The dramatic if somewhat grisly story of Blackbeard is but one display that transforms the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, North Carolina, into a memorable experience. That eclectic collection is among attractions which make the chain of Outer Banks islands just off the state’s Atlantic coastline much more than just another sun-and-sand vacation destination.
Of course, beaches along the 130-mile-long Outer Banks are the major appeal for many visitors. Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which covers much of the Banks, encompasses some of the largest undeveloped beaches in the country. Nestled between them is a string of villages, each with its own distinctive characteristics.
Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head form the commercial hub of the Outer Banks, complete with a strip-mall atmosphere – and two attractions worth a stop. It was at Kitty Hawk where, on December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first controlled power flights. People often are surprised to learn that the longest journey lasted only 59 seconds and covered just 852 feet. A museum houses a full-scale replica of their rickety aircraft and other memorabilia that tell the story.
Nearby Jockey’s Ridge State Park is the site of the tallest sand dune on the east coast. In this mini-desert setting, winds constantly reshape the ridge, causing the dune for which the park is named to vary in height from 80 to 100 feet.
Further south lies Roanoke Island, which in 1587 became the site of the first English colony in the New World. In Festival Park, the life of Native Americans who originally inhabited the area is recreated. Longhouses, a dance circle, and planting and harvesting areas set the mood. Interactive exhibits appeal to generations of family visitors.
To relive another chapter of the story, clamber aboard the Elizabeth II, a sailing ship representative of seven British vessels that arrived during the 16th century. Costumed interpreters describe the craft, and entertain landlubbers with dramatic tales of the perilous voyage, speaking in a thick brogue that echoes the dialect of that time.
The most famous attraction on Roanoke Island is the Lost Colony, a something-for-everyone drama that entertains with special effects, daring action, comedy, music and dance. It relates the true story of the disappearance – no one knows where or why – of the 116 men, women and children who settled in the New World in 1587.
At the southern tip of the Outer Banks is Hatteras Village. There, the aptly named Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum chronicles the tale of more than 2,000 ships that met their fate on the treacherous offshore shoals. Many were sailing vessels that went down during the 18th and 19th centuries. Parts of several shipwrecks are visible today along beaches or in shallow water at low tide.
Among other vivid exhibits at the museum are displays about the Civil War ironclad U.S.S. Monitor and lifesaving and rescue operations. Then there’s a section devoted to the notorious Blackbeard who, after his life of marauding, was killed in the area.
Lighthouse buffs will think they’ve gone to heaven, with three towers along this stretch of the Outer Banks which were first lit in the 1870s. The Cape Hatteras light, the tallest brick beacon in the country, and the Currituck Beach lighthouse are open for climbing from spring to fall.
If mounting the 257 steps of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse isn’t your idea of enjoyable exercise, there’s a list of other pursuits that may be to your liking. They range from hiking to hang gliding, kayaking to kite boarding, sailing to surf boarding, along with fishing and crabbing. Oh yes, and my favorite beach pastime: relaxing on some of the finest sand anywhere with a good book.
For information about visiting the Outer Banks, call 877-629-4386 or log onto outerbanks.org.
Victor Block is an award-winning travel journalist who has traveled around the U.S. and to more than 70 other countries.