Outer Banks for history buffs calls for a road trip. A land of violent storms, shipwrecks, daring rescues and pirates, the Outer Banks has accumulated a wealth of history that can easily be overlooked during long days relaxing on the beach. However, for visitors looking for history, this is a terrific destination with much to offer. We suggest a road trip, from north to south, but the order can easily be reversed.
Start in Corolla at the northern end of the Outer Banks, with a visit to the elegant and historic Whalehead Club, full of art deco decor, and a climb up the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. Traveling south, have lunch at the Life-Saving Station Restaurant at the Sanderling Resort just north of Duck. One of 18 stations along the North Carolina coast, it once housed a crew of life-savers, who tirelessly patrolled the beaches to rescue the passengers of ships foundering in the graveyard of the Atlantic. Eventually the Life-Saving Service gave birth to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Moving south, visit the Wright Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, where the national park maintains a museum devoted to the history of manned flight. Architecture buffs will want to drive down the Beach Road in Nags Head to see the famous “Unpainted Aristocracy” of Cottage Row. The Bodie Island Lighthouse, now open for climbing, is located close to the famous Oregon Inlet Fishing Center.
Manteo, just across the causeway, has many historic highlights including Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, dedicated to the story of the first British attempt to colonize the Americas, a story told in the summer drama “The Lost Colony.” Roanoke Island Festival Park, adjacent to downtown Manteo, is home to the Elizabeth II replica ship, a museum of Roanoke history, typical settlers’ and Native American villages, plus an art gallery and the Outer Banks History Center.
On Hatteras Island, visit the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station in Rodanthe, the best preserved Life-Saving Station on the East Coast, with the original 1874 station, an ornate example of Carpenter Gothic style, still intact. Nearby, climb the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse for a bird’s eye view of dangerous Diamond Shoals where so many ships came to grief. In Hatteras Village, visits to the historic U.S. Weather Station, now a visitors center, and the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, tell the tale of the many shipwrecks and storms that have marked this coast.
Take the free ferry from Hatteras Village to Ocracoke Island. The Ocracoke Preservation Association Museum examines the culture and history of this unique community, far off the beaten path. Be sure to stroll through the village, where many streets are still paved with shell, and visit the Ocracoke Lighthouse, oldest on the Banks. The British Cemetery houses the remains of four British sailors who perished in a 1942 submarine attack, when this region was known as Torpedo Alley. Make time to take the excursion boat to Portsmouth Village, once the largest town in the region, now a ghost town preserved by the National Park Service.
If pirates are your passion, Ocracoke is a good spot to begin your pursuit of Blackbeard. The famous buccaneer met his end at Teach’s Hole, just off shore. Captain Temple, of the schooner Windfell will take you there, while entertaining you with tales of pirate lore. The Teach’s Hole Blackbeard Exhibit offers information on the pirate captain, and you can walk down to Springer’s Point where Blackbeard used to party.
Beaufort, another ferry trip away, is also deep in Blackbeard lore. Artifacts recovered from the presumed wreck of his ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, found just off-shore, are on display in the N.C. Maritime Museum, along with much else. Ghost tours visit the pirate’s former home, said to be haunted by the one of his unfortunate “wives.”
The Beaufort Historic Site is another must-see on the Crystal Coast. The complex includes historic houses and an art gallery, as well as an old courthouse, apothecary shop and a reputedly haunted jail. Bus tours of the town’s charming historic district are offered as are walking tours of the atmospheric Old Burying Ground, established nearly 300 years ago.
Fort Macon State Park preserves a Civil War era masonry fort that played an important part in the Civil War history of the region and today hosts reenactments. Get information here about the many other sites along the Civil War trails that run through North Carolina. One notable destination is a working replica of the Confederate ironclad, CSS Albemarle, located in Plymouth, NC, about an hour from Manteo on US 64.
Cape Lookout National Seashore is home to wild horses descended from Spanish shipwreck survivors as well as the magnificent diamond-patterned Cape Lookout Lighthouse, recently opened for visitors to climb, and the southernmost lighthouse on our tour of historic sites. The lighthouse and adjacent Keeper’s Quarters Museum are accessible by boat from the Beaufort waterfront.