New Bern, N.C., home of Pepsi-Cola, celebrates 300 years of history
I figured that something extraordinary was afoot in the waterfront North Carolina town of New Bern when the highway sign on the way in flashed a smiley face with the text, "Yes, the bridge is open!"
North Carolina's second-oldest city may be celebrating its 300th anniversary this year, but the biggest cause for excitement among its 28,000 residents is arguably the new Alfred A. Cunningham Bridge, which just happened to open the day I arrived.
The replacement drawbridge, nearly three years in the making, feeds highway traffic over the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers and directly into red-bricked historic downtown New Bern, finally erasing the need for lengthy detours through not the most attractive section of town.
"There's been a big traffic jam all day of cars wanting to drive over it," said innkeeper Kim Wynn when I checked into the spacious turret room at the Howard House Bed & Breakfast, just two blocks from the bridge. "We've waited a long time for this. It's such a pretty way to enter town."
Whichever route you take, once you're downtown you can park the car and put on your walking shoes, as most of what you'll want to see sits within a 15-block spread. If you stick to a tight schedule, as I did, you can take in the highlights in one day and spend another at the beach. (The closest, Atlantic Beach, is a 45-minute drive to the southeast.)
By the time you've covered two blocks you'll be wondering, "What's with all those bears?" The animal's likeness is on the ubiquitous city seal, most often seen flying from lamppost banners, and, on the ground, in the form of 44 decorated fiberglass "Bear Town Bears." The symbol comes from New Bern's founder, a nobleman from Switzerland who named the city after his home town of Bern. The name derives from the German for "bear," and you'll find your fill of them here.
I decided to conquer downtown first, stop to refuel, then tackle New Bern's shining star: Tryon Palace, which was the home of royal governor William Tryon in 1770 and served as the capital of North Carolina until Raleigh supplanted it in 1794.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention New Bern's other royalty: romance writer Nicholas Sparks, best known for the tear-jerker "The Notebook." For his fans, the tourism folks have wisely designed a self-guided walking tour past sites mentioned in Sparks's novels. Be warned that the sugar may stick to your feet on this "Walk to Remember."
New Bern's shopping area is a friendly, inviting place, except for the "we have no public restrooms" signs in the front of many businesses. (Town leaders, maybe it's time to install some?)
Before I could even step inside Mitchell Hardware, I overheard manager Greg Smith telling customers how he had tooted a whistle and rung a cowbell during his inaugural walk over the half-mile bridge the day before.
His family's landmark store was founded as a livery stable in 1898 and morphed into a general hardware store, which it remains today. It's now housed in a 1912 building featuring original leaded glass windows and a pressed-tin ceiling.
I popped into several sizable antiques shops, the stylish home-design shop Confluence, and my favorite, Carolina Creations, featuring national and North Carolina artisans.