Remote and removed, the thin band of interconnected barrier islands that stretch some 130 miles along the coast of North Carolina and form the Outer Banks seem more a part of the Atlantic than the continent to which they are appendaged by causeways, bridges, and ferries. Islands in and of sand, whose dunes ebb and flow with the sometimes wicked winds like bobbing boats, they serve as the threshold to North America-or the end of it-depending upon the direction of travel.
Defined by land, or the lack of it, a trip here can entail sailing, fishing, kayaking, water skiing, parasailing, hang gliding, kite surfing, dune climbing, dolphin watching, and sand surfing. More than anything, however, it is about firsts-the first English colonists to leave footprints in the sand, the first aviators to leave tracks in the sand as they conquered flight, and the sea and dunes and wind which made both possible.
2. From Mountains to Shores
Although these flat, marshy islands and splotches of the Outer Banks could not be more opposed to the towering Appalachian Mountains that rise in the west, it is from these peaks that they emanated, becoming the third rendition of them.
Rivers, which are collections of rainwater, flowed eastward from them, sharply dropping from the edge of the second, or lower, topographical feature, the Piedmont. Off shore currents, then acting upon and molding, like clay, their sediment, itself carried from this mountainous origin 25,000 years ago, having created the barrier islands and their water thresholding beaches.
Because currents are anything but static, their never-resting forces continue to reshape and reposition these island masterpieces, as they are subjected to the constantly remolding hands of the wind and the water. This dynamic phenomenon is the very key to their protective nature as they shield the more permanent mainland and, like shock absorbers, they often field the first brunt of hurricanes and other severe weather systems.
Both created and defined by nature’s forces, these sounds form the second largest estaurine system in the US after the Chesapeake Bay, covering almost 3,000 square miles and draining 30,000 square miles of water.
“A thin, broken strand of islands,” according to the National Park Service, “curves out into the Atlantic Ocean and back again in a sheltering embrace of North Carolina’s mainland coast and offshore islands.”
3. Access and Orientation
The Outer Banks consist of Northern Beaches, with towns such as Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head; Roanoke Island; and Cape Hatteras National Seashore, itself comprised of Bodie, Hatteras, and Ocracoke islands.
Scheduled airline service is provided to Norfolk and Raleigh-Durham International airports located, respectively, in Virginia and North Carolina, while charter fights operate to Dare County Regional Airport on Roanoke Island. Private aircraft serve First Flight Airstrip in Kill Devil Hills and Billy Mitchell Airport on Hatteras Island.
By road, the Outer Banks are served by US 158 and the Wright Memorial Bridge from the north and US 64 via the 5.2-mile-long Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge, Roanoke Island, the Nags Head-Manteo Causeway, and the Washington Baum Bridge from the west. As from the north, the route leads to the four-lane US 158 artery and traverses the 16.5-mile island, accessing shops, outlets, restaurants, and attractions. The narrower, two-lane NC 12-which is also known as the “Beach Road”-serves residential communities, hotels, and restaurants, often with views of the Atlantic. The same road threads its way down Hatteras Island and, after a complementary ferry ride, Ocracoke Island.
4. Kitty Hawk
Despite consensus belief and aviation history books to the contrary, Kitty Hawk did not serve as the site of the world’s first successful flight, although the Wright Brothers stayed in the village. Instead, that historic event occurred about four miles south of it, in Kill Devil Hills. Nevertheless, there is still an aeronautics-related attraction next to the Aycock Brown Welcome Center, which itself offers brochures and trip planning information about area sights, restaurants, entertainment, shops, and hotels.
Designated Monument to a Century of Flight, it was created by Icarus International and dedicated on November 8, 2003 on the centennial of powered flight to celebrate the history, beauty, and mysteries of flight and soaring of the human spirit. Set against the open sky of Kitty Hawk to create a contemplative environment, the monument itself consists of 14 wing-shaped, stainless steel pylons rising from ten to 20 feet in a 120-foot orbit to reflect the distance of the Wright Brothers’ first flight on December 17, 1903 and to represent man’s climb to the sky and space.
“Humankind is a continuum of pioneers,” according to the monument, “sharing timeless dreams and the boundless possibilities of vast unexplored worlds.”
Black granite panels are engraved with 100 of the most significant aviation achievements of the past century and a center, six-foot-diameter dome depicts earth’s continents and is inscribed with the words, “When Orville Wright lifted from the sands of Kitty Hawk at 10:35 a.m. on the morning of December 17, 1903, we were on our way to the moon and beyond.”
5. Kill Devil Hills
Kill Devil Hills is, of course, the site of the world’s first powered, controlled, and sustained flight and the Wright Brothers National Memorial, visible from US 158, pays tribute to it.
