You could come through Plymouth, as I have done, on U.S. Highway 64, and stop for a biscuit at Bojangles and get right back on the highway to wherever, and you might think that you’ve seen Plymouth. But if you don’t veer north — toward Water Street, toward the Roanoke River — here’s what you’ll miss: You’ll miss the mid-century clock, below the sign for Stella’s Café, that was installed by Leggett’s Jewelers in 1946, a fitting timepiece for a town that’s retained its historic character.
You’ll miss the azure-blue Vespa scooter parked outside Bistro 116, a European-inspired restaurant run by Daniel and Sylvie Batigne, and you’ll miss the fresh breads and buttery croissants that Sylvie, who speaks with a soft French accent, bakes every day.
You’ll miss the Riverview Café, housed in the old B&W Grocery building, where owner Lou Manring will make you a grilled pimento cheese with a side of homemade potato salad, and after you eat, you can curl up — Lou encourages it — on one of the overstuffed couches in front of the picture window that overlooks the Roanoke River.
What else? You’ll miss the nine-foot, chainsaw-carved wooden bear climbing into the upper-story window at Bear-Ology, the North Carolina Black Bear Discovery Center, and the aluminum silhouette of a mama bear and her cubs loping along the roof of the Plymouth Welcome Center. Those bears were put in place by Tom Harrison, a local who founded the North Carolina Black Bear Festival. Harrison knows his bears, and he also knows the best place to drop a kayak into the Roanoke River — Mackeys Marina — for the half-mile paddle to Swan Bay, at the mouth of Albemarle Sound.
A smooth and easy glide on this calm water brings you to the crown jewel, the centerpiece of Plymouth, a place you surely would’ve missed if you hadn’t gotten off the highway: a stand of centuries-old bald cypress trees, rooted in this spot for ages amid an ever-flowing river.
Harrison calls this pristine place “God’s garden, growing in Albemarle Sound,” and out here, where the only sound is the metronome of the paddle and the occasional splash of striped bass in these shallows, it’s as meditative a place as I’ve ever been.
I can only imagine the stories that these cypress trees could tell, of bootleggers and fishermen; back on the land, the Maritime Museum, housed in an old automobile dealership and filled with artifacts from the town’s history, contains one of those stories: a portion of a dugout canoe, 2,850 years old and made from a single bald cypress.
I could spend all day here, floating on the water, mingling with these North Carolina relics, these trees with their exposed knees and slender limbs raised upward, stretching outward, as if they’re pointing, as if they’re dancing, one tree, in particular, pulling me forward, the one that Harrison has affectionately nicknamed “Carmen Miranda,” the one gracing the cover of this magazine. The resemblance is there, sure enough, in the leafy fringes sprouting on top, one limb-arm up, as if she’s snapping her fingers, as if she’s dancing. Dancing! A samba of the Sound! What personality, what joyful celebration of nature, of life.
If you hadn’t stopped, if you hadn’t made your way toward the water, just think of all you might’ve missed, all these shining stars, so worthy of the applause.
Deep in the remote Three Sisters Swamp of the Black River stands an ancient old-growth forest. For decades, a famed bald cypress, dated to 372 AD and known as Methuselah, was its patriarch — until two even older trees were discovered.