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This North Carolina Destination Is Home to Charming Small Towns, Beautiful Sailing, and Retro-chic Hotels

Travel + Leisure logo Travel + Leisure 5/16/2022 Jancee Dunn

PamSchodt/Getty Images © Provided by Travel + Leisure PamSchodt/Getty Images

Most people know something about North Carolina's Outer Banks: Recognized for its dune-rippled beaches and candy-cane-striped lighthouses, it's also the place where the Wright brothers took their famous flight. But there's an Inner Banks, too — a swath of state sandwiched between I-95 to the east and the Outer Banks to the west.

A hidden gem on the East Coast, this region is best explored by water, so on a recent long weekend in November, my family embarked on a four-day, 130-mile journey via kayak, sailboat, catamaran, and, occasionally, when aquatic transport simply wasn't doable, car.

Day One: Washington

Before setting sail, we spent a night at Elmwood 1820, an elegant, five-bedroom bed-and-breakfast in a tiny town called "Little Washington." In the morning, on the sprawling veranda, we had a knockout breakfast of eggs, sweet potato pancakes with pecans, and fluffy biscuits. Fueled up, we rented kayaks from Inner Banks Outfitters and paddled from a narrowing, sun-dappled creek into a series of marshes, where turtles lounged on logs and herons crept up on minnows.

Courtesy of Tom Vanderbilt © Provided by Travel + Leisure Courtesy of Tom Vanderbilt

As we returned the kayaks, I started chatting with owner Liane Harsh. She insisted we had to see Washington from the river — or rivers, to be exact, because the town marks the spot where the Pamlico River turns into the Tar River. She also had a new boat to show off, and we were happy to indulge her. As we motored her trim Boston Whaler past a small island rumored to have once housed a brothel, Harsh's cell phone buzzed. "Hi, Mom," she said. Her mother, who lives in a waterfront apartment, had seen her pass by and wondered who was on the boat. "Everyone knows everything around here," said Harsh.

Related: 12 Best Small Towns in North Carolina — From Coastal Gems to Mountain Getaways

Courtesy of The Hackney © Provided by Travel + Leisure Courtesy of The Hackney

We closed out the day at The Hackney, a restaurant and gin distillery that was opened in 2019 by Susanne Hackney Sanders. After feasting on chef Jamie Davis' sweet potato bisque (made with potatoes from nearby Southside Farms and topped with a pair of fried oysters), plus shrimp and grits and pan-seared red drum fish, we finished with a small glass of 1000 Piers gin, which is made with a blend of 21 local botanicals.

Day Two: Oriental to Swansboro to Beaufort

The next morning, we decamped for Oriental, the self-professed "Sailing Capital of North Carolina," and boarded a 34-foot Catalina sailboat under the command of captain Alexis Edwards of Bow to Stern Boating. Twenty-three years old and a third-generation sailor, she nimbly scampered around the boat. As we spent the day cruising the open expanse of the Neuse River — named for the Neusiok tribe — Edwards noted that the Neuse was a sailing secret. "People call and say, 'I don't want to sail a river — it'll be too small,'" she said. Spreading her arms wide, she added, "It's six miles across." Sailors can proceed from here to the ocean. (I spied a pod of dolphins frolicking off the bow.)


Video: North Carolina beach house collapses into sea (Reuters)

Related: 16 Best Beaches in North Carolina

Courtesy of Tom Vanderbilt © Provided by Travel + Leisure Courtesy of Tom Vanderbilt

Midday, we stopped in Swansboro, one of the scenic waterfront towns dotting the Inner Banks. After a lunch of fish and chips, we were bound for the water again, at Hammocks Beach State Park — this time on a 23-foot Bay Rider Skiff with captain Daryl Marsh. We glided through quiet channels before arriving at Bear Island. We pulled up to the beach and jumped off, the water still warm for November. Aside from a few fishermen and a smattering of oystercatcher birds overhead, we had the four-mile-long barrier island to ourselves. As my family gazed out at the rolling dunes, favored by loggerhead sea turtles as a tucked-away nesting spot, my daughter reached for my hand and gave it a squeeze. 

At day's end, we stopped off in Beaufort, which shares a name with the more widely known town in South Carolina. At Beaufort Grocery Co., a low-key spot that's been pleasing locals for three decades, we had some Carolina crab cakes and Darn Fine Gumbo — not a misnomer, as it turns out. 

Day Three: Beaufort

Courtesy of Beaufort Hotel © Provided by Travel + Leisure Courtesy of Beaufort Hotel

Luxury stays are a bit of a rarity around the Inner Banks. But the new Beaufort Hotel North Carolina is a welcome addition, with navy and white furnishings, pendant lights with buoy netting, and mirrors that resemble a nautical porthole. It's also right on Taylor Creek, in the Rachel Carson Reserve (Beaufort is where Carson wrote her first book, "Under the Sea Wind"), providing peaceful water views.

Chris Council, Emily Chaplin/Courtesy of VisitNC.com © Provided by Travel + Leisure Chris Council, Emily Chaplin/Courtesy of VisitNC.com

In the morning, a 10-minute ferry brought us to Shackleford Banks, a collection of undeveloped barrier islands where we scoured the beach for sand dollars and spotted wild horses that are believed to be descendants of shipwrecked Spanish Mustangs from the 16th century. 

Day Four: Wrightsville Beach 

The Atlantic Ocean, even when not visible, is always a presence in the Inner Banks region, as it washes in and out of coastal estuaries with the tide. We started to feel its tug, so we headed to Wrightsville Beach, near the bustling college town of Wilmington. Wrightsville feels like a pocket-sized version of Miami Beach, dotted with surf shops and retro-chic hotels, like the recently refurbished midcentury Blockade Runner where we stayed.

Courtesy of Blockade Runner Hotel © Provided by Travel + Leisure Courtesy of Blockade Runner Hotel

In the morning, we went for a beach walk, then headed to The Workshop, a cafe and fossil jewelry shop run by scuba divers. While my husband and I chugged cold brew, our daughter loved examining the ancient teeth of megalodons, the Pliocene-era sharks that used to glide through North Carolina's waters. (A cafe serving smoothies and fossils was a first for all of us.) But as with so many moments around the Inner Banks, we were soon back on the water, surfing the frothy Atlantic on the eastern side of Wrightsville Beach and stand-up paddleboarding into the Masonboro Island Reserve, where meandering white ibis and whispering grasses were our only company. 

The Inner Banks, as a phrase, may be a bit of ambitious marketing, but as a place, it takes a real hold on the imagination. Even after our trip, some nights as I drifted off to sleep, my bed seemed to gently rock, as though lapping waves still carried me. 

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