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Secrets of the N.C. coast

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.

MOST SECLUDED PLACE: “You feel real isolated on the Shackleford Banks, specifically the very old ghost town of Portsmouth, on Cape Lookout National Seashore. It’s ferry-access-only to reach that former whaling station. There’s just a church and a few buildings standing; there’s also a little National Park Service information desk.

“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.”


BEST UNKNOWN ATTRACTION: “That might be the importance of African-Americans to the U.S. Life Saving Service, the precursor to the Coast Guard, on the Outer Banks. Richard Ethridge was the only African-American captain of the service: He was raised as a slave in Manteo, on Roanoke Island, and grew up to be a waterman. After serving in the Civil War in the 36th U.S. Colored Troops – later the famous ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ – he became keeper of the station on Pea Island and commanded an all-black crew.

“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.”


COOLEST UNDISCOVERED BEACH: “Try Hammocks Beach State Park, on the Crystal Coast, near Jacksonville, in Onslow County. It’s on Bear Island, is one of the less-visited state parks and is just a crazy little place. There’s a ferry service to reach it and only one road on the island. You can camp there or just go over for the day.

“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.”


MOST ROMANTIC DESTINATION: “I like Bald Head Island. The island is only 2 miles off the coast, but a 20-minute ferry ride. And there’s something about that ride that really pulls the plug for you: You feel like you’re really going far away, though you can still see the island from the mainland.

“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.


NEATEST HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE TO SEE: “You’ll find the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historical Site in Brunswick County, on the west bank of the Cape Fear River. Brunswick was the first deep-water port for North Carolina, but it began to fail after the river was dredged and Wilmington rose to be the main port of the region.

“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.”


FAVORITE FISH PLACE: “I’m partial to Calabash seafood, so I would go with Ella’s of Calabash.

“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.”


CRAZIEST EATERY WORTH CHECKING OUT: “There are a couple places on the Inner Banks that deal with these odd, old-fashioned fish fries – you have to go in winter, when they have herring and things like that running through.

“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.”


GO HERE BEFORE IT GOES AWAY: “Ocracoke is not physically going away, but more people discover it and start to look at the N.C. coast as a place to live. The danger is that people can build McMansions and gaudy beach mansions – something that looks good in a magazine – rather than something that’s functional and community-appropriate.

“It’s a spot where the aesthetic could shift quite dramatically.”


WORST TRAFFIC: “New Hanover County gets that honor. We’re one of the smallest counties in the state, but with the number of beaches and proximity to the Brunswick County beaches, and with UNC Wilmington here, traffic can get a little hairy at times. That’s especially true when rental beach houses are changing tenants, like Saturdays between 10:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. That’s when locals avoid all the arterials we can.”

MOST-CHANGED LOCALE THAT’S STILL WORTH REVISITING: “My first experience traveling to North Carolina was going to the Outer Banks beaches in the late ’80s and early ’90s. There were a lot of restaurants and houses to rent. Even then it was built up; my aunt and uncle who took us there said it had changed since the 1960s.

“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.”