Getaways: Where Your Tent Can Pitch

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1998

Getaways: Where Your Tent Can Pitch

The Roanoke River dubuts ten floating campsites
By Fran Severn

The night music ensemble on northeastern North Carolina's Roanoke River is a rowdy mix of hooting owls, waltzing herons, chirruping frogs, and dive-bombing bats, all carousing in the largest bottomland hardwood swamp in the Midatlantic region. This Wind-in-the-Willows spectacle has gone largely unnoticed by canoeists, however, because most have been reluctant to pitch tents illegally on land owned by shotgun-toting farmers. They've opted instead for camping out on a king-size bed at the Comfort Inn in nearby Williamston.

But soon the joys of free cable won't figure quite so prominently in the wilderness experience of Roanoke paddlers. By next month, Roanoke River Partners, a local nonprofit grassroots group, will open the first of ten floating campsites. Wooden platforms that rise and fall with the currents, the ten sites will bob peacefully along a 70-mile stretch of the Roanoke from Hamilton to Albemarle Sound. Think of them as wilderness waterbeds.

Modeled after similar structures in Florida's Everglades and Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp, each platform, at 400 square feet, has room for several three-person tents. Posts around the perimeter allow for tarps, mosquito netting, and hanging lanterns. For privacy, one corner is tastefully screened — reserved for the portable flushing toilet that campers are required to rent from Roanoke River Partners and transport from site to site. Fires, for obvious reasons, aren't allowed, so a camp stove is a must.

At the moment, the Roanoke River Partners and local guinea pigs are testing the platforms. Floating campsites have hazards besides flammability: Motorboat wakes can dampen tents, and sleepwalkers can suddenly find themselves in the drink. The boat-wake problem at least has been dealt with by situating most of the platforms in quiet side tributaries — which also have the advantage of being more scenic than the main channel. Spanish moss dangles from dense thickets of bald cypress here, while scarlet tanagers, cerulean warblers, and 190 other bird species chirp amidst the foliage.

All ten platforms should be ready for limited public usage by mid-summer. The price per person is $10 per night, and reservations are required. To get more information, write to Roanoke River Partners, Box 488, Windsor, NC 27983. Although the trail will be marked, the tributaries can become confusing; Roanoke Outfitters in Williamston offers guided trips for $35-$255. It also rents canoes for $35 per day. Call 919-792-5915.

Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel
One look was worth an entire photo career
When the Italian photojournalist Piero Guerrini arrived in the remote village of Grande Riviere on Trinidad's north coast a few years ago, he was expecting only to complete a photo essay on the life of poet and Nobel laureate Derek Wolcott. It was Wolcott who'd told him this was one of the few places on earth where the untouched Caribbean of his youth still existed. Guerrini's assignment went well. It also marked the end of his journalistic career: After turning his work over to his editors, he hopped a plane back to Grande Riviere, where he opened the Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel, a hospitable little inn backed by rainforest and opening onto sand.

Right Out the Door: The inn's "front lawn" is a beach inhabited intermittently by randy leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles. During the annual egg-laying season, from March to August, beach access is restricted at night; you can peek on the action from a hotel window, however. Daylight hours are best spent hiking with hotel co-owner Cyril James, an herbalist, who will explain the pharmacopoeia of the rainforest and concoct bush remedies from such local ingredients as boiled wonder-of-the-world plant.

Farther Afield: Port of Spain, the capital, is about two hours distant by car. But only moments away, the village of Grande Riviere, population 300, provides a memorable glimpse into small-town Caribbean life; a basketball hoop hangs over the main intersection and the homegrown reggae/calypso band Roots & Branches jams most afternoons. For nightlife, Jamesy's Stone Wall Bar, with its sign warning No Credit/No Spitting on the Floor/No Weed Smoking is a short walk from the hotel.

At the Lodge: On Sundays, Guerrini offers homemade pizza from a Neapolitan oven built by his father. Beer and rum flow at the beachfront bar. But the most eye-popping drink is the nonalcoholic Mt. Plaisir Special, made of soda water and a red syrup derived from the flowers of the indigenous sorrel tree. The nine rooms cost $58-$62 per night. Call 868-670-8381 for reservations. — ERIC RANSDELL

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