The Outer Banks … Out of This World

       Chesapeake to Nags Head route map

We had another cheap rental car for the weekend and this time we headed south to North Carolina's Outer Banks. The locals call it OBX which I thought referred to their 3-letter airport designation, but no, it's a marketing program to hype the area. My research showed it didn't need much hype. With town names like Kitty Hawk, Nag's Head and Kill Devil Hills and long, sandy beaches, lighthouses and tourist attractions, as well as historical significance, who could resist a visit? Being off-season, we were sure we wouldn't be bothered by throngs of pesky tourists (like us?).

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                                                               OBX aerial view

                                                              OBX aerial view

The Outer Banks is a narrow string of barrier islands, islets and peninsulas that separate it from the North Carolina mainland and are connected by bridges, causeways and ferries. Due to storms, wave action and natural erosion, the topography of OBX's inlets and coastline has changed dramatically over the years, but, oh my, the area is certainly gorgeous

 The ICW certainly looks different from the top of a bridge vs. going under it!

The ICW certainly looks different from the top of a bridge vs. going under it!

It wasn't a long drive, only ~75 miles via a toll road or, the way we drove, a few miles and minutes longer through small North Carolina towns via country roads. The land is flat and fertile here and mostly dedicated to agricultural crops like tobacco, peanuts and sweet potatoes. We crossed our previous boat path over the ICW at Currituck Sound and thought how different it was to be on the land side of the bridge instead of passing under it.

We arrived in Kitty Hawk at island Mile Post 1.5 and checked out the Visitor Center there for local maps and things to do. Wow! There is definitely no dearth of brochures and info available. With no wheelbarrow handy, we were selective in our brochure choices, but still ended up with quite a library to haul back to the car.

The Monument to a Century of Flight is located nearby. The morning sun reflecting on the circle of stainless steel monolithic sculptures reminded us of Stonehenge. Each of the 14 wing-shaped pylons stretch gracefully towards the sky and bears a black granite plaque highlighting significant events in the history of aviation.

                                   Monument to a Century of Flight, Kitty Hawk, NC

                                  Monument to a Century of Flight, Kitty Hawk, NC

Following our penchant for visiting National Park sites, we headed to the Wright Brothers National Memorial. An impressive monument stands sentinel atop Kill Devil Hill, the launching spot for Orville and Wilbur's many glider experiments. According to the NPS brochure, “the Wrights learned to fly on open sands … [because] the site provided isolation, high dunes, strong winds and soft landings.”

                                             Wright Brothers Monument stands atop Kill Devil Hill

                                            Wright Brothers Monument stands atop Kill Devil Hill

It's hard to imagine that December 17, 1903 morning and the sheer adrenaline rush associated with the first 12-second flight … Orville at the controls and Wilbur running along side at wing point. The momentous flight was caught on film by first-time photographer John Daniels. What a shot!

                                            John Daniels photo of the Wright Brothers' first flight

                                           John Daniels photo of the Wright Brothers' first flight

It's even harder to believe that just two generations after this single event in a remote spot of the isolated Outer Banks, the world would be flying on a routine basis, man would have broken the sound barrier and men would be flying to the moon. By the way, a little trivia for you … the US Army turned down a meeting with the Wrights when they offered their “flyer” to the government, because the Army officials doubted the importance of the brothers' achievement.

                            Wright Brothers Memorial replica first plane flight sculpture

                           Wright Brothers Memorial replica first plane flight sculpture

From historic flights, we traveled to iconic lighthouses along the OBX shores. The Bodie Island Lighthouse (pronounced “body”), the third so-named lighthouse, was built in 1872. The first lighthouse was abandoned due to a faulty foundation and the second was blown up during the Civil War. The black and white horizontal striped lighthouse was closed for self-guided tours, but the view of the lighthouse itself was great.

                                         Bodie Island Lighthouse, Nag's Head, OBX, NC

                                        Bodie Island Lighthouse, Nag's Head, OBX, NC

A boardwalk extends into the marshland beyond the lighthouse and it afforded us great views of the lighthouse and the Oregon Inlet, as well as the wetland birds that were in residence.

                    American Avocet in the marsh near Bodie Island Lighthouse

                   American Avocet in the marsh near Bodie Island Lighthouse

We crossed the bridge over the Oregon Inlet to Pea Island and took our time driving down Route 12, stopping here and there to climb over the steep, grassy dunes for a view of the Atlantic. This is not a place to hurry. This entire coast is considered Cape Hatteras National Seashore and as such, is protected and under the jurisdiction of the NPS, with significant lands dedicated to wildlife refuges. We reckoned it would afford some outstanding camping opportunities sometime in the future.

                    We climbed over grassy sand dunes for a view of the Atlantic

                   We climbed over grassy sand dunes for a view of the Atlantic

We stopped at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, aka America's Lighthouse, the tallest brick lighthouse in the USA (208'/63m). This black and white spiral-striped landmark, was built in 1870 and moved to its current location in 1999, an epic job that took 23 days. We've sailed around Cape Hatteras several times before and never underestimated the dangers inherent in the Diamond Shoals area known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”.

                                           Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at Buxton, NC

                                          Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at Buxton, NC

We made our way to the southern tip of Hatteras Island, but with limited time, we turned back north, regretfully missing out on a free ferry ride to Ocracoke Island, known as the lair of Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, and several other infamous pirates. Maybe next time?

We stopped at the 1902 U.S. Weather Bureau Station-cum-Visitor's Center in Hatteras for a quick look-see. Operated for four decades until it was decommissioned in 1946, this station played a significant role in developing the US meteorological network.

                                          US Weather Bureau, Hatteras Island - 1902-1946

                                         US Weather Bureau, Hatteras Island - 1902-1946

Nearby, we happened upon an old graveyard and wandered through, reading the time-worn markers and appreciating the old man's beard draped from the branches of an old live oak.

 The Old Man's Beard (Spanish moss) draped on the live oak lent an eerie air to the graveyard.

The Old Man's Beard (Spanish moss) draped on the live oak lent an eerie air to the graveyard.

It was near dark by the time we made it to our hotel in Kill Devil Hills for the night. A picnic in the room with a chilled vinho verde sufficed for dinner. Later this week check back to read about our onward travels to Roanoke Island, looking for the Lost Colony.