Explore North Carolina’s Historic Outer Banks

  • 9 min to read

Story and photos by Caryn B. Davis

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Outer Banks, NC, Nags Head, Jeanette's Pier

I’m about to jump off a 90-foot sand dune at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head, North Carolina. It’s quite fitting since Francis Rogallo, the “father of hang gliding,” made his first flight off these same dunes 45 years earlier. Rogallo, an aeronautical engineer, designed a pair of flexible wings using his wife’s kitchen curtain that became the predecessor to the modern hang glider. I figure if Rogallo could learn to fly at age 62, so could I. But I’m wrong.

It’s not the fault of the excellent teachers at Kitty Hawk Kites, the largest hang gliding school in the world, who have trained more than 400,000 students since opening in 1974. Nor, I am proud to say, is it operator error. It’s due to a lack of wind, which is very unusual in the Outer Banks. These constant gusts and the ability to catapult oneself off a fairly soft dune as opposed to a cliff are why Orville and Wilbur Wright chose this locale to test their gliders.

“We came down here for the wind and sand, and we have got them,” Orville said in 1900.

Since the hang glider isn’t taking off, I decide to learn how the Wright brothers cracked the code. It would be sacrilegious to visit the area without going to the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, a 6-mile drive north from Nags Head.

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You can fly like the Wright brothers at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head. 

There are basically only two roads (routes 12 and 158) along this narrow, 200-mile stretch of peninsulas and barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. They are sandwiched between North Carolina’s east coast and the Atlantic Ocean, making them prime territory for storms and shipwrecks. That, coupled with perilous currents and shifting shoals, earned the Outer Banks the moniker “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” And yet, because of these changing waterways, the Outer Banks has some of the best shellfish farming and fishing on the Eastern seaboard.

Thanks to the establishment of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a pristine, 70-mile preserve, and the country’s first National Seashore, it is still a place of uncompromising beauty even when the population swells from 35,000 to 2.4 million during tourist season. Here you will find lighthouses, wind sports on land and sea, fresh fish and seafood caught hours before it appears on your plate, fishing and crabbing excursions, 100 miles of beaches where you can always find a little privacy, and friendly people offering us Northerners a bit of Southern hospitality.

It is inaccurate that the Wright brothers made their historic flight from Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17, 1903. It was actually from Kill Devil Hills. The confusion comes in because the telegram notifying the world of their success was sent from the Kitty Hawk Weather Station. This is exactly the kind of thing you learn at the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

I am utterly fascinated by how the brothers unlocked the mystery of flight. They studied birds and bicycle mechanics to give their flying machine the balance and steerage needed for control. This was the missing link, and why they succeeded where others failed. The entire site is dedicated to their pursuits through exhibits, monuments depicting key locations along their flight path, life-size replicas of their planes, and the camp where they slept and ate. I walk to the top of Big Kill Devil Hill, their exact launch location, and ponder their genius. I am grateful for it too. Otherwise I would have had to drive 10 hours to get here instead of catching a flight from Hartford to Norfolk, Virginia, and then driving 90 minutes.

Both sustained injuries during different crashes, but the injuries did not kill them. Wilbur died from typhoid fever he contracted from eating contaminated oysters. I think about this strange twist of fate while driving 9 miles north to eat oysters at Coastal Provisions Oyster Bar & Wine Café in South Shores. I am sure that if this market existed in Wilbur’s time, he could have had his fill of bivalves and walked away satiated and unscathed.

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Experience the wilder side of the Outer Banks with captain Marc Mitchum of OBX Crabbing and Shrimping Charters.

Everything in this restaurant and market is amazingly fresh, and I love seafood, so it’s hard to choose. The owners, chefs Daniel Lewis and Scott Foster, are creating some innovative recipes with oysters, so I opt for a tasting. As is the way in the Outer Banks, in order to stay in business here, you have to think out of the box because peak tourist season is short. Over time, Lewis and Foster added a wine bar, restaurant, butcher shop, deli and oyster bar onto the retail fish market. Until seven years ago, the only available oysters were from Virginia, but North Carolina is catching up. There are now seven oyster farms in the state.