Although the Wrights were raised in Dayton, Ohio, they conducted all their early unpowered (glider) and powered (airplane) flight experiments in North Carolina because it offered lofty dunes for foot launches, high winds to generate lift with minimal ground speed, soft sand for wheelless, minimal-damage landings, and isolation from press and spectators.
According to the Visitor Center’s museum-which sports exhibits, 1902 glider and 1903 Wright Flyer reproductions, National Park Service talks and programs, and a book/gift shop-the brothers were inspired by and based their designs upon aerodynamic principles laid down by four earlier pioneers: Sir George Cayley (1773-1857), who established the very foundation of aerodynamics; Alphonse Penaud (1850-1880), who built a rubber band-powered planophone model and flew it 131 feet; Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896), who conducted extensive glider experiments; and Octave Chanute (1832-1910), who became a virtual clearing house for all aviation-related developments and published them in a book entitled “Progress in Flying Machines.” The Wright Brothers’ biplane glider, in fact, was a virtual copy of his own.
According to the museum, the memorial is the birthplace of aviation. “Here, on December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first successful, power-driven flight in world history,” it claims. “The Wrights believed that flight by man was possible and could be achieved through systematic study.”
That systematic approach, coupled with their intuitive mechanical ability and analytical intelligence, enabled them to understand that lift opposed weight and that thrust opposed drag, but, more importantly, that flight could only be conquered by controlling its three lateral, longitudinal, and vertical axes. This lack of understanding had caused all previous experimenters to fail.
Devising control surfaces to tame them and thus maintain an aircraft’s stability, they were able to morph their unpowered gliders, subjected to hundreds of foot launches from nearby Kill Devil Hill, into the successful Wright Flyer.
Two reconstructed buildings represent the Wright Brothers’ 1903 camp, that to the left a hangar and that to the right their workshop and living quarters with a stove, a crude kitchen, a pantry, a table, and a ladder to access the burlap slings hung from the rafters that served as their bunks.
The commemorative granite boulder marks the take off point of the four successful flights on December 17, 1903 and the markers positioned on the field indicate each one’s distance and the amount of aerial time required to reach them.
Taking control of the Wright Flyer while Wilbur served as his “ground crew” and stabilized its wings, Orville divorced himself from the take off track at 10:35 a.m. that historic day, covering 120 feet in 12 seconds, while Wilbur himself, piloting the next attempt, covered 175 feet in the same amount of time. The penultimate fight flew 200 feet in 15 seconds and the final, and longest, one traversed 852 feet in 59 seconds, after which damage to the aircraft, along with end-of-the-season weather severities, precluded further testing and the brothers returned to Ohio.
According to the boulder erected by the National Aeronautics Association of the USA on December 17, 1928 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the event, “The first successful flight of an airplane was made from this spot by Orville Wright, December 17, 1903, in a machine designed and built by Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright.”
The former sea of sands and dunes stretching out from the first flight boulder, still acted upon by the wind as much as the Wright’s gliders and powered designs had been, was now replaced with a sloping green field, but the aerodynamic forces invisibly brushing the delicate tips of its grass still caused them to sway, in memory, perhaps, of this event more than a century later.
The distance from the take off point, marked by the launching track, to the fourth and furthest marker, requires a brisk walk using the feet with which man has been endowed, but in 1903, it was covered with the wings with which birds had been endowed. The Wrights thus successfully crossbred the human and animal species, manifested as a machine.
The 60-foot monument, mounted on top of the 90-foot, now grass-covered Kill Devil Hill sand dune across from First Flight Airport with its 3,000-foot runway, marks the starting point of the Wright’s hundreds of unpowered glider flights.
“… the sand fairly blinds us,” they wrote at the time. “It blows across the ground in clouds. We certainly can’t complain of the place. We came down here for wind and sand, and we got them.”
A full-size stainless steel sculpture of the Wright Flyer, located on the far side of the hill at its base and weighing far more than the original airplane at 10,000 pounds, depicts the historic first flight with photographer John Daniels, from the local lifesaving station, about to snap the only picture ever taken of it.
The Centennial Pavilion, across the parking lot from the combined Visitor Center, museum, and flight room, offers films and aviation and Outer Banks exhibits.
6. Nags Head
Only a few miles south of Kill Devil Hills, in Nags head, is another flight-related attraction, Jockey’s Ridge State Park.
One of North Carolina’s 35 state parks and four recreation areas that stretch from Mount Mitchell-the highest peak in the west-to Jockey’s Ridge in the east, the 425-acre facility sports the highest sand dune on the coast, which, over the years, has varied in height from 90 to 110 feet.
