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The Carolina Coast: Life in the Southeastern United States

A visit to the Carolinas shows off the rich local history and distinct cultural flavor of the coastal communities dating back to pre-colonial times.

| March/April 1990

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    Erected in 1859, the 150-foot Cape Lookout Lighthouse still flashes "I am right here" every night.
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    What happened to the "Ye"?

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Brevard, NC—It was well past midnight, and I sat glued to the television weather channels as Hurricane Hugo's 135-mile-an-hour winds bore down on the eastern Carolinas. As reports of damage poured in, I was torn between grief over the destruction in and around elegant Charleston and relief that the beautiful North Carolina coast, which I had looked in on only two weeks before, was little affected by the storm.

Many visitors to this stretch of land and water sandwiched between South Carolina and Virginia tend to find one favorite spot to return to year after year. In contrast, I'm equally drawn to many of the area's attractions; the stately past and dynamic present in the bustling port of Wilmington; the sleepy ambience of the village of Ocracoke on the southern portion of the Outer Banks; the sense of time standing still I find in Bath, North Carolina's oldest (1705) incorporated town; the Federal, Italianate, and Victorian homes of New Bern; and the youthful mind-set and the art-colony atmosphere of Manteo on Roanoke Island, the site of England's first attempt to settle this continent. Even so, a small area of North Carolina's Carteret County that calls itself Down East seems to me the quintessence of everything that's best about this sea-and-sky lowland.

Lying just east of the North River, Down East is dotted with several small maritime communities strung along Core Sound—towns so tightly knit that, as one person put it, "there are no such things as secrets." It includes places like Harkers Island, the villages of Atlantic, Davis, and Sealevel, and—at the tip of the county—Cedar Island, best known for the ferry that makes regular runs to Ocracoke on the Outer Banks.

Each of these waterside hamlets contains numerous direct descendants of pre-Revolutionary settlers, many of whom still speak in a unique and rapid Elizabethan brogue, richly interspersed with their own sea-salty expressions. Hearing it makes me always want to turn casual encounters into lengthy conversations, just so I can enjoy the dialect's melodic meanderings. People don't seem to mind. These friendly "high-tiders"—as Down Easters call people who are raised "on the water"—move at a slow and easy pace anyway and tend not to get "agawaited" (aggravated) very easily at "ding batters" or "dit dots," as outsiders are called.

And "on the water" is where most natives try to spend their spare time. Huge sheltered sounds, bays, rivers, small coves, and creeks all brim with potential seafood feasts. In fact, Carteret County holds more square miles of water (535) than it does of land (529).

If you come here with the right attitude (which includes not jumping in to change the way things are done), one of these natives is likely to "take you under wing" and pass along some of the seaside wisdom and skills garnered over generations. They'll also imbue you with their respect for a "sense of place," because the past is almost palpable here. It's visible in hundreds of structures that date back to the 1700s—some even to the 1600s—and in the energetic restoration and preservation of these treasures. (Buying one of these old homes usually includes the obligation to maintain its historical integrity and to become part of the chain by which the romantic legends of its former occupants are passed along.) The past also comes alive in a remarkable number of museums, in books on local history, in the reminiscences of old-timers. It's integrated into cookbooks that celebrate the region's down-home cuisines, and it's preserved in time-honored crafts and in poems and ballads—those handed down and those still being written.

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