More than beaches on N.C.’s Outer Banks

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Victor Block

I stood frozen with fear, unable to run. The terrifying pirate drew closer, his curved sword swinging wildly.

Just as he was about to separate my head and body, I snapped back to reality, left my all-too-real daydream about Blackbeard behind and moved on to the next exhibit in the museum.

The story of Blackbeard the Pirate is one display that makes the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, N.C., fascinating, and possibly horrifying. That eclectic collection is among numerous attractions that transform the Outer Banks — the chain of narrow barrier islands that parallels the state’s Atlantic coastline — into much more than just another sun-and-sand vacation destination.

Stretches of broad beaches and sand dunes, interspersed by marshes and pockets of woodland, comprise the barrier islands that shield the mainland from the ocean’s surging waves and ferocious storms. They also are home to an inviting variety of intriguing attractions that can fill many a day of activity and sightseeing.

If lighthouses and the story of a lost colony aren’t of interest, what about the first flights of the Wright Brothers? If an often overlooked story of World War II sea action doesn’t turn you on, there’s an entire island transformed into a living history museum.

History lessons abound

Visitors today follow a long line of people who have been attracted to the region. Croatan Indians found the excellent hunting and fishing to their liking as long as 10,000 years ago.

Italian, French and Spanish explorers set foot on the land during the 16th century. They were followed by an English attempt to settle on Roanoke Island in 1587, 22 years before colonizing Jamestown, Va.

The history of the Outer Banks constantly comingles with life there today. Tiny family cemeteries stretching back generations are hidden behind some homes.

A number of houses contain timbers, sheathing and other materials that were salvaged from the hundreds of ships that fell prey over centuries to the shoals and treacherous waters off the coast.

Visitors may also occasionally have trouble understanding native “Bankers” who retain vestiges of a unique generations-old accent.

The Outer Banks began attracting vacationers in the 1830s, when families
of wealthy North Carolina planters found refuge there from the summer heat. They were followed by sportsmen drawn by the outstanding fishing and hunting that Native Americans had discovered many centuries earlier.

The same attributes continue to attract many visitors. Of course, beaches along the 130-mile-long Outer Banks remain the major draw for most folks.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a 30,000-acre preserve, covers much of the Banks. Stretching over 70 miles, this national seashore — the first in the country, established in 1953 — encompasses some of the largest areas of undeveloped beaches in the United States. Even at the height of the summer tourist season, some sections are occupied by more sea birds than people.

Beachside towns

Drivers heading south on state highway 12, or a stretch of US 158 that runs parallel to it for a while, have opportunities to check out villages along the way. In addition to similarities to oceanfront vacation towns, some have unique characteristics.

Many visitors rate Corolla (pronounced COH-roll-uh), the northernmost enclave, and Duck, several miles further south, as the two prettiest villages on the islands. Both have a small town atmosphere, good restaurants and a number of rambling houses that would feel at home in an upscale neighborhood anywhere.

Duck is perfect for strolling. A new wooden boardwalk along the west side of town follows the edge of Currituck Sound, in some places passing woods where you’ll hear only bird calls, in other spots leading to locally owned boutiques and galleries.

According to Nancy Meyers, a Washingtonian who is a frequent visitor, “Duck is an established, and establishment, community. You don’t rough it in Duck.”

Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head form the commercial hub of the Outer Banks. Along with a strip-mall atmosphere, there are two major attractions.

It was at Kitty Hawk where, on December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first controlled-power flight. The prevailing winds, combined with gentle slops and soft landing spots provided by sand dunes, drew them to the area.

After hundreds of test glides, they made four successful powered flights that lasted from 12 to 59 seconds and covered from 122 to 852 feet. If those times and distances seem miniscule, consider the impact they’ve had on the world.

A museum and exhibit pavilions house a full-scale replica of the Wright Flyer, photographs of the event taken by Orville, and a wealth of other treasures.

Granite boulders mark the start and ending point of each flight. A plane flew overhead as I stepped off the distance, prompting me to wonder what the brothers would think about today’s jet travel.

Nearby Jockey’s Ridge State Park contains the tallest sand dunes on the east coast. In this mini-desert setting, winds reshape the sand, causing the dune for which the park is named to vary in height from 80 to 100 feet.

South of the commercial section of the Outer Banks, both traffic and the width of the islands thin. The road passes through several miniscule towns and, just past Hatteras village, ends at a ferry dock. Along the way are more opportunities to check out enticing attractions, some on many people’s “must see” list.

