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North Carolina’s Currituck Outerbanks

A serene beach destination

Near the northernmost of North Carolina’s barrier islands, the beautiful Currituck Outer Banks occupy a 12-mile stretch of ocean between the Atlantic and Currituck Sound. Tranquil beaches, great accommodations and an abundance of recreational activities make this gateway to the storied Outer Banks a place to escape and relax any time of the year.

Sanddunes at Carova Beach, North Carolina
Sanddunes at Carova Beach – photo Frederica Dunn


September and October are good months to visit as the summer crowds have gone home. I found everything from white sand beaches to wild horses, boutiques and restaurants galore. Currituck County is more than I had imagined.

Currituck has long been known as a sportsman’s paradise. The brackish waters of its sound provide a bounty of fishing, canoeing and eco-tourism. I saw the Outer Banks with new eyes as I paddled into the wilds with the shallow draft of a kayak. In the Mackay Island Wildlife Refuge, I saw fishermen, photographers, hikers and birders among those who enjoyed its bounty.

The names of this area reflect the early Native American heritage: Currituck was named land of the wild goose by Indian tribes that lived on the barrier island. You can connect with the area’s past by visiting the majestic Currituck Beach Lighthouse, the fascinating Whalehead Club or the tiny 19th century village of Corolla (pronounced Cor-AH-lah by the locals).

Although the area only has two hotels (The Inn at Corolla Light and the Hampton Inn), visitors tend to rent private homes here, and there are more than 5,000 rentals on the Outer Banks. Most of the homes are new and offer a wide range of amenities such as pools, hot tubs and home theaters (and some even have gyms and fitness centers).

Fall and spring tend to be less expensive, and every rental company has extensive brochures and websites that highlight each property. Prices range from $1,500-3,000 per week. The rental homes are popular for weddings, family reunions or simply good friends getting together for a vacation.

Down the road from Corolla in Kill Devil Hills, there is a 60-foot granite monument honoring the Wright Brothers. It is the site of the world’s first controlled-powered flight on December 17, 1903. Be sure to visit the visitor center, which features full-scale reproductions of the 1903 Wright Powered Flyer and other special exhibits.

One of the area’s leading attractions is the red brick Currituck Beach Lighthouse, which has stood watch over the Outer Banks for more than 125 years. First lighted on December 1, 1875, the beacon now flashes at 20-second intervals from dusk to dawn and its light can be seen for an astounding 18 nautical miles. Rising to a height of 163 feet, the lighthouse contains more than one million bricks; and visitors can climb its 214 steps to the viewing deck at the top. You can climb straight up or catch your breath on the landings! The lighthouse is open from Easter until Thanksgiving.

If you go to the northern beaches of the Currituck Outer Banks, it won’t be hard to encounter some of Corolla’s free-roaming and protected — wild horses. I got a close look at these magnificent Spanish mustangs and learned about their fascinating history. These exotic equines have roamed the rugged Outer Banks for more than four centuries. Geneticists have recently proved that they are the descendants of 16th century Barb horses from Spain, originally bred on North Africa’s Barbary Coast. It is widely believed that they were brought here in the early 1500s by an emissary of explorer Ponce de Leon, who was charged with setting up a colony in the Carolinas. Either the explorers brought the horses aground and left them behind; or the horses swam ashore from shipwrecks. But however they arrived, they are extremely gentle and unafraid of people. You will see them on the beach or trotting through people’s yards. Over the centuries, the horses have physically adapted to the local terrain; for example, their hind legs have shortened to help them climb the sand dunes. A county ordinance prohibits people from getting within 50 feet of the horses and it is illegal to feed them. Why? Because they are used to foraging for natural vegetation and their systems have not adapted to other sorts of food.

In recent years, sadly, the horses have suffered numerous acts of violence. Some have been shot and others hit by careless drivers. As a result, a reward fund has been established for the conviction of persons who commit crimes against the horses.

After the Civil War, wealthy sportsmen flocked to the banks and to Currituck Sound, widely known as the best waterfowl hunting region in the state. By the early 1900s, dozens of exclusive hunt clubs had been established including the Currituck Shooting Club, founded in 1862; and the Lighthouse Club of Currituck Sound, in 1874. As outsiders came to shoot, locals found additional work building boats; carving decoys for hunters; cleaning ducks; cooking and maintaining the clubhouses.

But the abundance of waterfowl caused shooting to get out of control and hunters became irresponsible. As the number of ducks declined, laws were put into effect to prevent such overkill. Although waterfowl hunting is still a great tradition, the number of ducks is nowhere near what it once was. A few of the old clubs remain however: the 146-year-old Currituck Shooting Club is still in operation, making it the oldest continuously operating private hunting club in the nation.

