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Travel Backgrounder : Discover the Good Life Daily in Elizabeth City, NC
(Elizabeth City, NC, 2010) -- Halfway between Norfolk, VA, and North Carolina's Outer Banks is a charmer of a town. Drive through Elizabeth City and it’s not unusual to see boaters gathered for an impromptu dock party, a costumed tour guide with guests in tow or a gallery opening in full swing along the city’s authentic Mayberry-esque Main Street.
Instead of passing through, why not stay awhile?
Like the poet Robert Frost, who followed the road less traveled to Elizabeth City in 1894, today's visitors will find an accommodating getaway with a pleasing charm.
The Great Outdoors
Bounded by the Dismal Swamp to the north and the Pasquotank River to the southeast, Elizabeth City is first and foremost a waterfront town. Founded in 1793, it was once a major seaport where four-masted sailing ships carried goods along the eastern seaboard. That same year, construction began on the Dismal Swamp Canal, providing an important commercial trade route linking Virginia with relatively isolated Northeastern North Carolina.
Today, Elizabeth City’s location on the Intracoastal Waterway makes it a popular stop for recreational boaters from around the world. On arrival, they may take advantage of the city’s generous 48-hour free dockage and are feted by the "Rose Buddies," waterfront ambassadors who greet visiting boaters with a rose and wine and cheese at Mariners’ Wharf.
For a different waterfront experience, the Dismal Swamp beckons paddlers, hikers, bikers and birders.
Nearly 125,000 acres comprise the Dismal Swamp, one of North America’s great wetland forests situated along the North Carolina/Virginia border. One of the best places to gain access is the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center and Dismal Swamp State Park in neighboring Camden County.
Located on the canal, the Welcome Center is the only such facility in the country to welcome visitors by car and by a historic waterway. Drop in to talk to the friendly staff, get your bearings and gather information for your travels.
Two trails are located just outside the Welcome Center. The quarter-mile Nature Trail is great for stretching your legs. For a longer hike, take the 4.5-mile Dismal Swamp Canal Trail, part of the North Carolina Birding Trail and East Coast Greenway, which extends from the Welcome Center to the village of South Mills.
Visitors can walk from the Welcome Center across a swing-span bridge to the visitor center at the Dismal Swamp State Park. With interior exhibits that interpret the history and biological make up of the swamp, it’s a wonderful resource for learning more about the region’s rich habitat. After visitors have a chance to tour inside, they can explore outdoors via a raised boardwalk or go for a longer excursion among the 16.7 miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails. Beginning this spring, visitors can rent bikes for traversing the park’s interior trails and kayaks for a paddling excursion along on the historic Dismal Swamp Canal.
History, Museums and More!
Did you know that North Carolina’s first school started in Elizabeth City-Pasquotank County in 1705? Or that Wilbur and Orville Wright stayed over in Elizabeth City while they made plans for the first powered flight at nearby Kill Devil Hills?
These facts and more of the region’s history are brought to life at the Museum of the Albemarle, the northeastern regional branch of the North Carolina Museum of History. The museum interprets the history of 13 counties along the Albemarle Sound area, considered by many to be the birthplace of English America.
A thoughtful, permanent exhibition, “Our Story” showcases more than 750 artifacts and displays that tell the story of the region’s watermen, farm life, the Civil War, the Wright brothers, the Coast Guard, as well as the region’s rich African-American and Native American history.
In a walk through the gallery, you’ll discover such finds as the cannon recovered from the ship purported to be Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge; the smokestack from the C.S.S. Albemarle; a miniature replica of the James Adams Floating Theatre, the inspiration for author Edna Ferber’s popular novel, “Show Boat”; a horse-drawn “steam pumper” fire engine; and a 1954 Moth Boat, a small sail boat that was developed in Elizabeth City. Visitors can also walk into the Jackson House, a 1755 farmhouse that spanned both the Colonial and Federal time periods. The farmhouse and nearby ca. 1840 smokehouse are original structures from the area.
You’ll experience even more history by taking a walk around town. There are six historic districts in Elizabeth City, and therefore, many opportunities for seeing historic homes, tree-lined streets and stately government structures.
At the Elizabeth City Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, pick up a copy of the new “Elizabeth City Historic Walking Tour” guide—and get started. Published by the Elizabeth City Historic Neighborhood Association (ECHNA), the first of a series of booklets focuses on sites along the historic Main Street commercial district, listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
For an escorted tour with a knowledgeable guide, consider signing on with De’ Tours in Elizabeth City. On this guided walking tour of the Downtown Historic District, you’ll learn about the history of the beautiful antebellum homes and buildings, followed by a traditional afternoon tea in the elegant private parlor of the Hattie Harvey House.
To see sites associated with the Civil War, pick up a copy of the free “Civil War Trails” brochure at the Elizabeth City Area Convention & Visitors Bureau or download a print-out version at www.DiscoverElizabethCity.com. Located within walking distance of the city’s historic downtown waterfront, the markers depict events that took place in Elizabeth City between 1862-1863. There are six markers that collectively weave together a relatively unknown chapter of Union occupation in Elizabeth City through real-life accounts of arson, ambush, guerilla warfare and family tragedy.
