The Outer Banks! There's a first time for everything!

When you decide to travel, one thing you always hope for is good weather.  When visiting Scotland years ago we were caught in what was probably typical Scottish weather, but to us seemed like we had missed the notice to build our own ark.  That was kind of how we felt on the first leg of our trip in 2020.  After spending two days on the road visiting Revolutionary War sites, and trying to stay ahead of the rain, a tropical storm that had come up through South Carolina finally caught us at Alamance Battleground.  Thoroughly soaked, but ready to wander on to our next adventure, we set out for a next destination, and one that's not short on American history itself, the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  This thin strip of land is home to some of the greatest moments in the history not just of the United States, but of western civilization.  There's the first English settlement in North America, the first English person ever born in the Americas, and arguably one of the greatest moments in the history of civilization, the first manned flight. 
The Outer Banks are a thin strip of islands that act as barriers to the northern coast of North Carolina.  A little more than a hundred miles long, the Outer Banks are obviously different as you drive through them.  You have the northern towns of Corolla, Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Nags Head, and the southern towns of Rodanthe, Hatteras, and Ocracoke.  The northern end seemed much more developed as the only two driving access points onto the islands are located at Kitty Hawk and Nags Head.  You can either drive into Kitty Hawk on U.S. 158 coming in from Elizabeth City, North Carolina on the mainland, or you can drive in on U.S. 64 into Nags Head coming in from no real town of significant size for more than a hundred miles.  We drove in on U.S. 158, and out on U.S. 64, and either of them is a fun trip.  There were a lot more options for restaurants, hotels, and entertainment, especially between Kitty Hawk and Nags Head.  Driving down N.C. 12, the state highway that connects most of the islands, you will see much of the islands are protected lands.  The far southern end of the islands, Ocracoke Island, is a unique place that's only accessible by car ferry which is first come first serve out of Hatteras.  The free ferry takes about an hour to make the voyage to Ocracoke, and runs throughout most of the day up until midnight.  There's another ferry that comes in from the mainland to Ocracoke, out of Cedar Island, North Carolina, but that voyage is about two and a half hours long each way, and costs to take. 

Getting into Kitty Hawk, where we based our stay, we headed north to check out the towns of Corolla and Duck.  We visited the far northern end of the Outer Banks, which is home to the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge.  This park is free to visit, and has several miles of trails to hike around.  It's a great way to spend the day, but get there early because the park only has parking for about ten cars, and the town of Corolla was waiting to ticket anyone who tried to park on the main highway in front of the park.  If you want to, and you don't mind doing some work on your vehicle, you're allowed to drive on the beaches of the refuge.  You have to let most of the air out of your tires to drive on the sand, and there are stations to refill your tires when you're back on the roads.  After spending the morning in Corolla, and eating some of the best barbecue I've ever had at Sooey's BBQ (this is a completely unsolicited ad for them, it was amazing) in Corolla, we drove back down to explore one of the greatest moments in American ingenuity, the Wright Brothers National Memorial located in Kill Devil Hills.  The famous story is that the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, made their first flight in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, and that's kind of true.  The town of Kill Devil Hills didn't exist when the brothers made their voyage, so the town of Kitty Hawk, about four miles away, got the fame.  At the park, which is free, you'll find a visitor center that describes their accomplishment, and you can actually see the grounds they took off from.  What's now grasslands, in 1903, was a flat sandy plain backed up against the massive dune known as Big Kill Devil Hill.  On December 17th, 1903, the two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who had been coming to the Outer Banks for several years to work on their gliders, along with some help from several local men, achieved the first controlled fight in the history of humanity.  The markers at the park show you just how persistent these men must have been to keep after this project for several years.  The first flight, which only covered about 120 feet, lasted less than 12 seconds.  In quick order though the brothers, who were alternating between being the pilot, made flights of 175 and 200 feet.  It was the final flight of the day, piloted by Wilbur, that changed the world.  His flight of 852 feet, and lasting for 59 seconds, proved man could not only fly, but could control the process.  After you see the markers of the flights, turn around and walk back to Big Kill Devil Hill and visit the beautiful monument erected on its peak to honor the brothers in 1932.  The message that circles the monument is brilliant because you can start at any corner and the message still works.  "In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright conceived by Genius, achieved by Dauntless Resolution and Unconquerable Faith."  From there walk down to the scale model of the brother's plane and imagine yourself lying flat on that machine, and having the courage to take off.

