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North Carolina Travel Guide
The Outer Banks 

North Carolina's Northern Beaches

NC Outer Banks Funny how hard it is to get to the beach from Carrboro. I'm the kind of person who can just throw a change of clothes into a bag, jump in my car and make the four-and-a-half hour drive to the Outer Banks. Well I was that kind of guy once. Now it's a bit more complicated, with a wife and daughter. The trip has to be planned in advance. The weather has to cooperate with our plans, and we all have to be in agreement about plans - which is the difficult part, since my wife is happy to pot around in her garden and my daughter would rather terrorize the neighborhood with her little friends than "have fun" at the beach with her parents. But every so often the planets are in the correct alignment and we do make a trip to the beach. Usually we go to Wilmington, because not only is it closer but it's more than a beach trip, since it's also a pretty hip city - so nights are not spent fighting over the channel-changer while the surf beats the sand outside. There's more to do.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse But we have visited the Outer Banks since I left bachelor life behind. And it's exciting to wake up early in the morning ready to make the drive and then sit on the front steps for two hours waiting for the rest of my family to get ready, even though they've done all their packing the night before. By the time they get in the car, everyone's in a bad mood, and it'll take a miracle to survive the trip.

But I have one. I put my battered copy of King Mackerel and the Blues are Running into my cassette player, and in moments Bland Simpson, Jim Wann and Don Dixon have us in the mood and ready to face whatever obstacles are in our way between Carrboro and the Atlantic.(Click to Play. It will get you in the mood.)

North Carolina's Outer Banks are a string of barrier islands that begin at the Virginia border and go south for 100 miles to Ocracoke and Portsmith Island. In the past, travel to and between these islands was difficult, and the area was isolated from the rest of the state. When roads and bridges were built, the islands were opened for development and tourism, both of which have gone slightly overboard. Still, there are areas that haven't been touched, and the Outer Banks contain some of the largest stretches of protected beach in the country. The Outer Banks are the number one surfing area on the East Coast, easy enough for beginners and interesting enough for experienced surfers when storms at sea are feeding the waves. There are a number of fishing piers up and down the coast, and surf-fishing, deep-sea charters and fishing in the sound are all fruitful. Like anywhere on the coast, the best time to be here is when the other people aren't. That would be anytime but June, July and August. That's OK. The best fishing is in the fall, and you can swim as early as April and as late as November and even into December (if you don't have a heart condition).

Cape Hattaras Hatteras is a 33-mile-long island that juts out into the Atlantic. Its changing reefs are a graveyard for ships from all over the world, and it's rich in stories of wrecks, rescues, Civil War battles and hurricanes. Until 1963, the only way to the island was by boat, and the locals still speak with an accent that sounds faintly British. Islanders lived off fishing, boatbuilding and harvesting whale oil, turtles, oysters and seaweed, which they traded on the mainland for other goods.

Much of the island is protected by the National Parks Service and can't be built on, but there are seven villages scattered along the road that runs north to south, and there are over 5,000 year-round residents. On the Pamlico Sound side of the island are marshes and wetlands, home to a large variety of birds and wildlife, some who live there year-round and some just passing through on the way north or south. On the sandy beaches that look endless, sea turtles still lay their eggs. A few years ago we were arrested for sleeping on the beach by a park ranger. As he was taking us in, we spotted a baby sea-turtle crawling in the rut of a 4-wheel drive vehicle, horizontal to the shore he was trying to reach. We picked him up and brought him to the sea and watched him swim away. Then we helped the ranger find more, and we helped them find the sea as well. Wheel ruts were not the only danger to these little guys. We could see places where the turtles had broken out of their eggs and their tiny trails ended where the footprints of a crab or a bird began. When we were satisfied that we had found them all, the ranger decided not to arrest us and instead thanked us and let us go. So if you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, keep in mind that your trip to the remote fishing area may be endangering sea turtles (and your gas consumption is endangering the humans).

 Hatteras Island

Cape Hattaras Lighthouse was moved from this spot in the foreground to where it is now. The world-famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was begun in 1868 and finished in 1870, and is the tallest brick lighthouse in the USA. The black-and-white spiraled beacon is 198 feet high and sits on a platform of granite blocks that rests on a mat of yellow pine. The most impressive thing about the lighthouse is that in 1999, when it was threatened by beach erosion, they moved it 2,900 feet. They didn't take it apart and put it back together. They picked the whole thing up and lifted it with hydraulic jacks onto roll-beams and moved it inch by inch. It took 23 days. As for major tourist attractions in the Outer Banks, this is the big one (though there are several other lighthouses, all of which are pretty impressive).

