A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Zip across the Albemarle Sound on a boat or ferry heading southwest from Edenton, and you’re greeted by an impressive stand of bald cypress at the mouth of the Roanoke

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Zip across the Albemarle Sound on a boat or ferry heading southwest from Edenton, and you’re greeted by an impressive stand of bald cypress at the mouth of the Roanoke

A Walking Guide to Harbor Towns: Downtown Plymouth

Model cars parked outside of shops in Plymouth, NC

Zip across the Albemarle Sound on a boat or ferry heading southwest from Edenton, and you’re greeted by an impressive stand of bald cypress at the mouth of the Roanoke River. Six miles up the wild, snaking waterway, the steeples, waterfront buildings, and lighthouse of a small river town come into view. This is Plymouth, one of North Carolina’s wonderful harbor towns.

This quiet enclave along the river is a surprising side of town for those accustomed to seeing its commercial strip from U.S. Route 64 on their way to and from the Outer Banks.

Whether you’re approaching it by car, personal boat, or the recently launched Harbor Towns Cruises, downtown Plymouth is worth a visit. Once the second largest seaport in North Carolina, Plymouth experienced its heyday in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Get a close-up look at this town today and you’ll find a number of gems in this nationally registered historic district. Bookended by the Port o’ Plymouth Museum and the Roanoke River Lighthouse, the three-block area of downtown offers cafés, a visitors center, several shops, three museums, beautiful river views, transient dockage, water access, and friendly faces who are genuinely happy to see you.

Among them are diehard champions who believe in the potential of this small river town. “Plymouth has a half-mile of waterfront that’s largely underutilized and is perched on a river delta with more than 50 miles of shoreline, all within 5 miles of town. It’s really quite remarkable,” says Tom Harrison, a resident of Plymouth for more than 40 years and director of the Washington County Tourism Authority. “The river is one of the things that makes me passionate about Plymouth.”

The Harbor Towns Cruises Hysu Cat boat

Sightsee around the Roanoke River aboard the Harbor Town Cruises’ Hysu Cat boats. photograph by Katie Myrick Photography

Harrison urges visitors to get on the river. Bring your own kayaks to paddle the creeks, or, depending on the day, take the 1.5-hour Roanoke River Delta Cruise with Harbor Towns Cruises. The boat travels up or down river. The outward journey moves slowly, allowing you to spot wildlife and take in the natural scenery. The return to the dock is a thrilling high-speed adventure.

Another Plymouth icon Harrison is passionate about is black bears. The Albemarle/Pamlico Peninsula on which the town sits is home to the world’s highest density of black bears. To honor this bit of natural history, Harrison created the wildly successful and award-winning National Black Bear Festival, which draws 30,000 people to Plymouth every June. You’ll detect a bear theme throughout downtown all year-round, as well.

Caffeinate and grab a treat

If you start your walking tour of town at Riverview Café and Artisans Market, you’ll meet two more devoted Plymouth residents, Lou and Jill Manring. They moved here 17 years ago and, in 2018, renovated an old downtown building to create their coffee shop and café. At renovation they knocked out the back wall to install huge picture windows to provide views of the river and the forest on the other side.

“The river is the best feature of Plymouth,” Lou says. “People come in and before they even come to the counter, they walk right to the back and stare out the windows at this huge, beautiful river.”

The Manrings have created a cozy space with tables and a living room-style setup by the windows where their guests are welcome to linger over coffee, pastries, or sandwiches and visit with their pooch, Abby.

Take in views of the Roanoke River from the boardwalk along Plymouth’s waterfront. photograph by Tom Harrison

“This is a small town, very laid-back and friendly, and we wanted to make a space where people could gather,” Lou says. In front of the café is Riverview’s Artisan Market, which sells locally made art and gifts.

Discover Plymouth’s unique museums and shops

Leaving Riverview, hang a left on Water Street, and it’s a short walk to the Port o’ Plymouth Museum. Follow the boardwalk to the gazebo for an up-close view of the river before heading into the museum. It’s housed in the old Seaboard Coastline depot, hence the caboose and freight car in the yard. Created by the Washington County Historical Society, Port o’ Plymouth interprets the early history of Plymouth and Washington County and is primarily dedicated to Civil War history. The Battle of Plymouth, from April 17 to 20, 1864, was the second largest Civil War battle in North Carolina, and the museum houses more artifacts, photographs, and memorabilia than you would imagine, plus it has an in-water, to-scale replica of the ironclad Albemarle used in the battle.

Pick up a walking tour map when you leave the museum and explore the old homes and churches around the historic district, most of which are post-Civil War because so many of the town’s buildings were destroyed in the war. One of the few survivors, the circa 1840 Windley-Ausbon House on Washington Street, still bears visible battle scars.

Back on Water Street, you’ll find several places to poke into, all housed in restored old buildings full of character. There’s Bear Necessities Thrift and Antiques, housed in a former 1907 Coca-Cola bottling plant complete with its original doors, the Washington County “Bearolina” Welcome Center, Unique Boutique & Gift Shop and the neighboring Stella’s Café, and more. There’s even an intimate French bistro, Bistro 116, that’s open three nights a week.

Harrison’s Bear-Ology NC Black Bear Center is small and greatly informative exhibit about bears that includes a 17-minute film, hands-on exhibits, and mounts of two bears weighing more than 700 pounds.

The Roanoke River Lighthouse

Built in 2003, the modern replica of the Roanoke River Lighthouse sits about seven miles down the road from where the original stood.  photograph by Tom Harrison

Dive into river culture

Head farther down Water Street and you’ll find the Roanoke River Maritime Museum, which interprets the maritime history of the region, and the picturesque replica of the 1865-1885 Roanoke River Lighthouse, which once stood at the mouth of the river. You can climb the circular stairways and out the low door to the top of the lighthouse, just like the former keepers did, for a sweeping view of the Roanoke River and Downtown Plymouth.

“I stand out here and I imagine the river full of sails and steamers,” says Mark Pardue, curator of the Roanoke River Maritime Museum. “There could have been more than 200 boats in this river at one time. You can see a lot of history just panning your head around from the top of this lighthouse.”

Up on that lighthouse, it’s easy to imagine Plymouth’s past and to envision its future.

The waterfront in Plymouth, NC

Positioned on the Roanoke River, Plymouth once served as one of North Carolina’s major ports.  photograph by Kristy Modlin

As Harrison says, “What I tell people is that Plymouth’s half-mile of waterfront will be discovered and developed. It’s inevitable. I’m just trying to accelerate it and see it my lifetime.”

In the meantime, there is already much to discover in Plymouth. “Take the left,” Pardue implores east-bound travelers on U.S. Route 64. “Just turn left and go three blocks and you’ll see.”

And if you want a change of scenery, trade the highway for the Harbor Towns Cruises passenger ferry. It travels between Plymouth and Edenton, offering an hour-long ride surrounded by water and wildlife. Click here to learn more.

More to explore: Find more ways to experience our state’s harbor towns with our guide to Elizabeth City’s waterfront.

This story was published on Jun 30, 2024

Molly Harrison

A native North Carolinian, Molly Harrison moved to the Outer Banks after college in 1994. She works as a writer and editor from her home in Nags Head. Harrison is also the author of the Insiders’ Guide to the Outer Banks.