The 175-mile ribbon of sandy islands that forms the Outer Banks and Cape Hatteras National Seashore runs roughly parallel to the North Carolina coast. It is a seaside wilderness, an extremely vulnerable ecosystem of barrier islands jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. More than 500 ships, including the Union ironclad Monitor, have gone down on the shifting shoals of the Outer Banks coastline, an area grimly called "the Graveyard of the Atlantic." Blackbeard once holed up along these shores, and you can follow in the pirate's footsteps, perhaps discovering a few remaining fishing villages on your own. An overly developed section, a motel row, stretches from Kitty Hawk to Nags Head, but much of the rest of the Outer Banks is still unspoiled, especially its offbeat islands reached by ferry. The good news is that in just a week, you can tour the highlights of this region.
Day 1: Elizabeth City to Kill Devil Hills
Many visitors use Elizabeth City as their gateway to the northern Outer Banks. From here you can head east along Route 158, which will take you through the town of Grandy to Point Harbor. Cross the bridge at Point Harbor near the end of Route 158 and arrive at Kitty Hawk, a distance of 49 miles east of Elizabeth City. Before lunch you can drive north to the little beach community of Corolla, passing through Duck, 7 miles north of Kitty Hawk. The final lap from Duck to Corolla is 10 miles to the north. The Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla is the northernmost lighthouse on the Outer Banks. Count yourself lucky if you see some of the wild horses that still live in the area.
At this point, you'll need to double back, heading south along Route 12 to Kitty Hawk again. There are many eateries along the way, mostly serving seafood specials.
At Kitty Hawk, continue south, following the signs into Kill Devil Hills, where you can overnight. If you're flush with money, you can live more elegantly at the Sanderling, back in Duck.
The major attraction in Kill Devil Hills is the Wright Brothers National Memorial. The bicycle-making brothers launched the aviation age along this coast in 1903. Both the hangar and Orville and Wilbur's living quarters have been restored, and replicas of the 1902 glider and 1903 flying machine are on display.
Day 2: Kill Devil Hills to Roanoke Island
Fortified with a Carolina country breakfast, set out the next morning from Kill Devil Hills, continuing south along Route 12 until you come to Jockey's Ridge State Park. Known for its hang gliding, the park offers you a breezy walk along a 360-foot boardwalk, ideal for a morning break. For a beach break, you face 5 miles of sand, with more than two dozen public access areas off Route 12.
Nags Head is the last town before the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, with its beautiful landscapes. Before you head to Hatteras, a detour is suggested. From Nags Head, drive the short distance south to Whalebone Junction, then cut west along the causeway leading to Roanoke Island, a distance of 10 miles to the southwest. Follow U.S. 64/264 from the 158 bypass to Manteo, capital of Roanoke Island and the best place for overnighting.
Before the day fades, take in the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in a landscaped park. At the north end of Roanoke Island, follow the signs to the North Carolina Aquarium, home to the state's largest ocean tank. If time remains, visit the Elizabethan Gardens.
The real reason to anchor into Manteo for the night is to see The Lost Colony, the country's first and longest-running outdoor drama, telling the story of the first colonists who landed here in 1587 but mysteriously disappeared.
Day 3: Cape Hatteras National Seashore
After overnighting on Roanoke Island, head east again, returning to Whalebone Junction and then going south along Hwy. 12 for the most dramatic seashore drive along the East Coast until you reach the Florida Keys.
The first island you traverse is Bodie Island, with its black-and-white lighthouse (ca. 1872) at the southern end. You'll see an observation platform nearby for viewing local birdlife. A visitor center here lies 6 1/2 miles south of Whalebone.
From Bodie Island, continue south, passing through Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, only 10 miles to the south of Nags Head. This is one of the East Coast's most populated avian roosting places, with aquatic and migratory birds appearing year-round.
A high point is crossing over the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, arching for 3 miles over Oregon Inlet as it arrives at Hatteras Island, known to all blue marlin fishermen. At any point along the way, break your day by hitting one of the 70 miles of beaches that stretch along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore to Ocracoke Island . The best fishing pier is at Rodanthe.
Thirty miles to the south of Rodanthe is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, at 208 feet, the tallest along the East Coast. The little town of Hatteras is the embarkation point for the free ferry to Ocracoke Island, where you can overnight after a 40-minute sea trip.
