Nags Head is the largest resort in the Outer Banks area. Its odd name, according to local legend, comes from the practice of wily old land pirates who used to hang lanterns from the necks of ponies and parade them along the dunes at night to lure unsuspecting ships onto shoals. When the ships ran aground, the waiting robbers promptly stripped their cargoes. Another theory holds that the town was named for the highest point of the Isles of Scilly, which was the last sight English colonists had of their homeland. However it got its name, Nags Head has been one of North Carolina's most popular beach resorts for more than a century. The town is crowded in the summer; roadsides are chockablock with modern motels, restaurants, and watersports stores; and erosion has taken its toll on the once-grand beaches in recent years. Still, it has a certain barefoot charm, and the many handsome old wooden homes from the late 19th century -- known as the "Unpainted Aristocracy" -- hearken back to the time when the town was an idyllic seaside retreat.
The highest sand dune on the East Coast -- and a hugely popular destination for watching the sunset -- Jockey's Ridge, is the focal point of Jockey's Ridge State Park (entrance on Carolista Dr., at milepost 12 off U.S. 158 Bypass; tel. 252/441-7132; www.jockeysridgestatepark.com). A self-guided trail, stretching for 1.5 miles, begins at the parking lot and goes over the dunes and back. If you don't want to get sand in your shoes, you can take a shorter walk along a 360-foot boardwalk. With its smooth, sandy, 138-foot-high slopes and reliable winds, this is also one of the best hang-gliding destinations in the United States. You can get in a high-flying spirit perhaps in memory of the Wright Brothers by taking a hang-gliding lesson from Kitty Hawk Kites, near the park visitor center. This is the world's largest hang-gliding school. For reservations, call tel. 877/359-8447 or 252/441-4124, or go to www.kittyhawk.com. Beginning, intermediate, and advanced instruction are provided.
Just north of Nags Head is Kill Devil Hills (named for a particularly potent rum once shipped from here), where the Wright brothers made their historic first air flight back in 1903.
Currituck Beach Lighthouse -- At Corolla, one of the three working lighthouses on the Outer Banks stands 158 feet above the dunes. It flashed its first beacon on December 1, 1875, filling in that dark spot on the coast between Bodie Island in the south and Cape Henry, Virginia, in the north. Before construction of this lighthouse, whose beam can be seen for 18 miles, many ships foundered in the 80-mile "Sea of Darkness." Weather permitting, the lighthouse can be climbed daily Easter to Thanksgiving 10am to 6pm for $6 ($3 per person for group tours with advance reservations). For more information, call tel. 252/453-8152 or go to www.currituckbeachlight.com.
Wright Brothers National Memorial -- The Wright Brothers National Memorial (milepost 8, U.S. 158 Bypass, Kill Devil Hills; tel. 252/441-7430; www.nps.gov/wrbr) is open to the public. Admission is $4 for adults, free for seniors 62 and older with a valid America the Beautiful Senior Pass, and free for children 16 and under. Both the hangar and Orville and Wilbur's living quarters have been restored, and the visitor center has replicas of the 1902 glider and the 1903 flying machine. Exhibits tell the story of the brothers who came here from their Dayton, Ohio, bicycle business to turn their dream into reality. The memorial is open daily 9am to 6pm (9am-5pm in winter). It is closed Christmas Day. A park ranger gives two tours at 11am and 3pm year-round.
Manteo & Roanoke Island -- From Whalebone Junction, U.S. 64/264 leads to Roanoke Island and the pastoral village of Manteo, with docks, restaurants, and shops along Shallowbag Bay. Four miles west, you'll reach Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, where the fort from 1585 is but a mound of dirt. But the beauty of the landscaped park is reason enough to visit. The visitor center (tel. 252/473-5772; www.nps.gov/fora) is a first stop; a museum and an audiovisual program acquaint visitors with the park's story. The site is open daily 9am to 5pm (until 6pm in summer). There is no admission charge.
Many people visit Roanoke Island to see a performance of The Lost Colony at the Waterside Theatre. The nearby 11-acre Elizabethan Gardens, 1411 National Park Dr., Manteo (tel. 252/473-3234; www.elizabethangardens.org), as well as the Tudor-style auxiliary buildings, remind us that this area was the first connection between Elizabethan England and what was to become the United States of America. The sumptuous gardens are open from the second week in March to November 30. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for children 6 to 18, and free for children 5 and under. It's open January and February daily 10am to 4pm (closed New Year's Day), March daily 9am to 5pm, April and May daily 9am to 6pm, June to August Monday to Saturday 9am to 6pm and Sunday 9am to 7pm, September and October daily 9am to 6pm, November daily 9am to 5pm (closed Thanksgiving Day), and December daily 10am to 4pm (closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day).
