OUTER BANKS – HATTERAS ISLAND
Traveling by car, on vacation and with kids - isn’t always ideal - especially when a one-way trek is clocking in at 12 hours. But, sometimes the pot o’ gold you’re looking for at the end of the rainbow is truly worth the trouble. For our family, a trip to the Outer Banks, proved its weight in gold.
The Outer Banks is a 200-mile stretch of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina and tiny chunk of Virginia. The majestic shoreline with its abundant beaches and wide expanses give way to some tricky waters that aren’t for the faint of heart.
Our adventure took us all the way to Hatteras Island and a small place called Frisco. The area’s only main thoroughfare – Hwy 12 – cuts through this six-mile stretch which normally houses only 400 residences off-season.
Despite its ‘small stature’, the seaside community and its neighboring villages pack a lot of punch. So, if you’re looking for that next great getaway or a family-friendly trip to break up the school year – keep reading - below are some of the must-dos that could be the push you need to get in a car (or plane) to explore.
A spate of shark attacks may have kept some folks out of the ocean here weeks ago. But, with summer setting such thoughts have easily been dismissed by those visiting the shore of late.
Have no doubt, the biggest concern are the riptides. Although strong, they are manageable when taken with caution. My five-year-old spent much of her time playing on the water’s edge, waiting for waves to wash over her, while my oldest, at 11, was a bit more daring and took to the boogie board at every moment possible.
When not swimming, the wide expansions of sand are inviting to those wanting to soak up some rays. The sun is searing – especially in late summer -- and not always noticeable with the steady breezes that sweep through.
Those same winds make for some prime conditions for windsurfers. There are dozens of outfits up and down the islands that give vacationers the ability to try their hand. They often dot the surface of Pamlico Sound which borders the other side of Hatteras Island - its calm waters an ideal playground for the casual adventurer.
Paddle boarders find solace in these same waters and beyond the breakers on the ocean side – as do surfers who thrill at the chance to ride the turbulent waves coming in.
Fishing is a common sight on both ‘sound and sea’. Thousands come to these shores to see what bounty they will catch. Depending on the season, everything from sea bass to tuna swim the waters off shore – making the Outer Banks a prime spot for the hunt.
Many visitors charter boats, some fish on the surf, while still others find it fit to drive their 4x4s through designated dunes for a front-row seat on the shore.
Then, there’s pier fishing - attracting pros and amateurs to its boardwalks. But, in Frisco, a 2010 hurricane left its stamp on the famed pier there. Its shattered remains serve as a haunting curiosity for visitors strolling the beach – and yet another highlight on par with shell-hunting and watching for dolphins in the surf.
CAPE HATTERAS LIGHTHOUSE
From fishing to swimming, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a treasure of natural resources. It also boasts three lighthouses for visitors to explore - perhaps the most famed: the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
We visited this monolith one late afternoon, in hopes of escaping the worst of the heat. Located in Buxton, the lighthouse – a beacon for sailors since 1803 – still operates today.
It reigns as the tallest brick lighthouse in North America, standing at 210 feet. In 1999, the lighthouse was moved inland to escape breaking waves. There was no escaping its impressive bulk as we gathered at the bottom of the iconic black-and-white-swirled building.
Climbing this giant is no easy task. The lighthouse boasts 257 steps from ground to balcony – the equivalent of climbing a 12-story building. The spiral staircase is narrow and confining. And the building provides neither an elevator nor air conditioning.
My fear of heights made me think twice about the climb. I was also gambling on whether my 5-year-old could actually manage the climb without a meltdown. But, truly, when would another opportunity like this come again? So, after a back-and-forth with the family, we rolled the die and went for it….and I’m glad we did.
The beauty of the lighthouse’s design helped allay any fears I had about falling. The stairs, although confining, end on a landing every 31 steps. That landing obscures – for the most part – the center shaft to the bottom of the structure. It also provided us with the ability to step aside and catch our breath. The breezes blowing through the screened-in windows at every landing also helped add bounce to our step.