Education, Science and the Military
Elizabeth City has three higher education institutions; is home to TCOM, L.P, a pioneer in the advancement of tethered aerostat systems; and is the headquarters of the nation’s largest U.S. Coast Guard Air Station.
All of these play a significant role in the visitor’s experience.
At the Elizabeth City State University Planetarium visitors can get a sky full of information about the planetary sciences when they attend one of the themed star and laser shows that are held throughout the year. The planetarium features a 30-foot hemispherical dome, which arcs above a comfortable seating area of 60 chairs. The free programs are by reservation only for groups of 20 or more.
Families can explore and interact with the science around them at Port Discover Hands-On Science Center, which offers free hands-on science and health programs for children to enjoy with their parents. Kids can fly an airplane, observe sea life, examine rocks and minerals and take part in a host of special programs that bring science to life. Special attention is given to what’s unique about North Carolina’s Albemarle region.
Elizabeth City was once home to a U.S. Naval Air Station that launched blimp surveillance operations off the Atlantic coastline. Today, it is not uncommon to see Monster.com, Sanyo, Fuji Film and brand-name blimps flying high above the city as they make their way to TCOM, L.P., the only company in the world with a facility devoted to aerostat and airship manufacture, assembly, flight test and training. Visitors wishing to tour the facility will get the opportunity to learn about the Navy’s lighter-than-air history in Elizabeth City as well as view the company’s plant. Call ahead to arrange for a tour.
Tours are also available by request at Air Station Elizabeth City. Here on the U.S. Coast Guard base, visitors can meet actual search-and-rescue aviators and divers like those depicted in the motion picture “The Guardian” and climb aboard a Coast Guard rescue helicopter. Coast Guard Elizabeth City opened in 1940 and is the largest Coast Guard installation in the country. Search-and-rescue missions are among its chief responsibilities, and it is home to the Aviation Training Center.
The Arts in Elizabeth City
For the visual and performing arts, The Center at Arts of the Albemarle proves a dramatic starting point. Located in the historic Lowry-Chesson building on Main Street, the three-story, red brick building dates to 1897 and was known at the turn of the century for its theatrical and Vaudeville touring performances.
Today, thanks to a $3.2 million renovation, the building is enjoying a vibrant second act. Past the main entrance, the 10,000 square-foot Jaquelin Jenkins exhibition gallery hosts scheduled exhibitions of local, regional and national artists, along with a retail gallery representing more than 200 artists and craftsmen.
Studio space located throughout the building is dedicated to students of Arts of the Albemarle School of the Arts, an after-school visual and performing arts instructional program. On the second floor, the 230-seat Maguire Theatre is the focal point for live musical performances and theatrical presentations, including those staged by Encore Theatre, a long-time Elizabeth City-based theatre company.
For additional theatre offerings and live concerts, check the annual “Albemarle Nights” performing series offered by College of the Albemarle. Past seasons have featured performances by Kathy Mattea, the Glen Miller Orchestra, USAF Heritage of America Band, Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida” and “A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline,” among others.
And for an intimate, outdoor arts experience, head to Mariners’ Wharf Park for two great seasonal events. During the summer months, visitors can view classic black-and-white movies on an outdoor screen as part of the Mariners’ Wharf Film Festival. In the fall, gather for Music on the Green at Mariners’ Wharf for weekly concerts featuring local musicians performing an array of musical styles, from blues and bluegrass to jazz, rock and pop.
An Accommodating Harbor and Meeting Site
Featured in the book The 100 Best Small Towns in America by Norman Crampton, Elizabeth City has all of the charm and hospitality you’d expect in a genuine southern town. Accommodations range from a variety of cozy B&Bs and small inns to recognized hotel chains and locally-owned and operated motels.
For lunch and dinner, Elizabeth City restaurants serve up everything from Tex-Mex to Sushi, as well as ample portions of fresh-caught seafood. Most are independently owned and operated—a refreshing change from chain restaurants.
Shopping? Elizabeth City has that covered too. Be sure to explore downtown’s cluster of one-of-a-kind shops and department stores where you’ll find everything from original artwork, jewelry and handmade soaps to specialty wines and foods made in the Elizabeth City area. An indoor mall and other unique shopping are also in town.
As the largest city in Northeastern North Carolina, Elizabeth City is an ideal meeting site, offering a beautiful waterfront and convenient, centralized location. The city offers 550 hotel rooms and more than 30 venues throughout the community to accommodate groups, business conferences and events for 10 to 450 people that include society, military, education, religious and fraternal organizational meetings.
For travel information and suggested itineraries, call the Elizabeth City Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-866-ECity-4U (1-866-324-8948) or (252) 335-5330 or go to www.DiscoverElizabethCity.com
Photo Credit: Main image in header, photo appears courtesy of ECSU/University Relations & Marketing.