Legend, Beauty, and Mystery: Exploring North Carolina’s Outer Banks

Author: Alecia Pirulis

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A mysterious lost civilization … mighty shipwrecks … a pirate’s final adventure … death-defying exploration of the unknown … ghosts, legends, and wild horses. You may think this is the beginnings of a fanciful novel or a mystical location of folklore, or perhaps some foreign destination on an exotic continent, but no – this is the Outer Banks of North Carolina (or OBX, as the locals call it).

Spring is the ideal time for a vacation, and the Outer Banks are an inspiring national treasure. March and April are the perfect time to visit – fewer crowds, cheaper rates, and less traffic make OBX a spring break hidden gem. And there’s so much to see and do, your vacation will be filled with adventure, history, and sun-filled days on beautiful beaches.

OBX was first settled in the early 1500s — this was England’s earliest attempt at a colony in the New World, and it didn’t end well for the Colony of Roanoke. John White was the governor of the settlement. His daughter and son-in-law were the parents of the first child born in the New World to English parents: Virginia Dare, who was born in 1587. Shortly after her birth, White left to get fresh supplies from England. Due to war with Spain and other factors, he was unable to return to his colony for three years. When he did, the colony had vanished. Although there have been several theories since the disappearance of the 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children, what happened to them remains a mystery.

While visiting the Outer Banks, be sure to catch a showing of The Lost Colony, a play written by Pulitzer-Prize winner Paul Green and the longest-running outdoor performance, first presented in 1937. This fascinating play with its adventure, beautiful costumes, music, and comedy runs from late May to late August. If you aren’t there during the play’s showing, be sure to visit the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City and learn more about the first colonists and the area’s Native Americans.

Also, don’t miss Roanoke Island Festival Park, located near Manteo. This 25-acre island park includes the Elizabeth II, a representation of one of the seven English ships that made the voyage to Roanoke in 1585. The settlement site includes the Roanoke Adventure Museum and a town site that features activities such as building a dug-out canoe as well as an art gallery, fossil pit, museum store, and more.

Fort Raleigh National Park and the nearby Elizabethan Gardens – dedicated to the lost colonists – should also top your Outer Banks to-do list. Fort Raleigh preserves and protects the history of the New World settlements that existed here from 1584 to 1590. The park is home to an Earthen Fort, the Thomas Hariot Nature Trail, and the Freedom Trail, which connects the Fort with Elizabethan Gardens. Archaeological excavations are unearthing artifacts that may eventually help solve the mystery of the lost colony.

The rough seas and treacherous conditions of Coastal Carolina led to some horrific shipwrecks, giving the area the nickname, “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Since 1526, over a thousand ships were lost, giving this area the distinction of one of the highest densities of shipwrecks in the world. Famous vessels include the USS Monitor, which participated in a famous Civil War battle. It sank in 1862 near Cape Hatteras. Learn more about the ships and the maritime mysteries (including the Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals, one of the most puzzling mysteries in history) at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras.

Beginning in 1900, Orville and Wilbur Wright traveled from their home in Dayton, Ohio to the Outer Banks to experiment with flight. In 1903, they added an engine to their flying machine and the rest, of course, is aviation history. The Wright Brothers National Memorial celebrates the Wright Brothers and the role the area played in that historic first flight. It is located in Kill Devil Hills and includes a Visitor Center with full-scale reproductions of the 1902 glider and the 1903 flying machine, as well as several other displays and exhibits. Visitors can climb Big Kill Devil Hill and enjoy the amazing views of the sound and ocean, and stand where the Wright brothers first took flight.

Hatteras Island is home to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where you’ll find the best surfing and fishing on the East Coast. It is also where you’ll find those famous black and white stripes that twist around the iconic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse in the United States and one of the tallest in the world. It was first built in 1803, and the current tower was built in 1870. Take a break from swimming, surfing, fishing, crabbing, shell collecting, and sunbathing to climb the lighthouse – it’s a challenge, but the view from the top is well worth it.

After your adventures on Hatteras Island, travel to Ocracoke, home of Edward Teach. The name may seem tame, but he wasn’t known by that name – he was the famous pirate Blackbeard, and this was not only his home base, but it is where he was eventually killed. Born sometime around 1680, this English pirate settled in Bath Town after running his ship aground on a sandbar near Beaufort. He died during a fierce battle at Ocracoke in 1718 after the Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, ordered a group of soldiers and sailors to capture the pirate. Be sure to visit Bath, which has changed little since Colonial times. It is a popular destination for fishing, boating, wakeboarding, and skiing, but be sure to visit Bath State Historic Site to learn more about the area’s fascinating history.

The Outer Banks are home to Banker horses – feral horses that live on the islands. They are believed to be descendants of Spanish horses brought over during the 16th century and possibly survived shipwrecks to become feral. The horses have a unique historical significance, and they survive by grazing on marsh grasses. The horses are monitored by the National Park Service and the state of North Carolina, which watch for diseases and prevent overpopulation through adoption. The hoses are small, sturdy, and docile, making the adopted horses ideal for pleasure riding.

There’s no place quite like OBX, and once you visit you may not want to leave. From historic “firsts” to legends to amazing beauty and unique wildlife, there’s so much to see and do along the Carolina Coast that you may make it a spring break tradition. Pirates, shipwrecks, lost civilizations, amazing legends, history, breathtaking beaches, outdoor adventures – wild horses won’t be able to keep you away. (In fact, they may inspire you!)

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