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DESTINATION – Washington, N.C,

Pushing to make miles on the Intracoastal Waterway is common among snowbirds making spring and autumn migrations. But so is the tendency to tarry a bit to explore places not on the magenta line, places like Washington, N.C., a historic city of 10,000 residents located 25 miles up the scenic Pamlico River from the ICW.

Pushing to make miles on the Intracoastal Waterway is common among snowbirds making spring and autumn migrations. But so is the tendency to tarry a bit to explore places not on the magenta line, places like Washington, N.C., a historic city of 10,000 residents located 25 miles up the scenic Pamlico River from the ICW.

Passing through the railroad swing bridge, which is usually open, Washington’s newly restored waterfront looms to starboard.

 Historic Victorian-era brick buildings and the silos of the old gristmill at Havens Wharf create a backdrop for the boats tied up at the city’s docks and the masts of sailboats at the Carolina Wind Yachting Center. The waterside promenade inspires visitors to stroll along the river, or relax on a bench and watch the world go by.


While Washington is a thriving community, the mood nevertheless is laid-back in the fine tradition of a quintessential Southern town, with its slow pace and friendly manner.

Located where fresh water from the Tar River meets the brackish water of the Pamlico River, Washington originally was called Forks of the Tar. The settlement was established on the farm of James Bonner in 1771 with the blessing of the North Carolina state legislature. When the Revolutionary War broke out Bonner served as a colonel in the Continental Army, and upon returning home he renamed the town after his commanding general, George Washington. It’s said to be the first village in the United States to bear Washington’s name. The shipping port along the Pamlico-Tar played an important part in the war, serving as a major supply route for the Continental Army when the British were laying siege to the ports of Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C., and Wilmington, N.C.

Washington continued to serve as an active port after the Revolutionary War. In 1790 only Wilmington was busier in terms of traffic. It was and still is the seat of BeaufortCounty, so named for the Duke of Beaufort, Henry Somerset. As time passed, the Washington waterfront teemed with the hustle and bustle of commerce. Ships from Europe, the Caribbean, and the Northeast docked with holds full of sugar, spices, textiles and other commodities. Lumber, tar, turpentine, tobacco and cotton brought down the Tar River were loaded aboard these same ships for sale in markets all over the world. Built in 1820 HavensWharf recalls Washington’s more industrial days. It’s the oldest commercial structure in the historic district.

As with many cities in the South, Washington saw action during the Civil War. Union troops occupied it shortly after the war began and designated it the capital of North Carolina. In 1864 the Confederate Army drove the Union forces out, but not before they started a fire that destroyed many of the town’s buildings. Washington began to prosper again in 1878, when the railroad came through and facilitated the growth of the lumber industry. A fire ravaged downtown again in 1900, though many of the older buildings survived.

“Washington is steeped in history,” says Lynn Lewis, the city’s tourism director. “You can see it all around as you take the walking tour. The historic district along the waterfront is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”

At the visitor’s center at 138 South Market St. — look for the blue building on the east end of the waterfront — cruisers can pick up a free map of the historic district, known as the cradle of the city, as well as brochures about area attractions, businesses and restaurants. Also available is a $5 book that provides extensive information about the 30 buildings on the self-guided walking tour, including a detailed map and illustrations of the homes, churches, stores and other structures dating back as far as 1780. Brief histories accompany each illustration. For those who enjoy leisurely ambles through quiet, scenic streets that sweep you back in time, purchasing the guide and taking the tour will enhance the experience of visiting Washington.

When hunger pangs strike there are 10 restaurants in the historic district within easy walking distance of the docks on Main, Market and Gladden streets, as well as Stewart Parkway. The Meeting Place, established a decade ago on Main Street, is a must for lunch — the only meal served there between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. The comfortably casual, bright atmosphere invites diners to linger over an assortment of great dishes, such as Italian panini sandwiches served on ciabatta bread. The restaurant is popular among locals.

Also on Main Street is Scoops Ice Cream Shop, a great place to stop for a refreshing hot fudge sundae or cone. For those looking for upscale, elegant dining (with live entertainment on Fridays), the Curiosity Shoppe on West Main Street is the place to go. It’s one of the most popular restaurants in the area. For superb beef dishes, Riverwalk Steaks on Bridge Street is just up the road from the dockmaster’s office. Farther afield are the restaurant chains in the Washington Square Mall. Provisions are available at the Wal-MartSupercenter, but it’s at least a mile and a half from the waterfront, so a cab will be necessary.

Banks, the post office and West Marine are all within walking distance of the waterfront. Internet access is available at the George H. and Laura E. Brown Public Library at 122 Van Norden St., two or three blocks from the docks. There is a wide selection of stores for poking around, and for those in need of some pampering, there’s the Oasis Hair Salon & Spa on West Main Street.

Washington is big on the arts. In fact, it has been home to a number of famous, creative people, including movie producer Cecil B. DeMille, journalist Charles Kuralt and actor Murray Hamilton, who played in both “The Graduate” and “Jaws.”

The Beaufort County Arts Council is in the Atlantic Coastline Railroad Depot at 108 Gladden St. Look for the red caboose. Built in 1904, the depot is one of the largest and best-preserved train stations in North Carolina. Every October the council sponsors a fine arts show. The WashingtonCivicCenter and ArtGallery at 110 Gladden St. features the works of local artists, and is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Riverwalk Gallery at 109 West Main St. also supports local artists. Most media are represented: painting, photography, pottery and more.

One of the most popular arts events in the Washington area is Music in the Streets, a festival of music held every third Friday of the month between April and September, and the last weekend in October. Main Street is blocked off for pedestrian traffic only, and on almost every corner musicians entertain with a variety of music, from bluegrass, gospel and blues to percussion and a cappella. There are food concessions and, of course, restaurants are busy. The antique, jewelry and gift shops, which usually close at 5 p.m., all stay open.

“People come out in droves for Music in the Streets,” says Lewis. “The docks are usually full, since local boaters come to enjoy the festivities just minutes from the waterfront.” She adds that the Washington Summer Festival held every June also brings out the crowds.

Coming soon is a jazz club, and efforts are well under way to restore the historic Turnage Theater to bring performing arts to the community. Built between 1910 and 1913, the original Turnage Theater was home to vaudeville and later was one of the first theaters in eastern North Carolina to show “talking” movies.

Not to be missed when visiting Washington is the North Carolina Estuarium at 223 East Water St. (see accompanying story). This aquarium/museum features 200 exhibits focused on the ecosystem of the Albemarle and Pamlico estuary, the second-largest in the United States. Only Chesapeake Bay is bigger. The estuarium is a short walk down the promenade from the docks.

Full of history and the arts, and replete with plenty of interesting shops and fine restaurants, Washington is a destination worth exploring when the urge to depart from the magenta line strikes. It’s a bit out of the way, but this laid-back Southern city spreads the welcome mat for cruisers. It’s the “Heart of the Inner Banks” of North Carolina.