Hatteras Island is a wild, windswept strip of land jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, where shipwrecks rest in deep water as a testament to nature’s treachery.
It’s a fragile but resilient place that has been reshaped by hurricanes and nor’easters throughout history. Connected by ferry or bridge, N.C. 12, the island’s north-south road, hugs the coast, transporting visitors from the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge – a birder’s paradise – to the Ocracoke ferry landing.
The villages of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras have their own vibes, from artsy to down home. They offer simple pleasures. Go crabbing. Rent a horse for a ride on the beach. Fly a kite, or surf a kiteboard, but make sure your arms are strong enough to handle the wind.
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Climb a lighthouse that warned sailors for centuries of the hazardous Diamond Shoals. Off Hatteras, the Atlantic is a graveyard of pirate artifacts, merchant vessels and 100 ships sunk by German U-boats in World War II, prompting the spot’s nickname as “Torpedo Alley.” The villagers of Hatteras often found themselves in the role of heroes, rescuing survivors from the angry waters.
Despite a history of maritime disaster, Hatteras has also reaped the benefits of weather conditions and proximity to the Gulf Stream. It’s a mecca for fishermen and women, who pull in tuna, wahoo and dolphin regularly, and occasionally big game fish like blue marlin. Even if you don’t want to pay your way onto a charter boat, show up at the area’s marinas by late afternoon to see the mates unload the day’s catch and a few colorful fish tales. It’s free entertainment.
Mostly, though, a visit to Hatteras is a way to experience a rare, untamed environment. Stretching almost 50 miles, about half the length of North Carolina’s famed Outer Banks, Hatteras isn’t the mass-marketed OBX, cluttered with traffic, surf shops or mini golf. Here, you can drive for miles and see nothing but dunes and sea oats, undeveloped beaches and sea birds patrolling their sanctuary.
So, head east, as far east as you can get in North Carolina.
Our series appears online and in print each Monday through Labor Day.
Climb a lighthouse
If you’re a fan of lighthouses, try the one that often gets overlooked. Bodie Island Lighthouse, at the entrance to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, is on Bodie Island as you approach Hatteras Island, and many tourists zoom by it on their way to its more famous spiral-striped sibling to the south. But Bodie, pronounced “body,” is a charmer with a natural view of marshland, ocean and the Pamlico Sound – not clusters of beach cottages below. After decades of neglect, the lighthouse, which was built in 1872, opened to the public only two years ago after a multimillion-dollar restoration. For an $8 fee ($4 for children and seniors), climbers can tackle the 214 stairs of the horizontal black-and-white-banded beauty. Don’t worry, there are eight stairwell landings where you can catch your breath. Once at the top, step onto the black iron balcony and take in what might be the most spectacular vista on the North Carolina coast. Not winded yet? Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is ahead with 257 steps. Fees are the same as Bodie, but Hatteras also offers some special moonlight climbs. For details on how to purchase tickets and hours of operation for each lighthouse, go to http://1.usa.gov/1ao136N.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
From Bodie Island, head south across the Bonner Bridge on N.C. 12, a road so fragile it’s almost always being rebuilt as man tries to tame nature. Here along the federally protected seashore, the thin black ribbon is surrounded by sand dunes and frequently battered by stormy ocean overwash. You’ll pass through Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, where birdwatchers flock in spring and fall to see migrations of snow geese, ducks and other waterfowl. You’ll think you’re on a path to the end of the earth, but pretty soon you’ll encounter the island’s jaunty beach towns – Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras. Between Avon and Buxton, stop on the sound side to watch windsurfers zip across the water at Canadian Hole, so named because the area was popularized by Canadians.
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
At the far tip of Hatteras Village, just before the ferry dock to Ocracoke, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum beckons in a building shaped like a wooden ship’s hull. Hundreds of ships have gone down nearby on the treacherous Diamond Shoals, where the arctic Labrador Current meets the warmth of the Gulf Stream, causing rough water and shifting sandbars. The USS Monitor, a Civil War ironclad, sank here on New Year’s Eve in 1862. The museum offers an eclectic collection in one large room, spanning shipwrecks, piracy and diving history. One artifact will give you chills: a log entry from the Hatteras Weather Station in 1912 – a “CQD,” a distress call sent from ships. It was the first such call from the Titanic. Though the two weather watchers on duty that night reported the call, they were initially reprimanded by superiors who didn’t believe the story. For more information, go to www.graveyardoftheatlantic.com.
After all that lighthouse climbing and exploring, you’re going to be hungry. This is no time for salad or tofu. You need a basket of greasy goodness at Hatterasman, an old-school drive-in at Hatteras. Grab a fried flounder sandwich or a softshell crab on a bun. The burgers are hand formed and cooked to order. Try the Hatterasman burger, an 8-ounce patty with cheese, onion rings, BBQ sauce and bacon. It’s not unusual to encounter a cornhole tournament in the parking lot where locals and tourists mingle. Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Cash only. 252-986-1005
The little town of Frisco features a maritime forest, quiet beaches and an artsy vibe. A few locally owned galleries cluster on N.C. 12, where you’ll also see the strangest sight on Hatteras – a round, silver spaceship circa 1970s, that has been a family home, a newspaper office and a hot dog stand. The Futuro House is now abandoned, with alien heads peeking through the windows, an often photographed oddity. Nearby, visit the Frisco Native American Museum (www.nativeamericanmuseum.org), where artifacts from tribes from North Carolina and beyond. After strolling the museum, stop in for some afternoon refreshment at Hatteras Sno-Balls on N.C. 12, in the impossible-to-miss pink building. The funky stand offers 44 snow cone flavors. Signs leading to the counter read: “If you are not barefoot, then you’re overdressed.”
The cheapest entertainment happens when the fishing boats come home. If you’re at the southern end of the island around 4 p.m., check out some of the half dozen marinas in Hatteras Village. If you’re at the northern end, cross the Bonner Bridge back toward Nags Head to the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. Either place, you’ll get to see the daily catch tossed out onto the docks and a gaggle of tourists with cameras. It’s not unusual to see dozens of large yellowfin tuna, mahi-mahi and wahoo neatly lined up on the docks. Recently, some boats returned with more fish heads than fish – casualties of sharks that managed to snatch the big tunas before they were reeled in. As one angler said: “Sometimes we win, sometimes the sharks win.”
Coming next Monday:
Uwharrie National Forest