Modern visitors have found the Outer Banks to be the ideal vacation spot, but they are simply carrying on a tradition that began over 160 years ago when a North Carolina plantation owner first set foot at Nags head and discovered the charms of the area. In those days, planters from inland counties longed to escape the long, hot and humid summer, which they believed fostered malaria and other diseases. In the 1830s, the first of these genteel plantation owners came to Nags Head and purchased 200 acres of land where he built the very first beach cottage.

Within 20 years, Nags head had become a thriving resort settlement, with two dozen vacation homes from Sound to sea, and a massive resort called the Nags Head Hotel at the foot of Jockey's Ridge. For many years before and after the Civil War, the hotel was the focal point of summer activity in Nags Head. Dance and dinners were held nearly every night. The hotel even built a railway for transportation of its guests to the ocean beach. Accommodations were inexpensive as well: $1.50 per day, with children and servants half price.

The hotel met its demise in the 1870's when the shifting sands of Jockey's Ridge claimed it. Local lore has it the hotel remains intact beneath 100 feet of sand. However, many of those original cottage still line the oceanfront opposite Jockey's Ridge and have now become known as "The Unpainted Aristocracy" of Nags Head. These stately cottages are built with porches facing the south so as to break the often chilly northeast wind. And many of them are constructed with lumber salvaged from the Shipwrecks that once littered the beaches.