Jason Frye moved to Wilmington in 2002 to attend grad school ... and never left. As a freelance writer, he has visited and written about the 301-mile coastline and the mainland behind it.
His second N.C. guidebook for Moon/Avalon – “Moon North Carolina Coast (including the Outer Banks)” – pulls together what he’s seen, done and recommends to travelers, from the Great Dismal Swamp on the Virginia line to the fabled fish restaurants in Calabash, just upwind from Myrtle Beach. There are stops along the way for flora, fauna, folklore, beer and more.
In an interview last week, Frye shared highlights of what that area has to offer.
“It’s like Ocracoke might have been 190 years ago – but a little eerie because the homes there have been maintained by the Park Service. It looks like someone just left and will be back ... but they won’t.”
“At Pea Island, there’s a little memorial to him, and they re-created a life-saving station there. His grave and an account of his story are at the N.C. Aquarium at Roanoke, which they’re getting ready to redo. The place where Ethridge grew up – Island Farm – is a living history site with three or four original buildings from his family’s holdings on Roanoke Island.”
“It has eight or 10 miles of absolutely pristine beach. Sometimes you can spot bears there, and there are alligators on the inland marsh side of the park.”
“Bald Head Island has isolated beaches to walk on and miles of kayaking through marsh creeks that can get you to some secluded spots. You get around on golf carts or bikes. The lighthouse on Bald Head is beautiful.
“During the Revolution, Brunswick was razed. Fort Anderson was a Confederate gun emplacement built on its ruins to protect the Cape Fear – and the fort helps form one of the strangest stories of the Civil War.
“The flag that flew over Fort Anderson was captured by a guy from a Midwestern regiment; the flag eventually came into the hands of a governor or senator who went to the District of Columbia and presented it to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln accepted it at the National Hotel, where John Wilkes Booth lived. There are reports, via diaries and from people in the crowd that day, that Booth witnessed the ceremony; Booth is described as ‘demonic’ and with a maniacal look in his eye.
“Some historians believe that was the moment Booth decided to assassinate rather than kidnap the president.
“That original flag is back at Fort Anderson, by the way. Some people ended up tracking it down and they bought it without telling the Lincoln story first – a good idea.”
“That style originated in the town of Calabash when Lucy High Coleman started cooking in a little lean-to, frying food for fishermen on their way home. The method is simple: Clean and fillet the fish, dredge it in a little evaporated milk; add cornflour and salt and pepper; then flash fry.
“I think descendants of Coleman own three restaurants in Calabash; Ella’s is one of them. There’s something a little gritty and down-home abut Ella’s.”
“Of those places, The Cypress Grill, in Jamesville (Martin County), is the best-known and the one that’s consistently open January or early February through April. It’s an odd little fishing shack.
“They scale the fish, clean it, score it and fry it.”
“It’s a spot where the aesthetic could shift quite dramatically.”
“When I returned after a five- or six-year hiatus, I was surprised to see how much more it had built up.
“But the Outer Banks manages to retain a small-town vibe and the Banks thing: Going to Jockeys Ridge and Jennette’s Pier never gets old. And you have the lighthouses there, which make our coast special. There are three you can climb that are within easy striking distance of anywhere on the Outer Banks.”