As educators with the month of July off from work, my wife and I, with planning and budgeting, were able to visit an unfamiliar seashore this summer. After several visits to the beaches of Florida and the Gulf Coast during previous vacations, we decided to visit the beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina this summer. In addition to seeing new sights, we love learning about new places and this vacation was a chance to combine two things we love to do.
In an effort to see more of our great country we decided to take a driving vacation that would cross several states, so the first thing I did was to have my car serviced so there would not be any unpleasant automobile related surprises along the way. I recommend all road trippers have their fluids checked, tires rotated, interior cleaned and waterproofed, and use a bottle of gas treatment in the first tank of gasoline. I keep a plastic bag handy for trash which can be emptied at each fuel stop keeping the car's interior clean and rubbish free. The second thing that I recommend is to map out your route carefully. This involves speaking to friends who may have recently traveled the route you plan to take or by visiting the official highway or transportation information web site of each state you will be passing through. Fortunately, we encountered all of the Interstate 40 construction delay sites during off work hours and our highway travel was very smooth. I have always believed that a pleasant road trip is good for the soul and a trip without traffic delays is a rare blessing.
Our planned route following Interstate 40 included visiting the Biltmore Estate on the way to the Outer Banks and a tour of the Great Smoky Mountains on the return journey. Part of our budgeting process included finding a place to stay while in Asheville, North Carolina, both on the way to and the way back from the Outer Banks. Asheville was the city from which we would explore the Biltmore Estate and the Great Smoky Mountains. To find a place to stay in Asheville, we experimented using a booking service provided by Expedia (expedia.com). This service allows the customer to have Expedia choose your hotel for you. The customer chooses the basic hotel considerations and the selection software generates a list of hotels from which to make the final choice. We did not know the name of the hotel until we booked the room. We took a chance and were very pleased with the Crown Plaza Resort and the Guest House International Inn in Asheville.
Since this was a road trip vacation, we could not pass up a chance to explore the Biltmore Estate (Biltmore.com), America's Largest Home, since we were taking a day off from driving by staying in Asheville. I recommend a visit to the Biltmore as the experience has something of interest for everyone. From the gardens to the architecture to the household furnishings the visit is a true learning experience and a great respite from a day or more of highway travel. George Vanderbilt's home was completed in 1895 after six years of construction work. The structure is magnificent and the history behind the home is fascinating. The home has four acres of floor space, 250 rooms, and 8,000 acres of grounds. The grounds surrounding the home include 12,500 acres of forests, farms, gardens, roadways, and more. The landscaping features and gardens are awe inspiring. Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York's Central Park, is the genius behind the estate's grounds and spectacular gardens. In addition to the actual home, visitors can experience the Antler Hill Village and Winery and a variety of topic-specific guided or self-guided tours. Visitors need more than one day to fully experience the Biltmore Estate, but if one day is all you can allot to the visit then plan your day to make the most of the experience.
On the return trip from the Outer Banks we drove through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (nps.gov/grsm or www.SmokiesInformation.org) which is a picturesque alternative to the beach. In my opinion a visit to the beach and the mountains during one vacation trip is the best of both worlds. We visited Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains at 6,643 feet of elevation, and mingled with an international assemblage of tourists, each awestruck by the diversity of the mountains, flora, and fauna. This national park provides many opportunities for hiking, photography, and relaxing. With so many activities available in the park, it is wise to plan your visit in advance and always allow extra time for stops that hold your interest longer than expected or a line of tourists that move slower than you expect. Planning ahead is essential as the park has so much to offer that deserves more than a rushed look-see. I would be remiss if I did not mention Pigeon Forge, located at one of the entrances to the park, as a family oriented amusement center. We did not stop in Pigeon Forge this trip but the Titanic Museum, the upside down house, King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building, and other attractions lining the road were inviting. Perhaps on another vacation we can visit this seemingly mirror image of the attractions in Branson, Missouri.