The North Carolina Aquarium, off Hwy. 64/264, Airport Road, north end of Roanoke Island (tel. 866/332-3475; www.ncaquariums.com), has expanded to twice its former size. Home to the state's largest ocean tank, the aquarium features hundreds of animals found in North Carolina waters, including rivers, marshes, and sounds. A wooden path takes visitors through a sky-lit atrium complete with towering trees, creeks, and streams. In the natural habitat are creatures of the marsh, including alligators, frogs, turtles, and otters. Bluefish, drum, pinfish, eels, and other sea creatures are exhibited in the Saltwater Gallery. In the Discovery Gallery, a favorite with children, skates, rays, crabs, sea stars, urchins, and other invertebrates can be handled. The centerpiece is the 285,000-gallon ocean tank housing the skeletal remains of the USS Monitor shipwreck. Large sharks and sea turtles combine to make this exhibit realistic and spectacular. Hours are daily from 9am to 5pm. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and active military, $5 for children 6-17), and free for children 5 and under. It is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.
Visitors journey to Manteo to see the 27-acre Roanoke Island Festival Park, which features the Elizabeth II (tel. 252/473-1144; www.roanokeisland.com), moored across from the renovated waterfront. This 69-foot-long three-masted bark, a composite design of 16th-century ships, was built in 1984 with private funds for the 400th anniversary of the 1584 and 1587 Roanoke voyages. From mid-June to late August, Tuesday to Saturday, living-history interpreters portray colonists and mariners. The site is open February 18 to March 31 daily 9am to 6pm, April to November 1 daily 9am to 6pm, November 9 to December 31 daily 9am to 5pm (closed Dec 24-26). Admission is $8 for adults and seniors, $5 for students 6 to 17, and free for children 5 and under.
The Lost Colony -- Roanoke Island, between the Outer Banks and the mainland, is where Sir Walter Raleigh's colony of more than 100 men, women, and children settled in 1585 in what was to be England's first permanent New World foothold. Virginia Dare -- granddaughter of the little band's governor, John White -- was born that year, the first child of English parents to be born in America. When White sailed back to England on the ships that brought the settlers, it was his intention to return within the year. Instead, because of political events in England, White wasn't able to get back to Roanoke until 1590. What he found on his return was a mystery. The rudimentary houses that he had helped build were all dismantled, and the entire area was enclosed by a high palisade that he later described as "very fortlike." At the entrance, crude letters on a post from which the bark had been peeled spelled out the word CROATOAN.
Because White didn't find the prearranged distress signal -- a cross -- and no evidence suggested violence, his conclusion was that those he'd left on Roanoke Island had joined the friendly Croatoan tribe. An unhappy chain of circumstances, however, forced him to set sail for England before a search could be made. Despite all sorts of theories about the colony's fate, no link was ever established between the "lost" colonists and the Native Americans. Recent analysis of tree rings has indicated that the colonists may have suffered horrific drought conditions, but no clue has been unearthed revealing exactly what happened.
The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site (www.nps.gov/fora) at Roanoke was named in 1941, and its visitor center tells the colony's story in exhibits and film. Paul Green's symphonic drama The Lost Colony brings the events to life in the amphitheater at the edge of Roanoke Sound.
Edenton, Colonial Waterfront Town
About 1 1/2 hours away from Nags Head, a later phase of U.S. history is preserved at Edenton, an atmospheric old town whose streets are lined with homes built by the planters and merchants who settled along the Albemarle Sound. The women of Edenton held their own "tea party" in 1774 -- one of the first recorded instances of American women taking political action. Take U.S. 64, turn right at N.C. 37, and then turn left when you reach N.C. 32.
Visit the Historic Edenton Visitor Center at 108 N. Broad St. (signs are posted throughout the town; tel. 252/482-2637; www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/sections/hs/iredell/iredell.htm), to view a free 14-minute slide show and purchase a Historic District map. The center is open Monday to Saturday 9am to 5pm and on Sunday 1 to 4pm. Guided tours of five historic buildings -- the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, the 1758 Cupola House, the 1780s Barker House, the 1800/1827 James Iredell House State Historic Site, and the restored St. Paul's Episcopal Church -- can be booked here for $10 for adults, $2 for students under 18, and $20 per family (free for preschool children). From April to October, tours are Monday to Saturday 9am to 5pm and on Sunday 1 to 5pm; off season Monday to Saturday 10am to 4pm and on Sunday 1 to 4pm.
You can get to more southerly beaches in leisurely fashion by taking the car ferry from Ocracoke to Cedar Island. You'll need to make a reservation for the 2 1/4-hour trip over the calm, sparkling waters of the Pamlico Sound. Take along a picnic lunch, and don't be surprised to see dolphins cavorting alongside the boat. Call to reserve space on one of the scheduled sailings. To sail from Cedar Island or Ocracoke, call tel. 800/293-3779 or visit www.ncferry.org. Reservations are not honored if your car is not in the loading zone at least 30 minutes before departure time. The fare is $15 per car and occupants, $3 per bicycle and rider, and $1 for pedestrians. For a complete list of ferries, schedules, and fares, contact the Ferry Division, Department of Transportation, 113 Arendell St., Morehead City, NC 28557 (tel. 252/726-6446; www.ncferry.org).
On the island, you can explore the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge (tel. 252/926-4021), a feeding ground for migratory waterfowl. Since 1964, this refuge has taken in 11,000 acres of irregularly flooded and brackish marsh, with such plants as saltmeadow hay, needlerush, and salt-marsh cordgrass. The land is a winter habitat for thousands of ducks and a nesting habitat for colonial water birds. Endangered species such as the American alligator and the brown pelican find a safe haven here.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.