The Outer Banks beaches are so magnificent that visitors need to allow sufficient time to experience all they offer.

Exploring North Carolina’s stretch of barrier islands presents unique opportunities to engage with fishing families who honor the traditions of generations, and to learn about the lifesaving stations trusted by early seafarers facing notoriously dangerous waters.

Sure you can reserve a grand beach house – there are about 10,000 rentals available in the Outer Banks — and stay put there, shaping a sunny holiday with surf and sand. You can also drive some or all of the 138 miles of the National Scenic Byway, or take a 25-mile ferry ride to witness coastal history, nature and tradition.

Find stellar experiences the whole length of the Byway. Pick any stretch and expect experiences loaded with heritage and tons of fun.

Obvious and easy to find are the four lighthouses, two national seashores named Hatteras and Cape Lookout, two national wildlife refuges and the little hill where the Wright Brothers launched the first heavier-than-air powered flight.

Outer Banks Wright Brothers memorial

First flight with Wright Brothers: history, art, National Park Service Photo courtesy Outer Banks Visitors Bureau

Many more places also offer depth within these 21 National Scenic Byway villages. Here are five allowing deep connections:

  • Jockey’s Ridge dune hang gliding
  • Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center
  • 16th century Elizabethan garden and sailing vessel
  • Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
  • Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station

Kill Devil Hills to Jockey’s Ridge

Orville and Wilbur Wright took turns on their first four flights, and 59 seconds in the air was their all-time record.

You, too, can fly at the Outer Banks, taking off from the largest living sand dune on the east coast, not far from the National Park Service National Monument dedicated to the Wright Brothers. Combine seeing the actual spot of those four flights with Park Ranger storytelling and exhibits before heading to Jockey’s Ridge State Park.

Outer Banks Jockey's Ridge sand dunes.

Hang glide near Wright Brothers first flights. Photo courtesy Outer Banks Visitors Bureau

Run up the dune which has peaks of 90 feet, or trudge slowly just for the view from the top. Sunsets are spectacular.

Book a class with America’s oldest and largest hang gliding school and fly back down. $109 covers a 45-minute lesson on the ground plus five flights. Jeff Schwartzenberg, who has been teaching with Kitty Hawk Kites for 29 years, says everybody can do it.

“You can fly when you’re four years old, and we’ve flown with someone who was 98.”

What a way to connect with the reality of those Wright brothers in the Outer Banks wind and sand…..even if you only watch others strap on the big kite.

Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center

Finely carved decoys in the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum are but one of the artistic expressions helping the rest of us better appreciate fishing families. Find this center of abundant heritage and education in “Down East,” on the southernmost part of the Byway, almost to the city of Beaufort.

Fishing families and their tools to be admired in Outer Bsanks

Fishing tools are art in “Down East village neighborhoods.” Photo by Christine Tibbetts

“Core Sound is sacred to us. These Outer Banks and shores and shoals are like a retreat to many a mind and a peace to the soul,” said Barbara Garrity-Blake who co-authored an insightful book named Fish House Opera.

You might just find her in the Museum amidst the wildlife art, quilts and quilters, in the library and research center, or resting in a leather chair fit for a hunt club gathering room.

The Museum’s second floor is community-based with exhibits reflecting the Core Sound neighborhoods. “Down East fishing families live by the values considered truly American—independence, risk-taking and freedom,” according to Garrity-Blake.

“People are downright reverent about the area, living off its shrimp, crabs, oysters and clams for generations.”

Fresh fish just off the boat Outer Banks

Authentic experiences in Outer Banks: fishermen with fresh catch. Photo by Christine Tibbetts

Core Sound is also where to find Cape Lookout National Seashore, and to enjoy a night hike to the top of the lighthouse. Whether heading north or south, spend a little time in Beaufort for the lively small city immersion in coastal life and history.

16th Century Elizabethan Garden and sailing vessel

Musing about the boats built by these rugged people for family survival, my thoughts turned to equally determined early settlers and I wanted to connect the people of the centuries — just like Kitty Hawk Kites enriched my Wright Brothers National Park System experience.

Queen Elizabeth influenced Outer Banks settlement

Elizabethan Gardens connect Outer Banks to settlers. Photo courtesy Outer Banks Visitors Bureau

It can be done at least two ways. Although they’re both named Elizabeth, one is a formal garden and the other is a vessel.

Board the Elizabeth II sailing ship in Roanoke Island’s Festival Park, imagining it’s 1585 and you’re one with the earliest colonists. This is an outdoor living history complex with a 45-minute inside docudrama film to get acquainted.

Paths are paved, docents are cheerful and knowledgeable, and exhibits throughout the grounds are interactive with clear signage that teaches but doesn’t demand too much concentration. Well done for all ages.

“Go where the winds are blowing the way you want to go,” was the sage advice I got from the costumed helmsman named Randall on the Elizabeth II. The journey from England to Roanoke? Eighty-five days.

The ship’s crew, in costume and in character, was a boisterous lot but the formal gardens named for Queen Elizabeth on the edge of nearby Fort Raleigh National Historic site are calm and quiet.

Ten acres of ever-changing blooms are maintained by the Garden Clubs of North Carolina. Tip: pack a picnic and relax on the Great Lawn. Pay tribute to Virginia Dare, revered here as the first child born of English parents in this new colony.

She’s depicted as a grown woman in white Carrara marble sculpted by Massachusetts artist Louisa Lander.

Ferries travel 25 miles of National Scenic Byway in Outer Banks

Hatteras to Ocracoke: Take the ferry. Photo by Christine Tibbetts

Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum

Good grief! 1,500 ships wrecked along the coast where the rest of us vacation. Lighthouses are such a pleasure to spot on the horizon that it’s easy to forget their purpose: they offer serious warnings to seamen.

With four to see along the Byway, and a fifth recreated for Roanoke Island Festival Park, I was prepared for lighthouse lessons in the museum in the village of Hatteras.

Time on the 1585 Elizabeth II connected me to this history in a personal way, imagining myself on a turbulent sea in that little vessel, desperately hoping to spot a light indicating land and guiding the captain away from dangerous shoals.

Underwater archeology is the key to The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, launched by local folks and today part of the professional North Carolina Maritime Museums network. Even the Facebook page is interactive with video of real-time presentations and snippets of shipwreck and lifesaving history.

Exhibits felt to me like down-home Hatteras wrapped in high tech technology and design. Plus, the beach is just across the street.

Lighthouses save lives in Outer Banks

Think differently about lighthouses after visiting life-saving stations. Photo courtesy Outer Banks Visitors Bureau

Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station

Stroll the Graveyard beach contemplating the sunken ships, and the one in Rodanthe at Chicamacomico appreciating that lifesaving was an art and a passion, and incredibly hard, dangerous work.

“The book says you gotta go out. It don’t say nothin’ ‘bout coming back,” is the historic somber quote from a station keeper.

1874 was the start of this station, to rescue those in peril from the sea. Clear-cut mission, would you say? The visit also allows guests to walk seven acres and enter eight buildings furnished with artifacts .

This is feeling the rush, standing next to a rescue boat, looking toward the ocean and remembering the lessons from the Graveyard Museum. Plus Chicamacomico presents workshops, lectures, re-enactments and summer camps for immersing in this very particular history.

Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station Outer Banks

Lifesaving operations vital to Outer Banks history. Photo by G. W. Tibbetts