Eastern North Carolina beckons. Don your flip flops, grab a sunhat and enjoy a vacation that brings together history, nature and miles of unspoiled beaches. Enjoy a trip to Eastern North Carolina. Home of the birthplace of Pepsi, the first flight and the first English settlement. Indulge in nature walks, laze at the beach and tour a variety of historical lighthouses. A vacation to suit every palate.
When the Editor asked me to write for the travel section I almost laughed out loud: me, a travel writer! Besides, what rare and exotic place had I visited recently enough to be able to write about? You see, I live in a dinky little town in the middle of nowhere in the USA, and haven’t been anyplace near the typical desi tourist spots. In fact, it’s been five years since I last visited Pakistan, so once I get my elusive ‘green card’, guess where I’m —headed. (Hardly rare and elusive, don’t you think?)
But then I got thinking, and I realized I could write something for Pakistanis traveling to the US. Most people I know tend to fly into one of the big cities (New York, Chicago, and Washington DC), spend some time meeting relatives and shopping, and if they have kids, visiting Orlando, Florida. Boring. Let me introduce you to other interesting places to visit.
I do all my traveling with my two year old toddler in tow. In fact, she’s been riding around the country since she was six weeks old, so all the places I mentioned are doable with kids. Secondly, I am always on a budget, so while I may not be totally el-cheapo, you won’t get the Ritz Carlton out here.
One of the first things I learned about traveling in the US was that when there is more than one person involved, renting a car is often cheaper than flying. And you get to see the countryside too. Besides, unless you have someone to drive you around, with flying you still need to pay for transportation to and from airports. Air travel also requires better planning. Picking the right airports and buying tickets early enough to get the best fares can be quite tricky. There’s also airport security to contend with: if you’re really lucky, your name and face will trigger enough security to make you famous for a few moments. Traveling by train can also be fun, but like air travel, where, when and convenient connections can be an issue.
With the basics out of the way, let me take you on your first journey, which is a road trip around the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My starting point was New Bern, NC which is the birthplace of Pepsi Cola, after which it was a road and sea (ferry) combination traveling North to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, to Kill Devil Hills where the Wright Brothers flew their famous ‘Wright Flyer’ and then back on the mainland via Elizabeth City.
For first-time visitors I suggest at least four days for the trip unless you like whirlwind tours. While I started my journey from New Bern in the south and worked my way north to Elizabeth City, the reverse is possible with Norfolk, Virginia as the starting point.
New Bern was founded by Swiss and German colonists in the early 1700s. It was first a colony capital, and later the state capital of North Carolina, until the late 1700s, and is home to Tryon Palace and Gardens, the site of the governor’s residence at that time. I thought the entrance fee was too high to see an old house with replica furnishings.
The city is better known as the birthplace of Pepsi Cola. The original pharmacy where Caleb Bradham concocted Pepsi is a well marked street corner in the restored and very touristy downtown area. A must see, especially if you have kids, is the Cow Café, which sports a bovine theme and gift shop. The play area in the café is a great place for children to unwind, and the home made ice-cream and sandwiches are very well priced. Also worth visiting is the Union Point Park, where you can feed the ducks and relax as you watch the world sail by on the Trent River. The opening of the drawbridge and the occasional appearance of exotic vessels such as Chinese junks make interesting viewing, and if you have the time, spend a night at one of the waterfront hotels or many bed and breakfasts in the area.
Highway 70 continues east from New Bern to Morehead City and Beaufort, both small towns that are home to a large boat-loving community. The waterfront in both has been developed into a pleasant shopping and dining area from where you can see the intercoastal waterway that lies between the mainland and the islands forming the Crystal Coast and Outer Banks. Shackelford Island across from the Beaufort waterfront is home to wild ponies that originated in Spain. A ship carrying horses from Spain was apparently wrecked in the area in the sixteenth century, and the horses survived. They now live on Shackleford and other barrier islands. The area is also supposedly the watery grave of Blackbeard the Pirate and HMS Bounty.
The route to the Outer Banks continues via highway 70 eastwards. This is a slightly boring drive unless you are interested in looking out at the marshy coastal area through which the winding road takes you. If you are alert you might be lucky enough to see turtles sunning themselves on a tree trunk, or possibly a snake at the roadside, and you’ll easily see some waterfowl. This is about an hour-long drive that goes through small settlements and ends at Cedar Island from where you can catch the Ocracoke ferry. This is not a road to speed or overtake on, especially since cell phone signals are intermittent and it can’t be much fun to land in snake infested marshland because of negligent driving.
An aside here for the adventurous: driving while intoxicated is a stupid thing to do. I have had visitors from Pakistan who assume that they can get away with a few drinks in their system and who insist that it doesn’t impair their judgment. Unlike Pakistan, breathalyzer tests here are chemical, not an ‘open your mouth so I can smell your breath’ event. And please don’t offer the cops money if you do get caught. If you drink, don’t drive: an accident at 80mph (130 kph) is not a joke.
