Currituck Sound. Nags Head. Manteo. Oregon Inlet. Pamlico Sound. Hatteras. These names were in my memory bank before I ever accompanied my husband, who navigated the 3,000-mile, 100-foot-wide Intracoastal Waterway each spring and fall. In winter, The Outer Banks – a 130-mile span along North Carolina’s northernmost Atlantic coast – was also a favored destination when we drove from Long Island to Florida. So, with magical memories of this national treasure in mind, I was delighted to revisit.
Most visitors traveling to the OBX – its ubiquitous nickname – arrive by car. Drivers from Charlotte follow Highway 64 east through Roanoke Island to its end at Whaleboat Junction where the land meets the ocean and the road divides. Heading south, Route 12 cuts an impressive swath through sand dunes and sound; it passes some of the most remote tracts of undeveloped beaches in the country. From Hatteras Village at the southernmost end, it’s a distance of about 80 miles to Duck, near Dare County’s northern border.
Throughout, the beaches are wonderfully accessible by car via free highways, bridges, ferries and parks with public parking. Sunbathing, swimming, shelling, kite boarding, surfing, diving, fishing and crabbing are some of the favored activities. Four lighthouses, shifting sands, plants that survive the sun’s rays and the salt spray and waterfowl are among the attractions. There are also extensive areas where four-by-fours can drive on the sand, places to ride horses and hiking trails through maritime forest trails amidst live oak, tall pines and mixed hardwood. Plus, ther are three public golf courses on the islands and four more on the mainland.
Vacationers first discovered OBX in the 1800s, though stories about the half-mile-wide ribbon of sand have been told for more than two centuries. Its tourist-based economy dates from 1937 when the U.S. Congress authorized the 70-mile Cape Hatteras National Seashore. That year, The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama inaugurated the tale of the first 116 English settlers in North America who all ultimately disappeared. This, America's longest-running outdoor symphonic drama, is celebrating its 75th season at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island. This charter fishing and sightseeing destination between the mainland and barrier beaches is also home to Island Farm (where costumed interpreters illustrate daily life c. 1850), the Elizabethan Gardens and the North Carolina Aquarium.
In Hatteras Village, 1937 marked the year the first commercial and charter sport fishing fleet started operating. The Albatross Fleet is now owned and run by Capt. Ernie Foster’s son and namesake and one of only three native second-generation fishing guides. Captain Ernie introduced me to the village (population 500), Burrus Market (c. 1866), Sonny’s Restaurant and the library where the 810-pound, world record blue marlin caught on his dad’s boat hangs. From his boat, I watched pelicans congregate around a tuna catch, herons flying over the marshland and busy commercial fishing houses.
The entrepreneurial spirit that lured fishing folk to the islands’ inlets, shipwrecks and sandy shoals continues today as Carolinians and transplants open restaurants, spas, wine bars, gourmet markets and boutique hotels that cater to visitors.
This is the ninth season that Steve Nelson, the owner/operator of sunny yellow, 12-room The Inn on Pamlico Sound, has been hosting guests (like me). The waterfront complex is located between Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (c. 1870 and the nation’s tallest at 208 feet) and where the road ends in Hatteras Village. The graciously sized accommodations have high ceilings, grand windows and extra-wide decks facing the sound. The room rate includes a fixed, three-course breakfast, use of kayaks, bikes, swimming pool and a 14-seat home theater. Café Pamlico is open to the public and has an extensive wine list. Chef Forest prepares superb local crab cake appetizers and crab-topped flounder and is happy to prepare your day’s catch. (Call him in advance, please.)
In Avon, Joe Thompson opened the island’s first wellness center in 2005. Koru Village is a 13,000-foot integrated facility with a fitness center, yoga studio, salon and spa retreat plus adjacent rental villas. About 500 of the population of 4,000 are members, and vacationers can access day passes there and to the swimming pool, event and performance facility he is opening on the beachfront across the street.
