Length: About 115 miles.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Ferries: For information on ferry schedules, fees, and reservations, call 1-800-BY-FERRY.
Words to the wise: Keep your car on the road and on paved pulloffs; if you try to park on the shoulders, you’ll almost certainly get stuck in the sand. Swim only where lifeguards are on duty.
Visitor centers: Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke Island.
Further information: Superintendent, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, 1401 National Park Dr., Manteo, NC 27954; tel. 252-473-2111,www.nps.gov/caha/.
It’s not for nothing that the Outer Banks coastline is nicknamed the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Buffeted by winds and crosscurrents, the waters off this fragile finger of land jutting far out to sea are littered with more than 500 shipwrecks. But for vacationers these shores are a delight; sun-kissed breezes, rolling blue waves, undulating dunes, and seafood feasts keep folks coming back year after year.
1. Wright Memorial Bridge
Rte. 158, the northern approach to the slender thread of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks, can be heavily trafficked on summer weekends, so it’s a good thing that the drive through rural Currituck County can be so pleasant. As the highway drifts past farmland and salt marshes along the shallow waters of Currituck Sound, seductive roadside vegetable stands and barbecue joints vie for motorists’ attention.
All that changes abruptly at Point Harbor, where the Wright Memorial Bridge, a low-lying two-laner, carries visitors across the silver-blue sound to a bustling resort playground. After miles of clapboard farmhouses and soybean fields, the sparkling blue ocean looms ahead, edged by a glorious expanse of beach.
2. Kill Devil Hills
It was the weather that lured Wilbur and Orville Wright to these islands in 1900. But the Ohio bicycle makers didn’t come for the sun; they came for the wind, which was needed for their pioneering experiments in aviation. From atop a huge sand hill in what is now Kill Devil Hills, the brothers took their homemade craft on the first powered flight in history — 120 feet in 12 seconds. Today, at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, a mighty granite pylon on Big Kill Devil Hill commemorates their feats. You can view two replicas of Wright aircraft at the exhibit center, and outdoors the park has markers that show the distances and durations of four historic flights the Wright brothers made among these windy dunes.
3. Nags Head
More than a century ago, summer resorters hereabouts built handsome wooden cottages with wraparound porches on the sound side of the island. Then someone got the idea that the ocean side had better views, better swimming, and a salt-air breeze that discouraged mosquitoes. So the homeowners placed logs beneath their cottages and rolled them over marshlands and dunes to the oceanfront at present-day Nags Head, where they raised the cottages on stilts to let storm waters surge harmlessly underneath. The homes, known as the Unpainted Aristocracy, still stand on the beach road between mileposts 11 and 15, but today they are flanked by a clutter of souvenir shops. Across the highway, in startling contrast, stand huge mounds of white sand, the dune system that makes up Jockeys Ridge State Park. You can climb 125-foot Jockeys Ridge, the highest single sand dune on the East Coast, and watch hang gliders leap from the top.
Jockeys Ridge is part of a system of sand dunes that shelter an ancient maritime forest, the Nags Head Woods Preserve. This idyllic stand of oaks (some of them 500 years old) and rare wildlife was salvaged by the Nature Conservancy in the 1980s. Although the woods are linked to Jockeys Ridge, you’ll have to backtrack to milepost 10 on the Rte. 158 bypass to reach the forest and the visitor center. Trails lead through the moss-draped woodland past crystal-clear freshwater ponds and flowering dogwoods. Be sure to call ahead before visiting.
4. Roanoke Island
In 1587 English settlers attempted to colonize Roanoke Island. But by 1590 the community had inexplicably vanished, along with the first child born of English parents in the New World — Virginia Dare. All that remained was the word Croatoan, carved into a tree for subsequent voyagers to discover and for theorists to ponder for centuries to come. At Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, you can see the community’s reconstructed fort, which lends a poignant resonance to the mysterious story of the Lost Colony. Next door to Fort Raleigh, you’ll find another memorial to the lost colonists: the Elizabethan Gardens, 10 acres of carefully tended native and exotic plants, garden statuary, and a sunken garden.
On your way back to Rte. 158, drop in at Manteo, a charming village on Shallowbag Bay. Here you can tour the Elizabeth II, a reproduction of a 16th-century sailing ship, built in 1984 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first voyage to Roanoke Island.
5. Cape Hatteras National Seashore
The drive pushes south on Rte. 12 into Cape Hatteras National Seashore — an expanse of undeveloped shoreline. In places the barrier island is so slender that you can see the Atlantic on one side of the road and Pamlico Sound on the other.
Across the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, a long, arched span over the sparkling blue waters of Oregon Inlet, lies Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. The vast numbers of snow geese and egrets in its salt marshes can be viewed from observation platforms. A few miles to the south, stop at the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, built in 1874. In this handsome structure exhibits recall the plucky lifesavers who used to rescue mariners from the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
For over a century sailors were warned away from the dangerous shoals by the towering striped lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. The 208-foot beacon, the tallest brick lighthouse in the country, comes into view as you approach Buxton. At its feet surfers test the rolling swells that threaten to devour the old tower, whose base is being eroded by the pounding surf.
6. Buxton Woods
On the sound side north of Buxton, windsurfers flock to Canadian Hole, where conditions are said to be perfect. Here you can watch dozens of colorful, billowing sails waltz across the cobalt sea.
Between Buxton and the town of Frisco, take a hike on the Buxton Woods Nature Trail, a well-marked loop that winds past stands of gnarled live oaks, blue beech trees, and unusual dwarf palmettos.
At the end of Hatteras Island, board the free ferry to Ocracoke Island for a 30-minute ride. As the boat chugs out of port, note the swirling body of water that separates the two islands. Hatteras Inlet was formed when a hurricane ripped through the island in 1846; the same storm created Oregon Inlet to the north.
7. Ocracoke Island
Picturesque Ocracoke Island is a relatively isolated place, with gentler surf and finer sand than can be found at points north. Here one can cast for bluefish in the ceaseless rolling surf, go crabbing in the waters of the sound, or simply beachcomb for sea snails, Scotch bonnets, whelks, or interesting pieces of flotsam driftwood or jetsam washed up by the tides.
For a change of pace, drive to the Ocracoke Pony Pens to visit the remnants of a herd of wild ponies that have lived on these shores for ages. Or take a stroll through the quaint village of Ocracoke, which arcs around a tidal harbor called Silver Lake. Here you can rent a bike, grab some fresh crab cakes or Hatteras clam chowder, and perhaps (depending on your itinerary) board one of the ferries leading to points on the mainland. More likely you’ll choose to retrace your steps northward along the Outer Banks, once again savoring each gorgeous mile of sand, sea, and sky.
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