Barrier IslandsThe Outer Banks are a chain of narrow barrier islands that sweep south from the Virginia line in three distinct arcs punctuated by two capes, Hatteras and Lookout. They cover some of the most historic real estate in the country, beginning with the origins of English America on Roanoke Island.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site was established on the north end of Roanoke Island on the site of the first English settlement in North America--the famous Lost Colony. Today, the 500-acre park encompasses the remnants of the colony's 1585 fort, Historic Waterside Theatre where Paul Green's drama, The Lost Colony has played since 1937, the fabulous Elizabethan Gardens, and the site of the Freedman's Colony, the first organized settlement of freed slaves during the Civil War.
Just down the street from Fort Raleigh, the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is one of three state-supported aquariums on the coast.
The highlight of nearby downtown Manteo waterfront is the Roanoke Island Festival Park. The Park is home to a variety of historical interpretive activities in the summer, as well as performing and visual arts events. The most visited attraction of the Park is the Elizabeth II, a replica of the ship that brought the first colonists to Roanoke Island.
On the northern Outer Banks, visitor will find a wealth of natural and manmade attractions. In Nags Head, the dunes of Jockey's Ridge tower up to 100 feet above the beaches and are one of North Carolinas most visited state parks. In stark contrast, just north of the sand dune, the verdant maritime forest of Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve offers visitors a commune with nature.
The site of the Wright Brothers' first flight in Kill Devil Hills is now a National Memorial, featuring a massive granite monument and interpretative visitor center. Plans for the Centennial of First Flight in 2003 are already underway.
Further north in the quaint village of Corolla, visitors can stroll the grounds of the once-regal Whalehead Club. Built as hunt club for northern industrialists in the late 19th century, the club is being restored and serves as a wildlife museum. Adjacent to the Club stands the red brick Currituck lighthouse, open for climbing in the summer.
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore begins south of Nags Head and encompasses more than 75 miles of pristine beach from Oregon Inlet to Ocracoke Village. The Seashore was created in 1954 and is the oldest in the country. Many individual attractions await visitors.
Just south of Nags head is one of the best beaches on the Outer Banks, Coquina Beach. Named after the preponderance of small clams that litter the beach in the summer months, this wide white shore is a popular spot for locals. The remains of the schooner Laura A. Barnes rest here, and on the west side of Highway 12 stands the stately Bodie Island Lighthouse.
Highway 12 crosses Oregon Inlet via the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, and from its apex, drivers get a good look at one of the most dynamic and changeable inlets on the east coast. On the north side of the inlet, fishermen can board a charter for a day offshore at the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center.
A few miles south of the inlet, wildlife enthusiasts have a fantastic opportunity to view hundreds of species of migrating waterfowl at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. In February, the ponds and sound are white with Canadian snow geese.
In the town of Rodanthe, the Chicamocomico Lifesaving Station is a restored lifesaving station from the late 1880s. In the summer, re-enactors produce beach rescues, and the station serves as a living memorial to the men who protected these shores.
Just south of Avon, on the Pamlico Sound, hundreds of Canadian windsurfers descend on Canadian Hole, one of the best-known windsurfing spots on the east coast. The waters are covered with hundreds of colorful sails on blustery spring and fall days.
At Cape Hatteras Point, the Outer Banks shift abruptly to the west, marking the point where the cold waters of the Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream come together. Here is some of the greatest fishing in the world and also the most dangerous landhead on the east coast. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was built nearby in 1871 to warn ships away from the shoals. In the summer of 1999, the lighthouse itself was in danger of collapsing into the approaching surf. The National Park Service moved the structure 1,200 feet inland, where it still stands guard today.
Buxton Woods represents one of the oldest maritime forests on the east coast. A stroll through the woods offers visitors an unique ecology of northern and southern plant and animal species. The woods were once home to a local tribe of Croatan Indians, and the Frisco Native American Museum features their story, plus an amazing look at all Native American cultures.
At Hatteras Village, visitors hop aboard one of North Carolina's six ferries for a 40-minute ride to historic Ocracoke Island. This 12-mile long island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. At the Ocracoke Pony Pen on the east end of the island, visitors can view the remaining herd of wild ponies that once roamed the island in profusion.
