You can't beat curling up with a book from North Carolina author Nicholas Sparks – except if you're doing it in one of his coastal settings.
It’s easy to see why Sparks loves living in – and writing about – North Carolina. It’s also easy to enjoy the real-life settings that inspire his bestselling novels with this four-day trip that explores charming historic towns, quiet beaches, tidal rivers and pretty marshes.
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 Eastern Agricultural Center, which holds 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 A 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 Theatre and Centenary Methodist Church (both in The Notebook), and the historic Cedar Grove Cemetery (mentioned as part of a funeral procession in A Bend in the Road).
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. 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.
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: Ocracoke
Ocracoke, one of the southernmost islands of the Outer Banks, can only be reached by water or air and is the location of Sparks’ most recent novel, The Wish. Hop on the early morning ferry from Cedar Island to visit the remote island where 16-year-old Maggie was sent to live with her aunt for a summer. Make sure your camera is ready as you explore – Maggie was introduced to photography in Ocracoke, and the passion turned into a career as a travel photographer. With the abundance of opportunities for stunning photos, it’s clear why.
Walk around the village, where you’ll find shopping, restaurants and coffee shops, and entertainment. Then head to Ocracoke Lighthouse – the second oldest operating lighthouse in the country – and Springer’s Point for tranquility (with a side of pirate history) in a maritime forest. And you have to meet the Banker Ponies, descendants of Spanish mustangs that were shipwrecked hundreds of years ago, at their 188-acre pen.
If you’re staying overnight here, grab takeout and pick a spot along the 16 miles of secluded beach to enjoy a picnic underneath the stars.
Day 4: 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 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 here – 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 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, 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 then-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.
End your vacay with a visit to an enchanting mailbox on Bird Island. Kindred Spirit Mailbox, the inspiration behind Every Breath, sits a half-hour walk from the nearest public access point, nestled between sand dunes. Grab a notebook from the mailbox, take a seat on one of the benches and pen your innermost thoughts, dreams and prayers as you reflect on a perfect trip.