North Carolina's Outer Banks might well be called the land between the lights. From the plain brick Corolla Lighthouse, set against the north end's pricey developments, to the whitewashed light tower in the timeless island village of Ocracoke in the south, there are 120 miles of ocean, dunes, sound, beach houses and a ferry ride connecting these lights.
The Outer Banks provide as varied an oceanside environment as can be found anywhere: pounding surf, fresh-water fishing, tacky and crowded strips, deserted beaches. This thin strip of sand -- a long stretch of peninsula and islands connected by bridges and ferry -- lies just off the Carolina coast, connected to the mainland by bridges at only two points. It has four very distinct parts: the northern chunk, with limited public access; a heavily commercial strip; Cape Hatteras National Seashore; and Ocracoke. The starting point for seeing them all -- Kitty Hawk -- is a 6 1/2-hour drive from Washington.
Head south on I-95 to Richmond, east on I-64 to Norfolk and south on Rte. 17 to Elizabeth City, N.C. From there, Rte. 158 goes east to the Outer Banks.
The northern stretch of the banks is relatively off the beaten track, in the opposite direction of the beach traffic flow. Nine out of 10 cars crossing the Currituck Sound Bridge -- the northern gateway to the Outer Banks, about 300 miles from Washington -- turn south at Kitty Hawk and head for Nags Head and beyond. But that 10th car heads for a comfortable weekend house to the north.
Rte. 12 goes north for 20 miles before deadending at Corolla and the solidly built Corolla Light. It is 20 miles of development after development -- Osprey, Sea Ridge, Colony by the Sea and a dozen others. Until recently, the last section of this road -- from the Dare County line to Corolla -- was privately owned and had a gate across it. The road is now public, though public access to the water is very limited.
One very scenic point of access is at the end of the road in Corolla. As you walk along the rutted sand track paralleling the shore (four-wheel drive vehicles are allowed on the beach here and elsewhere), you can see what the whole area looked like until rather recently -- gentle dunes, beach and little else. This land stretches 10 miles north of Corolla to the Virginia state line, and is accessible only by beach. But even the lack of road is not stopping development. A few miles north of Corolla is a new development called Penny Hill. Until Rte. 12 is extended -- an inevitability -- Penny Hill will be the ultimate in svelte get-away-from-it-all living.
You can find your oceanside custom dream house between Corolla and Kitty Hawk -- for a price. And prices are rising steadily. James Johnson, developer of Ocean Sands, one of the sleekest developments on the Outer Banks, bought a five-mile stretch of beach in the late 1960s for $2 million, or about $75 per foot of beachfront. His 75-foot lots are now selling for more than $150,000 -- $2,000 per foot.
The hamlet of Duck (so named for the hordes of fowl that used to be seen here) is the social and commercial center for this stretch. Try the Duck Deli, with its bean-sprout-laden sandwiches (and a nice front deck for carryout eating), or Barrier Island Station -- a restaurant where the hostess says "Hi, I'm Judy. Today's special is Quiche Guillaume, and Norman, your waiter, will be with you shortly."
Back in Kitty Hawk, head south on Rte. 12. The 15-mile stretch to Nags Head is uninterrupted and very accessible ocean beach to the east, increasing commercialization to the west along Roanoke Sound.
The name Kitty Hawk is synonymous with the dawn of aviation: 85 years ago Orville and Wilbur Wright took a steamer from Roanoke Island to Kitty Hawk to work on their flying machine. It was a long way from their native Ohio, but the isolation of Kitty Hawk, along with its winds, meant that the brothers could work out of range of critics and achieve heavier-than-air flight. Today, the Wright Brothers Memorial, perched way up on a dune on the inland side of the coast road, dominates Kitty Hawk. You can walk down below along the Wright Brothers' original flight path -- it will take you less than a minute -- and view aviation memorabilia in the museum.