At the west end of the island, the village of Ocracoke represents the laid back life of a seaside village. Blackbeard the Pirate once made the area his base of operations, and it was just offshore here that he lost his head to the British Navy in 1718. The Ocracoke Lighthouse still guides boats into the placid harbor.
Just across Ocracoke Inlet lies the deserted village of Portsmouth. Once the leading port in North Carolina, the village slowly declined until the last of its residents left the island in 1974. Today, the National Park Service maintains the dwellings.
Portsmouth marks the northern end of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, which extends southwestward for 80 miles. Access to the Seashore is by boat only, and several Park Service concessionaires offer ferry service to the deserted barrier island.
At the southern tip of the Seashore, Cape Lookout is the second of the three North Carolina capes. The distinctive Cape Lookout Lighthouse guards the treacherous Lookout Shoals. Situated in the lee of the Cape are Shackleford Banks and the Rachel Carson Estuary, home to a hard of wild horses and other wildlife. Shackleford Banks mark the southern terminus of the Outer Banks.
Northern Coastal PlainNorth Carolina's Albemarle region is the seat of earliest settlement in the region. Dating back to the mid-1600s, the area's history is some of the richest and accessible in the state.
In Elizabeth City, the state-supported Museum of the Albemarle is a great first stop for a detailed overview of the region's long history.
Once the colonial capital of North Carolina, Edenton today looks much as it did during the American Revolution. Its restored waterfront and shaded streets offer visitors a glimpse into colonial times with tours of over 30 restored homes and buildings. In stark contrast to the aristocratic feel of Edenton is the frontier environment of North Carolina's oldest dwelling, the Newbold-White House near Hertford, built in 1685.
To the north of Edenton and Hertford lies the Great Dismal Swamp. The swamp once covered over 50,000 acres of land. Today, despite it's reduced area, the swamp is still home to thousands of species of wildlife. As a part of the Intracoastal Waterway, the Dismal Swamp Canal offers boaters safe passage south as it has done for over 200 years.
Merchants Millpond State Park gives visitors a glimpse at what the Dismal Swamp looked like before it was drained. Canoes can be rented for a day on the rusty-brown waters amidst great stands of cypress.
Near Windsor, Hope Plantation is an excellent example of a Federal-style plantation house. The dwelling was home to colonial North Carolina governor David Stone and has been restored to its original glory by local residents.
A short drive to Plymouth takes visitors from North Carolina's plantation era to the Civil War. Plymouth was the site of a fierce land and sea battle for control of the North Carolina rivers and sounds. The event is commemorated at the Port O'Plymouth Museum, which highlights the destruction of the Confederate ironclad ram, the CSS Albemarle.
Central Coastal PlainThe central Coastal Plain is a region of contrasts. From colonial capitals to thriving beach resorts to bustling metropolitan areas, the region has something for everyone.
Somerset Place and Pettigrew State Park take visitors back to antebellum days with a detailed and sometimes disturbing look at North Carolina's largest plantation. Josiah Collins' rice plantation once held over 300 slaves. Neighboring Pettigrew State Park lines the shores of Lake Phelps, one of several fresh water lakes that dot the landscape.
South of there, Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge offers wildlife lovers an incredible view of thousands of species of waterfowl that migrate to the lake every winter. The Lake is the largest in the state, although it is only three feet deep.
In the quaint riverside town of Belhaven, visitors can experience the quirky at the Belhaven Memorial Museum. Exhibits are comprised of every oddity ever uncovered by citizens of this small town, from a circus of fleas to two-headed pigs.
Ten miles east on the north shore of the Pamlico River lies Bath Town State Historic Site. As the oldest incorporated town in North Carolina, this river town was once the colonial capital and home to Blackbeard the Pirate. Today, many of the town's homes are restored and open for tours.
Nearby Goose Creek State Park is an excellent example of a flood plain ecosystem. Camping and boating opportunities abound in this quiet pristine river environment.
On the south side of the Pamlico River, the Aurora Fossil Museum takes advantage of PCS Phosphate's nearby mining operation and displays the ancient remains of maritime creatures. Shark's teeth up to six inches long strike terror into the hearts of hundreds of school children every year.
