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Travel Diary | Pamlico & Craven counties

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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.

Pamlico County

When I learned I’d be visiting Pamlico County, I bought a paper map. 

All I knew about Pamlico County at the time was that it’s a rural coastal county. Having grown up in a rural coastal county myself, that knowledge was enough to make me suspicious of my GPS system’s ability to help me navigate there.

My suspicions turned out to be well founded. 

If you’ve been to Pamlico County, you’re probably from there or you’re into sailing. Pamlico County is home to Oriental, the sailing capital of North Carolina. It’s also home to Camp Seafarer and Camp Sea Gull, operated by the YMCA of the Triangle. 

I arrived in Oriental on a cloudy morning in early spring, excited for my introduction to this boat-based community. 

The view from Oriental where Greens Creek empties into the Neuse River. Katie Dukes/EdNC

My first stop was for coffee at the best type of coffee shop — one that also serves ice cream. The Bean advertises: “Coffee. Life. Harbor views. Bagels. Discussion. Muffins. Ice cream. Decaf under duress.” That tagline alone places it among my favorites of the coffee shops I visited this spring across several coastal counties. 

Chatting with locals, I learned that this is a place where information travels most effectively by word of mouth. For people who move here from elsewhere, getting tapped into this information network can take some time, but once you’re in, you won’t miss a thing. 

I like staying informed with “Down in the County,” a community newsletter created by Andrea Bruce. She describes herself as a photojournalist and native to Pamlico County who recently returned “after spending much of her adult life covering war zones around the world.” 

The Bean serves up coffee, ice cream, and conversation with views of the harbor in Oriental. Katie Dukes/EdNC

Pamlico County sits on the southwest edge of the Pamlico Sound, south of the Pamlico River and north of the Neuse River. Its northern edge is bordered by Beaufort County and its western edge borders Craven County.

The carpool line at Pamlico County Primary School might be the cutest I’ve seen in my travels so far. Katie Dukes/EdNC

The population of Pamlico County is slightly more than 12,000 people and 74% white, 19% Black, and 4% Latinx. It’s home to four public schools: Pamlico County Primary for pre-K through third graders, Fred A. Anderson Elementary for fourth and fifth grade students, Pamlico County Middle, and Pamlico County High. The school district is led by Superintendent Lisa F. Jackson from a tidy office building within view of the primary, elementary, and high school in the county seat of Bayboro.

A short drive away from the county’s public schools (everything is a short drive away here) is Pamlico Community College, where President Jim Ross humbly prides himself on leading with kindness. If you are going to be in Pamlico County for any reason, reach out to Ross just for the opportunity to be engulfed in the warmth of his caring nature. I think of him as the Mr. Rogers of North Carolina’s community college system. 

There are boats in every nook and cranny of Pamlico County. Katie Dukes/EdNC

Craven County

It’s easy to miss the transitions between counties out here, but if you hit a bridge that crosses the Neuse River, you’re already four miles into Craven County. That bridge represents the epicenter of Craven County, where the Trent River empties into the Neuse, bisecting the county into its northern and southern portions. 

The view from Jack’s Island at Lawson Creek Park, where the Trent River empties into the Neuse, bisecting Craven County’s northern and southern sections. Katie Dukes/EdNC

The southern end of Craven County follows the Neuse as it flows southeast into the Pamlico Sound. It encompasses the world’s largest Marine Corps Air Station in the city of Havelock, as well as the Croatan National Forest. The northern end of Craven County includes the county seat of New Bern and expands east and west on either side of the Neuse River.

Craven County has a population of more than 100,000 people whose demographics are closely aligned with the overall population of North Carolina: 66% white, 22% Black, and 8% Latinx. There are twenty-five public schools in the district led by Superintendent Wendy Miller. 

Principal Erica Phillips made sure I felt super welcome during my visit to J.T. Barber Elementary in New Bern. Katie Dukes/EdNC

Craven County is also home to Craven Community College, which has campuses in New Bern and Havelock. When I told President Ray Staats that the New Bern campus could be mistaken for that of a major university, it was clear he’d heard that before and was happy to hear it again.

Even on a rainy spring day, the Craven Community College in New Bern is lovely. Katie Dukes/EdNC

For my visit to Craven County, I spent most of my time in New Bern. Once the capital of North Carolina, New Bern is a city that has embraced its history. As such, I wanted to stay in the historic district. I found an Airbnb that ended up being my favorite place I stayed during my travels for EdNC so far. 

This was absolutely my favorite place I stayed during my travels across northeast North Carolina. It was the coziest spot to be during a powerful spring thunderstorm. Katie Dukes/EdNC

From there, I could walk to the sites, shops, and restaurants downtown. It was particularly close to Tryon Palace, the rebuilt home of a late 18th century governor. I’m a trained historian and can tell you this place is doing history tours exceedingly well. On a standard tour, I learned about the contributions of both free and enslaved Black laborers in the construction and management of the original site. It was clear the folks at Tryon Palace have been researching this specific history and intentionally incorporating it into their educational outreach. Tryon Palace is a must-visit for me.

New Bern is also a great place to shop for antiques. I scored a superb vintage blazer (tweed with leather trim) at Franklin’s Antique Mall. The folks at Poor Charlie’s Antiques and Flea Market treated me with incredible generosity and kindness on my visit, and I left with meaningful gifts for a friend who was grieving the death of a parent. 

There’s also no shortage of great eats in New Bern. Bella’s Café & Catering is my favorite for breakfast. If you ask for dinner recommendations from folks in the area, you’re likely to hear about Cypress Hall, The Chelsea, or Persimmons Waterfront Restaurant. I’ve been to all three and can absolutely endorse them. I also suggest checking out the Black-owned businesses  highlighted by the New Bern Sun Journal earlier this year.

But the best thing I ate when I was in town was MJ’s Crab Pretzel at MJ’s Raw Bar & Grille. Y’all. This is a soft pretzel covered in crab dip and melted cheese. It’s listed as an appetizer, but I’m going to suggest you just go ahead and make it your whole meal.

You know Bella’s quiche was good because I only remembered to take a photo AFTER I ate it! Katie Dukes/EdNC

If you get lucky on your visit, you may find Elwood Edwards at Bear Town Market or driving your Uber. This local celebrity is the voice behind the AOL exclamation, “You’ve got mail!” In my experience meeting him, he was humble about his celebrity status, but happy to share his story when properly nudged.

Katie Dukes

Katie Dukes is the director of early childhood policy at EdNC.