A lost colony

I would rate Roanoke Island, on the sound side of the Banks, worth a visit even if it were a stand-alone destination. Several chapters of history spring to life at this site of the first English colony in the New World.

A good place to start is Festival Park, where the life of Native Americans who originally inhabited the area is recreated. Longhouses, a dance circle, and planting and harvesting areas set the mood. Interactive exhibits scattered about the area are sure to interest generations of family visitors.

To relive the next chapter of history, clamber aboard the Elizabeth II, a sailing ship representative of the seven British vessels that visited the area during the 16th century. Costumed interpreters spin tales of perilous voyages in a brogue that echoes the speech of that time.

A visit to the Settlement Site provides an immersion in life at an early military outpost. As soldiers stand watch against intrusions by hostile Indians, costumed blacksmiths, carpenters and other workmen ply their trades.

The history lesson continues at the Roanoke Adventure Museum, where 400 years of the Outer Banks’ past are explored. From early pirates to the Civil War, from boat-building to shipwrecks, virtually every facet of life as it used to be, and in some ways still is, gets its due.

The Elizabethan Gardens is reminiscent of early English plantings. Statues both old and new gaze out over the setting, including a monumental bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth I.

By far, the most famous attraction on Roanoke Island is the Lost Colony — a lavish, something-for-everyone drama with special effects, daring action, comedy, music and dance. It relates the true story of the disappearance — no one knows where or why — of 116 men, women and children who settled in the New World in 1587.

Even this list does not exhaust the possibilities. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras village tells the story of more than 2,000 known shipwrecks that lie in waters off the Outer Banks. Many went down in the 18th and 19th centuries, victims of dangerous currents, shoals and storms.

Others were cargo vessels heading to England that were sunk by German submarines lurking off our country’s east coast during World War II. Parts of several shipwrecks are visible today on beaches or in shallow water at low tide.

Other well-done exhibits at the museum deal with pirates, including the notorious Blackbeard, who was killed in the area, and the Civil War ironclad U.S.S. Monitor.

Lighthouse buffs will think they’ve gone to heaven. Three towers mark the Outer Banks, two of which are open from spring to fall for those — not I — who wish to climb to the top. Also available are remnants of what once were more than 20 life-saving stations that were built along the Banks in the late 19th century.

Crews risked their lives to rescue people from wrecked ships. Story-telling and realistic beach drill reenactments during summer bring this bit of history to life in a dramatic way.

 If climbing the 257 steps of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse isn’t your idea of enjoyable exercise, there’s always hiking and hang gliding, kayaking and kite boarding, fishing and crabbing, sailing and surf boarding.

Oh yes, and one of my favorite beach pastimes: relaxing on some of the finest sand anywhere, with a good book.

If you go

It takes about five hours to drive from Washington to Duck and Corolla at the northern end of the Outer Banks.

I recommend buying and listening to three audio guided tours ($10 each) that I used, which provide historical and interesting tidbits about the area. For information, call (252) 441-3201 or log onto www.ourtourguide.net.

There’s a wide choice of motels along the Banks in every price range. Typical is Shutters on the Banks in Kill Devil Hills, with heated indoor and outdoor swimming pools and a location near the Wright Brothers Museum and Roanoke Island. Summer rates begin at $150. For more information, call 1-800-848-3728 or log onto www.shuttersonthebanks.com.

By contrast, my wife Fyllis and I spent only about $100 a night for much larger accommodations. By sharing our stay with friends, we enjoyed a three-story beach-front house including use of a kitchen, which saved money on meals. With an estimated 12,000 rental houses available, there’s plenty of choice for every budget.

Dining also offers a wide selection. Seafood is fresh and excellent, including the catch-of-the-day sandwich at the diner-like Kill Devil Grill ($9). The eclectic menu ranges from grilled white pizza ($7.25) to half roast chicken ($13). Locals drop by for the pecan pie and apple crisp deserts ($6). It’s at milepost 10 on Route 12. For more information, log onto www.thekilldevilgrill.com or call (252) 449-8181.

Many restaurants offer views of the sea or sound, so you might as well have dinner at one of them. Dinky’s, overlooking a small harbor in Hatteras, serves excellent tuna tartare ($9) and crab ravioli ($11), followed by a long list of seafood entrees. It’s on the second floor of the Village Marina. For more information, call (252) 986-2020 or log onto www.villagemarinahatteras.com .

For more information about visiting the Outer Banks, call 1-877-629-4386 or log onto www.outerbanks.org.