photograph by Matt Ray Photography

Lynn Robinson’s mother was frantic. “I don’t have cell service!” she yelled to her daughter. “If you fall, I can’t call 911!” But three stories up a ladder, on an under-construction home, Lynn’s spine tingled. After 26 years in the waterless landscape of Phoenix, Arizona, and 14 months of searching from “Kittery Point, Maine, to St. Augustine, Florida,” with that I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it instinct, she’d found it.

“It” is River Dunes, a community located down a country road about five miles from Oriental at the mouth of the Neuse River, where 150 property owners come to get away, relax, retire, socialize, exercise, and — oh, yes — boat. Fifty percent of the beautiful vessels in the protected inland harbor are sailboats; 50 percent are powerboats. Or, as the community calls the beautiful, white-masted, and broad, white-hulled vessels, “blow boats.”

Lynn and John Robinson at their home in Oriental. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

Lynn and her husband, John, aren’t boaters (yet). But they are cooks, oenophiles, members of a large family, and devotees of traditional architecture and environmental stewardship, the latter two being major River Dunes draws.

Some 500 bottles resting in temperature-controlled racks form a literal wall of wine in oenophiles Lynn and John Robinson’s open-concept living space. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

Some 26 different local, state, and federal groups and agencies were involved in the permitting alone in this environmentally sensitive area, River Dunes President Ed Mitchell says, referring to the 1,348-acre tract with 14 miles of shoreline. The second-generation Outer Banks ponies that contentedly graze in a pasture are one of the many ways that River Dunes remains true to the landscape.

Every morning, John Robinson drops a couple of crab traps from his dock, and almost every night, the couple feasts on fresh crab. “After the recent hurricane, duck decoys washed up on our shoreline,” Lynn says, and, turning lemons into lemonade, the pair created a playful pile of the decoys on their shoreline.

The Robinsons’ dock is a “vista” dock, meant for taking in nature. Owners with boats anchor them at the marina so as not to disturb aquatic vegetation. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

As for traditional architecture, the River Dunes Village buildings, with Yawl’s Café for snacks and meals, the Grace Harbor Provision Store for kitchen basics, the Red Rickshaw shop for a hostess gift — or a sofa — were built to reflect the white clapboard and metal roofs typical of North Carolina maritime villages, with a nod to both history and nostalgia. Next up? A post office.

Friday nights, the Robinsons and friends — from Raleigh, Richmond, Greensboro — gather at the Harbor Club dining room, a post-and-beam structure constructed from repurposed buildings across eastern North Carolina. Menus are stacked on a table that once held pies for Sunday lunches at an old church Down East. Tobacco warehouse beams bear wooden pegs for coats; the wall lamps are actual oil lamps from ships; tissues spring from a vintage creel; hearth bricks were handmade in Salisbury. Dining on the screened-in porch, beneath lazy fans, or beside cozy fireplaces, you can gaze at the steepled chapel, as sweet and serenely unfussy as anything our forebears would have erected. The ecumenical church seats just 25 and sits on a lot overlooking “Yacht Boulevard” — rightly so, as it’s meant to reflect the core values of the community, and, like the harbor, is a centerpiece.

Visitors come for the full-service spa and fitness center, and the year-round saline pool with hot tubs and cabanas. Firepits, bikes, kayaks, paddleboards, too. Amenities that transient boaters from Annapolis, St. Louis, Cape Carteret, or Beaufort — who are docked for a night or a week — can enjoy until it’s time for “docktails.”

“There’s nothing like this marina from Charleston to the Chesapeake,” Mitchell says. Folks seek out River Dunes via I-95 and Highway 70, but “the Intracoastal Waterway is our real interstate,” he says. Just one more way for folks to join this community of full-time and part-time residents, transient residents, going-to-retire-here-one-of-these-days residents, and weekenders who know they’ll wind up here eventually.

Even if boat ownership is a future plan for the Robinsons (like the skeet shooting range, rod and gun club, and additional pool on the River Dunes master plan), when the couple’s yours-mine-and-ours family visits (26 for Thanksgiving, anyone?), a restored 1940s Core Sounder is available for cocktail or picnic cruises — the better to realize that “there’s nothing between us and Ocracoke,” as Mitchell says.

“Simple and timeless as a blue blazer,” is how Mitchell describes River Dunes. Which may be the most priceless amenity of all to John and Lynn Robinson. Architecture, history, and simplicity. Simply stated, what all of us want to come home to: a sunset and a snug harbor.


Each cottage has its own front porch with a rocker — perfect for sitting a spell. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

Cottage Charm

River Dunes Village has 40 beds for visitors, but surely the most charming accommodations are the cluster of six cottages within a picket fence. Families, wedding parties, and plain old singles and duos stay in the metal-roofed cottages that fall somewhere between today’s tiny homes and a full-grown version of the backyard playhouse that you longed to live in as a child. Each cottage has its own front porch with a rocker and lamp for evening reading, plus a shared screened-in porch with gliders and a long oyster table should you want to invite pals to enjoy the day’s catch. After a day spent biking or out on the water, relax in a deep tub or a steam shower. Or throw yourself on the comfy bed in one of these nautical-themed bungalows and let someone else stoke the fireplace a few steps away.


River Dunes
43 Old Lighthouse Road
Oriental, NC 28571
(800) 975-9565
riverdunes.com

This story was published on

Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.

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