In Washington, North Carolina — also known as the “original” Washington, because its 1776 founding predates the founding of our country’s capitol — the river rules all. Of course downtown,
In Washington, North Carolina — also known as the “original” Washington, because its 1776 founding predates the founding of our country’s capitol — the river rules all. Of course downtown, with its mile-long waterfront promenade and historic buildings, is full of Southern charm, shops, and restaurants, but it’s Washington’s stunning location, where the Tar River meets the Pamlico, that makes it the perfect home base for all kinds of kid-friendly outdoor activities. When the weather warms up, head outside with your family for a riverside adventure.
Washington, North Carolina isn’t one of those places that you hear about every day. It isn’t even a place you look for. But it’s one of those places that finds you just when you need it most.
Pack a picnic: With wide swaths of lawn and gorgeous views of the Pamlico River, Havens Gardens is one of the prettiest places in Washington for a picnic.
“It’s one of our most popular gathering places,” says Kristi Roberson, director of Parks and Recreation.
Grab fresh produce and sweets from the vendors at Harbor District Market, then spend the afternoon in the park, where the kids can run wild. You can also have food delivered right to your picnic blanket thanks to an innovative offering from the Mulberry House Brewery. “We consider the park and boardwalk an extension of our restaurant,” says director of operations Daniel Beedle. “If you get hungry playing Frisbee, call us and we’ll run food right out to you.”
After a picnic lunch, Roberson suggests walking down the pier to see what local fishers are catching before racing to the playground to test out the equipment.
Spend a day on the water: Ready to wield your paddle? Thanks to its location on the beautiful Tar-Pamlico River, Washington is a perfect spot for folks who prefer to explore by water. Rent a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard from Inner Banks Outfitters or River Vibes and head over to nearby Castle Island, where the kids can spend the afternoon exploring — and swimming. As you make your way to the Castle, you’ll paddle right past the waterfront, seeing downtown from a new angle. Be sure to keep an eye out for the boathouse adjacent to the old Havens gristmill — though it’s no longer in use, it’s a famous and familiar site in Washington.
Take a walk on the wild side: If you’re more of a hiker, hop in the car and head to nearby Goose Creek State Park, which is home to several species of herons, egrets, swans, and waterfowl. The kids will love watching for wildlife as you follow the two-mile Goose Creek Trail through cypress swamps to the Pamlico River. Skip rocks, build a sandcastle on the beach or dive in for a swim; the beach is open for swimming all summer long. You can also cast a line (state fishing licenses are required) for largemouth bass, bluegill, and yellow perch.
Engage in arts appreciation: Through Arts of the Pamlico, the historic Turnage Theatre hosts live music, theater classes and camps, and stages performances. Executive director Debra Torrence is especially excited about Pirates of the Pamlico, a 45-minute play on the riverfront that tells the stories of the pirates who sailed the Pamlico River, which debuts this summer. The theater also features a bakery, art gallery, and fashion and entertainment museum with exhibits that delight visitors of all ages. On Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the theater hosts “music jams,” when local musicians take the stage for impromptu concerts.
“Families should take part in the arts in Beaufort County,” Torrence says. “It gives you a taste of the rich history of theater in this region.”
Set sail at the North Carolina Estuarium: Located right on the waterfront, this environmental education center — the first of its kind in the world — celebrates North Carolina’s coastal rivers and estuaries — an ecosystem where fresh and salt water mix. Experience the ecology and culture of Washington through 200-plus exhibits. Educational specialist Russ Chesson notes that the littlest visitors love learning about the parasitic zombie crabs and getting up close to the alligators, toads, and corn snakes that call the estuarium home.
Then, hop aboard the River Roving pontoon boat (reserve in advance because seats for the twice-daily tours fill up fast). The free 90-minute guided boat tours include behind-the-scenes tours of the Tar-Pamlico River.
“It’s a great way to get out on the water and learn about the history of Washington,” Chesson says.
Explore on two wheels: Ready to roll? For a new way to get around Washington, Inner Banks Outfitters and River Vibes both rent bikes — including tandems. Roberson suggests pedaling along the riverside boardwalk, boat- (and people-)watching, and soaking in the views of the river.
“Our parks system allows visitors to get a different experience than they would get at home,” she says.
Pedal into downtown and reward the kids for a day well-spent with a scoop of peppermint or chocolate chip ice cream from Cups and Cones on Water Street (and grab some truffles or chocolate covered coffee beans as souvenirs or to satisfy your sweet tooth on the ride home). For more treats (and a caffeine pick-me-up for adults!) stop by Rachel K’s Bakery; the iced lattes, pecan sticky buns, and cinnamon buns are local favorites.
Take a trip into the past: Right downtown, a bright orange railroad caboose — a vintage, restored car from the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad — now houses the Underground Railroad Museum. Inside, exhibits tell the stories of the history of slavery in Washington and how the harbor was used as a secret waystation for enslaved African Americans to escape by sea on the Underground Railroad in the early 1800s.
Raise a glass and sample local cuisine: After a day a long day of exploring, head to the rooftop lounge at The Mulberry House Brewery for a delicious dinner and a nightcap. Beedle designed the concept — the newest addition to downtown (it opens this spring) — to serve as a gathering spot. “I wanted bring a sense of community to Washington’s Main Street,” he says.
You’ll find local, seasonal beers and farm-to-table food — plus a full menu of non-alcoholic “cocktails,” a kid-friendly menu, and a selection of board games. Which means everyone in the family can relax. The Mulberry House is also home to a coffee shop, which makes it the perfect place to start or end your day.
Cozy up for the night: When you’re ready to unwind, rest your head at The Elmwood 1820 Bed & Breakfast Inn. An 1820s mansion that served as a Union Army headquarters and hospital during the Civil War, today it offers modern luxury perfect for those seeking respite. Curl up in a cozy robe before falling into a canopy-covered bed. In the morning, no matter how badly you want to get out on to the sprawling front porch with a cup of coffee, don’t miss the delicious homemade biscuits and gourmet multicourse breakfast.
For another hotel option later this summer, keep your eye on The Mulberry House, which will start welcoming guests to a 16-room boutique hotel with rooms overlooking the Pamlico River.