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Headed to North Carolina’s central beaches? Take these detours for food and fun

Whoever said “Getting there is half the fun” did not spend the first hour and 15 minutes of their beach vacation last year sniffing fresh asphalt in a construction zone on Interstate 40 just east of Raleigh.

And while a few days by the ocean — once we got there — eased the pain, we haven’t forgotten being trapped in a line of cars wishing we had taken another route.

Any other route.

If you’re headed from the Triangle to North Carolina’s central coast this summer — whether it’s Beaufort, Atlantic Beach, Emerald Isle, Surf City or Topsail — be ready when you spot a long string of brake lights to split off at the next exit.

In fact, don’t wait for your GPS to suggest an alternate route; go ahead and plan a detour that will include a short outing or some fabled road food. While the interstate inmates are dodging orange highway cones and seeing red, you’ll already be in vacation mode.

Destination: Morehead City, Beaufort, Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores

Until the Department of Transportation finishes several bypasses and highway upgrades that will create the new Interstate 42 between Raleigh and Morehead City, U.S. 70 is the most direct route. With work on the I-42 plan underway, you may run into construction delays.

Detour to Johnston County: Might as well take a field trip to Bentonville Battlefield, the state historic site that preserves a section of the place where the largest Civil War battle fought in North Carolina, in the spring of 1865. Take the 10-mile driving tour, walk the grounds and tour the Harper House with its reconstructed kitchen and dwelling for enslaved people who once lived there. It’s in Johnston County at 5466 Harper House Road, Four Oaks.

Detour to Kinston: Or, put a few more miles behind you and plan a stop at the Kinston Music Park, at the intersection of Spring Hill and South Queen Streets, Kinston. The park honors African American Musical Heritage with a monument to famous jazz, R&B, blues, soul and gospel musicians from the region.

Detour to New Bern: The former colonial and state capital is another good place to cool your engine. If you’re up for a stop of several hours, get a one-day ticket for Tryon Palace and the N.C. History Center. If you just need to stretch your legs or get a meal, go to a downtown restaurant and walk along the riverfront or stroll through historic Cedar Grove Cemetery at 808 George Street. If you forgot to pack something, Mitchell Hardware downtown on Craven Street probably has it. Children can burn off pent-up energy at Kidsville Playground in Seth West Parrot Park, 1225 Pinetree Drive.

Destination: Bogue Banks (Emerald Isle, Indian Beach, Salter Path)

The 11-miles of I-40 construction between I-440 in Raleigh and N.C. 42 in Johnston County won’t be finished until 2024, so when traffic is heavy, you might experience a bit of 2022 déjà vu or have to swing through the country to get around it. But I-40 still is a popular way to get to Emerald Isle and other communities on the west end of Bogue Banks by way of Jacksonville and Swansboro.

Detour to Jacksonville: Once you exit I-40 at either N.C. 24 or N.C. 53, both of which lead toward Jacksonville, it’s less than an hour to Emerald Isle. But it’s been at least two hours since you left home, and you’ll need some sustenance to be able to haul all those suitcases into the rental house.

While you’re at it, think: did you pack board games? Beach towels? Souvenir shot glasses? No worries. Jacksonville has a couple of weekend flea markets: Twice as Nice, 3060 Wilmington Highway, and Highway 258 Flea Market, 2911 Richlands Highway.

Detour to Cedar Point: If you’ve already passed through Swansboro but the rental company says it’ll be another hour before your house/condo/hotel room is ready, you could kill some time in the massive Neuse River Sport Shop, 1021 Cedar Point Blvd, Cedar Point. Or, take an easy scenic hike along the Tideland National Recreation Trail in the Croatan National Forest in Cedar Point. There’s parking at the trailhead past the entrance to Cedar Point Campground, 391 VFW Road, Cedar Point.

Destination: Topsail Beach, Surf City, North Topsail Beach

If I-40 traffic is flowing freely, it’s the fastest way to do most of the traveling toward Topsail Island. But it makes the trip more interesting to leave the highway now and then.

Detour to Newton Grove: From here, it’s only a few miles to Bentonville Battlefield (see above, under destination Morehead City/Beaufort/Atlantic Beach.)

Detour to Wallace: This Duplin County town is a good stop that doesn’t require you to veer too far from the interstate. At the intersection of I-40 and N.C. 41 is the Mad Boar Restaurant & Pub, a favorite among locals and a cozy place for lunch. Wallace also has Riverside Barn Antiques, a 12,000-square-foot shop at 3843 N.C. Highway 41.

