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The aquaculture of this coastal county is crystal clear.

Few places in North Carolina are as influenced by water as Carteret County. From the restaurants serving fresh seafood caught by local fisherman to the tourists caught up in the quietude of Cape Lookout National Seashore, Carteret County residents and visitors have been living by the tides for centuries. It’s a culture that’s steeped in saltwater.

The county includes 80 miles of coastline, with more than 55 miles of it in the protected Cape Lookout National Seashore. In addition, many bays, rivers, creeks, and other bodies of water provide even more coastal environments for those who work or play on the water.

“Whether you call our area Carteret County, the Crystal Coast, or the Southern Outer Banks, the water is our calling card,” says Carol Lohr, a 29-year county resident and the long-time executive director of the Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority. “Throughout our county’s history, the water has provided a lifestyle and livelihood that both locals and visitors love.” When I stopped by to speak with Lohr about the county’s connection to the water, I found it interesting that her office and the visitor center overlook the Intracoastal Waterway. Visitors seeking information can’t help but become immediately immersed in the county’s relationship with the water.

“Carteret County is a key part of North Carolina’s coastal heritage, linking the entire state to the sea,” says county manager, John Langdon “Early settlers arrived from the ocean and their descendents continued for many years making their livelihoods primarily from the sea through commercial shipping and fishing. Those industries still prosper here today. However, our county has evolved, in a manner; our economy remains heavily based upon the coastal connection in other exciting ways--through the emergence of an expanding and vibrant tourism industry.”

A dash of history

There’s no better place to start an exploration of Carteret County’s water-based history than the county’s museum, The History Place, which opened in 2001 on bustling Arendell Street in Morehead City.

The sprawling 12,000-square-foot modern musuem welcomes visitors with several galleries, a popular museum store, an auditorium, a library, a classroom, and a tea shop and café. Hundreds of pieces of history are on display in exhibits that include an old general store, an early schoolroom, a Victorian parlor, and a doctor’s office. Many longtime county families contributed to the museum, with items ranging from American Indian artifacts to fishing gear.

The Rodney B. Kemp Museum Gallery is a local favorite. Named for the historian and award-winning storyteller, this gallery changes exhibits every month.

“The History Place captures the essence of the county’s past,” says curator Les Ewen. “One of our most popular programs is ‘Lunch with a Dash of History,’ with Rodney Kemp. Rodney donates his time to the museum and is very active throughout the community.”

Kemp has lived in the county since 1949, when he was 2 years old. “One of my first adventures in moving here was when my brother took me down to the waterfront,” Kemp recalls. “The smell of salty, humid air mixed with fish is as wonderful now as it was then. This is the only home I’ve ever known.”

Kemp attended a time capsule ceremony as a youngster back in 1958 and enjoyed its reopening this past May. The event, which is now highlighted in The History Place, coincided with 150th anniversary celebrations for Morehead City. “I am fortunate to have lived here almost all of my life and this aids me greatly in the historical perspective," he says. "To be part of the 150th anniversary of a place I love so much is an honor for me beyond compare.”

A Sanitary meal

Just two blocks over from the waterfront, legendary seafood restaurants like Sanitary Fish Market Restaurant serve up the local catch with a view.

Originally opened by Ted Garner and Tony Seamon in 1938 as a fresh seafood market, the partners paid $5.50 rent per week with a promise to their landlord that they wouldn’t sell beer or wine and that the premises would be kept clean. They selected the name to reflect that oath of cleanliness. The original location featured just 12 stools. Today, the restaurant seats 600 people, and Garner’s grandchildren run day-to-day operations.

In 1945, John Tunnell started working at the restaurant, and he hasn’t stopped since. “I’ve done everything here--and still do,” says Tunnell. He rarely forgets a face or a name and still loves fish, the famed Sanitary hush puppies, and Carteret County, where he’s lived since his early childhood.

Historic Beaufort

The town of Beaufort overlooks Taylor Creek and the uninhabited Rachel Carson National Estuarine Research Reserve. There are lots of shops, restaurants, water-based rentals and excursions, bed and breakfasts, and inns to visit, but Beaufort is also a great base for exploring Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Several ferry services, like Outer Banks Ferry Service, take visitors out to various parts of the protected seashore, where it’s often possible to spot some of the wild horses that are part of a 120-strong herd on Shackleford Banks, a nine-mile island that’s part of the National Seashore. “I love sending people out there,” says Outer Banks Ferry Service manager Cindy Smith. “It’s obviously a highlight of a visit to this county.”

Beaufort is also the home of the North Carolina Maritime Museum. Located just across the street from Taylor Creek and Outer Banks Ferry Service, this fascinating museum interprets all aspects of North Carolina’s maritime heritage. An array of exhibits vividly document commercial fishing, watercraft, lifesaving history, navigation, coastal marine life, and much more.

From boats to a huge shell collection and lots of decoys, this is another must-see Carteret County museum. Across the street at the museum’s Watercraft Center, visitors can watch the renovation and restoration of various wooden boats and ship models.

