OUTER BANKS, N.C.
Three hours east of Raleigh, past peanut fields and forgotten farms, the winding road turned into North Carolina's longest bridge, and we climbed above the green-gray waters of the Croatan Sound.
More than 5 miles of brackish waves washed beneath us, leaving the mainland far behind. Ahead, across another bridge, was the Atlantic. And the storied beaches of the Outer Banks.
Here, Sir Walter Raleigh's settlers built the country's first English colony in 1587. Blackbeard buried his treasure. The Wright Brothers proved they could fly. Today, hundreds of thousands of visitors come to see those historic sites. To climb the nation's tallest brick lighthouse. To surf, hang glide and catch billfish, or just bake on the wide beaches.
The islands are thin, more than 100 miles of sand stretching from the Virginia border halfway down North Carolina's coast. In some places, the spit is so slender you can see both shores. Near the southern end, at the elbow of Cape Hatteras, the Banks jut closer to the Gulf Stream than any other point in America.
Summer is the main tourist season. But the water stays warm enough to swim in through October. After Labor Day, fishing picks up — and prices go down.
I first moved here in 1989, to work in a bureau of the Norfolk, Va., newspaper. I planned to stay a summer but fell in love with the windswept dunes, the local watermen and life at the edge of everything. I spent the 1990s on the Outer Banks, hours from the nearest hospital or mall. I covered the area's first stoplight, the opening of the only Kmart. I got married here, bought my first house, had my two sons.
Now, after a dozen years away, my husband and I were bringing our teenagers back. We had rented a cottage in Nags Head, near the middle of the long chain of islands, and planned to show them the entire Outer Banks — from the ritzy northern shores of Corolla to the quaint art village on southern Ocracoke Island.
I had told the boys about the area's history, the surfing lessons and she crab soup.
But they were most intrigued by the mountain of sand.
The road starts here. Miles below the Virginia line, just feet from the sea, N.C. 12 begins beneath a fence, two lanes snaking through the sand.
If you have a four-wheel-drive, or rent an ATV (corollaoutback.com), you can go north across the sand and sometimes spot wild horses splashing in the surf. Everyone else has to head south.
Houses on these northern beaches are huge, stilted new models with vaulted ceilings, curved porches and beds for 20 guests. Most are weekly vacation rentals — few locals live up here year-round.
The only old homes are on the west side of Corolla, along the sound, near the Currituck Beach Lighthouse (currituckbeachlight.com/visit.php).
The 1875 beacon is one of four lighthouses that still signal over the Outer Banks. We paid $7 each to climb its 214 steps, spiral through more than 1 million red bricks and emerge on a balcony 158 feet above the island.
"Oh, wow, Daddy! It's amazing!" shouted a boy peering through the metal railing. "You can see forever from up here."
KILL DEVIL HILLS & NAGS HEAD
Past the boutiques in Duck, past Kitty Hawk Pier, we headed south toward a white stone monument perched on a hill.
Wilbur and Orville Wright chose this sloped dune because of the soft sand below, the constant winds above. The brothers built their 1902 glider here and tested their wings. The next winter they returned to build their plane — and soared for 12 seconds during the world's first powered flight.
For $4 each, visitors can see the spot where the Wright brothers took off, visit the shack where they slept, marvel at the full-sized replica of their famous flyer (nps.gov/wrbr/index.htm). "The wings functioned just like a bird," National Park Ranger Tom White explained. "Once they understood that, everything else seemed quite simple."
Three miles west of the monument is the Outer Banks' best spot to catch blue crabs. Just bring a spool of string and a package of chicken necks, head 3 miles down Colington Road, across the second bridge, and park in the gravel facing the water. Tie a knot around a chicken neck and drop it in. When you feel a tug on the line, lift slowly and aim the crab over a cooler. "We don't know much about it," said Jennifer Gokool, 44, who was vacationing from Pennsylvania. "But we've only been out here an hour and we already caught four crabs."
Next, we stopped in Nags Head, at a state park called Jockey's Ridge, home of the East Coast's tallest dune (jockeysridgestatepark.com/info.html).
