Outer Banks: More than sun and sand


By Victor Block

I stood frozen with fear as the terrifying image drew closer, his curved sword swinging wildly. Just as he seemed about to separate my head and body, I snapped back to reality, left my all-too-real daydream about Blackbeard the Pirate behind and moved to the next exhibit in the museum.

The dramatic if somewhat grisly story of Blackbeard is but one display that transforms the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, North Carolina, into a memorable experience. That eclectic collection is among attractions which make 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.

The Outer Banks first became a magnet for vacationers in the 1830s, when wealthy North Carolina planters found refuge there from the summer heat. They were followed by sportsmen drawn by outstanding fishing and hunting that Native Americans had discovered centuries earlier.

Today, beaches along the 130-mile-long Outer Banks are the major appeal for many visitors. Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which covers much of the Banks, encompasses some of the largest undeveloped beaches in the country. Nestled between those stretches of sand is a string of villages, each with its own distinctive characteristics.

Many visitors rank Corolla (pronounced coh-RAH-luh) and Duck, the northernmost towns, as the two prettiest. In addition to a smattering of interesting shops, Duck sports a wooden boardwalk along the shoreline of a bay on the west side of town. Here and there it skirts pockets of woods where birdcalls are the only sound.

Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head form the commercial hub of the Outer Banks, complete with a strip-mall atmosphere — and two attractions worth a stop. It was at Kitty Hawk where, on Dec. 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first controlled power flights, and history. People often are surprised to learn that the longest journey lasted only 59 seconds and covered just 852 feet. A museum houses a full-scale replica of their rickety aircraft and other memorabilia that tell the story.

Nearby Jockey’s Ridge State Park makes its claim to fame as the site of the tallest sand dune on the east coast. In this mini-desert setting, winds constantly reshape the ridge, causing the dune for which the park is named to vary in height from 80 to 100 feet.

South of this commercial section, a slight detour leads to Roanoke Island, which in 1587 became the site of the first English colony in the New World, 22 years before settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. A good place to begin an exploration 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 appeal to generations of family visitors.

To relive another chapter of the story, clamber aboard the Elizabeth II, a sailing ship representative of seven British vessels that arrived during the 16th century. Costumed interpreters describe the small craft and entertain landlubbers with dramatic tales of the perilous voyage, speaking in a thick brogue that echoes the dialect of that time.

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

Further south in Hatteras Village, the aptly named Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum has exhibits that chronicle the tragic tale of more than 2,000 ships that met their fate on the treacherous offshore shoals. Parts of several shipwrecks are visible today along beaches or in shallow water at low tide.

Among other vivid exhibits at the museum are displays about the Civil War ironclad U.S.S. Monitor, ship bombing demonstrations by General Billy Mitchell off the Cape Hatteras coast in 1921, and lifesaving and rescue operations. And of course there’s a section devoted to the notorious Blackbeard who, after his life of marauding, was killed in the area.

Lighthouse buffs will think they’ve gone to heaven, with three towers that mark this stretch of the Outer Banks, all of which were first lit in the 1870s.

If mounting the 257 steps of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse isn’t your idea of enjoyable exercise, there’s a list of other pursuits that may be to your liking. They range from hiking to hang gliding, kayaking to kite boarding, sailing to surf boarding, along with fishing and crabbing.

If you go…

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