And you can also have your own flying adventures. Kitty Hawk is now a center for hang gliding. Except for times of intolerable weather, a constant show of amateur hang gliding goes on atop the biggest dune in Kitty Hawk.
South of Kitty Hawk, Nags Head is the Outer Banks' big strip. The coast highway and a parallel bypass route (a quarter-mile west) in Nags Head are littered with motels, fast-food stands, T-shirt factories and discount towel outlets. Only the ever-attractive sea is untouched by human intrusion. Accommodations here vary considerably, ranging from the budget mom-and-pop operations like the Sea Spray to the Holiday Inn. The Colony House Hotel is one of Nags Head's more interesting places to stay. A venerable wood structure with wraparound balconies, its rooms have jalousied back doors that let ocean breezes provide's nature's own air conditioning. Restaurants here range in quality. Good nonfried seafood is still a bit hard to find, but the dining scene has improved vastly in the past decade.
A local realtor described the terrain south of Nags Head as "lots of nothing." And a wonderful nothing it is. With a few exceptions, there is nothing here but nature. Development ends suddenly and mercifully south of Nags Head as you enter the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Rabbits munch on the grassy shoulder of Rte. 12, the often turbulent Atlantic foams on the other side of the dunes. (The Outer Banks stick out far into the Atlantic and their waters are consequently rough.) Seagulls and ducks fly over Croatan and Pamlico sounds, to the west, and dolphins ply the waves offshore to the east.
The mile-long Oregon Inlet bridge takes Outer Banks travelers to the first of the islands -- Pea Island. The first stretch of road affords a full array of beaching, fishing, birdwatching, camping and even windsurfing opportunities. The land of Pea Island narrows at times to the extent that it seems only a few car widths separate the sound on the right and the sea on the left.
The hamlets of Waves, Salvo and Avon -- within the national seashore and thus limited in development potential -- lie along this route. They offer supplies stops and camping facilities for visitors, but no restaurants or lodgings.
As you approach the south end of Pea Island, the much-photographed Hatteras Light rises into view. Painted in a black-and-white barber-pole striping, it is probably the best-known lighthouse in the country. And it is one of the prettiest. You can drive right up to it and be awed by its formidable brickwork and the fancy ironwork forming a necklace and catwalk around its lofty beacon. The Hatteras Light beach, popular with surfers, is the closest point to the Gulf Stream north of Florida, so its waters are always warmer than those elsewhere on the Outer Banks.
The town of Hatteras, at the tip of Pea Island, is the point of departure for the ferry to Ocracoke Island. Leaving about every 40 minutes this time of year, the Ocracoke ferry is truly one of America's best cruise bargains. A lot of nature confronts you on its half-hour crossing: The pounding Atlantic meets the placid sound; pelicans straddling a yard-wide sandbar watch the Alpheus W. Drinkwater (or other ferries of similar names) glide by. Seagulls swarm overhead and grab food out of your hand. And an ample supply of sea air fills the lungs. The price, for passengers and car: Zero. The State of North Carolina provides this service free of charge.
(Caution: The lines for the ferry can be long. In summer months certain crossings give priority to commercial vehicles. And, given the price paid by the passengers, attendants aren't always scrupulous about the order of loading -- I had to wait for the next ferry when a car that came in after mine was given the last space.)
The ferry landing at Ocracoke Island sits alone -- no stores or cafes. And, as a sign on the ferry shed indicates, "No Phone." This is an appropriate introduction to Ocracoke, a pristine 15-mile strip of dunes and beach. Only an air strip and the understated village of Ocracoke at the opposite tip are reminders that human beings have a foothold on this part of the Outer Banks.
The wild Ocracoke beach is accessible at several points. One of them lies past the airstrip (almost in town, about 13 miles from the ferry): An adventurous packed-sand road with water on both sides (four-wheel drives only, though it's not posted) goes through a marshy area abundant with waterfowl before finally reaching the beach.
