Outer Banks escape

Chill on the beach and explore historical destinations on North Carolina’s coast.

Nags Head, N.C.
Nags Head, N.C., was established in the 1830s as the Outer Banks' first tourist destination, thanks to its gorgeous sandy beaches. Photo by travelview / Shutterstock.com

North Carolina’s Outer Banks — the chain of narrow barrier islands that parallels the state’s coastline — is so much more than just another sun-and-sand vacation destination.

But let’s start with the sun and sand (and amazing sand dunes), because those beaches are some of the best in the country.

And these Atlantic shores aren’t short on historical significance either: Starting in the 1830s, wealthy North Carolina planters seeking refuge from the summer heat made the Outer Banks a popular vacation spot. They were followed by sportsmen drawn by outstanding fishing and hunting that Native Americans had discovered centuries earlier.

Today beaches along the 130-milelong Outer Banks, starting about an hour south of Norfolk, Virginia, remain the major draw 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, that provide added appeal for visitors.

Sights and flights

Many visitors rank the two northernmost towns, Corolla (pronounced coh-RAH-luh and famous for wild horses on the beach) and Duck, as the prettiest. In addition to a smattering of interesting shops, Duck boasts a wooden boardwalk along a bay, skirting pockets of woods where bird calls are the only sounds.

Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head form the commercial hub of the Outer Banks — complete with a beachy strip-mall stretch, including many attractions that are worth a stop.

It was at Kitty Hawk where, on Dec. 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made history with the first controlled power flight. 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.

The First Flight Centennial sculpture in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., is a full-scale replica of the plane and people who made aviation history in 1903.

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 main dune to vary in height from 80 to 100 feet. Some dunes are even available for sandboarding (snowboarding on sand) for adventure enthusiasts.

South of this commercial section is Roanoke Island, which became the site of the first English colony in 1587, 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. You’ll find longhouses, a dance circle, planting and harvesting areas and interactive exhibits.

Special tours give tourists glimpses of wild Spanish mustangs, which have called the Outer Banks home for centuries.

Pirates, shipwrecks, lighthouses

To relive another chapter of the story, climb 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 the time.

The most famous attraction on Roanoke Island is Lost Colony, a drama production that entertains with special effects, daring action, comedy, music and dance. It relates the true story of the mysterious disappearance 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 features exhibits that chronicle the tragic stories of more than 2,000 ships that met their fate on the treacherous off shore shoals.

Gorgeous boardwalks lead to a restored Bodie Island Lighthouse on the Outer Banks.

Many were sailing vessels that went down during the 18th and 19th centuries. (Parts of several shipwrecks are visible today along beaches or in shallow water at low tide.)

This eclectic museum also tells the grisly legend of Blackbeard, whose favorite hideout, home and even place of death was the North Carolina coast — from Ocracoke Island to the small inland town of Bath.

You’ll also find vivid exhibits about the Civil War-era, the ironclad USS Monitor and Gen. Billy Mitchell, who proved in the 1920s that battleships were vulnerable to bombing attacks by aircraft.

Currituck Beach Light Station, built in 1873, towers over the landscape in the historic village of Corolla, N.C.

Lighthouse buffs will think they’ve gone to heaven when they spot the three towers that mark this stretch of the Outer Banks, all of which were first lit in the 1870s. The Cape Hatteras light, the tallest brick beacon in the country, and the Currituck Beach lighthouse are open for climbing from spring to fall.

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 — hiking, hang gliding, kayaking, kiteboarding, sailing, fishing and crabbing.

And then there’s my favorite beach pastime — relaxing on the sand with a good book.

Victor Block is a veteran travel writer and has contributed to numerous national publications.