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A thin land ribbon stretched along the Eastern seashore, North Carolina’s Outer Banks is endless golden beaches awash in rolling ocean waves. Set at the confluence of the warm Gulf Stream and the cool Labrador Current, the area is a surfer’s paradise and a beach bum’s dream. Yet, despite its leisurely resort pace, the Outer Banks has more to offer than sand and sun. Steeped in history, the area was home to the first English colony that settled on the American continent years before Jamestown. Famous for its wind, it was the place where the Wright Brothers soared into the sky, making humans airborne for the first time in history. There’s plenty here for thrill-seekers too—from wildlife watching to hang-gliding. With reasonable hotel rates, seafood caught only hours ago, and plenty of affordable adventures, it is an undiscovered gem hiding from the crowds. Here are ten things to do on North Carolina’s Outer Banks that won’t break the bank, but will create memories for life.
Fly in the Wright Brothers’ wake
Walk the same sand dunes as the famous duo did as they prepared to glide through the air, and change the world forever. To learn how they did it, visit the Wright Brothers’ memorial and museum, where you can read their papers and see their sketches, as well as marvel at the replica of their winged apparatus. Better yet, dare to try their feat yourself at the nearby Kitty Hawk Hang Gliding school where professional flying instructors will clip you to a smaller kite-like version that lets you jump off sand dunes and feel the same thrill as Orville and Wilbur Wright did. You won’t fly far on the first few attempts, but with subsequent lessons you can learn to operate the bigger, more complex replica of the Wright Brothers’ glider—and fly higher and farther.
Video by Lina Zeldovich
Discover a lost colony
Led by explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, the founding of the first English colony on Roanoke Island (today’s North Carolina) in 1585 led to about 100 pioneers arriving two years later. They built homes, grew food and settled the New World. The colony also had the first European child born on the American continent, Virginia Dare. But despite their adventurous spirit, the colony did not fare well and after many difficult months sent their governor John White back to England for supplies. The colony’s inexplicable disappearance still baffles historians, but you can learn all that’s known at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, and watch a film that attempts to reconstruct the mysterious past.
Snap selfies at the Elizabethan Gardens
Right next to Fort Raleigh, you’ll find the beautiful Elizabethan Gardens, created by historians and philanthropists to commemorate the vanished colony. Laid out in 16th-century style, the gardens are meant to symbolize what the settlers would have done had they not perished. Besides flowers, trees and neatly manicured grounds, the gardens feature a marble statue of Virginia Dare, which is a story in itself. (Carved in Rome, it was shipped to America, but the boat sank and the statue had to be recovered from the bottom of the sea.) The gardens are so steeped in history that some visitors dress up in vintage costumes to take pictures against the backdrop of blooming trees—and you may, too.
Take the crab legs and oyster challenge
The seafood options at the Outer Banks are plentiful. From raw to steamed to deep fried, there are dinner choices here for the pickiest of eaters. For piquant and spicy treats, feast on a few dozen raw or steamed oysters at Awful Arthur’s Oyster Bar, named “one of the top 10 oyster bars in the nation” by Coastal Living magazine. If that still leaves you hungry, stuff yourself at Captain George’s Seafood all you can eat buffet, famous for its crab legs bonanza, along with baked fish, fried shrimp and other delicacies. For more upscale fare, opt for the Blue Water Grill & Raw Bar at Pirate’s Cove Marina.
Cheer with the wind-brewed beer
No, it’s not a joke. Wind can brew beer if harnessed properly. That’s what the Outer Banks Brewing Station does—it uses wind energy to partially power their pub and brewery. The two owners installed a wind turbine to cut down on electricity costs and greenhouse gas emissions—plus the spinning white blades serve as a landmark seen from faraway. Enjoy dark lagers, fruity IPAs and a lemongrass-wheat ale, among other concoctions. If the Wright Brothers were still around, they’d surely swing by for a pint—and so should you.
Drive on a new bridge that already made history
Buzz along the new, just-opened $252 million-dollar Marc Basnight bridge that connects Hatteras Island to its neighboring landforms, replacing the aged, unstable Herbert Bonner Bridge. Besides the spectacular vistas along the 2.8-mile drive above the Oregon Inlet, the Basnight bridge also has a unique backstory. The bridge owes its existence to a group of local mothers who refused to drive their children over its deteriorating predecessor and formed a grassroots movement to push for a replacement. Dubbed “Bridge Moms,” the group worked tirelessly until the disputes over the construction were settled and the new bridge finally went up.
Spot the loggerheads at the Pea Island Refuge
Located on the north end of Hatteras Island, the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a small piece of land with diverse inhabitants. Just the bird list alone here boasts over 365 species, not to mention 25 species of mammals and nearly as many reptiles. That list includes the endangered loggerhead sea turtles that come to the island to nest. From May to September, the females clamor ashore to dig sand pits and lay about 100 eggs, which hatch two months later. Only one in 1000 hatchlings survive into adulthood, so biologists monitor the nests to keep away predators and boost the turtle numbers. If you visit, be ready for a wind-swept hike, watch out for poison ivy, make sure to stay on trails to avoid spooking the wildlife, and bring water, sunscreen and bug repellent.
Savor the sunbaked sea salt
Ever wondered where your sea salt comes from? You can literally watch it cooking at Hatteras Saltworks, an artisanal sea salt factory on one of the barrier islands. Here a local couple uses natural evaporation techniques to harvest purified salt from seawater. When placed in solar ovens—black glass-covered containers that heat up to 185 degrees Fahrenheit—the water evaporates, leaving behind white crystals of very pure, mineral-rich salt. The ovens are built with recycled wood that washes up on the island after big storms and the unceasing wind speeds up the evaporation. With some extra finessing, the salt flakes acquire diverse flavors—rosemary, smoked pecan and lavender, all of which can be tasted and added to your spice arsenal at home.
Dive into the Graveyard of the Atlantic
Ever wondered what’s lies hidden on the bottom of the sea? You don’t have to be a diving pro to find out. At the Hatteras museum named the Graveyard of Atlantic you can marvel at the bottom of the sea without getting your toes wet. Preserving shipwrecks from the 1700s to World War II to modern times, the museum features numerous artifacts recovered from sunken ships, wartime paraphernalia and vintage diving gear. Makes sure to peruse the history of German submarines or U-boats that operated off the coast of North Carolina. Some of the rare exhibits include the encoding and transcription machines from the wreck of the U-85, first submarine sank by the US Navy in World War II—only a few miles offshore from here.
Settle at Shutters on the Banks
Let the waves lull you to sleep at this charming boutique hotel with ocean views, maritime décor and artsy table lamps adorned with turtles and starfish, which you’ll want to take home—and you can! Overlooking the beach, Shutters on the Banks is four minutes away from the Wright Brothers memorial, right next to the Kitty Hawk’s gliding spot, a short drive from historical sites and smack in the middle of the area’s gastronomic temptations. Step outside and you’ll see the Outer Banks Brewing Station’s wind turbine spinning against the blue sky. With a hearty breakfast and an indoor pool and spa, you’ll be rested, pampered and close to everything the Outer Banks have to offer.
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