In the world of the Outer Banks (OBX), along the coast of North Carolina, I consider myself a newbie. My family and I have only been at it two glorious years. But I think it’ll be the first two years of many.
OBX is a small sliver of land, rarely more than a mile wide. The 130 mile stretch of barrier islands sprawls from the Virginia coast and continues south through four counties. The small towns and fishing villages spotting the islands stretch from Bodie Island in the north (which is now a Peninsula due to beach erosion from tropical storms and hurricanes), Hatteras Island, Oracoke Island, Portsmouth Island, and Cove Banks (though not everyone agrees on where the southern most spot of OBX really is…).
Because the OBX has the distinction as the most hurricane-prone area north of Florida (both because of how far into the Atlantic it juts, as well as its general location along the Atlantic seaboard), the number of islands and inlets constantly changes. Inlets often open during storms and close due to the beach evolution. Additionally, the OBX has a constantly changing structure because they are not anchored to offshore coral reefs, which means that during major storms, they experience significant beach erosion. In fact, the northern part of OBX is actually part of the mainland due to inlets that have closed. Road access to the mainland though is cut off between Corolla, NC and Sandbridge, VA with communities between the two towns accessible only by 4 wheel drive (side note: it’s also where you’ll find the wild horses…yeah I said wild horses, but more on that later).
Don’t be fooled that because of its relatively small size, the OBX doesn’t have an expansive history. The Outer Banks boasts such firsts as being the site of the country’s first National Seashore. It’s the place where the English first tried to settle in the New World (since it’s referred to as The Lost Colony of Roanoke, you can see how well it eventually turned out…so…mystery, intrigue, it’s all there). But the people of this colony certainly weren’t the first to inhabit these barrier islands; it has been inhabited by smaller branches of larger tribes of Native Americans for over a thousand years–tribes such as the Algonquins and the Poteskeet. Additionally, the OBX is the location of the first Civil War battle, on August 27, 1861, on two Hatteras Island forts. And one of it’s biggest claims to fame: it is considered the Birthplace of Aviation because on December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright flew an aircraft for 12 (!) seconds after launching it off of a track in Kill Devil Hills. (Twelve seconds was nothing to sneeze at back in the day.)
The OBX has a darker side too, though (much darker than disappearing colonies). The area that seems so calming and relaxing to beachgoers is also known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, with more than 2,000 shipwrecks lying off its shore, thus the need for its famous lighthouses such as the Currituck Lighthouse and the Hatteras Lighthouse. OBX is also known as Torpedo Junction because it is along this coast that the 65 U-boats perched off America’s East Coast sunk approximately 397 ships in the Spring of 1942.
And even more intriguing (and appealing to little people imaginations) is the history of the Southern Outer Banks. This area was frequented by pirates, including the famous female pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Reed. Because of its location, Oracoke Harbor was once thriving with industry and the main route for goods to get to mainland NC. Combine this with the famous tall dunes of the OBX (perfect for hiding) and the small channels (perfect for a quick escape) and it becomes an instant lure for pirates, including one named Blackbeard. That’s right. The Southern Outer Banks was the home of the famous pirate Blackbeard, and, fortunately or unfortunately, it is also the location of his death, which many saw as a necessity in order to end the plundering and piracy of the area.
With such a rich history to back it up, it is no wonder there is so much to do in this slivery stretch of land (or so I’ve been told). There are famous lighthouses, all of which will pop up on any list of Things to Do in OBX, including the list of 30+ year veteran, OBX-goer Erin. There’s Roanoke Island, with it’s connection to The Lost Colony. Here there is a show, in its 80th season, depicting the story of the colony. There is also a representation of what life would have been like for the colonists, as well as Elizabethan Gardens, designed as a tribute to America’s first colony. This island is also home to the recently renovated North Carolina Aquarium and pirate adventures that are dripping with the region’s dark history.
There are wildlife refugees scattered along along the shores of all the barrier islands. There is a new island, Shell Island, that just appeared off the shores of Cape Hatteras this past April. (It is said to be littered with pieces of shipwrecks and whale bones. How long it will remain is a mystery, especially given it has not seen its first hurricane season yet.) Along the OBX there are ghost tours highlighting the region’s past and kayak tours highlighting the region’s distinct landscape. There is a monument to The Wright Brothers and historic buildings like Whalehead in Corolla. And that is to say nothing of the traditional beach activities: dolphin-spotting trips, fishing, mini-golf, sail-boat cruises, and wave runners.
On our most recent trip we were expecting some less than perfect weather, so we all agreed it’d be the ideal opportunity to step away from the beach and pool and deck to explore the islands a bit more. On the first murky day (the day after our arrival), we headed out to the Currituck lighthouse. Stepping onto the property and the adjacent Historic Corolla Village, that’s when the history of the islands became palpable. That’s when it became more than beach houses and lazy days. That’s when we realized we still have so much to explore. But the call of the ocean got us, and later that day we found ourselves playing in the waves and digging moats around sand castles.