Day 4: Ocracoke to Beaufort
After breakfast on Ocracoke Island, photograph its lighthouse and wander about the village with its many shops centered around Silver Lake Harbor; here Blackbeard was killed back in 1718. Later you can take a car ferry from Ocracoke to Cedar Island, a 2 1/4-hour trip over Pamlico Sound. Many visitors secure the makings of a picnic lunch on Ocracoke, enjoying their food as they sail along.
Once you land, you can explore the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, a feeding ground for migratory waterfowl. Cedar Island is linked to the mainland by Route 12. After seeing the refuge, continue southwest along 12, which becomes Route 70, taking you into Beaufort, North Carolina's third-oldest town (not to be confused with Beaufort, South Carolina).
Beaufort has a number of attractions, plus some good accommodations, so consider an overnight here. Chief among the attractions is the Beaufort Historic Site, with an old burial ground, an 1829 restored jail, a courthouse (ca. 1796), an apothecary shop, and restored homes from 1767 to 1825. As the afternoon fades, make your way to the North Carolina Maritime Museum, one of the best in the Carolinas.
Day 5: Morehead City to New Bern
Leave Beaufort in the morning and drive 3 miles west to Morehead City, a year-round resort town founded in 1857. Fishermen come here in pursuit of king mackerel and blue marlin.
Morehead City is the best base for exploring the Bogue Banks, a 28-mile barrier island lying off its coast. You can drive across a bridge spanning Bogue Sound to the little town of Atlantic Beach, where there is a boardwalk and swimming.
Go east on 58 a couple of miles until you reach the tip of Bogue Island and Fort Macon, a restored Civil War landmark. Then head west along Route 58 (the island's only road), stopping in at Pine Knoll Shores to see the vastly expanded North Carolina Aquarium.
At this point, you can make a decision. If time is running short, you can leave Bogue Island and follow the signs along the coast southwest to Wilmington. Otherwise, you can spend an extra day exploring the Croatan National Forest. This refuge covers 161,000 acres and is riddled with waterways and estuaries, the alligator's northernmost habitat. If you have that extra day, follow Route 58 back to the mainland but cut east on Route 24 heading back to Morehead City. This is a scenic drive along the southern tier of the park. At the junction with Route 70, head north through the eastern part of the park until you reach New Bern, where you can overnight. New Bern lies 50 miles inland from the coast we've just visited, but it's only 87 miles northeast of Wilmington.
Day 6: New Bern to Wilmington
You can spend most of the morning exploring Tryon Palace Historic Sites & Gardens. Tryon Palace itself was once called "the most beautiful building in colonial America." You can also visit the John Wright Stanly House and the Dixon-Stevenson House. Take a final look at the Birthplace of Pepsi-Cola Store, unless you're a fan of Coca-Cola.
Leave New Bern on Route 17, which takes you along the western border of Croatan National Forest. At the junction with Route 58, continue south to the coast once again, cutting right on Route 24, which will take you into the historic waterfront town of Swansboro. We always like to spend an hour or two checking out its antiques shops and wandering the harborfront where shrimp boats pull in.
After a visit, continue due west to the town of Jacksonville, where you can visit the areas of the Camp Lejeune marine base that are not closed to the public.
For a seafood lunch in the area, leave Jacksonville and head south along Route 17 to the junction with Route 210, taking you to the old fishing village of Sneads Ferry, where you can find some of the best fish lunches along the coast. After a good "tuck-in," you can head north again to the junction with Route 17, following it southwest for 52 miles into Wilmington, the biggest city along the coast.
Day 7: Wilmington & Cape Fear
The best way to spend the morning in Wilmington is to sail the Henrietta III on a 45-minute narrated cruise that takes in the waterfront and traverses a 5-mile loop of the Cape Fear River. Back in town, you can visit the big attractions such as Airlie Gardens, the USS North Carolina Battleship Memorial, the Fort Fisher State Historic Site, and the Orton Plantation Gardens. Any time left over can be devoted to fun in the sands along Wrightsville Beach, 6 miles east of Wilmington.
At this point, you can end your tour or head down the coast to some of the major tourist meccas in the Southeast: Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Hilton Head, and Savannah.