Carolina On My Mind (Part I) - The Outer Banks
Updated: Jul 21, 2021
“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me, The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” – Walt Whitman
In the midst of the 2020 pandemic, going crazy from months of quarantining at home, I decided to plan a road trip on the East Coast where I could escape the monotony and predictability, and the tedious regimented life of an endless cycle of housebound work, meal preparation and sleep. I decided on a flight to Raleigh, North Carolina in September-October where I would rent a car and explore regions in various directions outward from my starting point. I would give myself two weeks out on the road, all the while rigorously adhering to safety recommendations issued by the CDC. I needed to do this for my own sanity and well-being. I was being starved of one of my greatest joys.
Fortunately for me, this kind of travel was possible, even while many businesses had shuttered and restrictions were placed on access to all kinds of public places. I had originally planned to make this trip the previous year, but circumstances had forced me to postpone my plans. Basically, I had two goals: (1) to see a corner of the country I had spent very little time exploring and, (2) to visit the remaining counties I hadn't been to in several of those states. The two goals worked hand in glove for me.
On Saturday, September 26, 2020, I boarded an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Raleigh, and because of low ridership at the time, I was able to upgrade to first class for a remarkably small fee. Aside from perpetual mask wearing from the moment you enter the airport until the moment you exit at your destination, the only discomfort I experienced was the absolute prohibition of alcoholic beverages on the flight. I do enjoy a little gin and tonic on flights to ease jangled nerves. In truth, I was happy just to be traveling, and was intently looking forward to arriving in Raleigh.
There were virtually no passengers on the flight. With a summary sweep of the cabin, I estimated we were flying at about a quarter of capacity. Once on the ground, and safely in my gray Nissan Frontier rental with Florida plates, I was ready to drive into North Carolina's capital city and check into my hotel.
A rally was about to take place at the capitol building and campus, so the perimeter was choked with police. I thought better of attempting to breach the barriers just to stroll around the capitol campus, so instead, I wandered through adjacent parts of the downtown area and captured a few cool photos.
My hotel was just a few minutes away from the capitol complex. Dinner was a hoagie from a neighboring Subway. I tucked in early that night. I wanted to get plenty of rest in preparation for the next day. I would be traveling, for the first time, to North Carolina's Outer Banks.
The Outer Banks
The next morning, I was up with the birds, ready to get on the road and start my two-week-long driving tour. This is the most exciting time of any road trip -- the moment in time when everything is still in front of you. It's the moment I always wish I could freeze in time. I started my journey that morning full of excitement and the heady anticipation of all the new experiences ahead of me.
In those early morning hours, a low-hanging blanket of fog had settled over the rolling countryside just north of the city, breaking here and there to reveal farmhouses and green hills. An hour or so later, it had burned off. I took smaller two-lane highways in good repair which boasted generous speed limits. I was surprised at how quickly I was able to get from Raleigh out to the Atlantic coast. My goal was to access the northern end of the Outer Banks by driving through Elizabeth City. The vehicular artery that runs the length of the Outer Banks, from Corolla in the north to the town of Hatteras at land's end in the south, is North Carolina State Route 12.
The Outer Banks (locally referred to as simply "OBX", even on the license plates of the locals) is a 200-mile-long series of barrier islands and spits boasting an ultra thin strip of coastal land. Its average width is less than a mile for most of its journey from southeastern Virginia to the entrance of Pamlico Sound. There are wide expanses of open beach on the eastern-facing front all up and down the banks. There you'll find charming seaside villages, lighthouses and state parks, great seafood restaurants, and a mix of towns brimming with personality and fascinating connections to the country's history. Although the Outer Banks are just a short drive away from mainland North Carolina, the barrier islands feel remote. Access to the Outer Banks is via a series of bridges, mostly from points along the northern portions of the highway. I crossed the bridge from US 158 directly into Kitty Hawk.
My first stop was a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial. It was a stop I was glad that I had made. There was a lot to see and do there. I ascended Big Kill Devil Hill to the Wright Brothers’ Monument -- a 60-foot-high, Art Deco style, granite monument towering above the surrounding landscape. It was the primary location of the brothers' glider experiments. To my amazement, despite the pandemic, there were lot of tourists swarming the park that day.
The monument certainly has the most commanding presence in the park, but it's not the only thing you should plan to see. A short two- or three-minute walk to the west of the monument, you'll find the first flight boulder -- the spot where, on December 17, 1903, the first powered Wright Flyer lifted off from its launching rail at 10:35 am and, in 12 seconds, flew 120 feet at an altitude of 8 feet. With Orville at the controls and Wilbur running alongside, the brothers had achieved the seemingly impossible.
