Destination: North Carolina’s Outer Banks

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The Outer Banks are about as “coastline” as possible

By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones

WE FEEL LIKE WE SHOULD BE BEGGING FORGIVENESS for the times we’ve roared down the I-95 from Ontario to Florida, poking a stick in the eye of North Carolina with only a stop at the state Welcome Center. This time is different. This time we’ve made a plan to eschew the interstates and track the coastline, beginning with the narrow sweep of sand known as the Outer Banks (OBX).

Landowners along this stretch of coast keep an open mind about property lines. The long barrier islands are constantly shifting as the pounding of ocean waves and winds – including the occasional hurricane – move the sandy soil to the southwest. There’s no arguing with the forces of nature. They rearrange coastlines, property markers and even make “ocean-view” homes into “beachfront” properties.

IT WAS THESE UNRELENTING WINDS as well as privacy along the coast that drew Orville and Wilbur Wright to fine tune and test their homemade flying machines.

On a blustery December day in 1903, the duo of bicycle-building brothers changed world history in mere seconds, elevating the hamlet of Kitty Hawk to the Birthplace of Aviation. They piloted four successful flights – the shortest one 12 seconds and the longest 59 seconds; grainy black and white photographs assuring their place in history.

National Park Ranger Josh Boles doesn’t tire of telling the story. “Everyone was studying birds, but the Wright Brothers were studying the right birds. They realized it was soaring birds… they knew they could figure out the propulsion.”

A soaking wet Wright brother tipped the scales at 150 pounds. They broke out the slide rule and calculated if they made the wing just four inches longer, the aircraft would be stable. By tying in the warping of the wings with the use of a rudder, they designed something no one ever had: a power-driven, manmade machine that would fly.

There’s something about standing at the very spot where history was made that cannot be duplicated: not by movies, not by words on the page, not even by grainy black and white photos. The Wright Brothers National Monument protects that history. The visitor centre is filled with reproductions of the Wrights’ planes and the wind tunnel they used to study lift. Outside, large stones mark the points of lift off and landings for four flights that ranged from 12 seconds to 59 seconds. The towering hill from which they launched most of their glider trials – Big Kill Devil Hill – commands the centre of the park. A stone memorial at the top watches over the Outer Banks.

THE PEOPLE OF THE OBX HAVE A HISTORY of fortitude and innovation, long preceding the dreams of flight. Roanoke Island – a small bit of land sandwiched between the barrier island and the mainland – claims to be the birthplace of English-speaking America. In the late 1400s, the voyages of Columbus opened the floodgates to an Age of Exploration. Every European power lusted after Spain’s wealth and sent their own expeditions to seed colonial outposts in the New World.

By June 1585 an English colony – America’s first – found its roots in the Outer Banks. It plays out at Roanoke Island Festival Park Historic Site – interpreters wearing 16th-century garb chatting about what it took to stay alive, how the inlets and coves off the Banks were an attractive hideout for pirates and privateers, the rise of commercial fishing, and the importance of dozens of lifesaving stations built along the perilous coastline.

AND WHEN SOME OF THOSE SHIPS RAN AGROUND (the area is infamous as the Graveyard of the Atlantic) some of the survivors included Spanish horses. At the very northern extreme of OBX, a swath of beach, dunes, maritime forest and wetlands is a protected home to a herd of 100 wild mustangs, all direct descendants of the Spanish Colonial horses shipwrecked five centuries ago.

Canopied 4WD trucks slowly snake through the dunes, searching for a sighting of the mustangs.

“Forget any ideas of a herd of horses galloping down the beach,” warns Brad, our twenty-something guide with Corolla Outdoor Adventures. “You’ll never see that.”

But what we do see is a close second. After winding through tall dunes anchored by sea oats and through thickets of wax myrtle and live oak shrubs stunted by the unforgiving salt air, we head toward the open beachfront and there they are: a harem of wild mustangs seeking a blast of the cooling ocean breeze.

They are magnificent. And oblivious to the attention of several 4WDs, lined up at a respectful distance, occupants quiet, cameras clicking. This piece of beachfront property is one they own.



  • Corolla’s historic Whalehead Club was the winter home of old money from the north. Perfectly restored, the interior “corduroy walls” of the Art Nouveau building are painted in the colours of the 1920s: green, teal, pink.
  • Jockey’s Ridge State Park is the highest natural sand dune on the eastern coast of the U.S. People come for the hang gliding school.
  • Using house-size tanks filled with skates, rays, sharks and fish, the excellent North Carolina Aquarium tells the watery side of the Outer Banks environment.

We launched our OBX love affair with seafood at Sam & Omie’s, a high-spirited institution that began as a breakfast spot for fishermen to jaw about their day’s catch. It’s known for fish right off the boat. Almost every table order includes the delicious Shrimp Burger – several dozen fried shrimp and housemade coleslaw piled atop a bun.

 Who’s writing

Our travel horizons keep expanding. For fall 2014, we’ve packed the camper van, taken along our easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and are exploring the Carolinas and Georgia. On the way down we’re looking for everything unique about life along the ocean coastline. And on our travels back north we’re taking the inland route, looking for food, culture and roots music. We’ve added a new website devoted to our travels: with info on RV travel, pooch-friendly travel, food and music destinations.