Back in the day, Belhaven, North Carolina, was a very popular cruising stop and a destination for transient boaters.
Located at the junction of the Pungo River and Pantego Creek, just eight miles north of the Pamlico River, Belhaven offered a quiet relaxing stop and a pleasant respite for boaters seeking refuge from overcrowded marinas and harbors. Centrally located Belhaven is an easy cruise to better known destinations like Ocracoke, Oriental, and Beaufort to the south or historic Bath and Washington to the north.
For years, Belhaven’s River Forest Marina served up a wonderful southern style buffet, and golf carts were available to run into the village for provisions. ICW transient boaters liked Belhaven’s buffet as much as, or even more than the legendary prime rib dinners (still) served at Coinjock Marina, (MM 86). Perhaps some of this enthusiasm was due to relief after crossing the ever-interesting Albemarle Sound, and seemingly endless slog through the Alligator River and Alligator Pungo Canal, i.e., ‘The Ditch.’
It was this ‘Ditch’ that gave Belhaven an economic boost early in the 20th century, when the 20-mile plus cut between the Alligator and Pungo rivers, the final stretch in the 1300 mile Maine-to-Florida waterway, was completed in 1928.
In recent years, however, Belhaven took a beating. While new condos were built, River Forest Marina stopped serving its buffet, its docks deteriorated; downtown stores and restaurants closed, and it became more difficult for boaters to provision, as the only grocery store moved away from downtown.
Despite its decline, Belhaven continued to have two significant attractions for boaters. Belhaven Waterway Marina, owned by Les and Brenda Porter, a small marina in the village, offers mostly alongside docking (with some slips at the end), manicured grounds with a nice screened gazebo for boaters, and some of the most interesting restrooms you’d find anywhere on the water. They also offer quality repairs and a marine railway.
Riddick and Windley hardware store, just a block from the water, is a godsend. Now affiliated with ACE, R & W is a favored stop for boaters, having a good selection of supplies, ice, and wine along with some other interesting items.
Belhaven had become so quiet that one day, while waiting for a new piece of glass to be cut to replace an antique windshield on our boat, the only traffic I saw in an hour along Belhaven’s main street was a lone mallard duck. He was in no danger from oncoming traffic. Other than Belhaven Waterway Marina, the hardware store and very nice Dowry Creek Marina, which appeals to many transient boaters who don’t care about being “downtown,” Belhaven, for most transients, had become a thing of the past.
That’s changing fast. As one of our captain friends said after a recent visit, “you won’t believe what’s happened to Belhaven.”
Belhaven is still a great place to get away from it all. There are no crowds. No long lines to get into restaurants. A nice anchorage which (generally) provides excellent holding. But now there’s a renaissance in this quaint “inner banks” community, with more attractions for boaters who want a quiet destination with some amenities as well.
River Forest Marina is being completely rebuilt by a group led by Brantley Tillman, who grew up on the Belhaven waterfront. The group is investing heavily to once again make River Forest a great destination for boaters, weddings and other events. Although the owners currently don’t plan to restart the famous buffet, they have saved the iconic manor house, and have rebuilt all the docks, adding new transient slips, new boater facilities with free laundry for boaters, and a new pool, which will be smaller, but will be heated. Brantley said he plans to provide golf carts for boaters so they can visit downtown and get supplies.
The village has built a marine docking facility downtown that offers a considerable amount of dock space for visiting boaters with tie ups alongside. New shops have also opened offering an assortment of gifts, artwork and other “tourist” items.
Two new restaurants have added a lot of variety to village dining and pub options. Tavern at Jack’s Neck (Belhaven was once called Jack’s Neck) was recently opened by architect Doug Southerland and his wife, Jimmie. This remarkable eatery, soon to be joined by a steakhouse and BBQ, reflects the vision and talent of its owners. It has become an overnight success in Belhaven.
A second new restaurant attracts the more upscale diners with resounding success. The Silver Artworks and Market, described by one reviewer as “artful, done right” is a high end restaurant that focuses on local ingredients and good wine selection. Some boaters say this is the best food they’ve had on the ICW.
For all its new activity, Belhaven is still pretty peaceful by most people’s standards. It’s a great place to get away from it all. And its sunsets are spectacular.