since our time in Bremerton, and it was great to see them again and catch up. We finally found an open restaurant for dinner a few miles away. Capt. Bob’s, whose motto is “There’s only two places to eat — home and Capt Bob’s.” Now that’s brutal honesty.
From what we could determine, Hertford was really not famous for anything other than being the hometown of Catfish Hunter, of whom no one under 50 reading this has any knowledge. It’s just a simple, solid North Carolina small town that isn’t trying to be anything more and will not settle for anything less.
Three towns and a country club in a little over a week, all very different. But pervasive was the friendliness of the people in welcoming us. We had several offers of rides to the grocery store – one guy even offered us his car. Everyone was happy to tell their story, or their spin on a piece of local lore. Many inquiries about the boat, where we were from, where we were headed. Everyone waves as they pass by in their cars. One man waited in front of his door so he could proudly show us a litter of puppies in a large box he was holding.
The contrasts between these towns could be stark, sometimes disturbingly so. That we got to experience them and meet the people who live there is solely because we are doing this boat thing. They are not towns we might normally visit by car. But I’m sure there are many, many towns in this country just like them a bit off the beaten path. You may have to look for them, but I would encourage everyone to put forth the effort to find these places, be it by car, bicycle, or whatever. The big cities and tourist attractions will always be there. Some of these towns may not. I guarantee you’ll learn something by visiting them, and they could use your business. That is, if you can figure out when they are open.