Nags Head

Nags Head North of Hatteras, the town of Nags Head is the oldest resort community in the Outer Banks. Named for the horses that once roamed the islands, legend has it that the locals would fasten a lantern around a pony's neck and walk along the beach. Ships at sea would think the light was a sailboat and steer towards it, getting grounded or wrecked on the sand bars. The locals would then "rescue" the ship, or at least anything of value on it. The first hotel was built here in 1838, and the first house was built on the seaside in 1866 by William Gaskins Pool. When other people realized that you could build by the sea and survive, more houses appeared, some on logs so they could be rolled back to escape rising tides. Today Nags Head is full of hotels, restaurants, shops and people, especially in the summer when traffic can make you wish you were home watching TV and mowing the lawn instead of at the beach. One of my favorite restaurants, Tortugas Lie, is in Nags Head, where you can eat from a varied and interesting menu of Jamaican, seafood, burgers, pastas and salads. Great bar with lots of atmosphere and interesting people too. Nags Head has a number of nightclubs and live-music venues. You can click here for hotels in Nag's Head

Jockey's Ridge

Jockeys Ridge This giant sand dune has been immortalized in Bland Simpson's "Sand Mountain Song" from the musical King Mackerel and the Blues Are Running, and is a favorite place for hikers, nature lovers and even hang-gliders. It's the tallest sand dune on the East Coast and a great place for flying kites. Children love to roll down the slide, and from the top you can get a fantastic view of the Atlantic and the sound. Because it's made of sand, the shifting winds change the shape of the mountain continuously, so you can come back a few years later and it will look entirely different. Click to listen to Bland Simpson's "Sand Mountain Song" from King Mackerel and the Blues are Running: Songs and Stories from the Carolina Coast.

Click here for more on Jockey's Ridge

Kill Devil Hills

Wright Brother's First Flight, Kitty HawkKill Devil Hills is the Outer Banks' oldest township, established in 1953 and is best known for Wilbur and Orville Wright's historic flight on Dec 17th, 1903. The Wright Brothers Memorial, which rises above the town, has a visitors' center with a full-scale replica of the original 12-hp, two-wing biplane; exhibits and historical talks; and a tour of the area. Collington Island, which is on the sound-side of Kill Devil Hills, is an area of creeks; pine and hardwood groves; small harbors; and new housing developments, which threaten this once-quiet fishing community. Kill Devil Hills is located in Dare County on what is called Bodie Island which is not an actual island, but a peninsula connected north of the North Carolina-Virginia state line.

Click Here for Hotels in Kill Devil Hills


Elizabeth II in Manteo Roanoke Island is probably the most interesting place of all, but it's not really an Outer Bank. It's an island that connects the North Carolina mainland to the Outer Banks and one of the most historically significant places in America. Many people believe that the first colony in America was Jamestown in Virginia, but actually this is not true. Jamestown was the first successful colony. But the first actual colony was on Roanoke Island, settled by a group of people sent off to the Americas by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587, and commanded by naturalist John White. The first European child born in the new world was Virginia Dare on August 18th. White went back to England for supplies but the war with Spain kept him from returning for three years. When he finally did, the colony was gone. The only sign of them was the word "Croatoan" carved in a tree. What happened to the first colonists is one of history's greatest mysteries. The story of the lost colony is the subject of the longest running outdoor drama in America: The Lost Colony, shown at the site of the original settlement at the Waterside Theater.

Manteo Pier The town of Manteo has been burned five times since 1920 and is the seat of Dare County, named of course for that first child, Virginia Dare. Downtown is a complex of interesting shops and restaurants and features the Elizabeth II, a replica of the sailing ship that carried the colonists to the new world. The Waterfront is a condominium and marketplace complex built in traditional style overlooking the docks and the sailboats that fill it during the summer. Manteo is a town in transition and by the time you read this there will be more reasons to visit than those I have mentioned. It's no Wilmington but if you tire of sitting on the beach and listening to the waves every day or night, come visit. You can click here for hotels in Manteo

In Conclusion

Nags Head Pier Like many of the beaches in North Carolina in the summer, if you like golf, SUVs, people who haven't heard that lying in the sun all day causes skin cancer, men and women with beer cans or bottles permanently affixed to their hands, obesity, and all the other byproducts of an overindulgent society with too much money and not enough imagination, then you will love the Outer Banks. On the other hand, if this kind of stuff depresses you, you can also get away from it. It's a big place. But if it's complete privacy you seek, you may have to wait for the off-season. (There's always the Greek Islands). Of course, if you happen to own a house here it's a whole different story and the traffic of the summer months becomes a slight inconvenience that you know how to avoid or even to profit from. For a beach community or series of communities on the East Coast of the U.S., the Outer Banks even at their worst are better than most. Any unprotected coastal area suffers the same fate in the U.S. because it's man's nature to be greedy. Luckily, the Outer Banks have more protected areas than perhaps anywhere else, and as long as they stay this way they will remain popular not just for those coming for the NC beach experience of golf-sun tanning-beer-music and more beer, but also people looking to get away from "civilization."

Click Here to see Outer Banks photo album

See also: Jockey's Ridge, Wilmington, Ocracoke, Wrightsville Kure Beach, Southport 

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