The next day we drove down to the southern end of the islands, through several nationally protected seashores, and arrived in Hatteras.  There really aren't a lot of things to do down there, which is fine.  You just have to be willing to spend a few quieter days if that's where you choose to stay.  From Hatteras we took the ferry to Ocracoke.  To say that Ocracoke Island is unique is an understatement.  They have their own little community down there.  I don't want to make it seem like you're stepping back in time or anything, but it's definitely a small, tight-knit, community of what seemed like artisans, fisherman, and Coast Guardsmen.  When we visited, the island was still in disarray from a hurricane that had pummeled it the year before.  Add to that the economic stress of losing almost an entire season of tourists, and the place was hurting.  When we were there only one restaurant in the entire town was seating diners.  There were some shops open, but the real uniqueness of the island may have been just walking around the town roads, which can be done in a few hours.  On one back road, we found an old cemetery from the 19th Century.  For you Atlanta locals, we found one interesting person buried in there.  Agnes Scott, the namesake of a small women's college in Decatur, Georgia, is buried off the coast of North Carolina.  There's also a small British cemetery which is home to several graves of British soldiers who died during World War II protecting American merchant vessels.  Getting from the town of Ocracoke to the dock to return to Hatteras, there's a 13 mile drive along a highway that's almost completely untouched.  One unique site is the horse farm that the state operates to house the feral horses that have roamed on the island for centuries.

Our third day on the islands, we decided to take in another first in history.  Located on what's known as Roanoke Island is Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, this site was the location chosen by the English settlers in 1585 as the first English settlement in the New World.  The island, which lies in between the Outer Banks and the mainland, they believed would be protected from the storms, and would give them a good place to create a harbor for other ships.  The colony, known as the Roanoke Colony, was established by the famed English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh.  The colony was not a success, and infamously when supply ships returned to the colony in 1590, they found all of the English settlers were gone, and a mysterious message of CROATOAN was carved into the wall of the fort there.  The newly arrived English ship assumed the people had moved on to another island named Croatoan, but were never able to find them.  What happened to those early settlers is a mystery that's baffled people for more than four hundred years.  While the colony was not successful, it did have another unique first.  In 1587, Virginia Dare was born in the colony.  Virginia Dare is believed to be the first white person, or at least the first English person, born in the New World.  Virginia, sadly, likely suffered whatever fate took her parents too, but the legacy of this birth has lived on for centuries.  While you're at Fort Raleigh, take the short hike through the dense forest and try to imagine what life would have been like arriving to this new land more than four hundred years ago, and finding this wild land waiting for you.  After visiting Fort Raleigh, walk to the other side of the shared parking lot and visit the Elizabethan Gardens.  These gardens, modeled after the Renaissance era gardens of Elizabethan England, are stunning.  It's a private garden, so there's a small cost to get in, but it's beyond worth it.  The gardens feel like you're going back in time four hundred years, and are walking through the grounds of Windsor Castle.  There are flowers and trees from around the world, and benches for just sitting and taking in the beauty.  Calling it one garden is a misnomer as there are different smaller gardens all throughout that each have their own theme.  We spent hours in there, and would have stayed longer if we didn't need to get on the road. 

Visiting the Outer Banks was long overdue.  I'm sorry that it took a global pandemic to get it to happen, but now that I've been I can say I wish I had never waited that long.  There's history, natural beauty, and nice people waiting to greet you there.  Hopefully, especially for the southern end of the islands, they're able to rebuild from the hurricane damage in the past.  If you're looking for somewhere to take the family on a beach vacation, but also want to mix in some history, there are few places that combine these elements and do it in such an uncrowded setting. 

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