The Outer Banks of North Carolina
Discover the history, culture and beaches of North Carolina's Outer Banks

A park ranger holds the audience spellbound–and I mean moms, dads, kids and grandparents. Pacing energetically in front of a reproduction of the famous plane, he recounts the flights and explains the history. The event comes to life. No coughs; no throat clearing. Lots of questions to and from the audience sitting on the edges of their seats. The look on the faces of the young and old is pure fascination as the talented presenter brings the exploits of Wilbur and Orville Wright to life here at Kitty Hawk, just one of the many interesting attractions in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

It doesn’t seem like much at first glance. An improbable-looking, primitive but ingeniously designed, double-winged craft that only flew 120 feet and stayed off the ground for 12 seconds on December 17, 1903. Big deal. The same day, with Wilbur at the controls, the ungainly plane went a distance of 175 feet in 12 seconds…and soon after, an amazing 200 feet, remaining aloft for a whopping 15 seconds. Orville was in control this time.

A mere 66 years later–less than a lifetime–on July 16, 1969, the clumsy biplane the Wright brothers flew “morphed” into a sleek rocket carrying Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon. The rest, as they say, is history.

This is the kind of exciting stuff visitors learn and experience at the Exhibition Center at the Wright Brothers National Memorial on US Highway 158 (252/441-7430, 1401 National Park Drive, Manteo, North Carolina, 27954). The monument itself is a dramatic structure that soars upwards from a grassy knoll. The actual park houses the crude sheds in which the brothers lived and built their plane.

Beaches and Wildlife

The Outer Banks have a lot to offer. Once isolated from the world, they’re an arcing, semi-circle of islands stretching into the Atlantic and connected by a network of bridges and ferries. Some of the villages are “built up” like Nag’s Head. Others are more isolated.

Probably the main attraction is the 900-square-miles of water, vast stretches of sandy beaches, sculpted sand dunes and the third largest wildlife refuge and estuary system in the world. Most New Englanders probably know the Banks from having watched tense, wind-blown reporters on TV shouting their hurricane reports from Cape Hatteras, the southernmost point. The 72-mile-long region is the nation’s first national seashore and home of “America’s Lighthouse.” The 208-foot-tall, brick Cape Hatteras lighthouse dating from 1871 had to be relocated inland in 1999. And beyond the broad beaches, many quality family adventures beckon.


The Lost Colony’s History

The Lost Colony, for example, is a major attraction similar to Plymouth Village. In May of 1587 English ships set sail for the New World (with Sir Walter Raleigh on board) and landed on the Outer Banks in July of that year. The first English child was born on American soil on August 18. She was named Virginia Dare and her birthday is still celebrated in this county that bears her name. Two years later, the colony of 116 men, women and children disappeared without a trace. The only sign was the letters “CRO” carved into a tree.

Roanoke Island Festival Park (252/475-1500, 1 Festival Park, Manteo, North Carolina 27954) is committed to bringing that time and the surrounding mystery to life. There’s a 16th-century sailing vessel–Elisabeth II–with costumed interpreters using “the Queen’s English” to explain the customs and the caste system aboard the ship, a replica of those that landed here from England. There’s an historic reproduction of the 1580’s settlement, and a very cleverly designed, hands-on multi-dimensional Museum that does a superb job of raising the curtain on the life of the times. There are cut-aways of Native American villages, sounds of chanting coming from a Long House, dioramas of homes and forests, reconstructed military posts, stores with authentic products and a new twist on Museum-going–clothing of the time that children are invited to wear as they explore this cleverly designed living history exhibit.

Although it’s a bit pricey, the award-winning play “The Lost Colony” (800/488-5012, 1409 National Park Drive, Manteo, North Carolina 27954) is performed in period costumes and spiced with song and dance in the outdoor theater in the same park as the Elizabethan Gardens (mentioned later). Families will appreciate how clean, convenient and well-designed all the attractions are. Boardwalks stretch to the water’s edge, and a wrap-around porch, a pavilion and very helpful staff make for a multi-dimensional experience.

“The Lost Colony” is an excellent way to spend an evening with the family, whether you’re drawn by history, travel, entertainment, the arts, or simply a good romantic mystery. The play portrays the clash of two cultures separated by vast distances, the lavish court of Queen Elizabeth and the stark “New World” of Sir Walter Raleigh. The audience will observe the passionate romance of Eleanor Dare and John Borden, and revel in the antics of Old Tom. On August 18 each year, the birth date of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America, is celebrated by casting local infants in the famous baby’s role.

Kayaks, Fish and More to Explore

When the sandy beaches and swooping Pelicans lose their allure, here are some of my favorite things to do:

Kayaking Ecotours with Kitty Hawk Sports(252/261-0145 or 252/441-9200, 3933 South Croatan Highway, Nags Head, North Carolina 27959) offer well-thought out activities give families about 8 different trips to choose from. (Minimum age is 4-years-old). There’s the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge Tour, home to black bears, alligators, bobcats and wonderful things like that, and the Dolphin Marsh Tour as well as popular Sunset and Full Moon tours. Most adventures last two to three hours and are led by a professional kayak instructor.

Seine the Sound (252/473-1131 for Pea Island information or 252/987-2394) at Pamlico Sound and Pea Island & Alligator River National Wildlife Refuges is a must-see on your list. Children work with park rangers to unroll a seine net which drags the bottom of Albermarle Sound. Then they pull up crabs, shrimp, pipe fish and croakers. Carefully, and with wet hands so as not to harm the creatures, participants untangle the sea catch while the ranger weaves fishing lore into the activity. Kids can also learn about wildlife like turtles, bears, and red wolves during various ranger talks and “safaris.”

