Tourism continues to evolve across North Carolina's Eastern Region, as restaurant and hospitality businesses expand their offerings to cater to visitors and locals alike. Three of the region's counties – Carteret, Onslow and Pamlico – are oceanfront, and growing as popular destinations for people traveling for business and pleasure. Historic sites and towns throughout the region continue to draw their share of heritage tourists. Additionally, road, rail and air capabilities in the area are piquing the interest of businesses and industries that are coming to Eastern North Carolina to explore relocation and expansion opportunities.
Quality dining has always been a hallmark of the region; a tradition that continues in new, innovative ways as award-winning restaurants experiment with local cuisine and garner rave reviews for their original cuisine.
"We love good food in Eastern North Carolina," says Steven Pearce, marketing and communications coordinator for North Carolina's Eastern Region. "Local cuisine is a part of our heritage and our roots, but just as much an important aspect of our future. Our region offers restaurants that are destinations in their own right."
In Tarboro, On the Square boasts a 500-bottle wine list, while SoCo Farm and Food in Wilson is one of North Carolina's few farm-to-table restaurants. Faison's Southern Exposure was recently spotlighted in Southern Living magazine for its Southern/soul fare and eclectic atmosphere. The shifts in local cuisine have raised the region's profile for corporate travelers who are used to fine dining and now can find it here, says Ben Knight, general manager of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston.
"The community's goal is to put in place amenities that attract people not only to visit, but also to relocate," Knight says. "We opened in 2006, and have always worked to make sure that what people can get here is better than what they might find in their own town. And the more unique we are, the more we can bring to them."
Peter Edgar is doing the same thing at Quince, which he opened in Wilson in early 2008.
"We have filled a niche in the Eastern Region in terms of artisanal or craft food production," Edgar says. "Restaurants around here are working at the next level, and people are very receptive."
Diners will soon have more locally sourced beer to go with their meals with the opening of Beer Army, a brewery in Trenton, which will complement other breweries in the region, including Duck Rabbit in Farmville and Mother Earth in Kinston. Beer Army organizers hope to pump $2.7 million into Jones County over the next five years and create more than 20 jobs at the brewery, which will offer weekend tours and include an on-site store.
Building a Buzz
Lodging in Eastern North Carolina is on the upswing as well. A Georgia developer recently bought the Sheraton Atlantic Beach for more than $4 million with plans to renovate and reopen it. Shuttered in September 2011 due to damage from Hurricane Irene, the nine-story hotel, once the largest in Carteret County, was known for its direct beach access and spacious meeting rooms. Its redevelopment could boost business and investment around the Atlantic Beach area, according to Pearce.
The tourism market is even picking up in the region's smallest towns. In 2012, Budget Travel readers tapped Beaufort as the No. 1 Coolest Small Town in America, highlighting its "Southern charm with a dash of salty seaside spirit." The town, which recently celebrated its 300th anniversary, is home to the North Carolina Maritime Museum, which showcases artifacts of the infamous pirate Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge.
"Tourists and visitors want to visit unique places that tell stories about how people of that region live and survive," Pearce says. "I can't think of many places that offer such a raw, authentic and inviting scene which caters well to visitors from all walks of life."