A Nicholas Sparks Tour of the North Carolina Coast

A Nicholas Sparks Tour of the North Carolina Coast

The real-life settings on the North Carolina coast have inspired many novels by Nicholas Sparks

On a cold winter morning, it’s hard to beat curling up with the latest book from North Carolina author Nicholas Sparks. It’s even better if that cozy reading takes place in one of the coastal settings Sparks loves. It’s easy to see why Sparks loves living in – and writing about – southeastern North Carolina. It’s also easy to enjoy the real-life settings that inspire his bestselling novels, thanks to charming historic towns, quiet beaches, tidal rivers and pretty marshes as far as the eye can see.

3-day Itinerary

Day 1: Start your exploration of Nicholas Sparks country on North Carolina’s coast in the pretty river town of Edenton, where Sparks set The Rescue.

Day 2: Take U.S. 17 through the small towns of Williamston and Washington before settling into New Bern, where Sparks lives, works and has set several of his novels.

Day 3: Head down the coast through Swansboro and on to “Hollywood East” in Wilmington before ending your exploration of Nicholas Sparks country in Southport, the setting for the recent Sparks hit novel and film, Safe Haven.

Day 1: Edenton

Known as the “South’s Prettiest Small Town,” historic Edenton is situated on the Chowan River and Albemarle Sound, a picture-perfect setting for The Rescue. The novel is one of Sparks’ more personal stories and was inspired by his son, Ryan.

The novel’s main character has a family home on the Chowan River, which is easy to envision as you cross the bridge into town. Two of the novel’s characters are volunteers with the Edenton Volunteer Fire Department. See the town library and Episcopal Church that play “roles” in the book on a guided walking or trolley tour.

Other Edenton highlights include: Historic Edenton State Historic Site; the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse; the 250-year-old Cupola House; 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse; a Maritime Underground Railroad Site; and much more.

Day 2: Williamston, Washington & New Bern

Williamston is located right on the Roanoke River and features many historic buildings, a revitalized downtown and the Senator Bob Martin Agricultural Center, which features many equestrian events and more.

Historic Washington was founded in 1776 and was the first city in America to be named for George Washington. Situated on the Pamlico River, Washington’s downtown offers lots of shops and restaurants, the Pamlico River Promenade, and the North Carolina Estuarium, with many hands-on exhibits highlighting the Pamlico-Tar River region.

New Bern on the Neuse River is next and it’s best to plan to stay awhile. Author Nicholas Sparks certainly did – the town has been his home for many years.

The staff at New Bern’s friendly Convention & Visitors Center is happy to share the self-guided Walk to Remember walking tour with fans of the writer’s popular books and numerous resulting movies. The tour also provides a way to see many of the city’s sights.

New Bern specifically plays a role in three Sparks novels: A Bend in the Road, The Wedding and The Notebook. Highlights of the walking tour include Union Point Park and the docks behind the waterfront DoubleTree by Hilton (both featured in A Bend in the Road), the Alfred Cunningham Bridge leading into town (in The Notebook), the Masonic Theater and Centenary Methodist Church (both in The Notebook), historic Cedar Grove Cemetery (mentioned as part of a funeral procession in A Bend in the Road). Sparks also featured the tasty New Bern restaurant Fred & Claire’s (which now houses the creative cuisine of 247 Craven) in A Bend in the Road.

Other Heritage Walking Tours available from the Convention & Visitors Center include Civil War Heritage, Historic Homes, Architectural, and African-American Heritage. They all provide a great way to see the town.

Along with taking one of the walking tours, many visitors to New Bern start with Tryon Palace, which served as the North Carolina government when New Bern was the state capital in the late-1700s and was mentioned in A Bend in the Road and The Wedding.

A visit to Tryon Palace starts at the adjacent North Carolina History Center, where the soaring Cannon Gateway provides orientation exhibits and the rest of the museum features rotating coverage and interactive historical activities – as well as Lawson’s Landing, a tasty Riverwalk café right on the Neuse. The Tryon Palace Museum Store features many items representative of North Carolina history, including decorative pieces for the home and garden, collectibles, porcelain and many books.

Another interesting part of New Bern’s history can be found just up Middle Street at the Birthplace of Pepsi. Here, at his pharmacy, Caleb Bradham invented “Brad’s Drink,” which he later patented as Pepsi-Cola. Today, thirsty visitors can enjoy a sample and buy souvenirs at the recreated soda fountain.

Nearby, the New Bern Firemen’s Museum features the state’s first chartered fire department. There are horse-drawn steam engines and other original firefighting equipment and relics.

Throughout town, creatively painted bear sculptures are easy to spot. New Bern was named for Bern, Switzerland, and a bear serves as the town symbol and mascot.

Day 3: Swansboro, Wilmington & Southport

Swansboro is next. The “Friendly City by the Sea” sits at the confluence of the White Oak River and the Intracoastal Waterway (including a scenic walkway). Just a few blocks in size and featured in The Guardian, Swansboro’s historic district includes quaint shops, many historic houses and buildings, and popular restaurants.

To finish the trip, the riverfront towns of Wilmington and Southport recently provided yet another North Carolina setting for a Nicholas Sparks novel and resulting film (the eighth Sparks book to hit the silver screen). Safe Haven – the romantic thriller starring Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough – debuted on Valentine’s Day 2013, after being filmed exclusively in Southport and Wilmington.

It’s easy to connect with both towns as seen in the film. In Wilmington – often referred to as “Wilmywood” and “Hollywood East” because of all the film work done there – the characters strolled by the Wilmington Convention Center and the Carolina Apartments on Market Street during a visit. Down at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, the fictional couple enjoyed a romantic kiss on the wide and deserted beach.

The possibilities in and around Southport include: the ferry between Fort Fisher, across the Cape Fear River, to Southport; Southport’s old-timey city blocks where the dramatic Fourth of July scenes were filmed; Ports of Call restaurant, where a romantic dinner was shot and actor Josh Duhamel learned to shuck an oyster; and Old American Fish Co. restaurant, where the character Katie (Julianne Hough) worked as a waitress.

Along with their fictional roles, the cast and crew also took advantage of other area offerings during filming, including: Julianne Hough’s 23rd birthday celebration at Ports of Call; popular Fishy Fishy Cafe, near where much of the film work was done and a favorite with Sparks and the cast and crew; a guided paddling trip with Adventure Kayak Company; and tee times, dining and libations at Oak Island Golf Club.

Duhamel, often accompanied by wife Fergie of Black Eyed Peas fame, stayed on Oak Island and continues to publicly rave about his time on the island and in Southport.

With the addition of Southport, Sparks has now featured southeastern North Carolina’s Beaufort, Edenton, New Bern, Rodanthe, Swansboro and Wilmington (which was already highlighted in Dear John, Message in a Bottle and The Last Song prior to Safe Haven).

Looking for more Nicholas Sparks stops along the North Carolina coast? Visit the Outer Banks to explore sites on the Nights in Rodanthe Film Trail.

Enjoy all this trip idea has to offer by mixing and matching to your particular interest. Be sure to check days and hours of operation for each venue.

Lynn Seldon is an Oak Island-based travel writer who loves covering his home state.

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