Once at the top, we made our way through a small opening onto the balcony. The view of Hatteras Island from this high altitude is stunning. I could see the pounding waves on the far-off shore. Ever observant, my daughters spotted a few deer roaming the coastal woods below, sharing the news with the other lighthouse visitors on deck.
But, it was surprisingly quiet from up on our perch; the only sounds I could hear were the murmurs of conversation around me. A constant breeze was cooling despite the heat of the setting sun and offered a refreshing reprieve before our harried climb to the bottom.
Back on the ground, the park service workers were extremely genial asking us how our climb was. And, I have to say, it was one of the highlights of our trip. The only thing that might have trumped it would have been a nighttime climb which they do offer. But, alas, with so many adventures to seek, it would just have to wait for another time.
HORSEBACK RIDING ON THE BEACH
Cruising the beach with a 4x4 or just wading into shoreline waters is a treat in itself. But, a horseback ride on the beach is one of those ‘magical’ moments I’ve always wanted to experience.
We found an outfit out of Frisco that touted guided tours on horseback that sounded promising. I, along with my 11-year-old, have some experience riding, so we booked a morning session that sang the glories of a picture-perfect ride.
The trip led us through Buxton Woods – the largest maritime forest on the Outer Banks standing at 2,500 acres. The stroll was slow and plodding at first as the horses followed one another in a type of ‘roadside’ chain gang maneuvering through the thick underbrush of the forest. (A word to the wise here: load up on the bug spray. The critters here are vicious and even clothing won’t stop the most eager bloodsuckers.)
The trail opens up some near the shoreline dunes - allowing for some sweeping views of the area, including that of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Once on the beach, the horses break formation and spread out across the sand. Those wanting to take off in a cantor or run are encouraged to do so. Others can continue enjoying the slower pace by which they came.
My horse wanted to ride and so, I grabbed onto the reins and went for it. In an attempt not to fall off my horse, I scrambled to recall past lessons as ‘Jack’ galloped playfully into the surf. I finally got my bearings and the rest of the sprint went smoothly enough (although I would be ‘paying the price’ with various aches and pains the next morning).
While on the beach, there is time for photo keepsakes - which my daughter and I took advantage of -before our meandering trip back to the stables. It solidified a delightful end to a ride that promised two glorious hours (but in actuality was more like four) ….and worth every penny along the way.
GRAVEYARD OF THE ATLANTIC MUSEUM
Much is said about the waters off the Outer Banks and its rich maritime history. They are highlights of a rich collection that can be seen at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. The Hatteras Village museum – which relies on donations – is dedicated to preserving the history behind the countless shipwrecks off the coast.
This region is known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of its mix of storms, shoals and rip currents. More than 2,000 boats and ships have succumbed to the power of the sea – and its memories are preserved here for others to ponder.
Key artifacts from wrecks like the famed ghost ship the Carol Deering and Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge are on display. Other exhibits include the history of scuba diving, the Civil War, and the mystery behind the lens from Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
The museum definitely skews to older children and adults. But, with its pirates’ stories and very visual artifact collection, even younger tikes can find a few things to ooo and ahh about – a running theme I found all along the Outer Banks.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
46368 Lighthouse Rd., Buxton, NC 27920
Open mid-April – Columbus Day
Climbing hours: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily; 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Memorial Day Weekend – Labor Day
Tickets to climb: $8 adults; $4 seniors, children 11 and under (must be 42” or taller), disabled
Moon and night climbs available
52173 Piney Ridge Rd. Frisco, NC 27936
Open year round
In-season (May 25-Sept. 7): $120 per rider
Off-season: $100 per rider
**Free ‘Trip Tip’
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
59200 Museum Dr., Hatteras, NC 27943
M-Sat 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Mid-October through March: closes at 4 p.m.)
Free of charge (Donations accepted)