Travel

Here's Where to Get the Freshest Foraged Seafood in North Carolina

Ana Shellem sells sustainable seashells by the seashore.

Photo by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist
Photo by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist
Photo by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist

“The wild harvest will always have my heart,” says Ana Shellem. You’ll find her getting down and dirty in the muddy marshes, decked out in waders with a bikini top and salty braids, carrying the biggest grin in tow. That’s because this is her dream job. Shellem is an independent fisherwoman, and a badass one at that, operating her own female-owned company for sustainable seafood foraging.

Call it kismet that she moved from Harlem to North Carolina, where she met Jon Shellem, her now-husband, who introduced her to the marsh and, after marriage, the gift of the most on-brand last name one could ask for. She started Shell’em Seafood Co. in 2017, a boutique shellfishing company in Wrightsville Beach, from her houseboat. Now you can taste how her fresh, local catch makes a difference at restaurants (see below!) across the state.

Photos by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist
Photos by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist
Photos by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist

Unlike most people’s monotonous nine-to-five-er, her days are never the same. Shellem forages in the wild, in season, and with the food chain in mind. She reaches for clams, mussels, oysters, stone crab, seaweed, sea beans, and whelk (sea snails). Shellem picked up foraging from her husband and launched the company after feeling food- and beverage-industry burnout. She started bringing shellfish samples to her chef friends, and then eventually earned her commercial fishing license to cut out the middleman.

“Wilmington is a wonderful place to harvest wild shellfish,” she explains, “because there are plenty of preserved islands and local estuaries that have clean water with high salinity.” She prefers to stay away from any river mouths, as those areas can drastically change the taste of the shellfish. For oysters, she seeks the prettiest-the right shape and cup, deemed worthy of her personal palate.

“We are lucky enough to get and catch fresh fish and shellfish regularly; that’s how folks at local restaurants should eat too,” she says, noting the dedication that goes into this job. “Fishermen and women work so hard, and it’s a shame that local catches are exported [when] we have a plethora of abundant species at our fingertips.”The end game is sustainability. In a sea of abundance, there are sketchy practices at seafood joints and restaurants across the state, resorting to mislabeled seafood or products shipped in from overseas-frozen, never fresh. The fish can cringingly take weeks until it makes it onto a menu and into a consumer’s mouth. “I hope to help educate consumers on sustainability, seasonality, and how commercial fishermen and women are following regulations to protect our resources for future generations,” says Shellem.

Wild oysters in the summer? Not a chance. They’re seasonal to fall and winter in these waters, just like your juicy, ripe tomatoes are best in summer. You can get oysters outside of their season (October 15 – March 31 for Shellem)-just know they’re farmed versus wild. It’s Shellum’s job to shine a light on education. “I will always eat based on wild seasons-I don’t start eating them raw until the water is cold enough,” she says. “I am opinionated from observation, regulations, and witnessing climate change in real-time.”

Photos by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist
Photos by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist
Photos by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist

To Shellem, foraging is also about mindfulness. “It may look like I’m playing in the mud all day, but there’s a lot more to it,” she says, even citing therapeutic benefits for an otherwise control freak. “There are so many factors, often unexpected, that will make your job harder-in turn, you’ll shimmy around and come up with different techniques.”

Legally, in North Carolina, you can’t harvest before sunrise or after sunset-and never on Sundays, for biblical reasons. It’s not as simple as plucking a mussel from the water and calling it a day. “I only harvest at low tide and the tide changes every day,” she adds. “Sometimes that’s the crack of dawn and sometimes that’s just before the sun sets.” But there’s more to look at than just the tide. Shellum observes the wind direction and the moon for her ability to gather in abundance. Rain is also an issue, which can contaminate the shellfish and change its salinity. She therefore has to plan accordingly and keep her chef contacts updated on the reality of what’s available. “This is also why I’m so thankful to work with the chefs that I do,” she says, “They understand that Mother Nature is in charge.”

Photo by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist
Photo by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist
Photo by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist

If you’ve been lucky enough to pop one of Shellem’s wild-harvested sea delicacies in your mouth, the difference in both taste and appearance is evident. A one-woman show, she handpicks the best and most beautiful sea creatures, cleans them, and then hand delivers them to a slew of North Carolina’s most visionary chefs.

At Seabird, in downtown Wilmington, chef Dean Neff works around the clock to ensure the menu is sustainable and from the native waters. Delicacies from Shell’em Seafood Co. dot the daily-changing menu, and that includes strikingly beautiful oysters, clams, mussels, and even seaweed, which Neff turns into concoctions like vibrant salsa. “Ana is a small-scale forager of seafood who understands low impact sustainable harvesting practices,” says Neff. “She really cares deeply about the health of our waters and beaches-for now and in the future.” He notes Shellem’s process and ethos defines Wilmington and gives it a sense of place. “[Her] list of bivalves, whelk, and occasionally sea greens allows us an opportunity to focus on how unique and special these ingredients truly are to our area.”

Photos by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist
Photos by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist
Photos by Elizabeth Ervin for Thrillist

“We’ve mostly used Ana’s mussels,” says David Ellis, chef de Cuisine at Ashley Christensen’s Poole’s Diner in Raleigh. “The big attraction has been the freshness. Ana will harvest for us early in the morning and then drive them herself to have them to us by noon,” further noting the distinct difference in taste vs. mussels coming from out of state. “She’s very curious about the whole picture and is willing to harvest things that I can’t source elsewhere,” Ellis adds, who is most excited about a seafood stew showcasing Shellem’s sea beans. “It’s a collaboration between chef and purveyor that is quite unique and helps to inspire new creations for the menu.”

At the end of the day, when the sun sets over the sea, Shellem finds peace when seeing a new customer get excited about a dish or a consumer waxing about her wild-harvested sea snacks. “I hope to inspire others to protect the sea,” says Shellem, “other fishermen to apply greedless and mindful practices, and for women to dive head first into male-dominated fields with confidence, grit, and grace.”

Where to eat Shell’em Seafood Co. around North Carolina:
Motts Channel Seafood, Wrightsville Beach
Seabird, Wilmington
Catch, Wilmington
Poole’s Diner, Raleigh
St. Roch, Raleigh
The Hackney, Little Washington

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Jenn Rice is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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