The following pages outline a tour of the Core Sound region of North Carolina’s central coast, and of nearby destinations that exemplify the maritime heritage of Down East communities.
To some North Carolinians, the phrase “Down East” refers to all of eastern North Carolina, from the tobacco-and-barbecue zone along the Virginia border at the northeast, to the swamps and bays along the South Carolina border that mark the beginning of the Low Country. To residents of the central coast, however, Down East is the geographically remote but culturally fertile Core Sound region of Carteret County. Northeastern Carteret County encompasses vast plains of coastal marsh, punctuated by small fishing villages along the inland side of Core Sound; across the sound is the Cape Lookout National Seashore, now a federally maintained nature preserve and popular recreational area, but once the site of maritime towns that were for centuries vital pulse points in the history and economy of North Carolina.
Core Sound is a region rich in folklife. Its traditions of boat-building, decoy-carving, and working on the water make it one of the most distinctive cultural enclaves in North Carolina. In considering the history of Core Sound, there is a temptation to equate the region’s geographic isolation with cultural isolation – to conclude that these people’s traditions grew in a sequestered environment, with no influences other than the culture brought by the first settlers. But the people of Core Sound live by the water – both literally and figuratively – and their maritime heritage has linked them throughout their history to a much wider Atlantic culture. Carteret County’s marshes and back creeks make Core Sound remote from the rest of North Carolina, but even the earliest whalers on the Outer Banks were part of an international network of trade and communication and culture that would have been unfathomable to inland Carolinians.
This region’s traditions are highly distinctive, but are drawn from a wealth of cultures. 18th- and 19th-century waterfront homes in Beaufort show the graceful lineaments of Caribbean colonial architecture. In the pre-radio days, news was likely to arrive faster from New York or London than from Fayetteville or Raleigh. Though the extent of their legacy is debated, international pirates infested the North Carolina sounds in colonial times. From the 18th century to present day, coastal Carolinians have had an international and well deserved reputation as expert seafarers, and in their travels around the world – fishing, trading, and serving in the military – they gleaned a worldview that was well ahead of its time in its multinational breadth. Core Sound’s maritime folklife, particularly its boats and handcrafted tools of the fisherman’s trade, reflect that wealth of influences.
The tour begins in Beaufort, which is located approximately three hours’ drive east of Raleigh (two hours east of I-95), and can be reached directly by traveling on Highway 70 East. To visit all of the destinations along this itinerary, one needs at least a weekend, or, better yet, three days. While the distances between stops are not great, two involve ferry rides, requiring careful scheduling and plenty of time to cross the sounds.
The hours and availability of ferries vary by season and weather, so be sure to plan accordingly. Getting to Portsmouth, at the northern end of the tour, requires a long but scenic ferry ride across Pamlico Sound from Cedar Island to Ocracoke, and then a shorter passage from Ocracoke down to Portsmouth. The trip from the mainland to Shackleford Banks is considerably shorter than the Pamlico crossing. The Cedar Island-Ocracoke Ferry is operated by the state of North Carolina, and information about schedule and reservations can be found here, or by calling the Department of Transportation, 1-877-DOT4YOU. Ocracoke-Portsmouth and Beaufort/Harkers Island-Cape Lookout ferry trips are offered by commercial operators, a list of whom can be found here.
There are several hotels and bed and breakfast inns in Beaufort. Morehead City, just over the bridge from Beaufort, has several motels and bed and breakfasts, as do the beach communities along Bogue Banks, like Atlantic Beach, which are a very short drive from Morehead City. Likewise, there are many excellent restaurants in the Beaufort-Morehead area. There are a handful of restaurants on Harkers Island and in the small communities to the north. Harkers Island has a couple of lodging choices, and there is one motel and restaurant, The Driftwood, next to the ferry at the northernmost tip of Cedar Island. Shackleford Banks and Portsmouth are both located in the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Information about park amenities can be found here.
Please follow the menu on the right to start your tour.
Photo credits: North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient Julian Hamilton shows miniature decoys that he carved in the 1950s; photo by Cedric N. Chatterley. Model boat made by North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient James Allen Rose, Harkers Island; photo by Roger Haile. Boat under construction, Harkers Island; photo by Roger Haile. Women mending nets, circa 1900; collection of Hampton Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia.