A Beach for Everyone
From some of the best surf to a fascinating history, the Outer Banks is unlike any other vacation experience
The Outer Banks protrude farther into the ocean than any other barrier island chain in the world—a dynamic and mutable testament to the beauty of nature.
They are more than barren strips of sand. On the western side, away from the ocean, there are bays and estuaries teeming with life; maritime forests like no other in the world; and towns and villages, each with its own character.
Because they are sandbars, there is a seemingly endless supply and variation of beaches available—and the sand, the surf and the sun is what brings almost everyone back to the Outer Banks.
There are no bad beaches here. Some have softer sand, some are a bit wider, and some have stores and services in closer proximity, but from Carova to Ocracoke they all provide the same ingredient—a refuge from the noise of daily life.
As a general rule, the beaches to the north (Corolla) and south (Hatteras Island and Ocracoke) have softer sand and are wider. The three main towns of the Outer Banks—Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head—are toward the northern end but are more centrally located and have more services closer to the beach.
The geography of OBX creates plenty of recreational opportunities, especially for surfers. “The Outer Banks has the potential for world-class surf,” Jesse Fernandez, board shaper and former pro surfer, says. “On its best days, it’s as good as anywhere in the world.”
It is the undersea geography that creates the waves. A series of shoals and underground ridges parallel the shoreline, and in the best areas funnel the force of the wave onshore. “The better surf is south of Pea Island (National Wildlife Refuge),” Fernandez says.
The area he is referring to begins at the south end of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge along a strip of the highway called the S Curves, through the villages of Rodanthe, Salvo and Waves.
Those three villages are also considered one of the best places in the world for kiteboarding. The Pamlico Sound in that area is wide and shallow—rarely more than 5 feet deep—creating ideal learning conditions. For more experienced kiteboarders, with no large landmass nearby, there is almost always wind.
It is no wonder the seas of the Outer Banks came to be known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Ships would routinely skirt the coast, taking advantage these prevailing winds and currents. But even the slightest mistake or a sudden squall could drive a ship onto the shoals and sink it, so it became one of the first places Congress authorized lighthouses. With the exception of the Ocracaoke Light, completed in1823 and still in use, the first lighthouses were failures. Poor construction and inadequate lighting made them obsolete before they began operating.
In 1870, the government got it right. At 210 feet, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States, and its flashing beam can be seen 28 miles out to sea.
Using the same materials and contractor, the Bodie Island Lighthouse in Nags Head was completed in 1872. That left one stretch of dark coastline on the eastern seaboard—the 80 miles between the Cape Henry Light and Bodie Island. In 1875 the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla was completed.
All of the lighthouses, with the exception of Ocracoke, can be climbed, and the view from the top is worth the effort. There is a fee for climbing them, and it can get hot and stuffy, especially in the summer.
Bodie Island Light and Cape Hatteras are operated by the National Park Service. The Bodie Island Light offers guided tours only. For both Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras reservations may be needed.
Even with lighthouses and an improving and more professional Lifesaving Service—the predecessor to the Coast Guard—the Graveyard of the Atlantic still claimed its victims, and not all of the victims were sunk by Mother Nature. During WWI and WWII, German U-Boats exacted a horrific toll on allied shipping off the coast.
The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum is just past the ferry terminal to Ocracoke in Hatteras Village, and much of this maritime history of the Outer Banks comes alive in its exhibits. A small museum, it is a fascinating glimpse of the dangers of the sea. “It’s here that an SOS from the Titanic was received, German U-boat warfare raged, (and) life-saving bravery prevailed against unthinkable odds,” says Mary Ellen Riddle, who handles education and volunteerism for the museum.
This is just a snapshot of what makes the Outer Banks so fascinating, but there is so much more to do—kayaking on the sounds,taking a bike ride or parasailing. Or you may be quite happy just grabbing a towel and a good book and doing nothing more than spending a day at the beach.