The Outer Banks of North Carolina
United States Post Office 2003 commemorative stamps
The Outer Banks of North Carolina are a peculiar piece of geographic beauty with a lively background of history, mystery and mayhem. At times the Hatteras peninsula seems little more than a thin thread of land, sand and grass floating somewhere between sea and sky.
That thread is a barrier soothing the ocean waters, protecting the coast from Virginia Beach in the north almost down to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. From Ocracoke NC southward this fragmented outer ring continues as the Crystal Coast. Names aside, North Atlantic weather is unpredictable, with storms that can be as fierce as fine days are beguiling.
From infamous pirates to stealthy U-boats, the Carolina coasts have acquired a forbidding reputation for human danger and daring. These days, however, the Outer Banks are more frequented by those who want to relax, refresh and escape.
This patch of windblown terra firma is probably best known as the birthplace of modern aviation with the Wright brothers making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air flight on December 17, 1903. There are several contenders for the title, but for now the Smithsonian Museum, for one, stands by the Wright brothers.
The original 1903 Wright Flyer occupies place of honor at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
We arrive in Kill Devil Hills at 7:00PM after a day's drive from Savannah. Immediately after checking into our hotel, Shutters on the Banks, we scurry over to the Wright Brothers National Memorial. The sun is about to set as we walk at a pace up the 90-foot hill from which the Wrights had launched practice runs. As the orange glow fades and the skies darken I continue photographing. For the first time in a long while I don't mind contrails in the sky; on the contrary, they are a fitting salute for here.
My first action is to wrap a special ascot around Orville for a photo. This had been worn by a travel writer named Percy Rowe, an Englishman, raconteur and former RAF pilot who penned a second career in Canada. Since Percy's death I've photographed his ascot wherever I travel to spread his effervescent spirit. He would have cherished this spot.
There's a small airstrip for personal aircraft beside the Wright Monument. For a pilot, this must be like landing at the Holy Grail. We leave the grounds to a plane that has just come in, driving to the Port o' Call Restaurant and Gas Light Saloon across the road from our hotel for a scrumptious shrimp dinner, then call it a day.
Early next morning finds us at the bronze Wright garden Flyer sculptures before the park opens. A jogger runs past, circling the monument on the hill while a park ranger says hello, showing a couple of appreciative visitors where to park their car while taking some photos.
Pelicans fly in formation past our balcony, promising a great day.
We take a spin through a new development on Roanoke Island before settling into Blue Moon Beach Grill in Nag's Head for a lunch of fresh scallops and a cheeseburger with an egg on top — extra protein for any lighthouse stairs we may encounter.
Blue Moon's website describes the eating spot as quirky; my cheeseburger scores points for that alright. The food is fresh and very good, with a friendly atmosphere. It's a hopping place.
The southward drive along the peninsula passes determined sunbathers braving the constant breezes. Much of Hatteras is protected as National Seashore, with open beaches and dunes.
Hatteras Harbor is popular for sport fishing charters. The boats usually return about 5:00PM with their daily catch. Knowing this, we're on the dock waiting as three boats come in.
I felt sorry for this little guy.
Our overnight destination is the Inn on Pamlico Sound. It's a boutique hotel proudly designed by innkeeper Steve Nelson who travelled extensively before incorporating features he liked into his own establishment. Even as we tuck into the evening meal the weather begins to turn. Clouds are forming — not that it stops us from enjoying the evening special of duck breast with cheese grits and sauteed arugula. The sea air and silence quickly put us to sleep. Tomorrow is another day.
The morning begins dull and gray, but our rib-filling pancake breakfast is a cheerful start. By the time we reach the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras it's pelting with rain, though. Fortunately, this is one fascinating museum. We spend a good few hours learning about everything from the Cape Hatteras lighthouse fresnel lens to strategic bombing tested on the cape by General Billy Mitchell, from the Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals to the graveyard of the Civil War USS Monitor, plus some sillyness (see the Titanic headlines).
No one comes this far without visiting the Cape Hatteras Lighhouse. We arrive just in time to catch the weather for which it was made. As so often happens on the Banks, however, sun follows the rain almost immediately.
A tiny British cemetery is a reminder of ships sunk off these coasts during both world wars.
Windsurfers are quick to take advantage of the steady currents to skim the waters of Roanoake Sound.
The following morning we try our hand at horseback riding on the beach, courtesy of Equine Adventures. I thought it might be too tame, but racing through the water was a hoot with our guide Lorraine.
Time to drive north. Most architecture is traditional weathered wood sidings and shingles, like the grey-tone Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, but there's some eye-popping color too. As for the highway, it resembles a friendly moonscape with soft sand and tufts of sea oats bordering the asphalt and sometimes covering it.
The Elizabethan Gardens on Roanoke Island are well worth a visit. Replicating garden features from the era of Queen Elizabeth I, they are truly another world. Surprisingly, they're open every day of the year. Within the gardens is an ancient oak that was probably just a young sapling when the first English settlers arrived in 1585.
Also within the parameters of Fort Raleigh National Historic Site are the earthenworks of the first English fort. This was the colony whose inhabitants disappeared without a trace. Roanoke Island Festival Park is nearby. After practising a bit 'o Elizabethan grammar in the adjacent colonial settlement a Girl Guide troop boards a replica of a 16th-century English ship. The scenario of fort, gardens and park create a tangible history that's brought to life with the shrieks and laughter of 21st century youth. It's like being in a time machine.
We book into the ever so convenient Shutters on the Banks again, this time on the third floor and with a repeat ocean view (what's not to like?). Before departing the next morning I make a photo collage of our window shutters.
"In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright conceived by genius achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith."
Photos, text and layout
© Gary Crallé - Updated 2022
Commercial rights reserved