When people say "the Outer Banks," most of us think of Nags Head, N.C. (strip malls, arcades, all-you-can-eat seafood bars, barbecue and pool halls.) Nags Head is where I spotted my first El Camino with a Confederate flag on the hood and license plate. Said vehicle also featured what I discovered was the traditional 20-ounce "Big Gulp" cup, doubling as a dashboard spittoon.
The Outer Banks also conjures up images of Kill Devil Hills (where people can pay money to sandblast their bodies while hang-gliding and like it); Kitty Hawk and the Wright brothers monument; Cape Hatteras with its camping, fishing and sandbag world.
But now people are becoming familiar with the more remote towns at the north end. The town of Duck, 85 miles north of Cape Hatteras, until recently was the end of the asphalt line along the Outer Banks.
The asphalt line now ends just north of Duck, in the town of Corolla. Named after the inner petals of a flower, Corolla has become a developer's dream and a conservationist's nightmare. The only vehicles that can get around are ones with four-wheel-drive.
The Currituck lighthouse is the towering symbol of Corolla. It was first lighted Dec. 1, 1875, and is built of red bricks to distinguish it from the other regional lighthouses. It is unpainted, and visitors can see the multitude of bricks that form the structure (approximately 1 million). The nearby lightkeeper's house, a Victorian "stick style" dwelling, was constructed from cut material that was shipped by the U.S. Lighthouse Board and assembled on site.
Only two keepers and their families ever lived in this isolated seaside setting. The lighthouse was used by the U.S. Coast Guard during World War I as a watchtower. In 1939, the lighthouse was automated and no longer required daily maintenance. It was later used as a hayloft for the Coast Guard horses that patrolled the beaches during World War II. By 1950, the lighthouse had begun to fall into a state of disrepair. At about that time, it won recognition for its architectural significance and historic value, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Despite this honor, the keeper's house became more dilapidated from nature's harsh elements as well as vandalism.
In 1980, the house received a boost from a group of preservation enthusiasts who formed the Outer Banks Conservationists. The group received an $18,000 grant from the North Carolina Department of Conservation and a lease that charges the conservation group with the responsibility of restoring the keeper's house. Debbie Westner, the current site manager/lighthouse keeper, calls this place home and herself a "love slave."
"The work never ends. The buildings were partially covered in vines, the windows were broken, floors had to be repaired -- you name it. We have support from generous donors, through memberships and the flock of summer tourists that pay an admission fee to climb the 214 steps to the top of the lighthouse." Last year, 60,000 people paid $3 each to see the top of the lighthouse.
Ms. Westner says she also has gone to area businesses for help. "We have solicited donations from the local storekeepers, who, by the way, merchandise the image of the lighthouse in every form imaginable. So far we have received two $25 checks. But we continue to forge ahead," she says.
"With the endless amount of souvenirs that they sell with the image of the lighthouse, one would think that they would be somewhat generous to our project."
Development vs. preservation
Perhaps the lack of enthusiasm stems from locals' fear that tourism will mean more development, and more development may endanger the fragile ecological balance of the island.
Like the lighthouse, the wild horses of the Outer Banks are wildly merchandised in Corolla. There are about 18 of them left. Today, the horses can be seen grazing in several small herds around the beach homes and the newly planted sod near the mall next to the local Brew Thru -- a drive-in beer joint. Indeed, the slow-paced lifestyle is slowly being swallowed up by modern suburban symbols. There is a Food Lion, a souvenir city and a pizza place in Corolla too. Visitors out for some exercise run on the asphalt near traffic, perhaps going for that city fix. (Psssst . . . the beach is on the right; the sand and sea air are good for your legs and lungs.)
Corolla is not what it used to be. I remember larger herds of wild horses and more open space from my first trip to the area just seven years ago. The horses are starting to disappear because tourists forget to slow down when they drive, and for this reason alone several horses have been killed.
"Families have been seen feeding them pizza, which horses were not meant to eat. The horses get colic and they can die" says Lisa Heeter. "Families pose for pictures and have their babies sit on the wild horses." Ms. Heeter, wife of local artist
John De La Vega, who is known internationally, runs a gallery that contains his work and the works of other Corolla artists. Ms. Heeter remembers the time when "this was an extra beautiful place, a well-kept secret. Solitude, beautiful vistas, ever-changing sand dunes, the wild horses, fishermen . . . now the developers have taken over. They don't know where to stop."
On what was once a grazing ground for the horses, there are now a health club, assorted miniature golf courses and carts for those unwilling or unable to walk to the beach. To keep the horses from injury, they are being moved into a sanctuary behind a fence past the new development.
In Corolla, there are residents who say tourism and development are inevitable. "Development brings needed income for the locals, as well as the many preservation projects in the area," says Dick Johnson, a real-estate agent who works for B & B
Realtors. "Vacationers want all the comforts of home. We want them to enjoy themselves and come back every year. This is a year-round vacation resort. Even though there's been a lot of development in the last couple of years, we have still maintained the integrity of the environment."
The bottom line is that the developers have the money and the preservationists have to ask for it.
Despite the controversy, Corolla remains a lovely place to relax and unwind. The fragile and ever-changing barrier islands known as the Outer Banks happen to have some of the most beautiful beaches in the United States. This is no secret to the folks from up North who make the long journey to see them. According to the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, about 7 million people a year visit the area.
The Outer Banks vacation still is one of the best vacation buys around. A house near the beach that sleeps 10 rents for around $800 per week. (I might suggest that visitors also rent one of the wide-wheel wagons to help haul their towels, suntan lotion, buckets, boombox, etc. -- to the beach.) As visitors get closer to the water, the homes become more expensive and luxurious. Some are equipped with private pools and walkways to the beach.
On the beach, I've painted, photographed, built sand castles, watched dolphins and played with my 3-year-old son. If it happens to be a cloudy day, a road trip is in order. (But remember to drive slowly and watch out for the horses.) Worthwhile stops are the Bodie Island lighthouse and the Oregon Inlet (where, during the afternoon, charter-fishing boats unload their catch, and visitors can take home some fresh tuna for grilling). The trip to the Wright Brothers monument is a must! On the way back to Corolla, the Blue Point Bar and Grill in Duck is a good place to stop for lunch. On the last day in the Outer Banks, drivers may want to leave as early as possible; otherwise, be prepared to be stuck in traffic for hours. There's one thing I forgot to mention: U.S. 158, which leads to the Wright Memorial Bridge, is the only roadway connecting the mainland to the towns mentioned.
While in the Outer Banks, hurry to the end of the asphalt line, and see the town of Corolla before it becomes a suburb of Duck.
IF YOU GO . . .
To reserve a beach house near the town of Corolla, call the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce at (919) 441-8144 for phone numbers of local real-estate agents.