It’s hard not to love a place whose website begins with the beers on tap at the local brewery, and where a passer-by at the free town dock asks strangers whether they want a ride to “the Piglet.” That’s what the locals call the town’s Piggly Wiggly, smaller than most of the supermarkets in the chain, but chockablock with nearly everything boaters need for the galley and some things they don’t, like T-shirts sporting a smiling pig and an outsized OiNc, an abbreviation for Oriental, North Carolina.
If “the Piglet” doesn’t have it, the old-fashioned Village Hardware store up the road does. If that fails, there’s a well-stocked Inland Waterway Provision Company, with everything from organic produce to composting toilets. Those stores serve visiting boaters as well as the 900 or so people who live in Oriental, a safe harbor off the Neuse River at the southern end of Pamlico Sound. Over the course of a year, more than 4,000 boaters visit, many of them snowbirds who cruise from New England to Florida and back, lured by the mid-Atlantic location, docking options, slow pace and year-round festivals, regattas and tomfoolery.
There are free showers and free pump-out. There’s a veterinarian, beauty salons, a reputation for reliable marine work. On weekends, there’s a farmers market and a nautical flea market with replacement parts for just about anything.
Across the street from the town dock is The Bean, a coffee shop where locals jaw about politics near and national, or plan the next Dragon’s Breath Regatta, a tradition for teams of paddlers on longboats with a drummer forward keeping pace, and an oarsman aft to steer. The race, the length of a football field, ends in a minute and a half, yet teams train for it all year. The race is held in Grace Harbor in the River Dunes neighborhood, a resort-style community. If you want to stay on land, another option is Arlington Place, with rental homes in the woods connected to kayaking trails through the marshes.
Be careful if you visit, though. On a recent evening, folks at the New Village Brewery & Taproom were one-upping each other on how few times they visited before they bought a place or a plot of land. They came for the sunsets, for the calm far from the Outer Banks beaches, for the paddle boarding, kayaking and wind surfing, but most of all for the safe harbor, both for their boats and for themselves. In Oriental, everyone is a neighbor.
“So many people who live here came from somewhere else, so there’s a great mix of people, nationalities and interests,” says Laurie Stockwell, president of one of the dragon boat racing teams. “There’s activit you wouldn’t normally find in a town this size.”
Once a month, there’s live music at The Old Theater. On other weekends, there’s a $5 movie with free popcorn and $1 glasses of wine. There’s open mic night at The Silos, a pizza-centric restaurant built out of two grain silos. Behind it is The Red Rooster, an outdoor stage for local musicians. There’s live music some nights at the brewery too, and at the Toucan Grill & Fresh Bar, where diners can sit in Adirondack chairs facing the town marina and watch a parade of trawlers heading out for shrimp, grouper, bass and croaker. When the boats return, there are mounds of fresh fish at Fulcher’s Seafood, a market across from the town dock. For already-cooked seafood, head around the corner to M&M’s Cafe, which has a breezy screened-in porch and serves fish and chowders, cocktails and crispy fries. For breakfast it’s Brantley’s Village Restaurant, where the weekend buffet draws nearly half the town.
Each October, Oriental hosts the Ol’ Front Porch Music Festival, with musicians from around the country jamming out on porches all around town. Wander around and hear bluegrass and blues, jazz and folk, culminating in gospel music at sunrise at the city park.
Oriental calls itself the “Sailing Capital of North Carolina,” and its School of Sailing draws students from all over the country. On Wednesdays, the town hosts a relatively carefree race around government markers, providing an opportunity for new racers to practice.
According to local lore, Oriental got its name in the late 1800s, when the wife of the postmaster was visiting the beaches of the Outer Banks and found the washed-up nameplate of the Oriental, a sailing steamer that had wrecked in 1862 off Bodie Island. She thought Oriental made for a livelier name than the existing Smith’s Creek, and the new moniker was born, making this the only town called Oriental in the United States. The town takes its name semi-seriously. A mosaic-covered Oriental-style dragon floats downtown. On New Year’s Eve, teams holding Chinese dragons race in the town center. The celebration ends when a brightly lit faux croaker is dropped from a pole. Who needs Times Square when you can cavort with people in ridiculous hats, celebrating their neighborliness?
Oriental is an excellent place to laugh with the locals. Just be careful or you’ll become one.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.