The Outer Banks and it's European connection

Back in 1584 Arthur Barlowe was one of the first British visitors to experience the Outer Banks. Writing about his experience, he wrote, “This Island had many goodly woodes full of Deere, Conies, Hares, and Fowle, even in the middest of Summer in incredible abundance…”

Hyperbole? Perhaps, but there is no doubt the Outer Banks are special.

There is no place quite like the Outer Banks. A few million visitors that stop by every year can attest to that. And then there are the 40,000 or so folks that live on these barriers stretched along 110 miles of coastline.

Ask someone who is a resident what makes the Outer Banks different and a questioning look may well be the response. For those lucky enough to live there, it’s just accepted that there’s 100 miles plus of beautiful beaches and, especially in the summer, ocean water that is refreshing, but not cold.

Since the 1820s when Nags Head became one of the first tourist destinations in the country, the Outer Banks has been a place people keep returning to time and time again.

Back then it was the wealthy plantation owners fleeing the oppressive heat, humidity and malaria of the coastal plain of the state, but as roads improved and bridges built, people began to realize that the Outer Banks were just far enough away from major cities of the south and east coast…but not so far away that getting here entailed days of driving.

That may be why the Outer Banks is seeing more foreign visitors over the past few years—that they have discovered the Outer Banks is one of the most beautiful places anywhere and it only takes a few hours of driving to find it.

Their Canadian neighbors figured that out some time ago. It is a 13 or 14 hour ride from Toronto or Montreal, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of families from coming.

It is the European visitors, though, that appear to be learning about the Outer Banks in increasing numbers.

There are no hard numbers saying, “this is how many visitors they’re getting from Great Britain or Germany.” But residents know they are hearing a little more of the clipped manner of speaking of the British—an admittedly American way to view the British accent. They also seem to be hearing a little more German and maybe a few other languages as well.

Why are they seeing more across the pond visitors to the Outer Banks?

There are probably a couple of reasons for that.

After asking the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau what they thought. Something they pointed out seemed to make sense.

The Outer Banks is not well known outside of the United States and eastern Canada. So, for many European families, they discover the Outer Banks when they take a side trip as they are exploring the Eastern seaboard.

What they discover is a place unlike anything in Europe. Even in the summer, when those on the OBX consider their beaches crowded, it’s nothing like those on the Mediterranean.

And, unlike the water temperatures where most of the German and British resorts lie, the summer ocean temperatures range between 4-8 degrees Celsius warmer than summer sea temperatures of the North Sea.

The beach and the sea are not the only things that keep visitors coming back.

The Outer Banks is a family-oriented resort. That was the case back in the 1820s when the first small homes were built for the families of the wealthy planters. And it is still the case today—although wealth is not a prerequisite for spending a week by the sea anymore.

There is a lot to do on the Outer Banks, especially in the peak season—June-August. It should be added, though, that late spring and early fall have become increasingly popular months to visits.

What there isn’t on the Outer Banks are some of the gaudy businesses with blinding lights and blaring music that many resorts feature. There are no high-rise hotels. No high-rise anything anywhere on this strip of sand. Four stories are as high as it gets.

Because of that, there are no towering buildings blocking the sun on the beach. Just a few hotels, some mom and pop cottage courts and motels and a lot of oceanfront homes waiting for a family to fill the rooms.

Compared to the history that is so ingrained into European soil, much of the recorded history of the US is young indeed. Nonetheless, there are some remarkable things to be explored there.

The best known is, of course, the Wright Brothers Memorial, a must-see part of the Outer Banks experience for anyone.

The historic significance of standing on the ground where Wilbur and Orville Wright accomplished that first flight is remarkable. As remarkable as that may be, though, visiting the rotunda that houses the story of the brothers brings home how extraordinary they were as inventors and visionaries. While at the memorial, don’t forget to climb Kill Devil Hill to stand at the base of the Monument.

It was Barlowe’s extravagant praise of the abundance of Roanoke Island that Sir Walter Raleigh used as propaganda for his Cittie of Raleigh—the failed attempt of the Lost Colony. The outdoor drama, The Lost Colony, tells the story with rousing special effects, great choreography and a compelling story. Waterside Theater, where the play is performed, is very close to the location of the Lost Colony.

There are also lighthouses to climb. Three of the four local lighthouses are available for climbing. 

From the top of those lighthouses the real beauty of the Outer Banks becomes apparent. As wonderful as our beaches are; as perfect as the ocean temperature may be, the beauty of the Outer Banks is in its marvelously diverse environment.

On the far north end, wild horses still roam among the sand dunes. To the south, in Nags Head, Jockey’s Ridge is the largest sand dune on the East Coast. Small islands dot the sounds, marked by patches of reeds that have taken root. The shallow bays of the sounds give shelter to thousands of migratory waterfowl in the fall and winter. In the dense maritime forests that have taken root where protected from the wind by dunes, woodpeckers tap out rhythms in the trees. Squirrels leap among the branches; and occasionally a deer will be seen.

All of this beauty, this diversity is not very far at all from major cities. From Dulles International Airport, it’s a four and a half hour drive to Kitty Hawk.

An editorial aside to that—the first two and half hours between Washington, DC and Richmond is a thoroughly miserable drive.

There are other possibilities. Raleigh, North Carolina is three and a half hours away and Richmond, Virginia is three-hour ride. Or, take advantage of Norfolk International Airport. It’s just an hour and a half from the Outer Banks. It’s a little smaller than the other airports so connecting flights may be a bit more limited, but it is a far more convenient location to begin an Outer Banks visit.

Barlowe never did get back to the Outer Banks. It’s unknown if he was relieved to not have been a part of the Lost Colony or if he lived a life of regret, never to return to a place of such extraordinary beauty.

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