Outer Banks, North Carolina
I have been making noises about posting on my Outer Banks experiences for a while. Hopefully, this will not be a let-down. It is less of a travelougue and more of meandering thoughts. The introduction, however, sounds suspiciously like a guide book. Oh Well….we love the OBX and would gladly offer free travel services for people visiting there.
Geographically, the Outer Banks (popularly abbreviated as OBX) is a set of thin strips of barrier islands on the coast of North Carolina (on the US eastern seaboard, somewhat halfway between Florida on the south and Maine in the north). The easternmost barrier islands include Bodie, Hatteras and Ockracoke Islands, while the Roanoke Island sits between them and the mainland. The northern part of the Banks is actually a thin peninsula jutting out from Virginia Beach. These islands are washed by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and enclose the Pamlico Sound lagoon and the Alligator River on the west. Some places in the areas are less than a mile in width – while driving down the single stretch of highway in the islands, you can often see both bodies of water. The geographical map cannot in any way capture the beauty of the natural and man-made landmarks or the abundant wildlife present in the area. High sandy dunes, scenic beaches, estuaries, sea inlets, inland rivers, maritime forests – the Outer Banks has it all.
The strong winds in the area and the sandy dunes were factors which contributed to the Wright brothers choosing Kitty Hawk, on the northern fringes as their ideal location for testing the first powered flight in 1903. Off the coast, the warm Gulf Stream clashes with the cold Labrador current to create treacherous maritime conditions that has been the bane of sailors for long. For a very good reason, the area is dubbed ‘the graveyard of the Atlantic‘ with numerous shipwrecks dotting the beaches. However, the currents also contribute to the riches of aquatic life near the coast – making it one of the better places for fishing. Part of the delight of visiting OBX is to partake of fresh catches in one of the many restaurants, or even better, catch you own and grill or smoke it. The relative importance of the area in shipping routes combined with dangerous conditions led to the construction of four lighthouses that serve both functional and (in the present day) aesthetic purposes.
What makes the Outer Banks an attractive place to visit is that it is one of the few places combining natural scenic beauty with wildlife, historical attractions, good food and an abundance of adventure sports (kayaking, windsurfing etc). Additionally, since a major part of the area is designated as a National Seahsore, most of the beaches have been left wild and thankfully not given to commercialization (unlike Myrtle Beach). This helps in preserving the pristine and rugged beauty.
On a personal level, the Outer Banks holds a special place – we had spend four quality fun-filled days out there about five years ago on a very special occassion. So this was the second visit for me. For the better half, it was the third. With the current physical proximity (about a 4 hours drive), I am sure this won’t be our last. As one park ranger at the Hatteras lighthouse mentioned, once you get the Hatteras sand between your feet, it stays there forever – so you have to be back !
The best part of the trip this time was the spectacular sunrise we witnessed on Saturday morning – with the sun climbing out dramatically through the horizon. In my experience, sunrise at sea beaches have been mostly obscured by clouds hanging around the horizon. Not this time – it was quite perfect. Additionally, the beach was suprisingly empty of people at that time in the morning. So it was an intensely personal experience as well.
Even more spectacular than the sunrise, was the moonrise we witnessed later in the evening. Luckily, our visit coincided with a full moon night (we later realised it was just after Buddha Purnima). Two of us were lazily ambling around the beach having consumed a great grilled dinner, washed down with several bottles of Red Stripe beer. The sun had gone down a long while ago and even the twilight had faded. We were beginning to wonder if the moon was going to show up (since we had seen a full moon the night before) when all of a sudden in the southeastern horizon, we noticed this big dullish-red ball. It took a moment to realise it was the moon I was staring at. I had never experienced the moon in this hue – perhaps a reflection of my mostly urban upbringing – but it was just as if the sun had come up, albeit much closer and with much reduced intensity (try to imagine that if you can). Words like breathtaking, phenomenal, awesome are all too shallow and inadequete to describe the magnificence of the scene. Even a cut-and-dried person like myself was almost moved to poetry. Thankfully, the readers of this blog will be spared of unreasonable rhymes as I recovered just in time to start shooting some pictures. Unfortunately, the technical capacity of my camera was not up to shooting in very low lights. But I did manage to click a long exposure shot while some guys were setting off fireworks. The fireworks illuminated the beach allowing a better shot as can be seen here. Later on, we sat on the beach while the moon climbed higher in the sky and bathed the ocean in a simmering white glow and I became very philosophical.
