Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Outer Banks - 696 Steps and One Giant Hill

We got off to a late start leaving Norfolk. The skies were cloudy and gloomy but they were supposed to clear later in the afternoon so there didn’t seem to be a reason to rush. Plus, it gave us the chance to have a nice breakfast with Mary. After she left for work, we packed our bags into Mary’s little Honda and headed for the Outer Banks.

The drive took longer than we expected, especially those last 20 miles driving through Duck, which seemed to go on FOREVER. By the time we got to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, it was already 11:15 so we didn’t have much time for exploring. We bought our tickets to climb the lighthouse and started up the steps. Despite the clouds, the view from the top was beautiful. We could see all the way to Virginia to the north and the 1920’s era Whalehead Club below. The lighthouse itself was very pretty – a red brick tower with a Victorian lighthouse keeper’s house. One lighthouse down, two to go. :-)

Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Currituck Beach Lighthouse

lighthouse stairs

Susan on the stairs

view from the top of Currituck Beach Lighthouse

lighthouse keeper's house

After grabbing some pizza for lunch, it was time to meet for our Wild Horse Adventure Tour. Corolla is famous for its wild Spanish Mustangs. No one knows for sure how the horses got to the Outer Banks, but the accepted theory is that they swam ashore from English or Spanish shipwrecks in the 16th century. By the 1990s development was taking its toll on the horse population, so in 1997 all the horses were relocated to the northernmost beaches, only accessible by 4WD vehicles. There are about 100 wild horses remaining on the northern Outer Banks.

Our group of 12, plus tour guide Gary, piled into the open-air Humvee and soon we were off in search of horses. The skies were clearing a little and it was a gorgeous drive along the beach. Gary gave us a lot of information about the horses along the way. Pointing out the surprisingly small “sound-to-sea” fence that keeps the horses in protected territory, he told us that horses can jump fences but they don’t realize they can (unless someone teaches them). He also said that Spanish Mustangs can be a variety of colors, but the Corolla mustangs are descended from a line that lacked the color gene so all the Corolla horses are brown.

We didn’t see any horses on the beach, so Gary drove the Humvee inland. This part was a blast – it was like a roller coaster, riding up over sand dunes, around curves and through big puddles of water. We all kept our eyes peeled for horses and finally we were rewarded with three different groups, grazing in small packs along the side of the road or in the back yards of beach cottages. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Wild Horse Adventure Tours humvee

Carova Beach

Carova beach house

Corolla wild mustangs

Corolla wild mustang

Corolla wild mustangs

Corolla wild mustangs

After the tour I was hoping we could go back to the lighthouse to take more pictures, but the skies had clouded over again. Bummer! It was after 4 by then anyway and we still had a 45-minute drive ahead, so we drove on to our hotel. We stayed at the Travelodge Nags Head Beach Hotel, which was nothing to write home about but perfectly acceptable for a 2-night stay. It was across the street from the beach but from our third floor room, we could see the water.

That night we ate at the Blue Moon Beach Grill. It was fabulous, my favorite meal. My lavender lemon drop martini was perfect and the shrimp and grits were melt-in-your-mouth delicious. After dinner, we drove around a little to get the lay of the land. It was too cloudy for a sunset but we stopped at a beach access point to see the big waves crashing on the beach.

Nags Head Beach

When we woke up the next morning, the sun was shining. Hurray for blue skies!! I was ready to climb some more lighthouses! Our first stop was the Bodie (pronounced “body”) Island Light Station, just south of Nags Head. We got there around 8:30 so we had a little time to walk down towards the marshes behind the lighthouse for some pictures before our guided tour at 9. Unfortunately, at the marshes Ron started getting attacked by giant biting flies! For some reason, they liked to bite him more than me. He was ready to run back to the car but I said, “Wait, you can’t go yet. You have to take a picture of me with the lighthouse first!” Poor Ron. The things he puts up with for my lighthouse addiction. :-)

We were in the first group of the day to climb the tower. There were only 6 of us so it was a nice, intimate tour. Our guide Hillary stopped every 2nd or 3rd landing so we could catch our breath while she talked. The Bodie Lighthouse is identical in design to the Currituck Lighthouse except that it has one additional step - 220 instead of 219. It had just been through a 3-and-a-half year renovation and was pristine and beautiful. I really think it was the prettiest lighthouse I have seen.

