While there are beautiful and exciting beach destinations all over the East Coast, the Outer Banks are famous for being relatively unspoiled and serene. Where Myrtle Beach offers mega-shopping and an endless supply of nightlife options, the Outer Banks are all about kicking back.
The area known as the Outer Banks is made up of four long, slender islands that span the North Carolina coast. Their location, some distance into the Atlantic, makes them the most hurricane-prone area north of Florida. There’s a reason why it’s been called the graveyard of the Atlantic. But despite the occasional beating from storms, the communities on these four islands are home to nearly 67,000 permanent residents.
At the northernmost point is Bodie Island, home to Corolla, Duck, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nag’s Head. Points of interest on the island (pronounced locally as “Body” Island) include the Bodie Island and Currituck Beach lighthouses. At Jockey’s Ridge, the East Coast’s tallest sand dune, it’s easy to see why the Wright Brothers found success here with their first flight. The national Wright Brothers Memorial in Kill Devil Hills includes a museum full of tools and machines used by the brothers in their experiments.
To the southwest is Roanoke Island, the site of one of the state’s most famous (and creepiest) stories, “The Lost Colony.” In the late 16th century, English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to build a permanent English settlement on the island. Over the next few years, the settlers (who were awaiting delayed supplies from England) inexplicably vanished from the area. The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site includes an outdoor theater, where a play about the ill-fated settlers has entertained tourists for decades. Present-day communities on Roanoke Island include Manteo, which has listed Andy Griffith among its residents.
Hatteras Island, to the east, is home to the iconic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. As the nation’s tallest brick lighthouse, this structure has had to travel a bit to be safe from the substantial erosion on its beach. In 1999 it was moved, inch by inch, nearly 3,000 feet from the advancing shoreline. And not a moment too soon; by 2003, half of that distance was eroded by storms. The strength of the waves at this location, while sometimes a threat to lighthouses, makes it a favorite among surfers and other adventurous types.
Ocracoke Island is where you’ll find the nation’s second-oldest lighthouse, which has run without interruption since 1823. The island is also home to some interesting World War II history. When German submarines sank a number of British ships in the Atlantic, the remains of British troops began washing up on Ocracoke’s shores. A cemetery was established for proper burial and to this day, a British flag flies over those graves. The site is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. A memorial cer-emony is conducted each May.
Driving to the Outer Banks takes a bit more patience than the quick trip to most North Carolina beaches. Only two bridges connect them to the mainland, so whether you’re headed to the northern or southern end of the 130-mile stretch of islands, you only have two starting points by car. One bridge takes visitors on N.C. 158 from Point Harbor to Kitty Hawk. The other extends U.S. 64 across Croatan Sound onto Roanoke Island, connecting to N.C. 158 south of Nags Head.
Another option for getting to and among the islands is the ferry system. (In fact, it’s your only option for getting onto the secluded Ocracoke Island.) A ferry trip can be a nice, relaxing start to your Outer Banks experience. Just drive your car on board, get out and watch the waves go by until you’ve reached your stop. Costs, schedules and reservation requirements vary, depending on which route you take. Visit www.ncdot.org/transit/ferry/ for the full scoop.
Because maintaining the wide-open natural beauty of the Outer Banks means limiting the development of paved roads, many communities have for years allowed off-road driving on the beaches. This has been a popular perk for fishermen who travel miles of shoreline to find the perfect spot. In recent months, however, environmental groups have filed for a federal injunction to stop this practice on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Because this is still undecided (and because erosion issues can also affect the rules on beach driving) you’ll want to check with the locals to see if it’s OK before steering onto the sand. Be sure and ask whether you need a permit to do so – permits are usually available for a fee at the local tackle shop.
While you’re at it, ask around about the local leash laws and bonfire rules. Regulations vary from town to town and season to season. While there are plenty of things to do at the Outer Banks, the most popular pastime is simple relaxation. Once you’ve snapped photos of the lighthouses, studied the Wright brothers’ plans, stuffed yourself with fresh fish and purchased souvenirs for everyone back home, settle in a comfy hammock and just lose track of time.
Take a walk and try to remember the last time you went that far on a beach without seeing a single high-rise hotel. Make a sandcastle. Feed the seagulls. Watch the sunrise.
And then, go ahead, book your next stay.