Getaway to One of America's Prettiest Small Towns

It's rather plucky of Edenton to call itself "the Prettiest Small Town in the South," but this North Carolina town's claim to the title has a pedigree. In recent years Forbes, Frommers, Smithsonian and Coastal Living has ranked Edenton among the prettiest, the best, and the most charming of America's small towns.
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Front Door of a Beautiful Georgian Era Town House in Salisbury England
Front Door of a Beautiful Georgian Era Town House in Salisbury England

It's rather plucky of Edenton to call itself "the Prettiest Small Town in the South," but this North Carolina town's claim to the title has a pedigree. In recent years Forbes, Frommers, Smithsonian and Coastal Living has ranked Edenton among the prettiest, the best, and the most charming of America's small towns.

Driving into Edenton we, too, were enchanted by the picturesque charm of Edenton. Poised within a bay on the northern shore of Albemarle Sound, with historic brick and wooden structures reflecting day and night upon the waters of Edenton Harbor, the town looks like a four-color postcard from yesteryear. The main road into the town center is the quaint two-lane Broad Street, lined on each side with boutiques, gift and general goods shops, and eateries. Broad Street runs several blocks before ending at the Edenton Harbor waterfront where residents gather at the green beside the Parker House, romp with their children at the playground, or stroll along the pier in front of the lighthouse. Edenton is like Mayberry on the water.

Edenton waterfront homes glimmer in the golden twilight of a late summer evening. Photo: Carolyn Burns Bass

One of the oldest towns in America, Edenton was carved from the charter granted by King Charles II that formed the Carolina Colony in 1663. Its setting within the shores of a sheltering bay and the nearby mouth of the Chowan River made Edenton a logical place to set the capital of the new Carolina colony. Although the capital was moved to New Bern in 1743, and later Raleigh (in addition to several rotating capitals during the Revolutionary War), for years Edenton remained a thriving river port town. Among the notable buildings that lend Edenton its historic and vintage charm is the Chowan County Courthouse, a Georgian brick building set at the crown of Edenton Bay, built in 1767 and the heralded as the oldest continuously used courthouse in America. Today, Edenton boasts more than 25 historic homes and sites, many of them open for tours year around, while others may be viewed during special events, such as the annual Holiday Candlelight Tour and the springtime Pilgrimage of Historic Homes.

Chowan County Courthouse in Edenton is the oldest courthouse in America under continuous use. Photo: Carolyn Burns Bass

Plantations were the business of the day in colonial America and Edenton was surrounded by large holdings worked with slave labor. Several historic plantation sites are still standing, some occupied as private homes--the Hayes Plantation--while the Athol Plantation is now an elegant bed and breakfast inn. (We stayed two nights here--a bit out of town, but worth the experience.) The former cotton mill has been converted into luxury condos. The five-story, brick Edenton Peanut Mill, which once served the area's many peanut farmers, is a registered historic landmark and now houses a gym and various offices.

Listed as one of the most important plantation houses in the South, Athol Plantation is now an elegant bed and breakfast inn. Photo: Carolyn Burns Bass

Stroll along the tree-lined streets of Edenton and history comes alive through three-hundred years of architecture. Humble wooden clapboard houses stand proudly beside Georgian, Queen Anne, Federal, Victorian, and Greek Revival homes. Take the Edenton Trolley for a fascinating narrated tour of the homes and businesses that still contribute to the town. The trolley begins at the waterfront, near the Welcome Center, which was once the home of Penelope Parker. Parker is thought to be among the earliest female political figures in America, who in response to the oppressive taxes on tea importation to the American colonies, convinced 50 women to sign a pledge to boycott the buying and serving of tea.

More fascinating stories emerged during the trolley tour narrated by Sharon Keeter, including the saga of Harriet Jacobs, a young slave woman abused by her master, who hid in the attic of her grandmother's house for seven years before escaping in the night on a boat out of Edenton Bay. Jacobs later wrote the renowned memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861), now considered one of the foremost first-person accounts of a slave's life. When telling Jacob's tale, Keeter points out a parking lot of little distinction where the house that sheltered Jacobs once stood.

Winding through the area once populated by freed slaves and their descendants, Keeter points out several homes built and occupied by freed slaves. Most notable in this group is the Hannibal Badham House, a quaint two-story, Victorian with porch cupola which the builder erected for himself and his family. Nearby is the oldest house in North Carolina. Most likely slave-built before the town was incorporated, the antiquity of the Lane House was recently recognized when its new owner uncovered wooden pegs and handmade nails during a remodeling project. The house was later confirmed by architectural historians as being built sometime in the second decade of the 18th century.

