Explored in the late 1500s it was finally settled in 1690. James Bonner started the town on his own farm in the 1770s. After serving in the Continental Army, Bonner returned home and in 1776 renamed his town, originally called ''Forks of the Tar,'' for his commanding general, Washington. The town boasts that it is the ''original Washington.'' It was a major shipping port playing an important role in supplying the colonists when the British held Savannah, Charles Town and Wilmington under siege. Prized for its good waters it became a major commercial and cultural center for nearly a century.
Many locals attest that Oriental is a "contagious destination," where vehicular travelers via the two lane US 55, or maritime travelers along the Neuse River or Pamlico Sound, tend to stop by for a night or two, and end up sticking around for an extended, if not permanent, stay. A salty and friendly community that is relatively isolated from the rest of the central Inner Banks, this small town is big on community spirit, and possesses a natural love of all things nautical that is evident around every boat dock, every waterfront boardwalk, and every winding creek.
The town of Oriental is a small town at its core, with a collection of unimposing homes and waterfront parks, but it retains a big community spirit that has caused the town to blossom into one of the Inner Banks' most popular and best-loved tourist destinations. With fantastic museums,plenty of marinas, great shopping, fresh seafood, and simply gorgeous waterfront surroundings, Oriental is a perfect destination to pull up a deck chair, relax, and enjoy the scene.
The now small community of Oriental originally had a thriving Native American population well into the 1700s, unusual for the Inner Banks region which was filled with small shipping and port towns. It was officially "settled" by Louis B. Midyette who was blown off course and accidently discovered the area en route to the neighboring town of New Bern. The area, close to the Neuse River, Pamlico Sound, and a number of small but traversable creeks that meandered inland, grew quickly after this initial discovery, and was named originally "Smiths Creek" by the small but hardy population of locals.
The current town name of "Oriental" was perhaps half accident, and half fate, as in 1862, the Yankee Steamer of the same name was wrecked off Bodie Island, 33 miles north of Cape Hatteras. (Although the ship was completely destroyed, miraculously, the crew and passengers of the Oriental all survived.)
According to local legend, the Post Office in the small community of Smiths Creek was established just four years later, and the newly appointed postmaster's wife, Rebecca Midyette, thought that the town could use a better name. Soon thereafter, while walking the beaches of the Outer Banks on a trip, she found the nameplate "ORIENTAL" washed up on the shore, and decided that this should be the official name of their inland home. Granted, there are many other versions of this story, including a re-telling where Rebecca simply spots the Oriental nameplate at a friend's home in Manteo, but regardless, the postmaster's wife discovered the name, and it stuck with both her and her postmaster husband, and the town has been called "Oriental" ever since.
In the early 1900s, the town was a prime center for the burgeoning lumber industry, and for well over a century, Oriental has been at the heart of the North Carolina fishing industry as well. Even today, the commercial marinas and harbors of Oriental are continuously lined with hundreds of shrimp and fishing boats, eager to launch out to the Pamlico Sound to scoop up the seasonal catches that will then be distributed all across the state and the Eastern Seaboard.
In fact, recent census estimates suggest that Oriental has around 900 full-time residents, and nearly 3,000 boats, a not-so-subtle indicator of the town's deep-rooted love of the water.Regattas occur nearly every month, and holidays are a big cause for celebration, and as a result, nautical enthusiasts can enjoy any number of seasonal special events from 4th of July Fireworks displays over the water, to the annual "Spirit of Christmas" celebration, where locals decorate their sailboats and yachts with thousands of Christmas lights.
Today, many visitors to the 1.1 mile town travel there by boat, and the majority of homes, including primary residences, second homes, and vacation rentals, have a boat dock on site, or at the very least, a fantastic view of the neighboring Neuse River.
This maritime legacy and community pride influences virtually every aspect of the town, and can make a weekend or week-long tour an entertaining coastal adventure. Local museums, like the Oriental History Museum, pay homage to the nautical treasures and legends of the past, while modern galleries, like the Down East Canvas and Gallery, offers both incredible local works of art in addition to handcrafted and award winning canvas maritime supplies.
A historical stroll through Oriental's downtown is a must for visitors, (with tours available through the Oriental History Museum's walking tour programs), and visitors will also want to try to catch a live performance or weekly Friday flick at The Old Theater, a completely renovated 1950s movie palace on the edge of Broad Street.
The local parks are also a popular, budget-friendly destination for visitors, especially the waterfront Low Mac Park, (where pier fishing and incredible river views are always in season), and the small but entertaining Lupton Park, an ideal destination for kids of all ages.
In town, visitors will find plenty of shopping opportunities, particularly in the realm of marine supplies and yacht services and gear, as well as several boutiques, spas, antique stores and local galleries. The dining scene is equally diverse, and features everything from coffee houses and delis to cafes and grills that specialize in Oriental's signature claim to fame, fresh North Carolina seafood.
Accommodations are varied and generally plentiful as well, and visitors will find they have the option to stay at several locally run inns, (with marinas for passing travelers on the water), two accommodating bed and breakfasts, and a number of vacation rental homes and condos that often features boat docks and private piers. There are also a small number of campgrounds nearby for RVs and rustic travelers, all located within just a few miles of Oriental's city limits.
Any visitor with a love of the water will feel right at home in the town of Oriental. This small community that literally has more boats than people is a Mecca for Inner Banks maritime lovers, and is an incredible destination that has enticed passing mariners and coastal fans to anchor and enjoy the surroundings for decades, if not centuries. With plenty of local events and attractions, ample fresh seafood, and miles of waterfront bursting with commercial and privately owned sea-worthy vessels, the town of Oriental will effortlessly put any visitor in a coastal Carolina state of mind.