Nearby, Beaufort Historic Site features three centuries of preserved coastal Carolina history. Situated on Turner Street, this two-acre plot includes 10 historic buildings that date from the 1730s to the mid-1800s. Visitors find cottages, a jail, an apothecary shop, a doctor’s office, and even the Old Burying Ground--one of very few cemeteries listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Carteret County is known for welcoming two-legged visitors, but Beaufort is also becoming well-known for welcoming the four-legged variety. The Red Dog Inn Bed and Breakfast and several local businesses welcome dogs. “You will find dog watering bowls in front of several shops and restaurants, as well as doggie clean-up stations along the boardwalk,” says Red Dog Inn’s Molly Wood. “We even have a dog-friendly pub and a coffee shop/wine bar that love to have four-legged visitors come in with their humans.” Several restaurants even have dog-friendly outdoor seating.

Pigs and parks

Beaufort and Morehead city aren’t the only county towns of note. Located just inland, the small town of Newport is the home of the Newport Pig Cookin’ Contest each spring. And you can walk off a few of those eastern-sytle barbecue sandwiches on the nearby Neusiok Trail, which runs about 20 miles through woods, bogs, and marshes.

Beach communities like Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores, and Emerald Isle await just across the bridge from Morehead City. These spots are home to waterfront dining and accommodations, Fort Macon State Park, and the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.

Fort Macon State Park provides a unique peek into early Carteret County history. The oceanfront location led to Fort Macon being garrisoned in 1834. It was seized from Union forces by the state of North Carolina at the beginning of the Civil War, but it fell back into Union hands in 1862 after they attacked Confederate forces. It served as a coaling station for Union navy ships during the rest of the war and as a federal prison from 1867 to 1876. The fort closed in 1903, after additional use during the Spanish-American War.

Fort Macon was sold to the state in 1924 for $1 and became North Carolina’s second state park , following Mount Mitchell. A four-year renovation was completed in 2003, resulting in a new museum facility. A quiet visit today includes varied exhibits about life at the fort, cannons, occasional living history and weapons demonstrations, and 385 acres of incredible views over the Atlantic Ocean, Beaufort Inlet, and Bogue Sound.

The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores reopened in 2006 after major renovations and an expansion. From shark-feeding scuba divers to sunken ships surrounded by exotic colorful fish, this aquarium makes it easy to dive right into the county’s aquaculture.

Of course, this sandy stretch is also popular for simply strolling the sandy beach and sitting in the sun. Two popular piers make catching "the big one" a distinct possibility (as do lots of county-based boats that welcome visiting anglers).

When the big ones get away from amateur anglers, commercial fisherman haul them in for local restaurants specializing in fresh seafood. “We are proud to be part of Carteret County’s culinary heritage,” says Libby Eaton, who is co-owner with chef and husband Tim Coyne of Morehead City’s Bistro-by-the-Sea. “I’m on the executive board of CarteretCatch, a nonprofit organization developed to educate the public on the history of Carteret County fisherman.” CarteretCatch (www.carteretcatch.com) has a program that ensures that seafood like the triggerfish I enjoyed at Bistro-by-the-Sea can be traced to the Carteret County commercial fisherman who caught it offshore (several other county restaurants participate).

Those who also enjoy seeing their seafood underwater as well will want to pursue another fishy Carteret County draw--scuba diving. With the area dubbed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of the numerous wrecks just offshore, wreck diving is big business here, with lots of big fish swimming through the remains of dozens of big ships.

Heading down east

A visit wouldn’t be complete without heading across the North River bridge and into the easternmost parts of this varied county. This even quieter Down East section features Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum, and Cape Lookout National Seashore, which can be accessed easily by ferry.

The 12,500-acre Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge is a nature lover’s paradise. Here, hiking, birdwatching, and boating are all enjoyable pursuits. The northern end of Cedar Island is also home to the ferry terminal for the Cedar Island-Ocracoke Island ferry service, a favorite ride in the ferry system.

At the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum, exhibits detail the water-based life of this area, including a special emphasis on the decoy carving culture of Harkers Island and beyond.

In addition, from Harkers Island, several ferry services offer mostly seasonal service over to several parts of Cape Lookout National Seashore, where an even quieter Carteret County beach lookout awaits.

Welcomed seclusion

But it’s what’s just across Core Sound that lures me back to Carteret County again and again.

This secluded North Carolina coastal gem never ceases to fascinate, and it takes many visits to take it all in (if that’s even possible). Along with the previously mentioned Shackleford Banks and the famed wild horses, the National Seashore includes 22-mile-long South Core Banks, home of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, and the approximately 20-mile North Core Banks, an even quieter National Seashore dstination.

Of course, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse is a Carteret County beacon. It was completed in 1859, it's 169 feet tall with 201 steps, and it flashes every 15 seconds. The lighthouse complex also includes the Keepers’ Quarters, with a small museum and bookstore.

Up on North Core Banks, devoted county explorers head to the former village of Portsmouth (established in 1753). With a small array of homes, churches, stores, and even a post office, Portsmouth provides fascinating insight into Carteret County life before bridges, although the importance of water in this county is still certainly afloat practically everywhere. The relationship between this area and water has served residents and visitors very well--and it likely will for many generations to come.

Lynn Seldon lives on Oak Island, but heads Down East as often as possible.

If you’re going

Crystal Coast Tourism Authority
3409 Arendell Street
Morehead City, NC 28557
(800) SUNNY NC (786-6962)

The History Place
1008 Arendell Street
Morehead City, NC 28557
(252) 247-7533
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
1 Roosevelt Boulevard
Pine Knoll Shores, NC 28512
(252) 247-4003
Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.