The Lane House is estimated at more than 300 years old, making it the oldest home in North Carolina. Photo: Carolyn Burns Bass

Those wishing for a more leisurely tour through Edenton can take a guided walking tour of the town, and depending on which focus they choose, can tour the interiors of the Courthouse, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, the Cupola House, and the Iredell House.

The Cupola House was built in 1758 and is considered the finest wooden example of the Jacobean Style of architecture in the South. Photo: Carolyn Burns Bass

As much as we enjoyed touring the town, we were just as thrilled with a waterside tour on the "Liber-Tea," an electric, 22-ft. Duffy boat which seats six passengers. The waters of Edenton Harbor were like rippled blue glass the day we launched. Capt. Mark Thesier, a retired Navy submariner and now a USCG licensed captain, opened up Historic Edenton Bay Cruises in mid-2014 and now offers 50-minute excursions with witty and insightful narration of the waterfront homes and historic sites. The waterfront views include the bay side of the historic courthouse building with its French cannons pointed toward the water, as well as the lighthouse, the Parker House and several other lavish homes of various design.

A cruise on the "Liber-Tea" provides waterside views of Edenton's diverse architectural styles. Photo: Carolyn Burns Bass

The lighthouse Edenton proudly displays once stood within Albemarle Sound at the mouth of the Roanoke River. The last screw-pile lighthouse in North Carolina, the Roanoke River Lighthouse had been decommissioned in 1941 and eventually relocated to shore where it served as a private residence until 1995. A joint commission between the town of Edenton and the state of North Carolina moved the lighthouse to its present location in Edenton Harbor and restored it to its former glory. Tours are available inside the lighthouse seven days a week for a nominal charge.

The Roanoke River Lighthouse now stands in the waterfront of Edenton Harbor and is open daily for tours. Photo: Carolyn Burns Bass

We visited Edenton the weekend of its annual Taste of Edenton. Held on the green in front of the Parker House, the event seemed to draw the entire city. For $15 guests could sample small plates from more than a dozen local restaurants. The event drew all ages and multi-generational families. Even with the sample-sized servings, there was enough to satisfy any appetite. It's not surprising many of the restaurants presented seafood selections, including an outstanding seafood chowder from Hammerhead's Oyster Bar in the nearby town of Winsor.

We dined at several other Edenton restaurants during our visit. Since we were traveling with our tiny dog (a Chihuahua) and sought places where we could dine outside with her, we were absolutely stunned to find that none of the restaurants on Broad Street had outdoor seating. The sidewalks were plenty wide enough to accommodate a few tables outside each restaurant, but only a soda shop and a gourmet food and sandwich store had outdoor tables. We learned that for all of its charms, Edenton's commitment to historical preservation can hold it back from the good kind of progress. Progress such as creating pet-friendly, outdoor dining opportunities in its downtown.

Still, downtown Edenton boasts a number of fine restaurants, from the seafood haven called Waterman's Grill, to the new American cuisine at Bistro 309, the surprisingly authentic Mexican food at Mamacitas, the nostalgic Downtown Café and Soda Shoppe, and the upscale cuisine at The Table at the Inner Banks Inn.

On Saturday afternoon we took out a delicious lunch from Bistro 309 and ate it on a picnic table along the waterfront green. Later that night the proprietors of Athol Plantation prepared us a delicious dinner of Southern gentleman's pork chops, pan fried in peach and ghost pepper glaze, with fresh asparagus and almandine rice. We took Sunday brunch at The Table at the Inner Banks Inn and enjoyed sumptuous variations of eggs Benedict. My dish featured country ham over a flaky, toasted croissant, while my husband's selection included a savory crab cake over English muffin. In North Carolina alcohol cannot be served until after 12 p.m., so we had to wait until noon before we could toast our anniversary with champagne.

If you frequently travel with your pets as we do, don't be dismayed or put off by Edenton's lack of pet-friendly options. Edenton has plenty of other charms to enchant and entertain visitors--with or without--pets all year long.

Getting to Edenton isn't quick. The nearest international airport to Edenton is 76 miles away in Norfolk, Va., while the Pitt-Greenville airport serves domestic flights 71 miles away in Greenville, N.C. When driving into Edenton you'll pass through tall-tree forests; towns time forgot; tobacco, cotton, soybean and other cropland, and swamps. Some may call it presumptuous of Edenton to claim itself as "The Prettiest Small Town in the South" when other towns have pedigrees of similar historic, picturesque and culinary esteem, but once you arrive and do a few turns in the town, you're likely to agree.