Live like the locals: An insider's guide to exploring Washington

While locals have always known their town to be the enchanting place that it is, tourists are finding out about Washington's charm and attributes through internet searches and word of mouth.

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Marisa Grant & Abbey Slattery
This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.

Located along the Pamlico and Tar Rivers, you'll find the serene town of Washington, N.C. Named for the nation's first president, "Little Washington" or "The Original Washington" as it is affectionately known, is a place most often recognized for its waterfront and abundance of outdoor activities.

While locals have always known their town to be the enchanting place that it is, tourists are finding out about Washington's charm and attributes through internet searches and word of mouth.

Situated only 30 minutes from Greenville, two hours from the Triangle and five hours from the mountains, Washington is an easy day or weekend trip for North Carolinians. However, people from all over are visiting in droves.

"People visit from all over the world. [Recently we] had someone visit from Thailand," said Catherine Glover, executive director of the Washington-Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce.

Glover, who is a native of the town, left to attend East Carolina University and moved to Raleigh for a few years after college before returning to Washington. She's glad to be home and loves that her job provides her the opportunity to highlight Washington's unique attractions.

When asked what makes Washington so different from a city like Raleigh, Glover said, "It's a whole different vibe ... you don't understand how great of a place it is until you visit and see the beauty, the people. We will never be a Raleigh, but that's not what we're striving for."

While most visitors arrive already knowing about places like the famous Bill's Hot Dogs or the hiking trails at Goose Creek State Park, Glover said a great way to truly get a feel for Washington's charm is to explore some of the lesser known activities, restaurants and sites, and spend time talking with the locals.

Evan Peed, a lifelong Washington resident, agreed with Glover. Peed, who works in industrial sales and is a volunteer firefighter, said locals will welcome visitors and offer to show them the best spots around town.

"The good thing about southern hospitality is we welcome anybody with open arms," said Peed.

Visitors have more to enjoy now that Washington's downtown revitalization is complete. Glover said it's been exciting to watch old buildings transform. She added that a great thing about Washington is in addition to new development, instead of tearing down old structures, the town invests in renovating them. Visitors can now expect new shops, restaurants, breweries and a local distillery.

For now, here's a list of local favorite hangout spots, things to do and tips for a great visit:

Visit the world's first estuarium and see more than 200 exhibits describing the necessity of the estuaries and coastal rivers that help maintain North Carolina's ecosystem. The Estuarium is an aquarium, museum and classroom all-in-one, and you'll find historic artifacts and interactive exhibits.

Take advantage of the free River Roving Boat Rides (reservations required) and see wildlife up close while enjoying some of the best views of Washington's waterfront.

2. Take a Historic Walking Tour

Take a self-guided walking tour through the historic district, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Find the markers around town explaining the town's history and learn about the fires that almost destroyed Washington. You'll see homes from the Victorian era and antebellum periods, courthouses and churches.

"Since we’re a historic town, you can walk or bike down the streets, and you're going to see some beautiful architecture and live oaks," said Rebecca Clark, co-owner of Washington’s Cups and Cones ice cream shop. "It’s a highly walkable town — you can park downtown and just go off in any direction, and you're going to find something beautiful."

3. Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum

Housed in a refurbished Seaboard Coast Line railroad caboose, this attraction will allow you to learn about the role Washington played in the Civil War and how African Americans helped shape the agricultural history of the town.

Honored in 2014 as a National Park Service Underground Network to Freedom site, this museum offers insight into the lives of slaves, abolitionists and the secret communication methods that were used on the Underground Railroad.

4. Charter a boat

Glover said that "one of the best things to do [in Washington] is get on the water."

There are plenty of places to charter a boat and while most people want to catch some flounder, there's a good chance you'll see dolphins.

At Xplore IBX Charters, Captain Scott Hammonds takes guests on tours of local waterways, including the Tar River, Goose Creek State Park and Chocowinity Bay on the Pamlico River. On the tours, people can expect to see a variety of local wildlife like osprey and bald eagles, as well as learn a bit about local history.