There is no admission fee, plenty of parking, even a boardwalk for strollers and wheelchairs. Dozens of people hike the 90-foot mound every morning to take hang gliding lessons. That evening, more than 1,000 had flocked to fly kites, somersault off the side and slide on boogie boards down the wall of sand.
"No one really knows for sure how this dune got here," Ranger Justin Barnes told the crowd. "It shifts every day, does this dance back and forth with the wind." In the last century, he said, the dune has buried a hotel, a miniature golf course and the racetrack that gave Jockey's Ridge its name.
We had planned to hike to the top, spend a half-hour there. But my Florida boys, who have never been sledding, kept scaling the sand mountain so they could slide down again. They didn't mind the scars on their boogie boards, the grit in their teeth or swimsuits. Where else can you speed head-first down a nine-story dune?
Every Outer Banks visit should include a day on Roanoke Island. Tucked between the beaches and mainland, it houses the county's courthouse, jail and old movie theater. There is a little airport offering biplane tours, an aquarium with a new shark tank, a long bike path twisting beneath a canopy of crepe myrtles.
The island's biggest attraction is its past. Here, for $8, you can stroll through 10 acres of Elizabethan gardens (elizabethan gardens.org/overview.html). For $8 more, we boarded the Elizabeth II, a replica of the ship that brought 50 soldiers to the New World in 1585 (roanokeisland.com).
Two years later, another 115 men, women and children followed to form the first English colony in America. They moved into the soldiers' fort, planted crops; one couple even had a child. But when England went to war with Spain, the queen ordered all ships to battle. It took three years for a supply ship to get back to the settlement. By then, everyone had disappeared. There was no sign of a struggle, no blood or bones. Historians still argue about what happened. "People call them 'The Lost Colony,' " said Mike Campbell, a costumed interpreter on the ship. "But they weren't lost. They were abandoned."
HATTERAS & OCRACOKE
The southern islands are the most authentic, least commercialized. Head south and the homes get smaller. There are fewer restaurants and businesses, no chains.
Lifesaving stations used to line these shores. Today, only the Chicamacomico remains as a museum (chicamacomico.net). The wooden station, which opened in 1874, offers $6 tours that include the kitchen, boat house, stable — and, some days, re-enactments of old lifesaving drills.
We stopped at the spiral-striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest brick beacon in the country. In 1999, workers slid it a half-mile away from the ocean to keep it from tumbling in. Then we drove through Hatteras Village, where descendants of some of the islands' original residents live in tidy bungalows and family graveyards fill the front yards.
At the end of the island, N.C. 12 turns into ferry docks. We parked in a long line to wait for the free boat ride (ncdot.org/ferry).
When it finally pulled out, a flock of seagulls followed overhead. Duck blinds blurred by. "We're on the ferry. With our cars and all. Just like you see in the movies!" Erika Ofray, 38, shouted into her cellphone. She and her kids had come from Pennsylvania, but her boyfriend was back home. "It's just beautiful. Really awesome," she kept saying. "I wish you were here."
Ocracoke's beaches are the least spoiled, least visited. The white sand stretches for miles before you reach the village. Most of the cottages here are white too, small and square with covered porches. The Silver Lake Inn offers a hammock outside every room. People park their cars and travel by bike or on foot. The narrow lanes are lined with craft shops and cozy eateries.
You can sample coconut shrimp at the Jolly Roger, buy a plastic eye patch or stay at Blackbeard's Lodge. But in almost 300 years, no one has been able to find the treasure the pirate swore he buried on Ocracoke.
Ferries run until midnight, and you don't need reservations. The 40-minute trip is prettiest just before dusk. Standing on the deck that night, heading back up the Outer Banks, I watched my sons watch the sun sink into the sound. They seemed sad.
"Can we go back?" my youngest asked. Some day, I said.
"No, now," said the oldest. "What time does Jockey's Ridge close?"
Four hundred years of history, lighthouses and lost colonists, surfing lessons and boat rides and fresh shellfish — and all my kids wanted to do was jump on their boogie boards and careen down the giant sand dune. Again.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.