From Whalebone Junction in South Nags Head, Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches 70 miles south down the Outer Banks barrier islands. The drive along N.C. 12 (about 4 1/2 hr.) takes you through a wildlife refuge and pleasant villages, past miles of sandy beaches untainted by commercial development, and on to Buxton and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest on the coast. Since 1870, the light has been a beacon for ships passing through these treacherous waters, which have claimed more than 1,500 victims by means of foul weather, strong rip currents, and shifting shoals. This is where the ironclad Union gunboat Monitor went down during a storm in December 1862.
From the little village of Hatteras, a car ferry crosses to Ocracoke Island, where more than 5,000 acres, including 16 miles of beach, are preserved by the National Park Service for recreation. From the southern end of the island, you can take a ferry across the vast, shallow Pamlico Sound to Cedar Island.
The seashore is best explored on an all-day trip, or on several half-day trips from a Nags Head base. Give yourself plenty of time for swimming, fishing, or just walking along the sand and for visiting the newly moved Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. It's an informal, barefoot kind of place -- you can easily beach hop from one shimmering beach to another; just pull into any of the many beach-access parking lots, cross a small boardwalk over dunes of sea oats, and plop yourself in the tawny sand or race to the surf. Then have lunch (a crab-cake sandwich, perhaps, and a bowl of Hatteras-style clam chowder) and get to know the local people who call this patch of sand home. The hardy "Bankers" can recount tales of heroism at sea and tell you about the ghostly light that bobs over Teach's (Blackbeard's) Hole, as well as the wild ponies that have roamed Ocracoke Island for more than 400 years -- all in a lilting accent that some people say harks back to Devon, England, home base of a band of shipwrecked sailors who came ashore here and stayed.