"We'll go through and talk about Grandpap Island, which is an old island that was created by ballast rocks dating way back to the early 1700s. We talk about Norfolk Southern Railroad, and it’s almost like a movie picture scene with that long wooden structured railroad and turnstile," said Hammonds. "We’ll talk about Castle Island and the ship building wharfs and saw mills that used to be there. They used to burn oyster shells in a kiln to use for building structures, almost like pavement or concrete."

The sights continue along the waterfront in Downtown Washington, with artifacts dating back to George Washington.

5. Grab a bite to eat

Locals love hanging out at Backwater Jack's and enjoying waterfront views. While there, you might see Jimmy Buffett, who has been known to stop by.

Down on Mainstreet is another local favorite where regulars say the cheese fries are a must.

Also, be sure to stop by Mom's Grill if you want the "best cheese biscuits anywhere" according to Peed.

To satisfy your sweet tooth, head to Scoop's Ice Cream and indulge in an old-fashioned sundae or try their famous, hand-dipped Hershey's ice cream.

6. Enjoy the outdoors
Save time during your visit to enjoy Havens Gardens Park, a peaceful oasis where you can fish, play outdoor games, enjoy a picnic and catch a beautiful sunset.

Along the water and at Goose Creek State Park, visitors can see impressive local wildlife.

"Seeing the juvenile Osprey leaving their nests is always a great show, and each year they come back and reestablish their nests. You can also see gar and jumping mullets in the water," said Hammonds. "Blue Heron is always dependable around Castle Island. A lot of beachgoers will take their boats or kayaks to the backside of the island and enjoy the beach."

The proximity to the water is a crucial part of life in Washington, and even the locals still find new ways to explore the nature around them.

"When you see someone break a boundary and explore with their kayak way across the waterfront all the way on the other shore, it does make you desire to go over there," he finished. "It's peaceful. It's quiet. There’s nothing like it."

7. Stay at a home away from home

If you're making more than a day trip out of your visit, you'll need a good place to stay.

There are some great bed and breakfast hotels in town, in addition to a lot of Airbnbs. Book a room at the When Pigs Fly Inn at the Frank A. Moss House, or at one of the many other lodging options downtown. The inn is within walking distance to the harbor district market, the waterfront, restaurants and shops.
8. Castle Island

Head to Inner Banks Outfitters and sign up for the wine and cheese paddle to Castle Island. Learn about the history of the waterways on this one-of-a-kind adventure.

Originally opened as a vaudeville theater in 1913, the Turnage Theatre is a great place to see a movie, comedy show or theater performance. (Photo Courtesy of Washington Tourism Development Authority)

Originally opened as a vaudeville theater in 1913, the Turnage is a great place to see a movie, comedy show or theater performance.

The theater is home to the Arts of the Pamlico and after a multi-million dollar renovation, the theater space alone is worth a tour. Additionally, the new Fashion & Entertainment Museum inside the theater features exhibits of costumes, set pieces and other items used in movies and shows or by celebrities.

Head downtown and explore the town's Harbor District Market. You'll want to visit more than once due to rotating vendors, but you'll always be able to find fresh produce, baked goods, arts and crafts from local artists, and specialty gifts.

Whenever you decide to visit, Peed explained you'll have a great time and be warmly received.

"[Washington is] a town where a smile and a wave is standard."

11. Grab dessert at a local stop

Cups and Cones opened in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but community support — and top-notch ice cream — has kept them going.

Located on the top level of Moss Landing Marina, Cups and Cones serves sweets with a view.

"We have an outdoor seating area where you can see the river, and you have access to the walkways on the boardwalk. You can come and have ice cream, sit outside, enjoy the river and just enjoy the activity of people walking by," said Clark. "We do flavored lattes, we combine coffee and ice cream, we do milkshakes — we’ve always got something special on the menu."

"The whole town is the hidden gem, and anybody that comes should embrace that relaxed attitude and enjoy what there is to explore."

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.


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