A Journey of Discovery:

Driving the all-new Mazda CX-90, Mazda Stories visits North Carolina’s Outer Banks, meeting the craftspeople who define the area’s rich culture.

I’m in Beaufort, North Carolina, driving the southern segment of the Outer Banks Scenic Byway, or Down East, as locals call it. This jigsaw puzzle of barrier islands is home to fabled wild horses, picturesque maritime towns, and acres of empty beaches. Also known as the Crystal Coast, the region is populated by close-knit communities that have the sea running through their veins. I’m here to seek out the local artisans, farmers, and volunteers all committed to their craft and the sustainability of their beloved environment.

In Beaufort, NC, Cary Spencer and the team at Bonehenge Whale Center specialize in marine conservation and educational programming.

Cary Spencer, one of the founding volunteers, greets me pressing together fragments of a porpoise skull she is painstakingly reconstructing. The team here have developed their own methods for rearticulating skeletons to help people understand the marine wildlife around them and the dangers they face from modern shipping and nets.

Much of the Center’s work is in research and education. “This place is about telling a story. I want my grandchildren to know you can always make a difference,” Cary explains. “It’s so important for people to connect to these mammals emotionally. We have to understand that we are all connected.” It’s a sobering experience but heartening, too, to see the community’s hard work and commitment.

“The region is populated by close-knit communities that have the sea running through their veins.”

Working at the other end of the food chain, local oysterman Ryan Bethea is equally passionate about the environment. I loop up across the wide North River then coast south beneath loblolly pines and squalling skies to reach Harker’s Island. I find Ryan happily tumbling shells knee-deep in the Sound.

As local oyster farmer Ryan Bethea explains, North Carolina’s coastline is the ideal home for oysters, owing to its sounds, marshlands, and estuarine rivers.

He explains the myriad environmental benefits of oyster farming as he sorts through his harvest, expertly discarding subpar specimens. “Oysters are a keystone species. They filter out particulates, improving water quality, which is good for the entire ecosystem. The beds support biodiversity and help restore decimated wild oyster populations. They’re also a highly sustainable source of protein.” He shucks a couple of the large, gnarled bivalves and hands one to me. We toast shells and swallow their briny contents. Ryan is all smiles as he explains that his company Oysters Carolina delivers all over the state and offers free oysters to low-income families with no minimum order, which eliminates waste and encourages people to try something they might otherwise not. I leave Ryan to his valuable work after one more oyster for the road.

The next morning, I make my way to Budsin Electric Boats in Marshallberg. Owner Tom Hesselink warmly welcomes me into his workshop. Bright sawdust particles are suspended in the sunlight and fresh cut lumber perfumes the air. Tom and his highly trained craftsmen build a range of elite wooden electric launches, the pedigree of which is clear from his yearlong waiting list.

Row upon row of tins line the walls filled with epoxy, resin, and solvents. The elegant hulls, high up on cradles, are varnished to a tough toffee-colored gloss. “I put a lot of thought into designing the controls to make them discreet and intuitive. There are no emissions, and the engines are all but silent so people can hear each other talk. We call them quiet boats,” Tom tells me. The vessels are constructed from Atlantic white cedar and built to last with zealous attention to detail.

Established in 1987, Budsin Electric Boats’ builds are inspired by “vessels built in the early 1900s, when life moved at a slower pace.”

One launch from Tom’s range is named for EV pioneer Gustav Trouvé. Fittingly, the Trouvé seats eight passengers, as does my CX-90, although I have it all to myself which is helpful in the mercurial weather—plenty of room to dry clothes and stretch out while the storms rage. I stay in electric mode on the final leg up to Cedar Island. I’m keen to minimize emissions but it is reassuring in the more remote areas to have a gas option.

I rejoin the Outer Banks Scenic Byway and for a time there is nothing between me and miles of flawless asphalt. This part of the trip is all about the drive. Successive bridges arc above the salt marshes and a squadron of stoical brown pelicans flies so close I can see individual feathers. I’m reminded of the Wright Brothers who came to the Outer Banks to do their pioneering work on aviation and were inspired by the local birds they observed. Wilbur Wright said, “It is possible to fly without motors but not without knowledge and skill.” As I run out of road, I think about how the tenacity, expertise and dedication of the people I met here are a testament to that pioneering spirit. Then I turn back south to catch a flight of my own.


The Beaufort Hotel, for total privacy on the banks in a resort-style setting. beauforthotelnc.com

Beaufort Grocery, where locals enjoy French cuisine with plenty of charm. beaufortgrocery.com

Front Street Grill at Stillwater, to enjoy a relaxing drink at the water’s edge. therhumbar.com

Cape Hatteras, with its uncrowded beaches and calming allure. nps.gov/caha

The Outer Banks Scenic Byway, encompassing the unique maritime culture of 21 coastal villages. outerbanks.org

Words Jenni Doggett / Images Anthony Dias

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