Ocracoke village is a very special place -- a fishing town with charm but without the trendy imprint, a dignified pocket of civilization on an otherwise uninhabited island. The Ocracoke Light (second oldest light in use in the country), with its bright white facade and sitting in a small picket-fenced enclosure, personifies the town's simplicity, as well as its maritime character.
Ocracoke is clustered around a U-shaped harbor, with the imposing Swanquarter and Cedar Island double-decked ferries dominating the harbor. (These are toll ferries -- $10 for car and passengers -- going west and south, respectively, to the mainland in 2 1/2-hour crossings.)
A few tidy unpretentious shops and restaurants line the road across from the harbor.
At the end of this road, across from the ferry loading area, is a wonderful wooden monument called Berkeley Center, an old inn originally built for employes of the Berkeley Machine Tool Co., a former industry of Ocracoke. It should really be called the Wood Lovers Inn. Ornately crafted fir-, cypress- and cedar-panelled walls and ceilings and intricately carved fireplace mantles make its few rooms and lounge areas the epitome of "quaint" in the best sense of this over-used word.
Wesley Egan, a retired Air Force colonel, and his wife have been slowly restoring this little jewel. The Egans seem to come straight out of an Agatha Christie novel, where the kindly retired couple buys an old inn to provide a livelihood and hobby at the same time. And an inn where you find a copy of "Blue Highways" on the bedside table just has to be appealing.
The Island Inn, half a mile back up the road, is a most unusual place to dine. Its closed-in porch looks out onto a tropical aviary. Cockatoos, parakeets, parrots and even love birds (though the love birds have to be caged because of their vicious dispositions!) strut and fly about in a charming homemade aviary enclosed by a fence on the street side and wire mesh on top. It is a converted patio with trees and fountains, where winged creatures entertain humans on the other side of the full-length glass. The food, incidentally, at the Island Inn is quite decent, with home-baked specialties such as fig cake and lemon icebox pie. The waitresses, with the very distinctive Ocracoke accent that can roughly be described as a singsong twang, pour tea refills from large pitchers and otherwise display traditional Ocracoke friendliness.
Ocracoke has long been known for its charm, but has yet to be overrun or over-built by the hordes from the north. And because it is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seanhore, it should stay that way.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore actually continues much further, on Portsmouth Island south of Ocracoke. But lack of scheduled ferry service and paved roads makes this part of the Outer Banks relatively inaccessible. From Okracoke, the toll ferries south to Cedar Island and west to Swanquarter take you into Tidewater North Carolina.
Most travelers simply retrace their steps to leave the Outer Banks, going back north to Currituck Sound Bridge. But an alternate route goes through some very historical parts of North Carolina.
Head back up Rte. 12 to the north, but just south of Nags Head take Rte. 64 west across Roanoke Sound to Manteo. (You'll know you're going the right way if you pass a combination Tourist Information and Mental Health Center!) Manteo is home to the country's longest-running theater presentation -- the annual summer reenactment of the story of "The Lost Colony" of Roanoke Island.
As you continue west on Rte. 64, you cross the highly scenic 3 1/2-mile Croatan Sound bridge and the even more attractive Alligator River, another 3 1/2-mile crossing, with virtually no development along its banks. Rte. 64 threads its way through swamp and marsh, with only an occasional house or shack interrupting the green.
Turn north on Rte. 32 and you cross Albemarle Sound. This road, nearly all the way to the Virginia state line, is filled with photographic stops of old, abandoned sharecroppers shacks, barns and farmhouses. Edenton, about 10 miles past Albemarle Sound, has a number of fine old wooden and brick houses, as well as the Edenton Peanut Co., an abandoned factory building that is a classic example of Victorian commercial architecture. The Lords Proprietors' Inn in Edenton is an attractive lodging.
You can either continue north on Rte. 32 into Virginia to Rte. 460 (at Suffolk), which will take you to Petersburg and I-95, or you can work your way west to I-95 in North Carolina. Either way you will go through territory that has as few tourists as the Outer Banks has many.