Now that that’s out of the way, and assuming that you have made it as far as Cedar Island, it’s time to take the two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride to Ocracoke. The ferry will take you to Ocracoke on the Pamlico Sound side, not the Atlantic Ocean side of the Outer Banks. This makes the journey smoother, although if you are prone to motion sickness like me, there is no such thing as a smooth boat trip. The ferry is quite comfortable, with seating areas, refreshments and restrooms. Seagulls fly above the ferry as it leaves the shore, and you are allowed to feed them, albeit at the stern so that other passengers aren’t used as targets by the birds.
Ocracoke is a small fishing village and was one of Blackbeard’s hangouts (yes, the same guy Beaufort claims. Other places also say he was connected to them. So either Edward Teach – his real name – either got around a lot, or there are many tourist dollars to be made with his story!). Birdwatchers will like the area, and if you decide to stay a while, there are a number of seafood restaurants. If like me, you don’t eat pork, make sure you ask about the ingredients of various dishes, including salads.
A ferry runs from Ocracoke to Swan Quarter from where you can access Lake Mattamuskeet (try pronouncing that) which is home to local wildlife and vegetation. This is an interesting day-trip that can be added onto the journey at this stage if time permits.
From Ocracoke, the road, known as highway 12, runs north to the end of Ocracoke Island. This is a narrow strip of land, with the Sound and the Atlantic Ocean on each side. There are parking spots and access to the beach along the road, and do not attempt to negotiate the sand dunes with your vehicle for you will get stuck. Dolphins can often be seen swimming near the shore. A free ferry runs from Ocracoke Island to Hatteras Island, a trip of about twenty minutes. Hatteras is famous for its lighthouse which was built in 1869, and at 225feet is the tallest in the USA with a beam that can be seen for 20 miles. The lighthouse was moved back from its original position in 1999 because beach erosion was about to cause its collapse.
Next in the chain is Bodie Island, which is home to the Bodie Island Lighthouse. There are, incidentally seven lighthouses on the Outer Banks, and most visitors attempt to visit all seven. Their locations are well-marked on road signs.
I chose to make the town of Nags Head, which is just south of Kitty Hawk, my base for a couple of days. It has good beaches, restaurants and several reasonably priced and good hotels to choose from, although during peak season it is always advisable to book in advance. There are also numerous cottages that are available for weekly or longer rentals. With the Internet and credit cards, it is relatively easy to book accommodations from abroad. Be warned, however, that most locations impose hefty cancellation charges for no-shows.
Nags Head apparently got its name from the practice of tying lanterns to horses’ necks and walking them along the beach at night, which would fool ships at sea into believing that these were anchored boats. The ships would then run aground as they approached the ‘harbour’, and the locals would promptly relieve them of their cargo.
A ‘must-do’ tour from Nags Head, especially for aviation buffs, is the Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk. This is where the first self-propelled flight took place and it is amazing to think that in one hundred years air travel has become a routine mode of transportation. You will notice that North Carolina vehicle license plates proudly boast “first in flight” as their motto. The Wright Brothers were actually from Ohio (where they had a bicycle shop,) which uses “birthplace of aviation” on its license plates.
Also worth visiting is Manteo on Roanoke Island, which is just a few miles south of Nags Head. In 1585 the British tried to establish their first New World colony at Roanoke Island when Sir Walter Raleigh landed here and built Fort Raleigh. The first group of colonizers returned to England in the following year. In 1587, the English attempted to reestablish the settlement, and the first English child was born in the Americas at this site August 1587. The founder of this settlement returned to England shortly after to get provisions for the colony, but when he returned in 1590 (his return was delayed because of war with Spain), no trace of the colony could be found. “The Lost Colony” is a theatrical outdoor presentation of these events and has daily performances during summer.
If you have managed to do all the things I have detailed thus far, you will be in day four or five of your trip and will need time off. The best thing to do is go lounge on the beach, relax, and take a day or so to unwind. Let the kids romp in the sea while you read a good book. When you get some energy back, think about parasailing, or windsurfing, or going out on a boat for a dolphin watch at sunset. (Unless of course you get motion sickness, in which case, I told you so. You’re probably wondering why I keep repeating this motion sickness thing, so I shall tell all. Sometimes, when we are having fun, we simply forget our body’s limitations. For example, I once was so excited at the thought of going whale watching I eagerly bought tickets and got totally psyched up for the day long trip and failed to recall that I have a problem with boats, mountain drives and elevators. Consequently, I spent five hours communing with the fish while hanging over the railing of a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Needless to say this embarrassing event took place during my honeymoon.)
Once you are relaxed and enjoying your vacation it’ll be time to pack those bags and head home. And then you’ll need more time off to recover from the trip. Keep reading this column and you’ll get enough ideas about how to stay in recovery-from-holiday mode for a considerable time. There are three ways to leave the Outer Banks. First, drive back the way you came, which if it was from the south, is a long way back. It’s easier to leave the area by traveling north on highway 158 to Elizabeth City or Norfolk, Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay area. There is also westbound access across the causeway through Manteo to the Raleigh-Durham area and interstate 95. To return to New Bern, travel west to Greenville and then south on highway 17. Once you get to where you are going, you can plan your next trip to some off the beaten path and exotic place you never thought you’d visit. Hopefully it won’t be Chinchokimalian.
First published in The Knit-Xtyle Fashion Review, issue 13, 2006.