At the confluence of the Neuse and Trent Rivers, Historic New Bern is one of North Carolina's most beautiful towns. The third of the state's colonial capitals, New Bern appears today much as it did 200 years ago, with a beautifully restored historic district. The centerpiece of the city is the magnificent Tyron Palace and Gardens, the regal home of North Carolina's royal governor prior to the revolution. Meticulously rebuilt to its original glory, the Palace is open for guided tours year-round.
Contrast the stately streets of New Bern with pine-littered trails of the Croatan National Forest just south of town. This arid coastal park is characterized by open stands of long leaf pine and gentle sandy hills called hammocks.
Next stop, the atmospheric restored colonial port town of Beaufort State Historic Site. The port town boasts one of the best-restored waterfronts in the southeast, complete with a state-run Maritime Museum and boat building Museum, shops, and restaurants. Or take a moment to stroll through the Historic District, with homes dating back to the early 1700s.
Then head "Down East" to Harker's Island, where the natives still speak with an accent reminiscent of their Elizabethan ancestors called a "High Tide" dialect (say Hoigh Toighd). Visit the Harker's Island Decoy Museum, which features hand-carved wooden decoys that qualify as fine art.
Bogue Banks separate the mainland from the ocean along the coast here, and visitors will find many things to keep them occupied. At the eastern end of the island, Fort Macon State Park is the most visited of North Carolina's state parks. The centerpiece of the park is a stone fort that has guarded strategic Beaufort Inlet for 200 years and was the scene of a fierce land and sea battle in 1862. To the west, visit the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. Featuring dozens of tanks of exciting marine life and maritime forest trails, the Aquarium is a must-see.
Bear Island and Hammock's Beach State Park are adjacent to Bogue Banks. This pristine island is accessible only by boat but is worth the trip in the summer when loggerhead turtles can be observed laying eggs on the wide sandy beaches.
Southern Coastal PlainThe southern costal plain is characterized by a subtropical climate much different from the northern region. And it is here that eastern North Carolina's heart and soul has long resided.
The thriving river city of Wilmington is the crown jewel of the region. Now a diverse city with industry ranging from tourism to filmmaking at its core, Wilmington has always been North Carolina's primary seaport. Settled in the early 1700s, the city was the last Confederate port to fall into Union hands during the Civil War, thus sealing the fate of the Confederacy. Today, its stunning Historic District offers visitors a glimpse into the antebellum past.
Across the Cape Fear River from the city's waterfront, the Battleship North Carolina recalls wars of the modern era. The battleship is one of Wilmington's top attractions, and guided tours are available daily.
South of the city, the magnificent Orton Plantation and Gardens is an icon of the area's plantation past. The impeccably restored home and lush gardens are most stunning in April and May, when thousands of azaleas bloom. Next door, the remnants of the region's first town can be seen at Brunswick Town State Historic Site. Once North Carolina's busiest port, the town was reduced to rubble by British forces in 1776.
If you want a change from the bustle of Wilmington, head south to Southport, a quiet seaside town with sandy lanes and a working waterfront. Visit the Southport Mariner's Museum for a peek at the town's history. Bald Head Island is a short boat ride away. Here you can visit the state's oldest lighthouse, Old Baldy, and stroll among the marshes and private homes on an island where there are no cars.
The beach communities of Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach offer something for just about everyone. Carolina Beach State Park is a great camping haven on the Cape Fear River. At Fort Fisher, you will find the North Carolina Aquarium, as well as the earthworks of the "Gibraltar of the South". Fort Fisher successfully guarded the mouth of the Cape Fear during the Civil War, despite repeated Union assaults. Finally, in January 1865, after the largest land and sea battle of the war, it fell. Wilmington fell shortly after.
The stretch of coast from the Cape Fear River to the South Carolina line is one of the oldest resort areas in the state. Comprised of Oak Island, Holden Beach, Long Beach, and Sunset Beach, the islands are dotted with rustic beach cottages and small beach communities. The town of Calabash is famous for its distinctive seafood, so much so that the term "Calabash Style" is found on restaurants far and wide throughout the region. But, in tiny Calabash, part of the meaning of "style" is having the shrimp boats tied up literally at the back doors of the local restaurants!