The Outer Banks of North Carolina, August 2019
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Drive across North Carolina to the islands of the Outer Banks and it feels like you’re heading for the Outer Limits.
US Highway 64 crosses a 40-mile stretch of forest where the largest black bears in the world roam wild. Then there’s a three-mile bridge over the Alligator River, a five-mile bridge to Roanoke Island, and finally a two-mile bridge to the chain of islands known as “OBX”. It’s all breathtakingly scenic.
One of the first things you notice is that someone called Virginia Dare is a big name. A whole county, that five-mile bridge, a small airport and even a brand of vanilla extract are named after her.
Why? Because on August 18, 1587, Virginia became the first child born to English parents on American soil. But no one knows what became of her. On her third birthday, her grandfather John White returned from a three-year mission to England to find the pioneer settlement he had established on Roanoke’s north-eastern shore silent and deserted.
In one of history’s most enduring mysteries, all 117 settlers, including his granddaughter and her parents, had vanished. Most of the buildings had been flattened but there were no graves, no bodies and no signs of a struggle.
More than 400 years later, the woodland where the settlement stood has an eerie calm. A short film at the visitor centre explains the story and every day in summer a play called The Lost Colony in performed at an open-air theatre down by the waterfront. A beautiful Elizabethan garden has been created nearby.
Five miles across the water is the region’s other main claim to fame. On December 17, 1903, a pair of bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, made the world’s first aircraft flight above a stretch of windswept sand at Kitty Hawk. North Carolina number plates still carry the words “First in Flight” to honour brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright.
At the Wright Brothers National Memorial an impressive granite monument stands on the small hill where they began their trials. Four marker stones show you how far their biplane flew on each attempt that day. A visitor centre tells the story plainly and clearly and there’s a full-size replica of the Wright Flyer in the glass-sided hall next door.
On the spur of the moment next day we took our own flight in a little Cessna from OBX Airplanes at Dare County Airport. Just me, girlfriend Flo and Carl the pilot, who let me take the controls for a few minutes after we passed directly over the flight monument. For only $69 it was a memorable way to see the Outer Banks on a beautiful sunny day.
The night before we had visited a bar called Poor Richard’s in the Roanoke town of Manteo. A young man called Grant Tate heard our accents and insisted on buying drinks. He turned out to be descended from the brother of William Tate, the Kitty Hawk postmaster who encouraged the Wright Brothers to go there and hosted them when they arrived.
“They wrote to 101 postmasters all over the US and Bill was the only one who replied,” Grant told us proudly.<
We also chatted to singer-guitarist Leslie Buck as she set up her gear and later she worked out which well-refreshed customer was adding a wobbly high harmony to her version of Brown Eyed Girl.
“Hey, I don’t hear harmony too often,” she announced from the stage. “This guy musta been in the church choir in England!”
You need to rent a car to get around the Outer Banks and north of the Roanoke bridge there are 36 miles of road. The first 12 are a four-lane highway and though everywhere is bright and clean you could be anywhere in America as the strip malls, discount stores and diners roll by.
Breaking the pattern on the western side is an immense system of dunes called Jockey’s Ridge State Park. We spent an hour traversing its shifting sandy slopes but had to abandon our mission to reach the distant sea as rain clouds gathered and lunch beckoned. We pulled into the Outer Banks Brewing Station, billed as America’s first wind-powered brew pub.
After a nature reserve at Kitty Hawk Woods, the main road veers off to the mainland and the route north becomes quieter, greener and more upmarket. Huge villas with manicured lawns back on to a never-ending sandy beach with openings for public access.
The pleasingly named town of Duck has quirky shops on a waterfront boardwalk, then just before the road runs out it’s well worth taking a long walk around Historic Corolla Park, with its redbrick lighthouse, restored mansion, picture-perfect village and ornamental ponds.
Beyond Corolla, 4x4s can carry on north to a stretch of beach and woodland where wild horses roam. They are said to be descended from animals that swam ashore from Spanish shipwrecks in the 16th century. We’d phoned ahead looking for a place on one of the guided tours that go in search of wild herds, but this proved impossible thanks to a sudden rainstorm.
We’d also hoped to drive 60 miles through the sparsely developed southern strand and rejoin the mainland via two small car ferries and the tiny island of Okrakoke – which our bar-room friend Grant had assured us was the coolest place in the world.
We did make a short detour south to climb up the 214 steps of Bodie Island lighthouse. But the island-hopping route would have taken a whole day and we just didn’t have the time. Along with the scenery, the beaches and the lovely people, it’s a good excuse to go back.
Average daily temperature 30C in summer, 22C in spring and autumn
Direct return flights from Heathrow to Raleigh from £731 return with American Airlines. aa.com
We stayed at the waterfront Tranquil House Inn at Manteo on Roanoke Island, where rooms start at £170 per night in summer and £130 after August 25 http://www.tranquilhouseinn.com
More info: visitnc.com, outerbanks.org
Edited versions of this article were published in the Daily Express on August 17, 2019, and in the Daily Mirror on October 5, 2019. Click the page image below to visit the Express version online.