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Off the Beaten Path: New Bern

The typical snowbird traveling the Intracoastal Waterway sees little of North Carolina’s Neuse River, choosing instead to pick up the ICW again at Adams Creek. More than a few, though, have been known to not only venture another 25 miles upriver to New Bern for a visit, but to winter over there.

The typical snowbird traveling the Intracoastal Waterway sees little of North Carolina’s Neuse River, choosing instead to pick up the ICW again at Adams Creek. More than a few, though, including my wife, Liz, and me, have been known to not only venture another 25 miles upriver to New Bern for a visit, but to winter over there. A happening little city of about 29,000, New Bern celebrated its 300th anniversary two years ago, making it North Carolina’s second-oldest community.

We’d heard good things about New Bern from other cruisers and figured we’d check it out. Our excitement increased when we emerged from the ICW onto the vast expanse of the river. It almost looked like we’d reached the ocean. The south end of Pamlico Sound stretched as far as we could see, and the river’s distant shore was six miles away. At its mouth, the Neuse is the widest river in America. It struck us as pretty impressive.

The Neuse is also the longest river in North Carolina, extending 248 miles from Pamlico Sound up to Falls Lake Reservoir above Raleigh. The river runs fresh down to New Bern, after which it’s actually a 40-mile-long tidal estuary. The river is shallow, but there’s enough water in most places to allow for excellent sailing. In a stiff breeze, the Neuse can get nasty, and locals give it plenty of respect. We certainly did.

New Bern sits at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers, a strategic position that made it an important port for much of its history. Today there are two marinas on the Trent River between the drawbridge and the railroad bridge. These include the marina at the DoubleTree by Hilton, an elegant facility right on the riverfront’s scenic promenade that is only a short walk from the city’s historic downtown. Ornate churches and red brick buildings with bars, restaurants, boutiques, antique stores, art galleries and gift shops reflect the city’s rich heritage. 

As we strolled around, we saw several horse-drawn carriages filled with happy tourists. New Bern touts itself as the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola, and if you like you can kick back with a cold pop in a replica of the soda fountain on Middle Street where Caleb Bradham first concocted the beverage in 1898.

The Georgian-style Tryon Palace, a short walk from the waterfront, is also well worth a visit. Exploring this historically accurate reconstruction of Royal Governor William Tryon’s residence takes you back to when the original house was completed in 1770. After the American Revolution, New Bern was the first permanent capital of North Carolina. The state’s governors lived in the original Tryon Palace until it burned down in 1798.

In 2011, the North Carolina History Center opened its doors, further adding to New Bern’s historic appeal. Fun activities for kids, interactive displays, docents in period costumes and a recreation of a 19th-century river village are among its many attractions. Far from being a stuffy museum, the history center is an engaging celebration of North Carolina’s storied past.

New Bern is a charming Southern city steeped in history that did not disappoint, even in the depths of winter. Sure, it got cold, but we didn’t mind. The warmth of the people and the place more than made up for the ice on the docks. 

Photo by Larry Conley; illustration by Steve Karp

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