What brought 16th-century explorer Amerigo Vespucci and Sir Walter Raleigh's English colonists to the North Carolina coast? Maybe they were drawn by the lure of its temperate clime, warm, crystal-clear waters, and pristine natural beauty. Take the Outer Banks, for example. Surrounded by 900 miles of water, this thin chain of islands forms a sheltering buffer between the Tar Heel state and the rough-and-tumble Atlantic. Modern-day explorers can battle against billfish, climb to the top of a lighthouse, or tour the islands via sea kayak. If you prefer to follow in the Wright Brothers' footsteps, there's even hang gliding above the dunes.
While hitting the Outer Banks is a real no-brainer, don't forget about the rest of the coast. Scenic Albemarle Sound lies tucked within the islands' embrace. Morehead City and Bogue Banks sit on the Crystal Coast, which starts where the Outer Banks leaves off, stretching down to the southern barrier islands, the historic port city of Wilmington, and Wrightsville Beach. No matter where you find yourself, coastal North Carolina makes a great year-round vacation destination.
There are numerous wrecks to explore off the North Carolina coast, andlucky youthey all lie beneath clear, warm, Gulf Stream waters. With 100-foot visibility and 80-degree temperatures in the water, it's no wonder that Scuba Magazine named North Carolina the best wreck-diving destination in North America. Outer Banks is a hot dive destination. The hazardous currents, shoals, and storms have sent about six hundred ships to a watery grave. Check out the U-352, a German U-boat torpedoed in 1942, the World-War-II tanker Papoose, or a WWI-era wreck, the Schurz, all accessible from Morehead City.
With so much shoreline, it only makes sense that the North Carolina coast features a number of lighthouses. There are seven picturesque towers, as well as the ruins of an eighth on the Outer Banks aloneperfect for a scenic driving tour across the islands. One nice drive starts at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, at 208 feet, the tallest lighthouse in the United States, and travels down Highway 12 to the Hatteras Inlet ferry, which will take you from Bodie Island to Ocracoke Island (former home of the infamous Blackbeard). Built in 1923, the 65-foot-high Ocracoke Lighthouse is the oldest operating lighthouse on the North Carolina coast. For a twist of history, drive farther south and tour the Cape Fear River region with two lighthouses of particular interest. Both Bald Head Lighthouse and Price's Creek Lighthouse were built in the first half of the nineteenth century and later disabled by retreating Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
What's your fishing fancy? Fresh, brackish, or saltwateryou'll find good angling action here. Known as the "Billfish Capital of the World," the Outer Banks is a hotspot for blue marlin, white marlin, and sailfish; cast your line from late spring to early fall. But all along the shoreline you will find plenty of tremendous fishing with blues, flounder, cobia, pampano, red drum, and many other species of coastal fish available. Indeed, you might get lucky and land something larger than the 745-pound speckled trout that was landed near Beaufort. Fresh- and brackish-water fishermen will find largemouth bass, white and yellow perch, and even some catfish ready to take the bait.
Want to get away from it all and really get a taste of the beautiful North Carolina coast at the same time? Whether you'd rather ride the waves in a sea kayak or glide through the salt marshes in a canoe, paddling is a great way to go. Ocean explorers can keep an eye out for dolphin pods as they explore the nooks and crannies of tiny, uninhabited islands. Take a kayak tour of Nags Head Woods and paddle past blue herons, turtles, lizards and 500-year-old trees that dwell in this rare maritime forest. Try a kayak from Morehead City or Beaufort and explore islands where wild horses have roamed for centuries. Or paddle your way around the undisturbed Masonboro Island, where you might get lucky and spot the endangered loggerhead turtle.
In the Water
Would you rather be one with the waves or looking down on the Atlantic from high above? From body surfing to parasailing, you'll find great water sports all along the coast. The Outer Banks is known as the "Wind Surfing Capital of the East Coast." The steady winds, temperate weather, and shallow, warm water draw visitors almost year-round. Windsurfing is also popular in the Basin, a partially protected body of water at the south end of Pleasure Island near Wilmington. A 3.3-mile breakwater known as the Rocks encloses the Basin, which provides wind and water conditions, as well as limited boat traffic. More advanced windsurfers might try Bank's Channel on the south side of Wrightsville Beach.
On the Beach
Located in Nags Head, Jockey's Ridge State Park holds about six million dump trucks' worth of beachnot to mention the highest living dune on the East Coast. What to do with all that sand? Build yourself a castle, go treasure hunting for shells, crabs or clams, or take a self-guided hike. From the top of the duneswhich rise up to 100 feetyou can catch some air with a hang-gliding lesson, or just go fly a kite. If you want interesting plant life to go along with your sand, try Carolina Beach State Parkone of the few places in the world where the Venus Fly Trap grows naturally. If it's peace and relaxation you're after, try Hammocks Beach State Park, an undisturbed barrier island that was rated the 2nd best beach on the East Coast.
Wildlife Viewing and Birding
The 700 acres of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge are conveniently located in the middle of the Atlantic Flywaywhich means the refuge hosts more than 265 species of migratory birds. Bring your binoculars, stake out a spot on one of the viewing platforms, and check out the winter home of tundra swans, snow geese, Canada geese, herons, egrets, and more. Fall and spring offer great birding as well.
Following in the wing-flaps of their feathered friends, man first achieved powered flight here in the Outer Banks, way back in 1903. Take in the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kill Devil Hills, complete with a replica of Orville and Wilbur's "Wright Flyer" and an interpretive tour.
Along the Virginia border you will find Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, which was set aside as a winter haven for migratory birds. A trail system and 20 miles of canals provide plenty of ways to see the wide variety of song and waterbirds.
For larger creatures head to the mainland and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which offers more than 150,000 acres of wetland habitat. Keep a careful eye out for black bears, red wolves, and yes, a gator or two. On Ocracoke Island, look for the wild poniesthe descendants, perhaps, of horses left behind by shipwrecked explorers of the 16th or 17th Century.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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