Bodie Island Lighthouse

Susan at lighthouse
Ron braved the flies for this picture

Bodie Island Lighthouse

lighthouse stairs looking down

lighthouse window

view from top of Bodie Island Lighthouse

lighthouse keeper's house
Lighthouse Keeper's House

Next it was on to the lighthouse of lighthouses, America’s Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras. Ron spotted it first as we drove down Highway 12. My first impression was, “Wow, it’s big!” Up close, it was almost too much to take in. Kind of like the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon. We decided to walk down to the beach to get some distance and to see the original lighthouse location, before it was moved in 1999. There was nothing left on the beach but a few granite stones to mark the spot. When the lighthouse was built in 1870, it was 1500 feet from the ocean. By the 1970s, the water was just 150 feet away. I wondered how much longer the lighthouse could have survived if it hadn’t been moved. Thank goodness for all the people who care enough about our lighthouses to protect them!

Before making the climb, we ate lunch at the Buxton Munch Company, a happy little place tucked away in a nearby shopping center. We shared a plate of fish tacos, which was plenty for the two of us. Ron had a couple of beers to make the climbing easier (he’s not a fan of heights) and then we were ready to take on the behemoth.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from beach

original lighthouse location
The original location

Susan on dunes

Buxton Munch Company

I’ve wanted to climb the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse for more than 10 years, but just before our trip I found out that it was in the middle of being repainted. I freaked out, envisioning the tower covered with scaffolding. Or worse, closed! So when we got to the park, I was very relieved to see that the painting was almost finished. There was just one small patch left to go. Actually, it was kind of neat seeing the painters high up on their tiny platform. More crewmen on the ground held ropes to stabilize the platform. Not a job I would want, that’s for sure!

Up we went, 257 steps to the gallery. Normally, climbing lighthouses doesn’t bother me but this time I was kind of scared. Most lighthouses have two hand rails, one on each side of the stairs. But Hatteras only has a railing on the inner side so I couldn’t hug the walls like a normally do. The whole way up I was thinking, “Why did I want to do this??” But once we got to the top, it was all worth it. What a gorgeous view! We could see the long path the lighthouse had taken on the way to its new location. Part of the gallery was blocked off because of the painting but one of the crewmen offered to use my camera to take a picture of the lighthouse keeper’s houses below. That was nice. We’d done it - 3 lighthouses, 696 steps!

Cape Hatteras Light Station

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse


painting the lighthouse

half way up
Half way there!
 view from top of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse


lighthouse keeper's houses

When we got back to Nags Head, it was after 4 o’clock – just enough time to check out the Wright Brothers National Memorial before it closed for the day. We did a speed tour through the memorial, running up to the 60-foot granite monument, then back down to the stainless steel replica of the 1903 glider, and finally to the grassy field where the first four flights were made. Whew! We didn’t have a chance to see the Visitor Center or the museum, but at least we’d hit the highlights. It’s amazing to think that we went from those short flights to breaking the speed of sound in just 44 years.

Wright Brothers National Memorial

glider replica

Ron on glider

Wright Brothers National Memorial

First Flight

That night Ron was in the mood for something beachy so we ate dinner at Tortuga’s Lie, a seafood restaurant with a Caribbean twist. We hadn’t realized it but the restaurant had been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Guy Fieri. (We’ll definitely have to find and watch that episode!) It was a fun place but I thought the food was just OK. I guess I should have ordered what Guy ordered. :-)

Tortuga's Lie
Tortuga's Lie

After dinner, we went to Jockey’s Ridge to watch the sunset from the sand dunes. Jockey’s Ridge is the largest sand dune system on the Atlantic coast, ranging in height from 80 to 100 feet. When you see the dunes from a distance you don’t realize how big they are until you notice the little tiny people at the top. There was a haze over the surface from the blowing sand, and the wind made interesting patterns, like waves. To me, the dunes were like a living organism, constantly changing but staying the same. Really fascinating.

Apparently, Ron liked the dunes too because he turned into a little kid in a giant sandbox. He started throwing sand up into the air and running up the hills (with me panting behind him). It was pretty funny. This trip was mostly for me to see the lighthouses so I was really glad that Ron was having fun too. We found a good, high spot and watched a spectacular sunset over the Roanoke Sound.

Jockey's Ridge

Ron running up dunes
Wait for me, Ron!

Ron on dunes

dunes at dusk

dunes at dusk

Before leaving Nags Head the next morning, we stopped at Duck Donuts to try some of their famous made-to-order donuts. Now we know what all the fuss is about! The donuts were topped with our choice of glazes and toppings, and we ate them while they were still warm. They were the best donuts I’ve ever had - our last, sweet taste of the Outer Banks.

Duck Donuts


  1. So glad the lighthorsing went well! The pictures are beautiful--how cool to see the wild horses. I never got to see them on my one trip to the Outer Banks. And the Hatteras pictures are especially cool, with the one unpainted patch and the guys working on it.

  2. Now Chris and I have to go climb Bodie and Hatteras! I'm kind of partial to the cozy look of red brick Corolla light, but Bodie looked especially serene and pristine, there in the marsh, so I can see why it's your favorite.