Somehow we had let the lighthouses slip away from us the year before, but even for a seasoned OBX goer, Cori, who has been coming with her family for the past seven years, this is on the top of her “Things To Do” in OBX list. For her family, the educational opportunities they find there are not to be missed. With their base in Rodanthe, they take advantage of the educational lectures with the rangers that are at the lighthouse, learning this year about Sea Turtles. (She also recommends Roanoke and the dolphin watching adventures.)
So, fresh off the realization of the vastness of the 130 mi stretch of OBX, in terms of its history and number of things to do, our OBX crew decided that the next day, bound to be oozing rain too, was perfect for another morning jaunt to…well…somewhere. At first, when the forecasts called for hours of rain, we leaned towards the aquarium as the middle little thinks that turtles are one of the most amazing creatures ever to exist. But as the day moved forward, the forecast shifted to gloomy mornings and glorious afternoons, so we decided to just find a half day adventure. That’s when the horses came into play. After calling around, we found one of the only available spaces on a 4 x 4 for nine people and signed ourselves up for an 8:30 am ride up the beach in search of wild horses.
The morning proved us wrong. It was sunny, but we had committed to getting off the beach and onto the inaccessible except by 4 wheel drive, northern parts of the OBX. We strapped the car seats (five of them) into the open sided, raised platform truck with stadium seating, and set on our way. The little people were thrilled just with the ride itself. It was outside, felt a bit risky, and bounced them all around (yet securely in their carseats…don’t worry; I’m not crazy). We drove over dunes and through small neighborhoods.
And we searched for horses. This herd of wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs arrived nearly 500 years ago, though exactly how they got here remains a point of contention. Some argue they were left behind by early settlers who abandoned their livestock; others argue that they came ashore after shipwrecks. Initially, the horses had been roaming freely much further south onto the Corolla beaches, but as development took place, they were ushered into the northern area where they will continue to live a safe, protected, life separated on both the northern border and the southern border by fencing that runs from sound to sea.
As we happily bounced around in our open air 4WD, we found horses in front yards, on the beach, in the road, running, playing, eating, and fighting. They were unafraid, but still, we were cautioned that it is illegal to come within 50 feet of the mustangs. But our tour included more than just horses. We also saw…wait for it…Grave Digger’s beach house (yep, Grave Digger the Monster Truck…a big deal for a three year old boy). Then, just as restlessness began to creep into the limbs of all five little people, the truck headed back. We all got into our safe, yet considerably more boring, minivans and headed back to the beach house and the clear skies over the water, agreeing that we’d all do it again.
But, as I mentioned, this isn’t a list of things to do in the Outer Banks. In fact, that is a list that I am ill-equipped to write and I’m feeling fairly positive that even if I added another few years of visits under my OBX-visiting belt, I still couldn’t write that list. And honestly, I don’t think I want to. Here’s why. The Outer Banks is filled with houses, beautiful houses filled with families and friends and groups of families and groups of friends. There are no high rises on these barrier islands. And these families and friends, in whatever configuration they end up being at the beach together in, seem invested, primarily, in one thing: relaxing and spending time together in uncrowded spaces. Even after visiting for seven years, veteran Cori and her family “love Rodanthe and drive there year after year for the family memories.” And topping Erin’s things to not be missed list is just watching the sun set over the sound. (Side note: we did this too one night at dinner. It was stunning to look at but not to feel. We were tucked into a breezeless corner of a grand dining deck. It was hot. Like Dante’s seventh ring hot.)
For this lady, OBX is about getting on the beach (properly set up with a tent, chairs, cooler, sand toys, boogie boards, and all the other beach “essentials” early in the morning by a kid-free grown up), playing in the water, playing on the sand, sitting in the water, sitting in the sand. And then it’s followed up by dips in the pool at the house and watching the water from the rooftop decks. Sure, there’s some grilling and feasting in there. There’s probably a bunch of wine and naps, as well as little people giggles and grown up laughs.
It’s about being outside in fresh air and forgetting the smog of the world. It is the perfect place to just be. This is where a person can exist. That is why I cannot write this list. The history is there. And we’ll get to the specifics of it little by little. But for now, we will just sit in this relatively undeveloped space, content in the knowledge that large parcels of land are government owned so will remain this undeveloped. And here we will soak up the history by soaking in the atmosphere of hundreds of years of quiet, undisturbed peace (well, except those pirates and sinking ships).
Many minutes after her final tuck in, my biggest little sat up and started spewing…
I know, I know. The Royal Mile is just so touristy. And it is. But…