Its Visitor Center features a museum with photographs of the dune and its evolution, along with displays about area flora and fauna, while two hiking trails provide first-hand exposure to the park: the 45-minute Soundside Nature Trail and the 1.5-mile Tracks in the Sand. But its jewel is unmistakably the dune itself and it is synonymous with hang gliding. The way that Kill Devil Hills was the birthplace of powered flight, so, too, was Nags Head for unpowered, personal flight, since the sport, in many ways, traces its roots here.
Francis Rogallo, like the Wright Brothers who preceded him by almost five decades, laid the foundation of the sport and is therefore considered the “father of modern hang gliding.” Seeking to make flying affordable and accessible to everyone, he took to the sky in 1948 on a makeshift glider whose wings had been assembled from his wife’s kitchen curtains, claiming, “My intention was to give everyone the opportunity to experience flight first hand.”
Following the Wright’s footsteps in the sand until they disappeared into the sky, he employed their same foot launch techniques less than five miles from those used in Kill Devil Hills.
Kitty Hawk Kites, which serves Jockey’s Ridge and was established in 1974, teaches both this foot launch and the towed hang gliding procedure, and is today the world’s largest such flight school, counting more than 300,000 students on its roster.
Initial, certified instructor-taught lessons entail a ground briefing, a dune foot launch, and a glide at a five- to 15-foot altitude.
The Hang Gliding Spectacular, the longest running hang gliding competition, is held annually in May on Jockey’s Ridge.
7. Roanoke Island
Sandwiched between the Outer Banks’s Northern Beaches and the Dare mainland, Roanoke Island, at eight miles long and two miles wide, is the site of the first English settlement in the New World and has several attractions to interpret it.
Manteo, its commercial and governmental hub, is a quaint, waterfront town of artists, fishermen, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, cafes, gift shops, galleries, restaurants, boardwalks, and a 53-slip marina on Shallowbag Bay, and its history is reflected by street names such as Queen Elizabeth Avenue and Sir Walter Raleigh Street.
Named after the Croatan chief who returned with the first English explorers in the late-16th century, and incorporated as a town in 1899, it offers several sights of its own. The Magnolia Marketplace, for instance, is an open-air pavilion used for town-sponsored events. The Tranquil House Inn, located on Queen Elizabeth Avenue, resembles a stately, 19th-century Outer Banks seaboard hotel with cyprus woodwork, beveled stained glass, rear porches with bay views, canopy beds, continental breakfast, afternoon wine and cheese, and its own 1587 Restaurant.
Another attraction is the North Carolina Maritime Museum, an outpost of the main one in Beaufort and located in the George Washington Creef boathouse, which overlooks Croatan Sound. Before the fire of 1939, the area was the site of Manteo’s boat building industry and the current structure was built by Creef’s son the following year to repair the shadboats his father had designed and which subsequently became the state’s official vessel.
More a workshop than a museum, it affords the visitor the opportunity to observe the mostly volunteer staff restore and rebuild wooden hulls, although a shadboat itself is on display, along with other memorabilia.
A boardwalk leads to another of the town’s sights, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. An exterior reconstruction of the square, cottage-style, screwpile lighthouses that guided ships through the narrow channel between Pamlico and Croatan sounds on the south side of the island in an area called “Roanoke Marshes” from 1877 to 1955, the original was decommissioned that year, but swallowed by water during an attempted relocation.
The current replica, with a fixed, white light, fourth order Fresnel lens, was dedicated in 2004, during which Mayor John Wilson said, “In the years to come, as islanders mingle with visitors along the Manteo waterfront, let us remember that, on this spot, where so many vessels have been built and launched, dreams still light the way… a lighthouse now casts its reassuring beam into the night sky… “
Lighthouse and maritime history photographs and exhibits can be perused inside.
A quick drive down Queen Elizabeth Avenue and over the Cora Mae Bas Bridge leads to Roanoke Island Festival Park, a 25-acre outdoor, living history complex that celebrates the first English settlement in America, with several recreations.
Its American Indian Town, for example, portrays coastal Algonquian culture, which flourished on Roanoke Island and in the surrounding areas for thousands of years until the 1500s, at which time its nomadic hunter lifestyle was transformed into a more sedentary, agriculturally based one.
No written language existed. As a result, first-hand accounts of the English explorers, archaeological remains uncovered within the region, and the oral tradition of storytelling and craft-making provided the foundation for the park’s exhibits.
