A serene stroll along the boardwalk rivals anyone’s definition of luxury...
Prior to departing on my journey to the Outer Banks of North Carolina with my wife and daughter, I downloaded a GPS app on my phone so that we wouldn’t get lost as we explored the vast coastlines and rustic nature preserves amidst a hot and humid July vacation. However pragmatic it was to be led by the virtual hand through the unfamiliar streets, dictated by a strident, female voice on my GPS, there is something to be said for the luxury of adventure, the retrospective joy of getting lost.
There are limited attractions along the linear highway from the Raleigh/Durham Airport to the bridge that crosses the Alligator River en route to Roanoke Island and the nearby Outer Banks. Yet, once there, the all-encompassing blue sky with its commonly seen cumulous clouds juxtaposes the consumer playground of commercial edifices in dazzling crayon-box colors. As one rides along the Croatan Highway, a north/south running roadway upon which it is difficult to get lost, it becomes easy to see a nautical metaphor run along the streets like a skiff dragging a fishing net behind it. One establishment that perfectly promotes that metaphor is Mutiny Bay Miniature Golf where a hole in one is celebrated in a game of golf rather than dreaded for the act of mutiny.
As a writer, I particularly enjoyed the names of the towns on the Outer Banks. Atop the Outer Banks sits the village of Corolla, where the road ends for cars other than 4x4s, and where it is possible to see wild mustangs kicking up sand on the secluded beaches (secluded save for the convoys of 4x4s hoping to catch a glimpse of these majestic equine creatures ). I suggest a little help courtesy of Corolla Wild Horse Tours. The next town south is the simple and aptly named Duck. This coastal community prides itself on its clean waters and attractive shops, wetlands and dune space, where a serene stroll along the boardwalk rivals anyone’s definition of luxury. Though I am an avid bird watcher, I didn’t actually spot any ducks as I passed through this quaint town.
The town of Kitty Hawk (which is not an actual species of hawk), holds claim for being the birthplace of American aviation. Replicas of the original 1902 and 1903 airplanes offer an interactive experience and photo op, perfect for the scrapbook or for Instagram. The Wright Brothers National Memorial is historic luxury, a place to put things in perspective. Though we now have the means to navigate distant planets in outer space, the Wright Brothers’ 120 foot flight across the sands of the Outer Banks looms as large, in some respects, as all the dark space within the cosmos.
My wife, daughter and I stayed in Kill Devil Hills, the real site of the Wright Brothers’ historic flight (shh, don’t tell the residents of Kitty Hawk), as the town did not officially exist until 1953. With a name that sounds more deadly than its sister cities, Kill Devil Hills beautifully extends the pirate metaphor with its themed restaurants, souvenir shops, family fun parks, and comfortable lodging for land lovers and mariners alike. We chose Best Western Ocean Reef Suites which is a convenient 50 yard sandy walk to the beautiful beaches where brown pelicans glide across the sky scoping the shallow waters for their bounty. The room was comfortable without being ostentatious, spacious without being wasteful, and atmospheric without being cliché. An outdoor pool and hot tub enjoyed as the afternoon sun faded into dusk rounded out a stay that epitomized affordable luxury.
Nature reigns supreme in the Outer Banks. South of Kill Devil Hills is the town of Nags Head, where we chartered a boat at Kitty Hawk Kites - they also offer kite rentals, and they really are in Nags Head. After a patient ride into the Roanoke Sound, we finally came upon a pod of dolphins feeding, playing, and just being dolphins in their natural environment. Heading west along highway 64, through the town of Manteo, we came to Mann’s Harbor, the site of Alligator River Natural Wildlife Refuge. Here, a series of boardwalks cross the swampy home of a myriad of creatures: dragonflies, snakes, lizards, toads, and alligators. A wide range of waterfowl and raptors, small mammals, and even black bear can be found following their instinctive pathways, lacking GPS, but never truly lost. These are only a couple of the impressive nature preserves within reach of the towns along the Outer Banks.
We drove more south to visit the lighthouse at Cape Hattaras. On a map, Hattaras sits upon a thin ribbon of land which, from above, appears like the index finger of a skeleton (extending the whole pirate metaphor), but while driving along the dunes and shrubbery seems more like an endless landscape painting. As the lighthouse comes into view, one can imagine how sailors might find solace in its hopeful beacon. The spiral climb of 248 steps pays off when standing at the observation deck, seeing the scope of the landscape, and feeling one among the clouds and turkey vultures who own that height.
The last night of our journey, we enjoyed a delectable steak and fish dinner at Owen’s Restaurant, a family owned establishment for the past 71 years, which celebrates the maritime history with a vestibule filled with artifacts and a menu filled with diversity and flare. All the fish is caught locally, and served with attention to detail. Steamed clams and lump crabmeat are wise choices for appetizers, while the Hattaras Combination more than satisfies the diner who feels entitled to it all.
The next morning, before heading back to Raleigh/Durham Airport, we paid a visit to the Beef Jerky Outlet in Nags Head. My daughter and I selected the most unusual jerky to try: kangaroo, elk, ostrich, alligator and wild boar. Not surprisingly, there was no sign of dolphin or wild mustang. The Outer Banks might be all about adventure and experience, but, after all, we’re not heartless pirates.
There was so much we did not have the time to see, but which I had researched. Two such sites are the Elizabethan Gardens, which was developed to bring attention to Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost colonists, and The Lost Colony, a long-running on stage performance which commemorates the original settlers from 1587 (20 years before Jamestown…shh, don’t tell the settlers of Jamestown).
Upon returning to New York City, seemingly lost among the clouds and turbulence, I was reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost.” I am certainly glad that we chose to wander to the Outer Banks, and upon our return (I’m sure we will one day), it will feel as if we are returning to a place of familiarity, a place that eschews the GPS.
For more information about planning your own adventure to the Outer Banks, visit The Outer Banks tourism board’s website where you’ll find videos, itineraries and more.