But the fate of the Lighthouse Club is another story; women were not permitted on the premises. When his wife was refused admission, one of its members, Edward C. Knight Jr., bought the club and the 2,000 acres on which it stood. In 1922, he had the clubhouse razed and began construction on a house in the middle of the marsh near Corolla. Painted butter yellow, the 12 bedroom mansion must have been a grand sight to the modest-living locals. Banks of windows captured the stunning views of Currituck Sound. The house is outfitted with opulent Art Nouveau details including mahogany doors, cork floors, Tiffany light fixtures and water lily motifs. The house was built for $383,000 but couldn’t be duplicated for three times that much today.

Knight and his wife Marie Louise completed the house in 1925 and called it, Corolla Island. A Philadelphia railroad magnate, Knight was also heir to a sugar fortune. Marie was a French Canadian socialite from Newport, Rhode Island. Both Knights were artists and Marie was many years younger than her husband. Contemporaries remember that she wore guns and went around shooting snakes on the property. Old-timers say that if Knight built a part of the house that Marie didn’t like, she would rebuild it to suit her notions. Knight had a fancy for doors and each room usually had three or four, leading helter-skelter into corridors.

Avid hunters, the Knights used the house from 1925 until 1934. They left Corolla abruptly in 1934 and never returned. Both died in 1936 — within three months of one another. Since then, the house has had many lives. Renamed the Whalehead Club by its second owner in the 1950s; it has been owned by Currituck County since 1992. After a stem-to-stern renovation, it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now open to the public year round.

During World War II, the club was leased to the U. S. Coast Guard, who used it as a training facility. German U-boats came close to the shoreline of the Outer Banks and locals were required to darken their windows and use no headlights when driving on the beach. An old-time resident remembers that you couldn’t have a light on inside your house unless there you had blackout shades. Any light from a window would silhouette the village for the enemy ships offshore. Almost everyone used kerosene lamps to sit around and talk in the evenings. The house was large enough to house 400 men during the war.

A wonderful way to visit the island is on a Segway tour. These standup bikes are great fun, and will give you a thrilling ride for your sightseeing adventures. Balance is required for a successful tour, and it does take a bit of practice…to remain upright!

Segway bikes are perfect for a tour of the Wildlife Education Nature Center. Dedicated to exploring the coastal wildlife, natural history and heritage of Currituck County, the main exhibit at this excellent museum features an 8,000-gallon aquarium stocked with native fish species and displays more than 250 antique waterfowl decoys in a special gallery. Some of these beautiful hand-carved decoys are for sale in the museum gift shop. A 20-minute presentation entitled, "Life by Water’s Rhythms" explores the important influence of water on the natural and cultural history of the region.

My favorite activity after a long day of sightseeing was to head directly for the hot tub with friends, a glass of wine, and a superb view of the sea. To cool off, jumping into the unheated swimming pool was a perfect cap to the day.

While there are many excellent restaurants, it was nice to relax and enjoy an evening in my own mega-house. A popular tradition is to rent a chef for the evening. He or she will arrive early to serve cocktails, prepare the dinner and dessert, and clean up afterwards! Many families split the cost of hiring a chef from a local agency, and enjoy a stress-free dinner in. We had a delightful evening with a chef who was a lawyer in his prior life. Our evening started with a delicious crabmeat appetizer and wine followed by grilled tuna with several other courses and ending with a delicious key lime pie for dessert.

If driving through the county during the fall, stop at some of the numerous roadside farm markets that feature locally-grown fruits and vegetables. Then, visit one of Currituck’s charming vineyards to sample the Outer Banks’ wine selections. Try the rustic family-owned Wild Horse Caf in the Corolla Light Town Center: the food is delicious. On another evening, visit Mike Dianna’s Grill Room on the water in Corolla’s Timbuck II shopping center to sample the mouthwatering fresh fish or prime beef.

A high quality of life, pristine beaches and endless outdoor activities including windsurfing, hang gliding, swimming, kayaking, charter fishing, golf.

The shifting sandbars that were once perilous to pirates and merchant ships gave the Barrier Islands the name, "Graveyard of the Atlantic." However, surfing is very good on the Outer Banks as the islands stick way out into the Atlantic Ocean, not far from the Continental Shelf; waves come from many directions with little reduction in energy.

USA Today has named Currituck Outer Banks one of the Top Ten Beaches in America. Take advantage of the savings during the fall season, and plan to linger with fewer tourists and enjoyable weather.

Travel Information

Visit Currituck Tourism Info
visitcurrituck.com

Currituck Beach Lighthouse
www.currituckbeachlight.com

Corolla
www.corollaguide.com

Wildlife Education Nature Center
www.ncwildlife.org

Mike Dianna’s Grill Room in Corolla
www.grillroomobx.com

Corolla Wild Horses
wildhorsetour.com
www.corollawildhorses.com

Corolla Light Town Center
corollalighttowncenter.com/food-dining.php

Wright Brothers Memorial
www.outerbanks.org/attractions/historical_sites/wright_brothers_memorial.asp

USA TODAY "Best Beaches" story
www.usatoday.com/travel/destinations/beach2003/2003-10-08-best-solitude_x.htm

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