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The Rise of Tourism on the Outer Banks

The Rise of Tourism on the Outer Banks

Few things are better than being planted in the sand on a sunny summer day on the Outer Banks. As a lifelong resident, I feel fortunate that it’s so easy to find mesmerizing views everywhere I look. From my sandy spot, I’m taking in the steady ebbing and flowing of the legendary Atlantic. Seagulls dot the crisp azure skies, their squawks mixing in with the crashing surf.   

Looking around, I see groups of beachgoers, relishing the scene, each in their own way. Some are chatting in the shade; others are sunbathing silently. The various tableaux seem endless: Sandcastle building, surf fishing, shell seeking, and simply being. 


I’ve long appreciated the influx of visitors each year, granting chances to meet people from all over the world. I enjoy hearing their stories and learning all the many reasons our vacationers have been drawn to my beloved hometown. I’ve made many lifelong friends this way. It’s been fun to tour different Outer Banks rentals via new acquaintances, several of whom became loyal to the same homes year after year.  

To my left is a family reuniting to celebrate a wedding. The bride’s grandmother tells me some family members have traveled from as far away as California. We agree that it’s lucky that flights these days are climate-controlled with cold drinks, TV, and internet. She muses that even those modern amenities couldn’t keep her three-year-old grandson happy for seven hours.  

I soon notice British accents close by, so inevitably I search out the source. I meet a charming couple celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, fulfilling a “bucket list” dream. Both are seasoned pilots planning to visit the location of the world’s first powered flight. They informed me it took the Wright Brothers an entire week to travel from Ohio—by train and steamboat. Suddenly, seven hours doesn’t seem so long.  

Later, I chat with another family who tell me they’ve sojourned here every summer for over two decades. The father shares that his cottage has been passed down for three generations (so far). It’s now one of the two Outer Banks rentals they maintain as an investment, enabling them to someday pass it on to their children. He was referring to one of the historic, cedar-shingled homes poised just behind us. 

Dubbed “The Unpainted Aristocracy,” these historic vacation homes were the first to be built on the oceanfront (around the mid-1800s). The earliest of these sturdy, seasonal cottages were built from timber salvaged from shipwrecks—casualties of treacherous, ever-shifting shoals.   

“The Graveyard of the Atlantic” is the title awarded to the coastline before us, once serving as a trading route for colonial ships as far back as the late 1400s (and later a battleground during three wars). It wasn’t until 1584 that anyone sailing from Europe managed to step ashore. If you’ve seen the play “The Lost Colony,” you’ll already know that Roanoke Island was the site of the first English settlement in the New World. 

Croatan—Capt. John White, d. 1606. Wikipedia 

Those earliest visitors weren’t the first residents, though. Native Americans are believed to have lived in this region for around 10,000 years–evidenced by nearly fossilized oyster and clam shell piles found from Wanchese to Frisco. I wonder what an ancient oyster roast would’ve been like without saltines and sriracha? 

Indians fishing—Capt. John White, d. 1606. 

I try to imagine what this beach looked like five centuries ago and then a century ago—without most modern conveniences or comforts. Of course, it was far less populated. There weren’t any roads or bridges constructed until the mid-1950s. This place must’ve had a powerful allure to those first visitors long ago. Why were they so willing to make the long and tiresome journey to this isolated locale? 

As a kid from the eighties and nineties, I’ve witnessed countless changes and continue to see “The OBX” becoming increasingly popular. The assortment of Outer Banks rentals has grown so vast, their quality and characteristics becoming more and more impressive. While marveling over old photos from my grandparents’ generation, I sometimes find it hard to reconcile many sights, now so different.  

Throughout the thread of time, this place has been made famous—harboring the first colonial settlers, then Blackbeard, and later a host to pioneers of flight. Five hundred years ago, the Outer Banks first appeared on a map. Now, it’s on the map in so many fascinating ways. 

 Capt. John White’s map 1585       NASA satellite map of Outer Banks 2006  

There’s an abundance of history packed within this 130-mile stretch of “Wow!” that we now call The Outer Banks. It’s been a magnet for explorers for half a millennium, but when did tourism take hold? Who were the first sunbathers, boaters, anglers, beachcombers, photographers, and respite seekers on this rugged, sea oat-spotted paradise?  

To answer this question, I must step back to the first travelers from the 1580s. Why did they come here? What did they hope to find? I hope to learn more about how they spent their time. Did they enjoy sitting and watching the ocean as much as I do? How did excursions to these remote banks grow from just a few ships of people into seemingly endless flocks of them?  

I now find myself on a quest to discover the roots of vacationing on the Outer Banks. But first, the smell of fresh fish on the grill reminds me that it’s time to call it a day. I pack my things and make a mental note for my next opportunity to muse about history. The slow pace of this remarkable place lends itself to figuring anything out. Until next time…  

-Michelle Leckie Davies

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