Inside the Outer Banks:

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Uncovering the rest of the story of North Carolina’s renowned coast.

            As soon as I walked into the library, voices called my name. My fifth-grade self would make a bee-line to the back wall where rows and rows of multi-colored, textured hard-back books lived. I would pluck the one that peaked my interest, flip page after page for a quick preview, and then deliver it to the librarian for an immediate check-out.

            My heroes lived on those frazzled, discolored alabaster pages. Larger-than-life adventurers and demigod-like personalities came to life in words and illustrations. Stories of Amelia Earhart, Pocahontas, George Washington, and so many more proved anything was possible, but the one that always intrigued me was about the boys with wings. Wilbur and Orville Wright. Oh, how I wanted to fly.

            It’s been forty years since I’ve held those books in my hands, but their narratives have not left me. Although I hated writing the accompanying book report, I relished getting inside somebody else’s head, traveling to faraway places, and living in another world. Without even realizing it, these little books ignited my love for travel.

Oh, How They Wanted to Fly

            On the Outer Banks of North Carolina, conditions were perfect for the boys with wings. The self-taught mechanics Orville and Wilbur Wright knew steady and predictable winds, sand dunes for soft landings, and isolation created the ideal scenario for flight. This brought them to Kitty Hawk in 1903 for four flights—each seconds and feet more than the last—which would change the world forever.

            As part of the National Park Service, the Wright Brothers National Memorial is located in Kill Devil Hills, one of the northern beaches. The recently renovated visitors center discloses how the flyer was built in Dayton, Ohio, and shipped in pieces to Kitty Hawk; there’s also a replica of the Wright Flyer. Outside, walk the direct path that the flyer took and marvel that if one sprinted it, would take less time than those iconic flights. Behind the memorial on the hill reveals a life-size climbable flyer that enables you to crawl aboard and take the supine position of the brother pilots.

            With inspiration guiding, it was my turn. At Jockey’s Ridge State Park, the tallest natural sand dune on the Atlantic coast, flights are possible every day with Kitty Hawk Kites. Hang gliding lessons begin with ground school in the center with training in control, launching and flying. After a short walk to the dunes, the guides will strap you into a harness and then, it will become all about the wind.

            Hang gliding was never something on my travel radar, but after my five flights down the dunes with instructors Ryan and Charlie, I was ready to do it again. And if I choose to continue the adventure, instructors have documented my flight, glider type, location and conditions. I had completed my first lesson towards becoming a hang gliding pilot.

Beautiful but Deadly

            Another National Park Service treasure is the iconic black and white candy-cane striped Cape Hatteras Light Station. Situated along one of the most hazardous sections of the eastern coastline, the lighthouse has been a beacon to ships since 1802. After multiple additions and repairs, the current lighthouse was lit in 1870. By the 1990s, waters had come to within 150 feet of the lighthouse’s base. In 1999, the lighthouse was moved to its present location, a half-mile inland, which took 23 days and became the tallest brick structure in history to ever be moved. Climb its 257 steps to the top for grand views of Hatteras Island.

            As often as not, treacherous waters and rocky shoals off the coast of the Outer Banks swallowed ships that moved too close. To learn more about these shipwrecks, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum opened in 2002. Exhibits feature artifacts from shipwrecks including those of wretched pirates. Currently, the museum houses a German enigma machine, said to be unbreakable, and designed for coding and decoding German radio transmissions. It was discovered in a German U-85 submarine sunk in 1942. The museum is working on preserving this artifact.

            “There are thousands of shipwrecks off our coast,” explains Aaron Tuell of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. “[There are] some popular ones which can dive, snorkel or spearfish. It’s at the heart of why our lighthouse is so tall. When the Atlantic was our main highway, you had to pass right by Cape Hatteras. There’s a giant speed bump called Diamond Shoals which extends out for 14 miles or more just beneath the surface. The lighthouses needed to be seen for more than 20 miles out.”

Whatever Strikes Your Fancy

            For me, it was history that drew me to the Outer Banks. But for whatever reason, it need not be the only reason.

            “There’s a story everywhere you look,” says Tuell. “Each community has its own vibe, yet shares the Outer Banks common culture.”

            For Shaena and Brian McMahon and their son Decian, it was a hobby that became a passion that brought them to the Outer Banks. Hatteras Saltworks was born after traveling the Caribbean, the Pacific and back to the Atlantic on a quest to find seawater that produce the most pure sea salt.

            “We have the Labrador Current meeting the Gulf Stream, and we have really good clean rich mineral ocean water,” explains Brian McMahon.

            The McMahon’s collected wood found on the beaches in winter, and got old doors from Anderson for the insulated glass. “It’s good for what I’m doing,” he says. Using all recycled materials, they built solar ovens to evaporate the source water without ever boiling it. One gallon of water yields about 4.4 ounces of sea salt.

            Visit their farm and be amazed at the entire process. Taste flavors like pure salt, rosemary, smoked pecan and their newest, lavender. Not only does it add substantial flavor to recipes, but health benefits are a plus. Visit the website for some of Shaena’s recipes.        

