Elizabeth City, North Carolina

For a generation of cruising folk, Elizabeth City is at the end of a yellow brick road called the Dismal Swamp Canal.

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Though it sits astride the Intracoastal Waterway, Elizabeth City, North Carolina is not inevitable; it is a choice. Yachts may transit from Norfolk, Virginia, to the Albemarle Sound by one of two routes, either via the Dismal Swamp or the Virginia Cut. The Cut, unlike the swamp route, never closes due to low water, has one fewer lock, and-if hurried-yachtsmen usually choose this route. But those who would stop and smell the roses usually prefer the Dismal Swamp Canal, both for its own sake and the inevitable layover in Elizabeth City.

Here, none other than George Washington is your navigator; he was the surveyor who drew two intersecting lines on a map to set the digging in motion. In 1894, a despondent future poet named Robert Frost came here to commit suicide, but left the swamp alive, choosing to hitch a ride to Elizabeth City on a workboat, instead. Ignoring the entire history lesson-too long to repeat here-the Dismal Swamp route would still be rewarding if only for its wildlife and lush scenery.

Consider those black bears foraging for wild grapes and those playful river otters as Munchkins. You may be surprised to find that the still canal waters are colored an earthy yellow due to the dense layer of pine pollen floating bank to bank. Underway, vessels slice through this yellow brook road to reveal black tannic waters in their wake, and this makes for lovely photographs.

Southbound, after the second lock, yachts enter the wild and winding Pasquotank River, the home stretch to Elizabeth City. Also known as the Harbor of Hospitality, the city offers free 48-hour dockage for up to 13 boats at the Mariner's Wharf, with alternate space alongside bulkheads for vessels up to 120 feet LOA. An estimated 1,500 boats stop at Elizabeth City annually, and free docks are just part of the reason.

As the sun dips below the yardarm, a squad of community volunteers deploys along the docks. They go from vessel to vessel welcoming every Dorothy, whether she (or he) be captain, mate, or crew, with the gift of a single long-stemmed rose. (Though skeptical by nature, I have witnessed the effect of this gesture, and it is magical.) Everyone aboard is then invited to a tent party for complimentary wine and beer, cheese and chips. The greeters are the famous Rose Buddies-a creation of the late Fred Fearing and Joe Kramer-now in their 25th year.

Fearing, who died in October at age 93, was a retired postal worker with a flair for marketing, and what is marketing but brand-focused wizardry? "Fred coined the phrase Harbor of Hospitality," Thomas said. "What Fred used to say was, 'We come to shake hands with our hands vertical, not with our palms up for money.'" Over the years, Thomas said, Fearing's single-minded dedication to the Southern hospitality concept transformed this North Carolina backwater into a destination world famous among mariners.

As a complement to its historical museum, the downtown has a burgeoning cultural scene. A block from the waterfront is the new headquarters of Arts of the Albemarle, a building being renovated for galleries, exhibits, and local theater productions. The city has also begun a program to overhaul the old business district one street at a time. Fittingly, Main Street was first, with brick sidewalks and Victorian period lighting.

The late 19th Century was a prosperous time for Elizabeth City as evidenced by the national historic status of downtown and four residential neighborhoods. There, homes in the Federal, Greek Revival, Neo- Classical Revival, and Gothic Revival style are often dressed in multiple hues. In spring, when the dogwood trees alongside these "painted ladies" burst with white blossoms, the effect is simply stunning. For tour information, visit the Elizabeth City visitor's bureau next to the docks.

Grouper's Waterfront Grille is also just a few steps away. A few minutes further will take you to Cypress Creek Grill, City Wine Sellar [sic], Thumper's Downtown Bar & Grill, and the Toyama Sushi Bar. My personal favorite, however, is a watering hole to satisfy the varied tastes of a Scarecrow, Tin- Man, or Cowardly Lion-in other words, a typical yacht crew. Coasters Downtown Draughthouse is a beer emporium offering 24 brews on tap and another 65 in bottles. Here you can quaff Canadian La Fin Du Monde (9 percent alcohol) or a delicate Outer Banks Lemongrass Wheat. And it may be one of the few places on the waterway that serves mead (a word that means headache in Old English).

Permit me a final Oz reference: should you need a hot-air balloon for a ride home to Kansas, this town probably offers your best hope on the planet. Elizabeth City's TCOM is the only "lighter-than-air company in the world devoted to aerostat and airship manufacture, flight test, and training operations." From its enormous hangers are launched blimps emblazoned with Pepsi-Cola, Frito Lay, and Lowenbrau, not to mention Goodyear. Watch them pass overhead or take a factory tour and see if you don't find yourself humming "Somewhere, over the rainbow...".

SPEED DIAL: The area code for Elizabeth City is (252) Arts of the Albemarle: 338-6455 Coasters: 335-9463 Cypress Creek Grill: 334-9915 Elizabeth City Area Convention and Visitors Bureau: 335-5330 Grouper's: 331-2431 Museum of the Albemarle: 335-1453 TCOM: 330-4306 The City Wine Sellar: 335-1163 Toyama Sushi Bar: 338-2437