As the North Carolina coast sweeps east, east, and father east, a string of long, skinny barrier islands stretch north along Pamlico Sound. It’s a place where wind meets water, where modern-day water tribes gather to play along the shore. These are the Outer Banks.
As Floridians, we’re jaded about beaches. We’ve painfully watched beloved strands turn into walls of condos and t-shirt shops. So we don’t go to beaches very often, unless they’re protected from development. So imagine our surprise to spend a full day driving from Kill Devil Hills to Cape Hatteras and discovering what it means to have not a mile, or five miles, but nearly 50 miles of protected shoreline broken only by a handful of small, isolated communities.
The reason, of course, is federal protection. With how narrow some of the islands are, the road – NC 12 – is right up against the dunes, which obviously spill across the highway now and again.
Most of the protection is from Cape Hatteras National Seashore. After stopping to admire the vast marshlands, it was time for a climb up the Bodie Island Lighthouse. Built in 1872, it was renovated and opened for public enjoyment in 2012. The first-order Fresnel lens still shines brightly to guide ships along the coast. It’s a 219-step climb to the top of the 6th tallest lighthouse in America.
Reaching Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge – sandwiched between pieces of the National Seashore – we took a hike along the impoundments to an observation tower.
The biggest surprise at Pea Island was clambering over the dunes we’d driven along to see the other side: emerald waves on the Atlantic and an unsullied beach as far as the eye could see.
Sure, you’ll still find taffy and t-shirt shops in the little villages along the way. But they aren’t buried in them These deeply-rooted communities have a certain charm that comes with age. Among them, Rodanthe caused us to pull over and get out of the car because of the spectacle of dozens of kitesurfers in the air. We lunched there at the aptly named Good Winds, where we could watch kitesurfers from our table.
Up the road in Salvo, we happened across a cemetery slowly slipping into Pamlico Sound and wondered: what will become of these people, settlers from as far back as the 1800s?
We found the water tribe again in a place locals call Canadian Hole, and for good reason: most of the license plates said Quebec. Shallows calm the timid, who were kayaking and paddleboarding. The more experienced kitesurfed and used sailboards to race across the water.
For on the Outer Banks, as the Wright Brothers discovered, there is an incessant breeze. We found that out yesterday with a scramble up Jockey’s Ridge. At 100 feet tall, it’s the highest dune on the East Coast, which guarantees a soft landing for hang gliders.
It’s why modern aviation began here, and why those who love wind and water flock here. With Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean lined with truly pristine beaches – free parking, free access – we now understand the allure.