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History & Nature Thrive in the Outer Banks
Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
The Dare County region of North Carolina offers a unique blend of history and natural beauty. The county takes in a good portion of the Outer Banks and includes Roanoke Island. Sun, sand, and sea are the primary attractions, but there is much more. The area is rich in historic "firsts." The first US National Seashore was established here: Cape Hatteras National Seashore. It was here the first manned flight in a heavier-than-air machine took place. The first English settlement in the New World was founded on Roanoke Island in 1584. The first English child born in the New World, Virginia Dare, was born on Roanoke Island August 18, 1587.
Many people believe Jamestown, Virginia to be the first English settlement. It wasn't, the Roanoke Island settlement came first. Jamestown was the first permanent settlement. The Roanoke Island settlement is now known as "the lost colony." Lost, because supply ships that left for England in 1587 were side-tracked by the war with Spain and could not return until 1590. Upon return, they found the settlers gone with no clue as to what happened. The unresolved mystery of the colony's fate is portrayed in the outdoor drama, The Lost Colony, performed at the Waterside Theater in Manteo nightly (except Sunday) each June-August. It is the longest running outdoor symphonic drama in the United States.
A living memorial to those first colonists is found in the Elizabethan Gardens. The gardens are a Sixteenth-Century-style English garden on a ten-acre site. Open year-round, the gardens appeal to nature lovers and horticulturists alike. A highlight is the colorful and fragrant, "Queen's Rose Garden." Not to be missed is the Ancient Live Oak, thought to have been living when those first colonists arrived.
Continuing the historic theme, see the Elizabeth II, a 69-foot sailing vessel in Roanoke Island Festival Park. The vessel is representative of 1500's-era English sailing vessels. Historic interpreters in period garb enlighten visitors as to the realities of sailing in the 1500's. Other historic interpreters occupy a "settlers camp," on the grounds, where weapons and daily camp-life demonstrations are conducted. The park also contains a new 8,500 square foot exhibit hall which features many interactive, hands-on exhibits tracing the history of the Outer Banks. It holds the interest of children for hours.
The Wright Brothers made history with their flying machine December 17, 1903 in Kill Devil Hills. Kitty Hawk had the only post office in the area, so many attribute the first manned flight to have taken place there. A visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills will clear up any confusion. In the memorial's visitor center hangs a scale model of the Wrights' flying machine. The original hangs in Washington, DC's Smithsonian. A large granite monument is erected atop Big Kill Devil Hill. Many people assume the monument is located at the spot of the first flight. That's not the case. Taking off from the hill would have proved nothing, likely they could glide from the hill. The Wrights had to take off, fly into the wind and land at an elevation the same as or higher than the takeoff point to prove their machine actually worked. The hilltop location merely offers a convenient, highly visible location for the monument.
Bird watching is a fast growing hobby in the US, and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge provides a superb location to practice the hobby. At least 400 species of birds have been identified in the refuge. There are several bird watching platforms conveniently located throughout the refuge and refuge rangers offer several guided nature hikes each week.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore provides miles and miles of beach for contemplative strolling. Even in summer, at the height of America's vacation time, there is enough beach here to find one's own secluded spot.
Lighthouses attract many visitors, and the Outer Banks has a few of those. Under management of the National Park Service, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at 208 feet tall, is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States and was relocated in 1999. The lighthouse, in its original location, was threatened with beach erosion. The entire structure was jacked up, put on rails, and moved 2900 feet in a diagonal (to the shoreline), southwest direction. It now rests on a new concrete pad 60' x 60' x 6', 1600 feet from the shoreline.
Bodie Island Lighthouse, completed in 1872, is also under the auspices of the National Park Service. The restored Keeper's Quarters houses a visitor center and gift shop. Since the tower remains under control of the US Coast Guard, it is not open to visitors. The lighthouses were extremely important to the maritime industry. Known as "the Graveyard of the Atlantic," more than 2,000 ships have been lost in the area waters since the 1500s.
In the maritime vein, check out the restored Chicamacomico Life Saving Station in Rodanthe. Here one may learn the history of the US Life Saving Service, predecessor to the US Coast Guard. The brave men that manned these coastal stations saved the lives of many shipwreck victims. Beginning in June, each Thursday at 2:00 PM, a "Beach Apparatus Drill" is held, demonstrating the equipment and techniques used in rescuing shipwreck victims.
Surrounded by water, fishing opportunities abound in the Outer Banks. Drop a line from one of the many fishing piers, try surf fishing, or go out on one the many charter boats for some sport fishing, chances are you'll land a good catch.
Primarily a family destination, the Kitty Hawk to Nags Head stretch abounds in family-oriented activities. Roanoke Island provides a quiet get-away off the strip. Here we saw many arriving couples with bicycle-loaded vehicles. No wonder, considering the excellent bike trails on the island and throughout the Banks. Our Roanoke Island stay was in the elegant, aptly named, Tranquil House Inn located right on Manteo's waterfront. Head up to Duck and Corolla for an older, more affluent gathering of people. There is something for most every traveler in the Outer Banks.
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Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / PROSE AND PHOTOS