Under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, the initial expedition, organized by Sir Walter Raleigh, but undertaken by Captain Arthur Barlowe and scientist Thomas Harriot, arrived on the shores of the New World in 1584, and both recorded their impressions of the land they had hoped to colonize. The small Indian Town reproduction is representative of the type they encountered.
The principle structure in any Algonquian settlement was the “weroance” or “leader’s” house and it was subdivided into an internal perimeter, which was intended for public use and served as the guest welcoming and entertaining area, and the interior rooms, where private functions, such as high level meetings and family activities, occurred.
Several English explorers were greeted by the wife of Granganimeo, the local leader, and then led to the house’s outer perimeter rooms, where they were warmed by a fire while their feet were washed and their clothes were laundered, before being led into an inner room for a feast.
Another typical settlement structure was the longhouse. Supported by sapling poles, whose bark was striped from young trees, it assumed a curved roof in order to reduce its vulnerability to the wind, its poles lashed together with cordage. Its framework was then covered with reeds or bark mats.
Mats or animal skins equally covered the small doorways in order to reduce the loss of heat.
Other houses, outdoor cooking and eating areas, and work shelters surrounded the longhouse, and corn and other staples were typically grown on the grounds.
Settlements standardly supported between 100 and 200 villagers and were vacated when the land on which they were located was no longer cultivable, although a decade between abandonment and re-occupation usually restored its farmability.
Indian life is further illustrated by cocking and food preparation exhibits, dugout canoes, and fishing weirs.
The highlight, perhaps, of Roanoke Island Festival Park is the bay-moored and visitable Elizabeth II ship, crewed, like the rest of its sites, by costumed interpreters.
Built in 1983 at the North Carolina Maritime Museum across the bay, the replica, with a 69-foot overall length and 17-foot width, is a composite of the then-prevalent, three-masted merchant ships. Representing the type originally constructed to transport the second, or 1585, expedition’s colonists after Thomas Cavendish mortgaged his estate to finance it, the vessel, commemorating the 400th-anniversary of the event, employs hand-hewn juniper timbers and locust wood pegs in its keel, frame, and planking. Although the relatively small ship, with a 50-ton displacement and 65-foot main mast, was primarily intended for European trade voyages, it equally crossed the open seas.
Between 1584 and 1590, eight English expeditions, entailing 22 ships and 1,200 soldiers, sailors, and colonists (including 28 women and children) were undertaken.
The complex’s settlement site, which represents the first English military one on American soil, features a sergeant’s tent, a forge and blacksmith shop, a foot- and rope-configured lathe, and a stockade.
Aside from these exhibits, Roanoke Island Festival Park also sports a Visitor Center; a film, “The Legend of Two-Path;” the Roanoke Adventure Museum; and a significant gift shop.
The chronicle of the first English settlers is elaborated upon at another important Roanoke Island attraction, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
Although Sir Walter Raleigh himself never set foot in the New World, he was granted a charter by Queen Elizabeth I, as already recounted, to launch the first of the three so-called “Roanoke voyages” to America in 1584 to select a site for colonization, establish a camp from which to dispatch raids on Spanish ships, and to seek precious metals, such as gold. It arrived in July.
Upon return to England, it was decided that the island, because of its protected shores, was the optimum location, and its land was very favorably viewed, as expressed by Captain Arthur Barlowe in his report to Sir Walter Raleigh.
“We found it to be a most pleasant and fertile ground,” he wrote, “replenished with goodly cedars and diverse other sweet woods full of currants, of flax, and many notable commodities… The soil is the most plentiful, sweet, fruitful, and wholesome of the whole world.”
A second expedition, dispatched the following year with 108 soldiers, was intended to stake England’s definitive claim.
Toward this more permanent settlement, an earthen fort was constructed on the north side of the island, but a decline in the previously friendly relations with the Native Americans occurred when they began to succumb to English-introduced diseases and the winter, hardly as bountiful in crops and food as the warmer months, caused the colonists to become increasingly dependent upon the Native Americans until relations became strained. The killing of Chief Wingina, the most pivotal event in the history of the fledgling colony, sealed the European’s fate and they were henceforth declared “enemies.”
Promised supply ships, apparently late, prompted their return to England at the first opportunity-and when Sir Francis Drake sailed into Roanoke Island, that opportunity presented itself. Fifteen colonists, however, remained to keep watch over the fort and the land they had already claimed.
Once again crossing the Atlantic on the third expedition in 1587, 117 men, women, and children, intent on establishing a permanent settlement and more representative of the real population, were promised individual plots of land.
Yet, only sailing back to Roanoke Island to re-provision the original 15 before journeying further inland to establish their own village, they found no trace of them.