Don't miss out on the Visitor Center at the north end of the park. There are great interpretive exhibits there to reconstruct the historic moments of the First Flight. It is such an important piece of North Carolina history that the words "FIRST IN FLIGHT" are emblazoned on every license plate in the state.
Parts of the drive southward along the barrier islands revealed the delicate and precarious nature of the Outer Banks themselves. Subject to constant erosion and creeping ocean level rise, it's not uncommon to find large standing pools of water in the highway where road crews are directing people around them, while at the same time, those crews are shoring up the embankments flanking the ocean by bringing in more and more sand. I couldn't help but wonder if the Outer Banks is on borrowed time, and those of us here today experiencing the magic of the barrier islands will one day look back and feel fortunate that we had the opportunity to see them before Mother Nature returned them to the sea.
I made a quick stop along the highway just south of Nags Head to park the car on the east side of the highway and hike through the dunes to take in the dramatic view of the Atlantic Ocean. There were dozens of fisherman out on the beach that day. I put my feet and hands into the cold waters of the Atlantic to baptize myself in a symbolic gesture to claim my official arrival at the edge of the continent.
Across the highway was a short roadway that led to Bodie Island Lighthouse, open to the public. It was a lovely spot of land surrounding the black-and-white striped lighthouse with picnic tables, pedestrian pathways and an information center. That wouldn't be the only lighthouse I was visit that day.
Pushing further south along SR 12, I stopped at an enticing seafood restaurant on the western-facing shore of the Outer Banks in Rodanthe called Good Winds Restaurant. It was completely a random selection -- I had no prior research of local eateries to fall back on, so it was a leap of faith. It was a great choice, as it turned out. I was seated outside in the cool air, on a balcony overlooking Pamlico Sound. The wait staff was extremely friendly. My order was a blackened tuna burger with fries that went down oh so well!
Completely satisfied with my meal, I continued south to the point where the Outer Banks widen and suddenly angle westward at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Once again, I stopped to visit the imposing and attractive Cape Hatteras Lighthouse guarding Cape Point.
The final push for the day was the drive down to the beach-themed town of Hatteras where I had a hotel room reserved adjacent to the ferry terminal. I was staying at The Villas at Hatteras Landing which I highly recommend if you are planning a visit to the area. My guest room was fully furnished with a well-stocked kitchen, a sitting area that could arguably pass for a living room at the front of the unit and a bedroom at the back where the sliding glass door opened up onto views of Pamlico Sound. My stay there was exceptionally comfortable.
I made a short walking tour behind the property, crossing an open, swampy space over wooden walkways, all the way to the string of luxury beach houses directly facing the sound. Along the elevated wooden footpath was a covered section where you could pause and see a few of the original nineteenth century Hatteras community tombstones. In fact, tombstones appeared to be littered everywhere and in unlikely places -- sometimes just along the side of a residential street, set apart from the surrounding yards of the affluent by unpretentious and aging low wooden fences.
Dinner came from a deli attached to a beachy pavilion surrounded by walkways of weathered Atlantic white cedar. It was one of the few open businesses a short walk from The Villas. I sat down to enjoy a beer in an adjacent sports bar later. That night, back in my hotel room, I got to work planning the course of my travels for the following day. I had originally planned to take the free ferry first thing in the morning to Okracoke Island, drive down the length of the island to the southern tip where the next ferry would conduct me to Cedar Island, North Carolina, and the mainland itself. The one-way crossing to Cedar Island is $15 for car and driver. Without these two ferry services, the drive down through the Outer Banks would be a dead-end proposition. No bridges exist at the bottom of the barrier islands to get you back to the mainland. If you want an overland experience, you will have to turn around at Hatteras and drive back up north, cross the bridge to Roanoke Island and then another bridge to the Inner Banks (IBX) of North Carolina. Unfortunately for me, the state's response to COVID resulted in services being curtailed on the ferry system. All tickets were sold for the one remaining crossing to Cedar Island the following day. I had no choice but to recalibrate my plans. I would instead retrace my path back north through the barrier islands to Nags Head where I would catch US 64 westbound. I had really been looking forward to the experience of seeing Okracoke Island and traveling on the ferry system. Another day and another trip, perhaps.
I had one last stop in the Outer Banks -- breakfast at a Dunkin' Donuts in Manteo on Roanoke Island where food could only be obtained in the drive-thru. Though I didn't have much time to linger, I was still fascinated with the knowledge that this was the place of the ill-fated Roanoke Colony that had originally set up encampment in 1587 at the north end of the island. It was the first English settlement in North America. The colonists built a fortified settlement, but were on poor terms with the local Native American tribes. The first English child was also born during this time -- a little girl named Virginia Dare. It is her surname that today graces the name of the county that encompasses Roanoke Island and most of the Outer Banks. Three years later, in 1590, when a supply ship returned to the colony from England, the settlers had mysteriously vanished. All that was left behind as a clue to their whereabouts was the inscription "CROATOAN" carved into the palisade -- referring possibly to Croatoan Island. The mystery was never really solved.
