Story by Andrea Gross; Photos by Irv Green
A few days before my husband and I are scheduled to leave for a beach vacation on the North Carolina coast, I happen across a news article:
Researchers are calling an iron-hulled Civil War era steamer found in late February near Caswell Beach one of the best-preserved blockade runners they’ve ever seen….
—Adam Wagner, Star News, March 7, 2016
According to the story, it’s been decades since one of these ships was discovered, so this is a very big deal.
No, we won’t be able to see the wreck — it’s still buried under 18-20 feet of ocean — but as we read more, we realize how important the sea was to the growth of America. The United States was settled by seafaring people during the sixteenth century, blockaded and bombarded from the sea during the nineteenth and a major port during the twentieth.
We have a lot to explore between beach outings.
As the crow flies or the main highway goes, the so-called coastal route is approximately 300 miles. But this route curves inland when the coast fragments into barrier islands. To truly hug the Atlantic means taking ferries to cross water when mainland roads end. This makes the journey longer by 100 miles or more, but it also makes it more exciting, more beautiful and more authentically coastal.
We begin our trip in the Outer Banks near the North Carolina-Virginia state line. There are shipwrecks aplenty up here — enough that the area has been called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” — and most are due to nasty weather. But many are Allied ships that were downed by German subs during WW II.
A few miles from Bodie Island Lighthouse, built in 1872 to help mariners survive the fierce waters if not evade wartime attacks, is the Elizabeth II, a full-size representation of a British merchant vessel. In 1585 seven of these vessels sailed to the New World in order to claim Roanoke Island as a British settlement. A costumed interpreter gives us tips on sixteenth century navigation “Much of the time we just go where the wind wants us to go,” he says.
In addition to the ship, Roanoke Island Festival Park, a 25-acre historic site in Manteo, features an Algonquian Indian town replete with a longhouse and dugout canoe as well as an English village in the style of the late sixteenth century with a blacksmith and wood worker.
We head south to the Crystal Coast, as the mid-coast of North Carolina is called, and spend a delightful afternoon enjoying Atlantic Beach before arriving in Beaufort, the third oldest town in North Carolina. The next morning we tour the Beaufort Historic Site, where nine well-preserved buildings show us how people lived in the 18th and 19th century coastal Carolina. (The short answer: a lot more comfortably than they did 200 years earlier as depicted in Festival Park!)
But living on water’s edge is both a blessing and a curse. Beautiful? Absolutely. Vulnerable? Definitely.
In the early 1700s, Blackbeard terrorized the area, ambushing passenger ships and stealing cargo before his ship ran aground on the coast near Beaufort. An excellent exhibit in the Maritime Museum provides details.
Having learned during the War of 1812 that their young country was vulnerable to attacks by sea, the United States government rushed to build a series of forts along the Eastern seaboard. But for North Carolina, the enemy came not from across the Atlantic but simply from across the Potomac. When the Civil War broke out, the Confederates rushed to occupy Fort Macon, which is surrounded on three sides by water. The Confederates held the fort for nearly a year, until April 1862, when a heavy artillery bombardment forced their surrender.
Meanwhile, the lights atop nearby Cape Lookout Lighthouse became pawns in maneuvers during which each side attempted to dismantle the lights, thus darkening the coast and making navigation more difficult for the other side.
It was 1870 before the war-inflicted damage to the lighthouse was repaired, but now it lights the waters in Cape Lookout National Seashore round the clock, seven days a week.
A drive that could be made in two hours expands to two days as we meander along the coast and stop at Wrightsville Beach en route to Wilmington, the largest city along the coast. Here a 230-block historic district houses a 150-year old theater known for outstanding dramatic and musical performances, cutting edge restaurants, and an eclectic assortment of shops that among other things offer two miles of books, yoga lessons, java, and cupcakes infused with cherry compote and topped with fresh cracked peppercorns. And yes, there are also the touristy complement of horse-drawn carriages and funky old-time trollies.
We ensconce ourselves in the French House, a B&B located in the heart of the Historic District, and set out on a Walk & Talk History Tour. In the space of ninety minutes our guide covers topics ranging from colonial history and the African-American experience to the importance of the city’s waterfront location, architectural heritage and role during WWII.
A tour of WWII sites is being developed that will link Wilmington and surrounding areas into “a museum of the home front,” but there’s no doubt that the USS North Carolina will be the biggest attraction.
We take a ferry to the giant battleship, which is visible from the boardwalk that fronts the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington. It take us three hours to see the battleship that participated in every major naval offensive in the Pacific arena during WWII, and we easily could have spent the entire day. In addition to exploring the nine decks, we listen to the stories of many of the men who lived in the cramped quarters, worked in the engine room and fired the guns
As we head toward the North Carolina-South Carolina border, we stop in Southport, a small town that regularly wins accolades as one of the country’s most charming coastal communities—as well as one of the most filmed.
Rick Pukenas takes us for a putt-around in his golf cart—the preferred mode of transportation in this one-stoplight town—and intersperses stories about the region’s historic sites as well as its film sites. We learn that this area, where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic Ocean, was navigated by Spanish explorers in the early 1500s and that the Nicholas Sparks film Safe Haven was filmed here.
A few miles further gets us to Caswell Beach. Off to the left is Old Baldy, the oldest existing lighthouse in North Carolina, completed in 1818. Right behind us is the Oak Island lighthouse, the newest and most southern lighthouse on the North Carolina coast, built in 1958. And in front of us, in the Atlantic Ocean, is the spot where the old blockade runner was found.
We’ve traveled nearly 400 miles, learned about more than 400 years, and slathered ourselves with more than four tubes of sunscreen. It’s been a varied, stimulating and yet relaxing vacation. By our standards, that means it’s been absolutely perfect.