Heading north of Whaleboat Junction on Croatan Highway (U.S. 158), the Atlantic coast’s tallest dune is located within Jockey's Ridge State Park. The 426-acre park facing Roanoke Sound was preserved in the 1970s by dedicated locals determined save it. They created "People to Preserve Jockey's Ridge,” and it is, today, North Carolina’s most visited state park. It attracts throngs of kite flyers and hand gliders and offers swimming, sailboarding, sandboarding and trekking and vistas of sand and sea. Nearby, there’s The Wright Brothers National Memorial where Wilbur and Orville Wright launched their first flight on December 17, 1903.
Development along Highway 158 includes many local and family-owned businesses plus an invasion of big-box chain stores. (Route 12, “The Beach Road,” is the slower and more scenic alternative.) Trio, a wine bar, café and retail outlet shares its owners’ passions for wine, cheese and beer and is among the newest and most stunning venues on US 158. Wine enthusiasts Kenny and Melissa Hyman provide a long by-the-glass list, a retail outlet and a tasting room that promotes N.C. vintners. Jennifer Minnich, a cheese aficionado, sources retail and menu items from top artisanal cheesemakers. Her husband John, master of the tap house, sells 200 varieties, emphasizes local selections and has 24 rotating taps plus Cask Conditioned Ale or Real Ale. In February, Trio was packed with folks tasting wine, drinking beer and eating gooey grilled brie and fig spread paninis.
Indigenous fish and seafood has always been the hallmark of the area, and family-owned eateries still flourish here. Some are truly sophisticated, among them Elizabeth’s Café & Winery in Duck. It boasts an acclaimed wine cellar and garners top reviews. A newcomer, AQUA Restaurant/Spa in Duck, is one of the most forward-thinking waterfront restaurants because guests who frequent the spa on the upper level (it specializes in Aryuvedic treatments) can plan a healthful – or decadent – meal afterward overlooking the sound. The Left Bank, an extraordinary restaurant with an impressive wine list, celebrates its 10th anniversary at The Sanderling this year. Our tasting menu started with sunchoke soup, included white truffle gnocchi, local squab and black bass and ended with a dark chocolate cremeux. Even the spa cafe – which overlooks the sound – served terrifically chunky crab cakes atop a crunchy apple slaw. (After a fabulous facial and a swim in the indoor pool, I retreated to the comfort of a room where I could watch, hear and smell the ocean.)
Some culinary enthusiasts cook in your personal kitchen. Amy Huggins of Outer Banks Epicurean also harvests her own Outer Banks Sea Salt, guides visitors on kayak adventures in Kitty Hawk Bay to see watermen working the crab pots and hosts a private crab-cooking demonstration at Coastal Provisions Market. There, Dan Lewis, another Carolinian transplant, makes seafood chowder, smokes pastrami, grills fresh veggies, prepares excellent takeout and serves wine.
In addition to the chain and one-of-a-kind boutique and resort hotels, there are campgrounds to accommodate vacationers. However, most visitors stay in vacation rental homes which range from modest two-bedroom cottages to oceanfront condos to villas with 16 bedrooms used for family reunions and events.
Whatever the lodgings, what Captain Ernie says about Hatteras Village applies to the entire Outer Banks: “It’s hard to get to, but once you get here, it’s even harder to leave.”
Charter Fishing North Carolina has the largest number of landings after California, and charter fishing expeditions are a major OBX attraction. Charter captains guide up to six passengers on half- and full-day fishing excursions off shore or near shore. Depending upon the season, some species are caught and released; others are dinner. Blue marlin, blue fish and bluefin and yellowfin tuna or striped bass, Spanish mackerel, flounder and mahi mahi are among the finds. Here is a short list of charter companies from among the many along the OBX coast. There are also a half-dozen fishing piers and extensive shoreline for fly fishing.
The Albatross Fleet of Hatteras, Hatteras, 252-986-2515, www.albatrossfleet.com.
Hatteras Landing Marina, Hatteras, 252-986-2077, www.hatteraslanding.com.
Odens Dock, Hatteras, 252-986-2555, www.odensdock.com.
Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, Oregon Inlet, 252-441-6301, www.oregon-inlet.com.
Pirates Cove Yacht Club, Nags Head/Manteo Causeway, 252-473-3906,www.fishpiratescove.com. For more information about the Outer Banks, visit outerbanks.org