The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site welcomes visitors today where the settlement once existed. You can also get tickets to experience the Lost Colony's symphonic drama which is regionally famous and set against the backdrop of Albemarle Sound, directly on the beach. The show has been running since 1937. Click here to get a flavor of what's in store for you at the show.
Edenton and New Bern
My next stop would be the small water-front town of Edenton at the west end of Albemarle Sound. I found the town so charming, so replete with Colonial-era buildings, and so elegant poised on the water's edge, I stopped the car, got out and wandered around the waterfront.
I turned my rental car southward and drove through the city of Washington, North Carolina -- the city where famed Hollywood director, Cecil B. DeMille grew up. Eventually, I rolled into the glittering city by the water, New Bern -- first capital of North Carolina and birthplace of Pepsi Cola. New Bern is something you really must stop to see and explore. It is chock-a-block full of beautifully restored historic buildings and neighborhoods. There are great public spaces where you can pause and absorb the charm of the city. I had a great time driving the older, narrower streets in search of hidden architectural gems. Here are a few photos from the city:
My final stop for the day would be Wilmington, North Carolina, where I had a hotel reservation at the TownePlace Suites. A stay there is highly recommended.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
The next morning, I got up early to make a quick tour of downtown Wilmington. Having never been there before, I was surprised at how many historic, Colonial-style buildings were clustered around the center of town. Regrettably, I didn't get a single photo that I ended up keeping. If you find yourself in Wilmington, I do recommend a walking tour of downtown.
On my way out of town, I crossed a bridge that spanned both the Cape Fear and Brunswick Rivers. My goal was to continue the path of US 17 southbound into South Carolina, and into Myrtle Beach. It wasn't long before I was crossing into South Carolina.
And it took even less time to reach Myrtle Beach via the new Carolina Bays Parkway. At the US 501 interchange, a short drive southeast toward the beach places you squarely in the center of the city. I wasn't entirely prepared for what I found when I got there, though I probably should have anticipated it. Like Atlantic City, Myrtle Beach is a popular tourist destination, but unlike Atlantic City, it is particularly popular among the snow birds. The city has a number of great golf courses, excellent seafood restaurants, broad sandy beaches, and outlet-style shopping. In normal times, it is teeming with visitors strolling up and down the Grand Strand, shopping in the many stores along Ocean Boulevard, or dining in the many restaurants clustered around the city center. The day I arrived, however, it was nothing more than a ghost town. There were almost no people to be seen on the streets or on the beaches. Most businesses were shuttered as a result. I found one souvenir shop still open where I could purchase t-shirts and other mementos.
There really was no point in staying, so I got back in my car after about a 30-minute reconnaissance mission and headed out of town. On my way back into the interior of South Carolina, I spotted the cheapest advertised gas of my entire two-week tour.
The next few hours were spent zigzagging my way up from the coast, into the piedmont area of the state, moving in divergent directions along backroads, all for the purpose of capturing unvisited counties. My goal that day was to complete South Carolina and celebrate the achievement of having been through all of its 46 counties. By day's end, I had rolled into Greenville, South Carolina -- one of the most enchanting mid-size cities I have visited in the United States. I should note here that my love affair with the city is based purely on aesthetics. I didn't have time to experience local arts and theater, restaurants or public events. Yet I was unexpectedly captivated by the fusion of quaint downtown streets and modern public buildings and artwork. It's a city nestled, quite literally, in the tree-covered folds of the Appalachian Range. With such a pretty backdrop, the city looks like a jewel sparkling in a nest of green.
I had pre-arranged to stay at the SpringHill Suites Greenville Downtown. It is definitely one of the finest hotels I stayed in during the two-week tour. Most hotel services were closed, due to COVID. Likewise, most restaurants downtown were closed to indoor seating, so I availed myself of Uber Eats and had dinner delivered. Breakfast was not being served in the morning. Instead, you could pick up a grab-bag in the lobby filled with items you selected from a menu the night before and eat in your hotel room. My room was exquisitely appointed.
These are photos of the city I took the following morning in the daylight.
Even the Greenville Water Company is housed in a stately building:
And with my arrival in Greenville, I had officially completed visiting all 46 counties in South Carolina. This is a good place to stop for now. In the next installment, I'll share stories of travel through Appalachia, specifically Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and tiny slivers of Georgia, Kentucky and Ohio.
. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!