(for a bigger image, click here)
Coming back to a slightly more travelogue-ish narrative. As mentioned earlier, four major lighthouses stand out as landmarks of sorts in the Outer Banks. And no trip to the area is complete without visiting them. The northernmost one is the Currituck Lighthouse in the Corolla area. This is actually one area in the region that is quite well developed with a few million dollar houses and luxurious resorts thrown around. You can climb to the top for some great views. For the best views however, you have to climb atop the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, the signature lighthouse in North Carolina and also called the ‘America’s Lighthouse’ (it is the tallest in America). Again, we had luck on our side as the Saturday weather turned out to be nicely bright and sunny, allowing us to see from the top almost 12 miles out into the ocean. The most impressive sight from up there is the Diamond Shoals just off the coast – the colour of the ocean changes just a bit in this dangerous part
There is a lot of history associated with this lighthouse including a significant incident that occured recently. Given all the oceanic currents, high winds and norwesters in the region, there is much shifting of sands and beach erosion. Due to the erosion, the sea got dangerously close to the original location of the Hatteras lighthouse, threatening to bring it down. So in 1999, they decided to actually shift the entire structure – the whole 225 feet of it about a mile inland. This was quite an engineering marvel – the whole moving process (I can imagine – given the troubles I had in moving my meagre belongings from one apartment to another!). In addition to the lighthouse, they also moved the lighthouse-keeper’s cottage to the new location (which must have been whole lot easier). This has been presently turned into a National Parks Services office but will open shortly as a museum recreating the keeper’s life.
Visiting the lighthouse and climbing to the top, you will be stuck by how lonely and tough the job would have been for this lighthouse keeper person. Especially in the era before wireless communications; heck the lighthouse existed from even before wired communincations ! Also, while it presently uses electricity, in the old days, the light was from burning whale oil. The keeper was responsible for keeping the flame alive and had to regularly carry several gallons of the oil in brass containers (no plastic then) up 257 stairs ! Not only that, he also had to regularly clean and clear all the soot from the huge lighthouse windows and the Fresnel lens, which happened to be quite sharp. Some life !
*A note about the climbing to the top of the lighthouse. It is quite doable but a bit of huffing and puffing may ensure depending on your ftiness level. They claim it is equivalent to climbing about twelve stories of building. You are well advised to tackle this earlier in the morning rather than right after lunch. The relatively lower humidity in the morning helps as well.*
The other two lighthouses are the Ockracoke and the Bodie Island. Ockracoke Island can be accessed by a free ferry from the southern tip of the Hatteras Island. It is a forty minute journey where you climb abroad the ferry on your car. The trip is well worth it. Sea-gulls keep hovering around the boat, especially if you decide to throw bread crumbs or other eatables at them. This time around, we even saw a dolphin swimming with the ferry for a while ! The beaches at Ockracoke are beautiful too.
On the southern edge of Bodie Island, you can find the Pea Island Wildlfie Refuge, a perfect place for wildlife lovers. There are more than 200 species of birds and other assorted mammals, repltiles and amphibians. Its the perfect place for ornithologists.
The colonization history of the Outer Banks area is quite interesting. The first British colony in the Americas was set up in the Roanoke Island. A group of the settlers left for the homeland for additional supplies. However the return ship was blocked by the Spanish Armada. They were eventually able to return, three years later – only to find the colony deserted, with only "the words "CROATOAN" and "CRO" etched on some timbers", thus giving rise to the legend of the ‘Lost Colony‘. (This also provides a nice excuse to set-up some overhyped tourist attractions on the Roanoke Island).
The area was apparently also a happy hunting ground for the famous pirat e, Blackbeard !
The Ockracoke Island is home to Spanish mustangs that were washed ashore from shipwrecks in the 16th or 17th century. Unfortunately, they have been rounded up and kept in a fenced pasture.
As mentioned briefly earlier, Oliver and Wilbur Wright succesfully tested their powered flying machine at Kitty Hawk way back in 1903. They now have a nice memorial to that. Walking up to to the memorial, if not anything else, will give you a good excersice. The exact spots from where they took off and landed is also marked. In these days of inter-continental flying, those distances will seem pitifully small. It would have been a big deal in those days. The history of their effort is preserved in a meuseum at the memorial – there is a galery devoted tho their endeavour at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in DC as well.
While on our previous visit, we stayed at hotels, this time we decided to rough it up a bit by lodging at a campground. Camping usually invokes romantic images of tents in the widnerness, living close to nature and all that. But the KOA campground we stayed at is only a small step down from the comforts of most urban modern amenities. They had a swimming pool, children’s play area, game rooms, restaurants and even Wi-Fi access ! Still, sleeping in bunk beds in a log-cabin and grilling your food in the evening was semi-novel and a fun experience. Best part of the stay was that the beach was less than a minutes walk. And while not the worst part, I would say it was interesting to note the demographics of the remaining campers. Let me just say that I have never before been among so many NASCAR fans in my life (if you know what I mean).
Note: Flickr picture set from the trip here. The set will be updated soon.