Where to Eat on the way to the beach

Old North State Food Hall

67 JR Roard., Suite 300, Selma. 984-263-0577 or facebook.com/oldnorthstatefoodhall

A beach trip doesn’t really begin until you get east of I-95. Well, this new food hall in Selma is just on the other side of the interstate. If getting out of Raleigh took about an hour too long, cool off here with nearly a dozen food vendors, including trendy Fuku and popular Luna Pizzeria and the unique built-in-a-humidor bar.

Mother Earth Brewing

311 N. Heritage St., Kinston. 252-208-2437 or motherearthbrewing.com

What began as a piece of the revitalization of downtown Kinston is now one of the most prominent breweries in all of Eastern North Carolina. Standout brews include the crispy Endless River kolsch and the very beachy Vanishing Tides lager.

Chef and the Farmer

120 W. Gordon St., Kinston. 252-208-2433 or vivianhoward.com/chef-the-farmer

You probably know the story by now, but it’s still kind of astounding. Chef Vivian Howard rewired dining expectations for all of Eastern North Carolina with this fine dining restaurant near where she grew up. For now, the Chef & the Farmer is temporarily closed as it goes through a retooling of the concept. But keep it in mind whenever passing through.

King’s Restaurant

405 E. New Bern Rd., Kinston. 252-572-2101; 910 W. Vernon Ave. Kinston. 252-527-1661. Kingsbbq.com

This Eastern-style barbecue is shipped across the country, but locals can find it all over Kinston. King’s is one of the oldest barbecue joints in the state, but still manages to keep it fresh, serving the only known barbecue sandwich with a fried hushpuppy as a bun.

Grady’s Barbecue

3096 Arrington Bridge Rd., Dudley. 919-735-7243.

If your route happens to take you through the backroads south of Goldsboro, the legendary barbecue spot from Steve and Geri Grady can’t be missed. This is whole hog barbecue as it’s rarely done anywhere in the country, served alongside vegetables chopped and stewed and seasoned that morning. Don’t leave without a slice of sweet potato pie.

Fat Baby’s Country Cooking

1215 Green Haynes Rd., Kinston. 252-527-9779

South of downtown Kinston is this breakfast and lunch spot specializing in Southern staples. The menu changes a little bit each day, but always includes a dozen or so country-style sides.

Ken’s Grill

7645 US-70 W., La Grange. 252-566-4765 or facebook.com/ken-grill-and-nc-barbecue

More detours should lead to Ken’s. This old school barbecue joint manages to fly under the radar of most of the larger smoked pork conversations, but it’s not to be overlooked. For skin fans, Ken’s is a must, with crunchy crumbles sprinkled on sandwiches or crispy hunks making excellent snacks.

Tacos Michoacan

7823 US-70 W, La Grange. 252-543-8007

A roadside taqueria that’s reminiscent of a roadside burger stand, Tacos Michoacan is two small dining rooms and a kitchen. Walking in, you’ll find barstools and a counter and through a door you’ll find, another set of barstools and a counter. But the second room has a giant beer cooler and a TV and it’s up to you to decide how much time and many tacos you need away from the road.

Jeff’s Burgers

2550 Onslow Dr., Jacksonville. 910-989-2500 or jeffsburgersdogsshakes.net

This Jacksonville burger spot is the kind of place that looks like it’s been around much longer than its 20 years. That’s because it honors burger joints of the past with hand-cut fries, battered onion rings and griddled patties and hot dogs.

El’s Drive In

3706 Arendell St., Morehead City. 252-726-3002 or elsdrivein.com

Heading home from Atlantic Beach, or grabbing a bite before crossing the sound, your car is your dining room at El’s, one of North Carolina’s most famous coastal restaurants. This takeout joint is best known for its signature shrimp burger, a bun packed with crispy fried shrimp.

Morris BBQ

891 Morris BBQ Rd., Hookerton. 252-747-2254 or morrisbarbeque.com

Of the very old barbecue joints that dot the Eastern North Carolina landscape, Morris is unconventional. The hogs are cooked hot and fast and Morris is only open Saturdays, with lines starting at 8 a.m. Diners in the know call ahead to reserve crispy pork skins and no one should skip dessert.

Blazin Bird

632 W. Corbett Ave., Swansboro. 910-325-8233 or blazinbird.com.

Nashville Hot Chicken landed in Onslow County last year with this new restaurant just across the harbor from Emerald Island. The chicken comes bone-in and spicy, but there’s also a sammie with the same burn.