Editor’s Note: We are publishing a series of travel diaries this week. These pieces are part of our effort to deepen our reach across the state and build closer connections to communities in all 100 counties.
Along North Carolina’s coastline, rivers often represent boundaries between counties.
But not in Beaufort County.
Beaufort County is situated both northeast and southwest of the Pamlico River, with the towns of Washington, Bath, and Belhaven on the north shore and Chocowinity and Aurora to the south.
Beaufort County’s 45,000 residents are 66% white, 25% Black, and 8% Latinx. The poverty rate is 18%, compared to North Carolina’s overall rate of 13%.
Washington — sometimes referred to as “Little Washington,” though locals seem to prefer “The Original Washington” — is the county seat. Founded and named in 1776, it was the first locale to name itself after President George Washington.
Everyone I spoke with in the area told me that if I had visited Washington five years ago, I wouldn’t recognize it. The waterfront district has attracted both new businesses and visitors.
My introduction to everything downtown has to offer started with what was absolutely one of the best sandwiches of my life at Down on Mainstreet. Their BLT features a fried green tomato with the option to add pimento cheese. (I added pimento cheese.)
There’s no shortage of delicious eateries in Washington. Anyone who’s been to Washington will tell you that Bill’s Hot Dogs can’t be skipped, and they’re right. Newer additions include Bank Bistro & Bar, The Hackney, and Mulberry House, which has gorgeous rooftop views of the river.
Washington is a town with a long history, and the all-volunteer team at the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum has spent years bringing that history to light.
Located in a train caboose facing the waterfront, this museum is less about its exhibits and more about the way Leesa Jones and her husband bring the experiences, intellect, and ingenuity of Beaufort County’s enslaved residents to life. In 2014, the museum became part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
East of Washington, you can visit Goose Creek State Park on your way to Bath, the first town established by European settlers in North Carolina and a port that Blackbeard called home. Grab yourself a pick-me-up in the form of coffee or ice cream at the Duke & Dutchess Coffee Shoppe, with the motto is “Making friends one cup at a time.”
Continuing east will bring you to Belhaven, a popular stop for boaters traveling the Intracoastal Waterway. Any time I’ve ever told someone I was going to Belhaven, they asked me if I was going to go to Spoon River, so be sure to make a reservation if you’re planning to be in town.
Across the street is Farm Boy’s Restaurant, a popular takeout spot. Around the corner you’ll find Gingerbread Bakery & O’Neal’s Snack Bar, a local favorite. A few doors down is Cloud 9 Creamery, which touts “Ice Cream + Candy + Good Vibes.” I can attest to all three! Cross one more street for some of the best fried pickle chips you’ll ever have at Fish Hook’s Café.
My favorite thing about the people I met in Beaufort County was their incredible generosity.
Rachel Midgette, owner of Rachel K’s Bakery in Washington, provides free meals to anyone who cannot afford to pay if they come in and ask for the “Rachel Special.”
Across the street, Tom Ryan, owner of Pamlico Books, donates proceeds from used book sales to Literacy Volunteers of Beaufort County.
Eating dinner alone at The Tavern at Jack’s Neck in Belhaven, the woman I made small talk with gave me her phone number and invited me to stay at her place the next time I’m in town.
The folks from Beaufort County Schools embodied this same generosity. When I met with Superintendent Matthew Cheeseman — who was the superintendent in Perquimans County when my dad taught there — he called in other staff members just to brag on them. One offered me a tour of the school district’s state-of-the-art podcast studio, and another volunteered to give me a tour of Eastern Elementary School.
David Loope, president of Beaufort County Community College (BCCC), offered me coffee and water and candy before I could even step foot in his office. When I assured him I was fine, he just kept finding something else to offer me. (Fun Fact: My colleague Nation Hahn gave the commencement address at BCCC this year.)
There wasn’t a single person I spoke to in Beaufort County who wasn’t willing to share their time, energy, and experiences with a researcher who wanted to listen. In my experience, this openness is unique to the folks of Beaufort County. Their generosity feels boundless.