It’s a rugged, beautiful and lonely land. The Outer Banks are a string of narrow barrier islands sheltering North Carolina’s mainland coast.
For thousands of years, they have acted as a natural buffer zone between the ravaging Atlantic and shallow offshore sounds.
Windswept dunes and sandy beaches mix with fertile marshes and tranquil woodlands. Here, the warm waters of the Gulf Stream merge with the cooler Labrador currents, creating a home for a wide variety of rare plants and animals.
The pristine Outer Banks are a nesting area for terns, American Oystercatchers and Black Skimmers. Shy Sea Turtles crawl up from the surf to lay eggs on its sun-warmed beaches.
And if you’re lucky, you can even catch a glimpse of wild horses roaming about the Northern Shores.
The treacherous waters off the Outer Banks have been dubbed the Graveyard of the Atlantic, entombing about 2,000 vessels — one of the highest concentrations of shipwrecks in the world.
Many a desperate seaman has lost his fight not only against the angry sea, but also against forces of war and piracy.
Long stretches of these fragile ribbons of sand have been placed under federal protection to preserve natural and cultural resources.
The Outer Banks are host to two National Seashores: Cape Hatteras and remote Cape Lookout, further to the south and reachable only by boat or ferry.
Communities are sprinkled throughout this curving arch of islands. It is a bustling and well-developed commercial hub. It was here that Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the world’s first motorized airplane in 1903.
The 60-foot (18 m) Wright Brothers National Memorial, crowning a 90-foot (27 m) dune of shifting sand that has been stabilized with grass, proudly towers over the town.
But the roots of history run much deeper here. It was on neighboring Roanoke Island that Sir Walter Raleigh established a military settlement in April 1585 — the first British Colony in the New World.
You’ll find much more to discover on the Outer Banks than just wide sandy beaches.
Take a trip to where land and water rendezvous, where the history of the United States began and the future of air travel started.
Your best bet for accommodations is perhaps one of the many vacation homes or rental condos available.
There are plenty of private cottages for rent on the beach where you can watch the sun sink into the ocean right from your wooden deck, where sea oats gently wave along the dunes and the sound of rolling waves will lull you to sleep.
Contact the Outer Banks Visitor Bureau for a list of rental agencies or check out their website. They also provide info on Bed & Breakfasts, hotels and campgrounds.
Since this is your first day on the Outer Banks, you’ll probably want to head for the seashore. Try Coquina Beach, south of Nags Head. It’s less crowded than beaches close to residential areas.
Pack a picnic lunch and go for a swim in the clean, blue water. Curl up with a good book. Take a walk along the beach.
Watch a band of brown pelicans fly closely above the water’s surface, the tips of their wings almost touching the waves. Go beachcombing or just relax.
Try dinner at the Windmill Point (U.S. Highway 158 Bypass Milepost 16.5, Nags Head; 252-441-1535).
Overlooking tranquil Roanoke Sound, the restaurant serves a large selection of outstanding dishes for seafood lovers.
Have an aperitif before your meal at their quaint S.S. United States Lounge upstairs decorated with memorabilia from the luxurious cruise liner.
The Wright Brothers National Monument (U.S. Highway 158 Bypass between Mileposts 7 and 8, Kill Devil Hills; 252-441-7430) is a site definitely not to be missed.
Start at the Visitor Center with the exhibits of a full-scale reproduction of the 1902 glider and the 1903 flying machine. These explain the events leading to the first flight.
Numbered markers point out the spots where the first airplane left the ground and landed.
Some people fly brightly colored kites or model airplanes by the granite Memorial on top of grassy Kill Devil Hill — a beautiful sight the Wright brothers surely would have liked.
Nearby Jockey’s Ridge (U.S. Highway 158 Bypass near Milepost 12, Nags Head; 252-441-7132) is the tallest natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States. It was preserved as a state park in 1975.
Soft sands and year-round winds allowed the Wright brothers to make the dream of aviation come true on the Outer Banks.
Today, you can fly the same skies as the famous pilots. Kitty Hawk Kites (1-877-FLY-THIS or 252-441-4124) offers a three-hour beginner hang gliding lesson on the dunes.
They also offer many more flight-related activities such as parasailing, ultralight lessons, seaplane tours or kite boarding.
You must be hungry by now, so head for Jockey’s Ribs (252-441-1141), the casual restaurant with the funny name, just across the street from the state park.
They serve up spicy barbeque, steak, chicken and fresh local seafood for lunch.
If you’ve always wanted to find out how soldiers camped in the 1500’s, visit Roanoke Island Festival Park (252-475-1500) next.
It’s located about 5 miles (8 km) from Nags Head on Roanoke Island, across from the Waterfront in downtown Manteo.
Explore 400 years of the Island’s history, with live blacksmithing and leatherworking demonstrations.
In the interactive Adventure Museum, children can dress-up in period costumes and learn about boat building, pirates, shipwrecks and lighthouse keepers.
The highlight of the museum park is the replica of the 16th century English merchant ship Elizabeth, one of seven in Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1585 expedition to establish England’s first colony in the New World.
Climb aboard and listen to some of the sea tales, legends and facts as presented by history interpreters dressed in authentic costumes.