I try the Slash Creek oysters from Hatteras, North Carolina, topped with pickled ginger ice and another with kimchi ice. I then eat a trio of pickled Devil Shoal oysters from Ocracoke and a Thai oyster laab salad. Lewis wants to turn people on to raw oysters, especially those who think they are unpalatable. As he points out, “it’s the most sustainable source of protein on the planet.”

After lunch I drive back to Nags Head to my luxurious eight-bedroom, 10-bathroom, three-story rented beach house via Carolina Designs overlooking Jeanette’s Fishing Pier and the Atlantic Ocean. This is typical of lodging here, but it’s easy to find accommodations to suit any budget, from kitschy motels to cabins and cottages, campgrounds and RV parks, condos, townhouses and B&Bs, most with views of the sounds or the sea because water is everywhere. What you won’t find are many hotel chains or chain stores. Don’t get me wrong, most of Route 158 is packed with every kind of store imaginable. You can buy everything from souvenirs to surf boards, furniture to clothing, pieces of art to gourmet food. But the good news is that most businesses are locally owned. Still, it’s quite a contrast seeing such commercial sprawl intermingled with oceanfront residences. But as you get closer to the National Seashore, and drive through the quieter neighborhoods occupied by year-round residents, it dissipates.

After check-in, I drive 12 miles southwest to Roanoke Island. This is where the first English settlement in North America was founded when British subjects under the supervision of Sir Walter Raleigh landed in 1585. Some returned to England within a year, but those who stayed disappeared. When a second expedition led by John White arrived in 1587, they found no one.

It is unknown if they moved on, or died from starvation, disease or exposure, or were massacred by local tribes. White eventually became the colony’s governor and his granddaughter, Virginia Dare, was the first English child born on American soil. There is a theater production about the “Lost Colony” now in its 82nd season. It’s written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green, and performed at Manteo’s Waterside Theatre.

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The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island in Manteo offers family-friendly fun.

But I am not on Roanoke to see the play but rather the North Carolina Aquarium on the shimmering Croatan Sound. All of the exhibits showcase plants and animals native to the local ecosystem, so it’s a great way to learn about this environment and the challenges its creatures face, particularly the turtles. On site is the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation Center (STAR), a 3,000-square-foot facility that “provides medical care to sick and injured sea turtles.” While some of the loggerheads and green turtles on view have sustained injuries from boat strikes, many are suffering from cold stunning. This happens when the water temperature rapidly falls below 50 degrees, and the feeding turtles can’t get back to the warmth of the Gulf Stream before reaching a hypothermic state.

“They float to the surface and their lungs are exposed to the cold air, which can lead to upper respiratory infections,” says Amber Hitts, STAR’s manager.

The turtles are kept until they are healthy enough to be released.

The town of Wanchese is also on Roanoke. It’s known for its recreational fishing and commercial seafood industries. There is an abundance of blue crab, shrimp and soft shell crab depending on the time of year. Fishermen bring their catches to places like O’Neal’s Sea Harvest, a fish market that sells and distributes locally and nationally. I pause along the docks to look at the fishing boats and walk through the warehouse filled with baskets of blue crabs awaiting their fate. I see an escapee on the floor threatening me with his one big claw. While I feel sorry for them, I confess that I’m going to eat one anyway. Soft shell crabs are in season during my visit, so I head into the fish market and buy one as a sandwich, as well as some steamed shrimp seasoned with Old Bay, of course, which I eat on the outdoor deck. It doesn’t get any fresher than this.

I decide to see how it’s done and head out with OBX Crabbing and Shrimping Charters. Captain Marc Mitchum is a full-time commercial fisherman but also takes people out on family-friendly fishing excursions. He’ll teach you how to catch crab and shrimp, and about the local waterways. And you get to keep what you catch. However, “We are not going out there to fill your freezer up,” Mitchum says. “This is for an experience and to have fun.”

He pulls up the traps he set before our voyage and shakes the ensnared blue crabs loose. The smaller ones he throws back, but not before pointing out the difference between male and female crabs.