John White, appointed governor of the new colony, returned to England for what was only intended as a short supply trip, but conflicting events-including a dearth of vessels with which to sail–precluded his re-departure until 1590. That trip, along with subsequent ones in the early 17th century, also failed to locate the lost colonists, who had apparently only left the abandoned fort and a few artifacts behind.
They had, however, been instructed to post notice if they elected to leave the area or if unforeseen events proved detrimental to their safety, and toward this end, the letters “CRO” were carved in a tree and the full word “CROATAN” appeared on a gate post, both referring to the local tribe and perhaps the reason for their disappearance.
Although excavations continue, no definitive reason has ever been found, leaving three hypotheses: they died of natural causes, they were attacked, or they voluntarily left-but to where and by what means has never been determined, if, in fact, this third theory is true.
Part of this story is told by artifacts uncovered during the fort’s excavation and displayed in the Lindsay Warren Visitor Center’s museum, whose highlight is the decorative wood paneling characteristic of an Elizabethan estate that once graced the walls of Heronden Hall in Kent, England, before being purchased by William Randolph Hearst in 1926 for his own castle in San Simeon, California. The National Park Service acquired it during the 1960s. Rooms such as the one in the Visitor Center would have been prevalent in the homes of wealthy men, such as Sir Walter Raleigh himself.
An outdoor trail leads to the foundation of the reconstructed earthen fort. “On this site,” according to the stone marker ahead of it, “in July-August 1585, colonists sent out from England by Sir Walter Raleigh built a fort called by them ‘the new fort in Virginia.’ These colonists were the first settlers of the English race in America. They returned to England in July, 1586, with Sir Francis Drake. Near this place was born, on the 18th of August, 1587, Virginia Dare, the first child of English parents born in America.”
An historical account of the first English settlers, billed as “a true story of adventure, courage, and sacrifice,” which “enriches, educates, and entertains” is entitled “The Lost Colony” and is performed from late-May to late-August at the outdoor Waterside Theatre, on the grounds of Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Based upon the story written by Pulitzer Prize winning author Paul Green, it was first performed in 1937, but has been running ever since and employs a cast of more than 100 actors, singers, and dancers, who recreate the events that led to the first colonists’ disappearance through royal pageantry, Indian dance, epic battles, Elizabethan music, and elaborate costumes.
Another local attraction is the Elizabethan Gardens, a 10.5-acre botanical garden accessed by brick and sand footpaths and offering more than a thousand varieties of trees, shrubs, and flowers.
“Created to honor the first English colonists who graced these shores,” according to the museum, it explains, “History, mystery, and fantasy are combined in these special gardens created by the Garden Club of North Carolina in 1951 as a living memorial to the first English colonists who came to explore the New World in 1584-1587 and to settle on Roanoke Island.”
According to the sign in front of the Gate House, the garden’s entrance and gift shop, “A performance of ‘The Lost Colony Symphonic Outdoor Drama’ planted the seed in the creative minds that first envisioned this garden.”
There are numerous highlights in this tranquil oasis. The Queen Elizabeth I statue, for instance, is the world’s largest honoring her, while a smaller statue of Virginia Dare is located nearby. Handcrafted bricks, gargoyle benches, seasonal blooms, a marble table, and a stone birdbath accentuate the garden-framed view of Roanoke Sound from the Overlook Terrace. The Colony Walk honors the lost colonists who once walked these very shores and is lined with coastal-tolerant plants. Reeds from Norfolk, England, were used in the thatched roof of the replica of a 16th-century gazebo. The Camellia Collection features more than 125 species of the flower, while an ancient oak tree is believed to have survived from the days when the colonists inhabited the island in 1585.
Another Roanoke Island attraction is the North Carolina Aquarium, one of the three state-run facilities on the coast. Located, specifically, on the banks of Roanoke Sound only a short distance from the Dare County Regional Airport, it depicts the “Waters of the Outer Banks,” its theme.
North Carolina’s coastal plain, as illustrated by its “Coastal Freshwaters” display, provides wildlife with a variety of freshwater habitats. Creeks and rivers flow through marshes, pocosins, and other wetlands on their way to the sounds. The waterways link all of these habitats, allowing wildlife to pass from one to the other.
Albemarle Sound is fed by seven freshwater rivers. In order to survive in the sound itself, plants and animals must be able to adjust to salinity changes, which themselves are created by rains and draughts.
River otters and alligators roam the “Wetlands on the Edge” exhibit, while other displays include those designated “Marine Communities” and “The Open Ocean.”
Focal point of the aquarium is the 285,000-gallon “Graveyard of the Atlantic” saltwater exhibit, which features more than 200 fish and the largest collection of sharks in North Carolina.