Down East in Harkers Island, NC

Welcome to Down East in Harkers Island. It is almost a pleasure to get lost here with its bridges spanning sparkling waters, marshes of waving grasses, flocks of birds swirling like autumn leaves, and cool wooded sanctuaries harboring vintage residences. It is also good to know there is a helpful soul at virtually every turn of the road, at gift shops, convenience stores, gas stations, real estate offices, boat building concerns, marinas, seafood concessions, pizza and burger joints.

The following is a verbatim transcription of an actual conversation that took place between a Female Motorist and the Local Proprietor of a roadside gift shop on Harkers Island:

FM: Is there some kind of visitors center or museum somewhere around here?
LP: Did you see a sign?
FM: Maybe. One sign, not real big, back on Highway 70. Just for the Museum, nothing about the Visitors Center.
LP: Okay then. That’s the only one. There are no more. They are both in the same place and you have to follow this road all the way to the end. You will know you are at the end of the island when there is water all around.
FM: But no signs?
LP: It is designated a scenic byway. They won’t let us put up signs.
FM: So visitors can’t find the Visitors Cerenter?
LP: And don’t try to put the address in your GPS either. That won’t even get you this far.

Anyone in these parts will try to help you figure out whatever you need to know or, better yet, why not pull up a chair and discuss at length the nature and origin of the problem. While you are trying to pin things down, ask some of these folks exactly what is meant by Down East, and you might hear one of the following answers:

“Everything this side of the high school.”
“From here all the way up to the ferry.”
“North of Beaufort and south of the Outer Banks.”

Down East is, very loosely speaking, the region bounded on the south by North River and, to the north, by the Cedar Island Ferry that makes a 2.5-hour run to Ocracoke Island. Between those points Highway 70 runs through a series of small towns like pearls on a string: Otway, Straits, Smyrna, Marshallberg, Williston, Davis, Stacy, Masontown, Sealevel and Atlantic. Offshore, the Cape Lookout National Seashore parallels the coast, a long, narrow buffer that shields the mainland from the occasional wrath of the Atlantic Ocean. Now may be a good time to point out that appropriate road signs are posted at all of these charming little townships along the Core Sound coast. It’s just some of the tourist attractions that can be a trifle elusive.

Still Looking

Getting distracted along the way, even while not technically lost, is one of Harkers Island’s most common travel hazards. Core Sound Decoy Carvers Guild has its headquarters on Harkers Island Road, and you will at least slow down and take a good look at this good-sized public building before making up your mind to forge ahead on the road you believe may lead to the Harkers Island Visitors Center.

Eventually, as promised, water is all around at the end of the island, making any further road-building quite nearly impossible. Way off across a vast expanse of bright blue water stands the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, about 4.5 miles away on an island accessible only by boat, which looks to be only about an inch tall from this distance.

You knew the Cape Lookout Lighthouse was out there from all the signs along the roadside that you passed offering boat or ferry rides to the lighthouse: Harkers Island Marina (252-728-3907), Calico Jack’s (252-728-3575), Cape Pointe Marina (252-728-6181), Local Yokel (252-728-2759). All of which begs the question: how can there be this spate of commercial signage and no encouraging signs for the Visitors Center and Museum? It remains a mystery.