In the midst of the metropolitan area known as Hampton Roads, Virginia, and extending well into North Carolina, there is a unique primeval forest inhabited by a variety of mammals, 21 species of reptiles, 58 species of turtles, lizards, salamanders, frogs & toads, and over 200 species of birds, as well as history, mystery and lore... the Great Dismal Swamp.
The small town of Columbia, located approximately 45 miles west of the Outer Banks, is a rising star along the central North Carolina coastline. An anchor of the informally named "Inner Banks" region, this small community of less than 1,000 residents is slowly becoming a destination all its own, even landing a feature article in North Carolina's renowned Our State Magazine. The sudden growing interest is due to a number of features, not the least of which are breathtaking scenery, incredible wildlife, and a host of attractions, both old and new, that are ripe for exploring.
Columbia, (formerly known as "Elizabeth Town"), was officially established along the banks of the Scuppernong River in 1793. A central locale in Tyrrell County, named after Sir John Tyrrell, one of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolina colony, Columbia became the County Seat in 1793 and remained a small but quintessentially southern small town with just a handful of residents who called it home.
Visitors to Columbia can delve into the antebellum past with a visit to Somerset Place, a beautifully restored former plantation in between Columbia and the neighboring town of Creswell. The 1830s home with two tiers of pillared porches and four massive chimneys is bordered by outbuildings that once served as the dairy, kitchen/laundry, smokehouse and salting house. Visitors can tour all of these sites, as well as the plantation hospital and several small restored structures that once served as the plantation's slave quarters. The home was originally home to two generations of the local Collins family, as well as more than 300 enslaved men, women and children whose hard lives are documented in detail.In 1969, the home became a State Historic Site, and in 1986, descendants of African American slaves from Somerset Place held a gathering at the site known as the "Somerset Homecoming" - a gathering that was documented in the book of the same name by the Somerset House curator, Dorothy Spruill Redford.
History lovers will certainly want to take an extensive tour of the plantation grounds of Somerset Place, but newcomers of all varieties will want to make an initial stop at the Visitor Information center, the largest Visitors' Center along US 64 east of Raleigh. The center is conveniently located right off the highway, and overlooks the sprawling Scuppernong River. Folks passing through can enjoy a nice rest admiring the views, or touring the extensive wooden boardwalk that borders the river's edge.
Nature and wildlife lovers will find plenty of options for exploring the unique Inner Banks landscape, a diverse ecosystem that's comprised of wetlands, woodlands, waterways, birds, fish, and a unique assortment of plant life. The Palmetto Peartree Preserve is a unique 10,000 acre refuge that serves as an endangered species mitigation bank for the red-cockaded woodpecker, and features some exceptional birding opportunities, while the Walter B. Jones Center for the Sounds, (conveniently located next to the Tyrrell County Visitor's Center), features a variety of exhibits that focus on the Pocosins and Blackwater rivers that characterize he region.
The Eastern 4-H Environmental Education Conference Center is another popular destination for nature lovers, with a beautiful setting and ample recreational opportunities for groups to dive into an outdoor adventure, such as sailing, kayaking, or even camping. Available to rent for corporate events, wedding, receptions, and other large-scale affairs, the waterfront center can serve as a powerful backdrop for any grand-scale or casually fun purpose.
Columbia's most recent acclaim, however, is due in no small part to its revitalized downtown, which borders the Scuppernong River and features a host of restaurants, cafes, shops and attractions just waiting to be discovered. Visitors can stroll along the uncrowded side streets and pay a visit to the Pocosin Art Gallery, a large space dedicated to the region's premier and up-and-coming artists, or can further their local cultural education at the Columbia Theater Cultural Resources Center. This "center" is a combination of all things Columbia, from the wild and unique natural environment to the little-known but fascinating regional history of the small community. Located in a historic and renovated movie palace, the center features a variety of displays that brings local Eastern North Carolina history to life from the ground up.
Visitors who want to explore all the nooks and crannies of this small community can even embark on a walking or river tour which explores the town in depth, and sheds light on all the rich historical aspects of a typical small Coastal Carolina town.
In addition, special interests can even be accommodated in Columbia. The Outer Banks Speedway is located just a quick 5 minute drive away in neighboring Creswell, while wine lovers can explore the local concoctions created in the region at the Vineyards on the Scuppernong. Featuring a collection of local wines made from Scuppernong grapes, the world's healthiest grapes, the Vineyards is an ideal spot for wine lovers to get a taste of the growing eastern NC wine country scene.
There are limited accommodations available in Columbia - visitors will find a much larger range of campgrounds, hotels, motels and vacation homes in the Outer Banks to the east or the town of Plymouth to the west - however many Eastern NC visitors find that Columbia is an easily attainable and thoroughly enjoyable day trip from virtually all regions of the central NC Coast. The town, which extends through US 64, is also home to a growing number of galleries, stores and other conveniences for travelers on the go who just need a convenient and altogether enjoyable break from the road.
With a unique collection of attractions that span the spectrum, from wild preserves and parks to historic downtown streets and plantation homes, it's not that surprising that Columbia is finally finding a home in the regional spotlight. A small town with a world of surprising charm, this community is definitely worth a second, lingering look.