            Whether you’re an experienced rider or one who has never mounted a horse, Equine Adventures is the perfect guide for your iconic beach ride. Located in Frisco on Hatteras Island, Equine Adventures provides two-hour beach rides with a spectacular view of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. After taking the trail through the Maritime forest, you will empty out onto the grassy dunes in full view of the Atlantic Ocean. Schedule the 5 p.m. ride for a great sunset outing.

            If you’re in need of a break from the sun and sand, step into the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. In addition to the thousands of species inside these walls, it is also home to the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) center. Working with the U. S. Coast Guard and other agencies and volunteers, the center rescues injured turtles and nurses them back to health with the goal of returning back to the ocean as soon as possible.

            Wanting a little more hands on? How about a shark dive? If you’re an open water certified diver, the aquarium invites you to swim in the 250,000-gallon tank with sand tiger, nurse and sandbar sharks. The dive last about 45 minutes and includes all equipment. What an incredible reason to return to the aquarium.

            If you’d rather be on the water, board the Jodie Kae with Captain Marc Mitchum of OBX Crabbing and Shrimping Charters which sets out from Wanchese Marina on Roanoke Island. Mitchum is a full-time commercial fisherman who spends the high season sharing the experience of setting and retrieving crab pots in your hands. Perfect for children, this excursion gets you up-close with dolphins, osprey, pelicans and other marine life. The charter season runs from Memorial Day weekend through the month of October, and yes, you keep what you catch (if it’s legal, that is).

            What’s a visit to the coast without a sunset sail? Depart from the Manteo waterfront with Dan and Katherine (Sail Outer Banks), both licensed captains, aboard their 41-foot Gulfstar ketch. For hours, lounge under the genoa (forward sail) and as Katherine declares, “It’s your boat.” What a wonderful way to end the day, sailing in Roanoke and Albemarle Sounds. And, the icing on the cake, the stories that Dan and Katherine share. It’s as personal as it can get.

Fuel the Traveler

            There’s no escape without a taste of the destination.

            Here are three tasty options to begin your day. For a big plate of Southern goodness, stop at Nags Head Fishing Pier. Watch the fishermen head to the pier as you enjoy your country ham and grits.

            Follow the duck or the big yellow chair. For the last 12 years, the crew at Duck Donuts have been serving their dipped, sprinkled, powered, and iced donuts made to order. With over a bazillion combinations, it might be the maple bacon that strikes your fancy.

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            Another breakfast legend begins with apple uglies. Closed for the winter, Orange Blossom Bakery and Café in Buxton serves their mammoth famous ugly (apple, baked apple or chocolate covered) pastry to locals and tourists alike. Come early and get in line.

            For lunch or dinner, consider TRIO Restaurant and Market in Kitty Hawk. In addition to being a gourmet wine and cheese shop, the eatery offers delicious food and live music.

            For quirky, try Blue Moon Beach Grill in Nags Head. Its big personality is punctuated by Southern comfort food and fresh fish. Consider a Mahi Mahi BLT or a Crab Cake Sandwich.

            For afternoon cocktails, you can’t miss The Inn on Pamlico Sound in Buxton, one of the rare properties open year round. An intimate 12-room boutique hotel, its fine dining offers relaxed seating at the bar or on the deck overlooking the sound. And if you go, try the Blood Orange Jalapeno Margarita.

            If you’re inclined to make your own cocktail, travel down to Outer Banks Distilling, the first legal distillery on the Outer Banks. Located in downtown Manteo, they offer tastings of their Kill Devil Rum as well as site tours. Their flagship rums are Silver, Pecan and Gold (smooth as silk). What’s most impressive is their Angels’ Share Rum, a yearly batch (sometimes more) where all the proceeds are donated to a worthy cause in the community. It seemed like the right thing to do says Scott Smith, one of four owners who became friends over their love of beer and rum. When four guys quit their day jobs to open the distillery, the entire community supported them (sometimes with beer and pizza) until the business was up and running.   

             The legendary Owens’ Restaurant in Nags Head has been serving for seventy-four seasons. The epitome of white tablecloth fine dining, it also feels like you’ve just walked into your grandmother’s home. It celebrates Southern culture and the bounty of the Atlantic.

            It had been years since I thought of the Wright brothers and the boys with wings. All my life, I have wanted to visit the place where powered flight was born. The Wright Brothers Memorial was my first stop on my journey to the Outer Banks, and as my trek proved, my odyssey didn’t stop there. I learned to hang glide. I climbed a lighthouse. I rode a horse on the beach. I pulled crab pots. I was captain of a sailboat, albeit it for a short time. I came face-to-face with history and allowed it to share with me the rest of the Outer Banks narrative. Next time, I won’t wait so long to uncover the rest of the story.  

Story and Photography by Seeing Southern Photography

Judy and Len Garrison are “Seeing Southern.” Judy is a published author, writer, and photographer; Len, an IT master, is the visual storyteller. Their love affair with travel began during their honeymoon trip to Bermuda a decade ago, and they have yet to stop. Also known as “Two Coots Travel,” they are happiest when they are traveling together. To follow their travels, visit seeingsouthern.com

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