Fish on the Crystal Dawn (252/473-5577, Pirates Cover Marina, Manteo, North Carolina 27954) with the whole family. Meet at Pirates Cove, pick up your bucket of bait and water and your rod from the “first mate,” bring a lunch (they sell drinks and snacks) and have a good time fishing from 12:30 – 5pm. The lively mate makes sure you bait the hook safely and cast your rod expertly. Bring a family cooler if you want to keep your fish–many restaurants will cook them for you. Enjoy, but bring sun block.

Explore the Elizabethan Gardens (252/473-3234, 1411 National Park Drive, Manteo, North Carolina 27954) and stroll beautifully laid out walkways through all kinds of nature and dramatic statuary, many of which actually go back to Renaissance Italy. The Shakespearean herb garden, for example, contains plants mentioned in the Bard’s great works. Special programs throughout the year sometimes include children’s workshops.

Go star gazing at Jockey’s Ridge State Park (252/441-7132, Carolista Drive, Milepost 12 High 158 Bypass, Nags Head, North Carolina 27959). Jockey’s Ridge is the tallest active sand dune in the eastern United States, and the most striking in an area characterized by sand dunes. How high is high? Great question, typical of the kinds that keep kids guessing as they explore this mini-Sahara. The answer is about 100 feet–or in more vivid terms–6 million dump-truckloads!

The rangers have a cool program for kids called, Sunset on the Ridge, that involves identifying animal tracks in the dune and a unique night-time adventure. The sunset program brings everyone together around 8 p.m. to hear about how the dunes were formed. The evening is topped off by stories that are part myth and part fact.

Surfs Up!

As you drive through the Outer Banks, chances are you’ll notice fleets of wind surfers gliding almost effortlessly across the waters that surround Highway 12. With an ever-present breeze and shallow sound waters, the Outer Banks is an east coast mecca for windsurfers from all over the world. What better way for parents to bond with their older kids than over a beginner’s lesson on Pamlico Sound? Wind-NC (252/995-4400) on Cape Hatteras offers affordable group lessons. All beginner windsurfing lessons include gear rental during the scheduled session.          


Ocracoke’s Old-Fashioned Charm

Nothing is very far away on the Outer Banks–you can see from one side to the next–and the system of ferries connecting to the small off-shore islands is quite reliable. Ocracoke Island, for example, is a lovely 45-minute ferry ride from Cape Hatteras (with its famous lighthouse) which is just down the coast from the built-up areas north like Nags Head.

The ferry follows the arc of the lovely coast, and once on the island, the 12-mile drive to the village of Ocracoke (oak-ra-coke) passes through classic marshland, dunes and rugged, vast stretches of beach. Crowded in the summer, the island is a haven for travelers seeking tranquility and “coziness” in the fall. It’s possible to see the entire village by foot, and the atmosphere is laid-back. There are accommodations for longer stays, but it makes an ideal full day trip from Nag’s Head.

There are some surprisingly good handicrafts and art for sale on the island. Village Craftsmen (252/928-5541, 170 Howard Street, Ocracoke Island, North Carolina 27960) is one place that creates well-designed musical instruments, pottery and jewelry. Look around for signs of pirates, as this town is said to be the long-ago home of the infamous Blackbeard. For information on ferries (fare is free except for a few toll ferries) in North Carolina, call 800/BY-Ferry or visit the North Carolina Department of Transportation: Ferry Division.

Details, Details

The Outer Banks are 642 miles from Boston, somewhere between Norfolk and Myrtle Beach on the eastern seaboard. Not that far, but not a stone’s throw either and a destination that will require time to get to and time to appreciate. The 100-mile chain of barrier islands is well cared for, a well protected place to explore by boat, bike, foot, kayak and of course, car. Once fishing was the chief activity; today fishing still plays a major role in the culture of the area, but tourism is the biggest industry.

Getting There
It should be easier. Delta and U.S. Airways fly directly from Boston to Norfolk Beach, Virginia, an easy flight. From there you’ll have to rent a car and make the drive to the Outer Banks. There’s no airport large enough to handle commercial flights in the Banks. Some regional carriers exist, but sources tell me they’re not especially reliable. You’ll need a car anyway, so most visitors rent one at the airport rather than take the rather expensive shuttle and then rent a car when they get to the Banks.

It’s a direct route down Highway 168 to 158 to the causeway that takes you to the Outer Banks. Be warned, the ride down is a trip through billboard alley. As one wag said, “Don’t fight them. Read them.” Once you’ve arrived, the problem is mercifully lessened. The southern sections have no billboards–only the sea and the sand.

Getting Help
Probably the people at the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau (877/OBX-4FUN or 252/473-2138, 1 Visitors Center Circle, Manteo, North Carolina 27954) are the single best resource for places to stay, to eat, to go and whatever other needs you have and need help with.

Ask for a copy of “Outer Banks Travel Guide” published by the Tourist Board. It has a complete run-down on almost everything.

My Top Tips
Many visitors find it cost-effective to rent condos or private homes for their vacation, saving on hotel costs and cutting down on their food bill. Village Realty (800/548-9688 or 252/480-2224, 5301 South Croatan Highway, Nags Head, North Carolina 27959) is a great family company that lets you create a customized brochure online. There are other agencies too, of course.

You must try the ribs at JK’s Restaurant (252/441-9555, Milepost 9 Bypass 158, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina 27948) in Kitty Hawk/Kill Devil Hills.

So many places to stay in the Outer Banks, but few have the tranquility and grace of the Roanoke Island Inn (877/473-5511 or 252/473-5511, 205 Fernando Street, Manteo, North Carolina 27954) This simple island house on the water has a second-floor porch overlooking the bay and a well-stocked pantry open all day and night. The backyard gardens are a delight to sit in or meander through. Reasonable rates. Some suites are available.

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This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.