I’m tired from all this fresh air, so I skip dinner and in the morning head to Duck Donuts in Nags Head. This is not your typical doughnut shop. There are no doughnuts in bins becoming stale as the day wears on. These are custom made from scratch with your choice of toppings. The combinations are limitless, and there’s no waste. I order one with maple icing and chopped bacon, and another with raspberry drizzle and coconut. Need I say more?

Duck Donuts is the brainchild of founder Russ DiGilio. One day he was reminiscing with his family about the doughnuts he’d get as a kid on the Jersey Shore. There were no doughnut shops in the Outer Banks, not even a Dunkin’ Donuts. DiGilio saw the gap and filled it. Since opening in 2007, Duck Donuts has become a successful franchise with 80 stores nationwide and outposts in Chile and Puerto Rico.

But now that I have my sweet tooth on, I drive to Manteo on Roanoke to Outer Banks Distilling for a rum tasting. The owners brew small batches of handcrafted Kill Devil rum in honor of their seafaring roots. They have several lines and each bottle in their popular Shipwreck Series is named after a historic shipwreck.

During the late 1600s, many vessels en route from the Caribbean to New England crashed along this coast. Barrels of rum from the ships washed ashore and the locals buried them in the sand dunes away from the watchful eye of the insurance salvagers. The dune with the most buried rum was dubbed Big Kill Devil Hill. It’s the very same dune at the Wright Brothers Memorial. The town of Kill Devil took its name from this sand pile when it was incorporated in 1953.

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At nearly 200 feet, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton is the nation’s tallest brick lighthouse.

“Rum was originally a slave drink and used as medicine,” explains Matt Newsome, one of the owners. “It was uncut and more potent. When slaves got sick they thought the devil was inside them causing the illness. They would drink the ‘Kill Devil’ rum and feel better.”

In response to all these shipwrecks, the country’s first lifesaving station, today the Chicamacomico Historic Site, was established in 1874, along with several lighthouses, including the 1870 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton. The tallest brick lighthouse in North America, it was moved a half-mile inland in 1999 to protect it from erosion. I ascend 257 steps in this towering, 193-foot conical structure on a self-guided climb. At the top is a “killer” view of the marshes and beach below. I can’t venture onto the balcony because it’s too windy and deemed unsafe. But this gives me an idea.

I drive back to Jockey’s Ridge to try hang gliding again. I am in good company. On another dune, the 47th annual Hang Gliding Spectacular is underway. This is the world’s oldest and longest-running competition. Once again, I think if they can do it so can I. This time the wind is in my favor. It’s truly exhilarating, and I think I know how the Wright brothers felt. I am proud to say that in this area of our country, where a lot of “firsts” happened,

I can add this experience to the list. 


Places to stay

The tourist-friendly Outer Banks has no shortage of lodging options. Here are a few to suit a variety of tastes and budgets.

The Sea Foam (252-451-7320) is a historic motel in Nags Head. The two-story beachfront property has a pool and is walking distance to shops and restaurants. Some rooms have kitchens.

The Elizabethan Inn (252-473-2101) in Manteo has 78 well-appointed guest rooms and two suites. It is close to beaches, national parks and historic sites.

The Sanderling Resort (855-412-7866) in the little town of Duck is a luxury beachfront facility on the Atlantic with pools, a spa, tennis, golf and restaurants including the AAA-rated Four Diamond Kimball’s Kitchen overlooking Currituck Sound.

The affordable Hatteras Cabanas (800-338-4775) in Hatteras has the cutest little cabanas on the beach. Think tiny houses with tiny kitchens. It is pet friendly and each cabana has two sun decks. 

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Wild horses walk along the beach in Corolla in North Carolina's Outer Banks.

Where horses roam free

Should you be taken by a desire for discovery, seek out the Banks’ famed wild horses. Descended from domesticated equines brought to the New World more than five centuries ago, these mustang ponies gallop free among the dunes and survive on marsh grasses and temporary freshwater pools. Populations of the horses, which are North Carolina’s official state horse, live on Ocracoke Island, Shackleford Banks, Currituck Banks, and in the Rachel Carson Estuarine Sanctuary. Conservation officials protect the non-native horses due to their historical significance, but control their numbers due to the damage they can do to local flora and fauna. Take a guided safari tour to scope them out in areas where paved roads end or see if you can find them on your own.