The nearby Elizabethan Gardens (1411 National Park Drive, Manteo; 252-473-3234) were designed by two of America’s foremost landscape architects: M. Umberto Innocenti and Richard Webel.
There are 10 acres (4 hectares) of butterfly bushes, ginger lilies, rhododendrons and lavishly blooming azaleas honoring the “Birthplace of America.”
Children might prefer a trip to the North Carolina Aquarium (374 Airport Road, Manteo; 252-473-3493). Here, little visitors can pet small rays, learn what to feed an alligator and ask a diver about life under the sea.
The aquarium has a freshwater gallery, a wetlands atrium and a 285,000-gallon (1,078 liter) ocean tank.
You’ll find dinner options galore in Manteo. Choose from mixed grilled seafood at Clara’s Seafood Grill and Steam Bar (Manteo Waterfront; 252-473-1727), Big Al’s Soda Fountain and Grill (100 Patty Lane, Manteo; 252-473-5570) or hearty German food at The Weeping Radish Brewery & Bavarian Restaurant (Highway 64, Manteo; 252-473-1157).
Watch a performance of The Lost Colony at the Waterside Theatre on neighboring Roanoke Island (1409 National Park Road, Manteo; 252-473-3414) tonight. It’s the nation’s longest-running outdoor drama, first opened in 1937 for what was supposed to be one season.
The symphonic play, by Pulitzer-prize winning author Paul Green, tells the story of the mysterious disappearance of America’s first English settlers in the New World.
It is a dazzling spectacle of Elizabethan music, song, dance and drama beneath the stars. Take plenty of bug spray!
The Outer Banks stretch much further than you first might think. It’s a 115-mile (185 km) long drive — plus a 40-minute free ferry ride across the Hatteras Inlet — along the main traffic arteries (Highway Bypass 158 and Highway 12) from Corolla’s untouched Northern Beaches to quaint and isolated Ocracoke Village in the south.
Today, you can take a road trip to explore a little bit more of the general area and get a better feel of the lay of the land.
You certainly don’t want to spend the entire day cooped up in the car, and the roads can be congested in summer. Depending on where you are staying, you might want to make up your mind whether you would like to take a trip up north or down south.
The Chicamacomico Life Saving Station (N.C. Highway 12 Milepost 39.5, Rodanthe; 252-987-1552) was the first of 29 stations in use on North Carolina’s shores.
The museum site includes structures from two historic periods. The original station was built in 1874, which was later turned into a boathouse, and the newer station dates from 1911.
Keepers guarded the dangerous coastline with its lurking sandbanks along Hatteras Island for 70 years, pulling countless crewmen off wrecked ships to safety.
Living History storytelling, a variety of exhibits and hands-on-demonstrations, highlight the most dramatic rescues of the last century.
The Life Saving Service was integrated in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915, and Chicamacomico Station was decommissioned in 1954.
Have a bite for lunch, perhaps at the Boathouse Restaurant (Highway 12, Rodanthe; 252-987-2100) or grab a Hatteras Island Burger at the Top Dog Café (Highway 12, Waves; 252-987-1272).
You can’t leave without visiting a lighthouse. Each island has its own, different in design and history. There are five altogether, the most famous one being the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in the village of Buxton.
At 208 feet tall (63 m), it is the nation’s tallest. Visitors can climb the 257 steps to the lofty balcony of this giant beacon built in 1870 and painted with distinctive diagonal black and white spirals.
Erosion by wind, waves and water made the location of the lighthouse increasingly unsafe. So in 1999, it was cut from its original base, lifted onto steel beams and taken on an amazing 23-day trip on railroad tracks to a new and safer spot.
Ocracoke’s Lighthouse, a chubby white plastered brick building dating from 1823 and only 63 feet high (19 m), is the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina.
There is also the Bodie Island Lighthouse, built in 1872 (156 feet or 47.5 m), Currituck Beach Lighthouse (1875; 150 feet or 46 m) and Cape Lookout Lighthouse (1859; 150 feet or 46 m).
Take a break at the Canadian Hole. This beach spot on Pamlico Sound 1.5 miles (2.4 km) south of Avon earned its nickname because it is a magnet, particularly for wind-jockeys from the Great White North.
The breeze blows constantly, making The Hole a popular attraction for windsurfers and kite boarders of all skill levels. The calm waters of the sound are warm and shallow, a perfect place to try windsurfing on your own.
Or you could just get out the beach chair and watch the swarm of sails dance over the water’s surface.
Catch the free ferry to Ocracoke. It’s a busy place during the high season but still manages to keep its romantic small-town flavor.
After disembarking and heading to Ocracoke Village, you’ll find yourself on a road that is lined with marshlands and meandering creeks to your right. Blue herons stalk the swampy waters.
To your left, sea gulls soar, taking a sudden plunge to catch a fish from the clear blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. At times, the slender island is so narrow you can almost see the sound and the sea at the same time.
All of beautiful Ocracoke is part of the National Seashore, and nearly all development is restricted to surround Silver Lake Harbor. Have dinner on one of the patio restaurants overlooking the harbor before you start your long ride back into the sunset.
If You Go
Outer Banks Visitors Bureau
One Visitors Center Circle
Manteo, NC 27954
National Park Service
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Lookout National Seashore
Wright Brothers National Memorial
North Carolina Ferry System