Sweet surprises of North Carolina

There are many surprises in North Carolina: Touring the Ava Gardner Museum, for instance, I was amazed to find out that not only did this silver screen legend and tobacco farmer’s daughter have an 18-inch waist, but that she maintained this miniscule measurement while living in the heart of barbecue country. This state is the land of pulled-pork sandwiches, Brunswick stew and coleslaw so good it doesn’t need mayonnaise. It’s also the site of the highest sand dune on the Atlantic coast, where lighthouses that once guided sailors and settlers to a safe harbor still stand proud, and where Southern hospitality is a staple of everyday life. And it’s a great place to take a late-summer or fall vacation. Here, sweet iced tea replaces the evening martini and history follows travelers from county to county.

The growing interest in America’s roots has sparked the interest in “heritage tourism” and it all comes together in North Carolina, where the past inspires the present in clever ways. Our journey began in Smithfield, followed by a five-hour drive to the Outer Banks in Dare County. Well provisioned in Smithfield after a stop at Smithfield’s Ham Shop (more hams curing there than you could count), pulled-pork sandwiches from the White Swan Barbecue, and from Smithfield’s Chicken ‘n’ Bar-B-Q, Southern fried chicken, banana pudding with vanilla wafers and a gallon of sweet iced tea, we envied Gardner’s 18-inch waist even more.

But the actress is not the area’s only claim to fame. Another dark-haired legend, Blackbeard the pirate, famously prowled the waters between Ocracoke and Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks. Suffering the end of his piratical career at Ocracoke Inlet on the North Carolina coast in 1718, he was slain by Lt. Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy. Even before that tyrannical pirate prowled the seas in his ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, the unsolved mystery of the lost colonists persisted to haunt the area. A group of 117 colonists arrived on Roanoke Island in 1587, attempting to put down roots in the New World. An expedition returned to the island discovering that the colonists had vanished, leaving mysterious carvings on tree trunks: “Cro,” near the bank of the Roanoke Sound and “Croatoan” near their deteriorating fort. These perplexing messages have been debated by historians for 400 years. This enigma inspired “The Lost Colony,” now a lavish production performed June through August (except Sundays) at the Waterside Theatre in the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island, just steps from where the lost colonists lived and struggled. Written by Paul Green, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, next year marks the production’s 70th anniversary.

I hadn’t come to North Carolina for movie stars and pirates, however. My original purpose was to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial, atop Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk. But after a visit to the museum, I was lured away by the local down-home eatery Kill Devils, a beach shanty on Highway 12 serving smooth as silk homemade custard. Fresh blackberry was on tap the day I visited.

I reserved a room at the vintage Roanoke Island Inn in the well-preserved town of Manteo, near the waterfront and the tower where Antheus Drinkwater transmitted the breaking news of Orville and Wilber Wrights’ 12-second flight, ushering in the age of human flight. Night owls should sign on for the two-hour Historic Old Manteo candlelight walking tour, for which the guide is the local police chief of 10 years, Francis De’ Ambra. Our group consisted of 14 history buffs who listened in rapt attention as De’ Ambra ticked off names and dates like a detective. He pointed out the church where Andy Griffith sang in the choir and he told some spookily plausible ghost stories speculating that Virginia Dare, who vanished with the lost batch of colonists, might have resurfaced as Pocahontas. Her birthday was suspiciously close to Dare’s.

Surrounded by 900 square miles of water and the world’s third largest estuary system, this region is a magnet for “eco-travelers”-although many of them drive SUVs to designated spots on the shore. Cape Hatteras National Seashore extends 70 miles from South Nags Head to Ocracoke Inlet. Reserve a full day for leisurely stops to visit the Bodie Island Light House, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge (more than 265 species of birds flock here) and Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, America’s tallest at 208 feet.


But for a taste of the area’s other kind of natural beauty, return to the Ava Gardner Museum, which will host the second annual Ava Gardner Festival this fall, Sept. 30-Oct. 1, which will feature the original costumes from the 1953 Academy Award-winning flick “Mogambo.”

Info: The Outer Banks of North Carolina: 877.629.4386;




Pamela Price is the co-author of “Fun with the Family in Southern California” (Globe Pequot Press).

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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