The beaches of the Outer Banks, North Carolina were new to both of us and we planned to stay in a centrally located hotel convenient to our sightseeing and beach time agenda. The hotel we chose was called Shutters On The Banks (shuttersonthebanks.com) in Kill Devil Hills and provided easy access to beaches and local sites such as the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the Currituck, Bodie Island, and Cape Hatteras lighthouses. One unexpected treasure we found was the Pea Island National Seashore. We walked for miles along the Pea Island beach without encountering more than a dozen people; this was very different from the crowded, but enjoyable, sites such as Wright Brothers National Memorial and historic lighthouses. The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for over 300 species of migratory birds as well as several endangered or threatened species. The area is well-known as a birder's paradise. There are several instructional programs offered by the park service that provide background on the area which will enrich your visit. The Outer Banks beach sand is darker and coarser and the Atlantic Ocean waves were consistently larger than those I have experienced in the Gulf of Mexico. The Atlantic seashells are larger than shells we have collected from previous Gulf Coast and Florida beach vacations, so our collection has grown. Scattered along the beach were bird nesting sites cordoned off for the bird's protection, but we did not see any birds using the nesting sites during our time there. The beaches were wonderful as was the weather. We found that the Outer Banks beaches were relaxing, less crowded than Gulf Coast beaches, and provided many new experiences. One afternoon while taking a break from the beach we discovered the Charles Kuralt (Nature) Trail (www.northest-nc.com/kuralt). Kuralt, to me, is something of an icon in the television world so it was interesting to discover a nature trail named for him. One standout experience was the Fourth of July fireworks programs that towns along the Outer Banks presented. This was our first fireworks show in a beach setting and the oohs and aahs and laughter of children and adults resulting from spectacular pyrotechnical displays made for a fantastic Fourth of July evening. A full moon rising over the ocean as the fireworks exploded in the foreground sky was a happy coincidence that made a lasting memory.
I was interested in visiting various Outer Banks lighthouses while on this vacation, so we planned on visiting three lighthouses while taking a day away from the sun, surf, and sand. First up was the Currituck Beach Lighthouse (currituckbeachlight.com) which stands 158 feet tall and began duty in 1875. This is a bare brick lighthouse with a light beam visible for 18 miles. Next on the list was the Bodie Island Lighthouse (Bodie Lighthouse Visitor Center: call 252-441-5711). This lighthouse is being restored and, at this writing, has scaffolding around it for the restoration process which is planned to be completed by the fall of 2013. The Bodie Island Lighthouse has an interesting background that includes being blown up by retreating Confederate Army troops in 1861. The current 150 feet tall Bodie Island Lighthouse was completed in 1872 when it began flashing its light beam 19 miles out over the ocean to protect ships from treacherous coastal hazards. Lastly visited was the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (nps.gov/caha), also known as "America's Lighthouse". This 208 feet tall brick lighthouse is painted with the iconic black and white 'barber pole' stripe. This lighthouse has a rich and interesting history that includes Civil War actions, several moves to new locations, and reconstruction work on several occasions. For most of the lighthouses there is a small fee to climb it and the climb is hot and often crowded, but the vista from the top is worth it. The lighthouse tour is great for photography opportunities as well as enriching your knowledge of the rich and varied history of the Outer Banks of the United States, such as this area being known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic with more than 1,500 known shipwrecks off of the coast. There are several shipwrecks that may, at times, be visible during low tide. For more information on the shipwrecks you can visit the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum (graveyardoftheatlantic.com).
During an extended lunch break one afternoon we visited the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk (www.nps.gov). The grounds are well kept and are expansive which requires a lot of walking in open fields. We climbed the towering Big Kill Devil Hill to the 60 feet tall monument on top of the dune and had a grand view of the Atlantic Ocean, the nearby Albemarle Sound, and the memorial's grounds. The educational information presented by the park service corrected some misperceptions I had about the "birth of powered flight" and the process the Wright Brothers undertook to fly for the first time. There are many interesting things to see and do at the memorial and one exhibit that I really enjoyed was the 10,000 pound bronze sculpture representing the first flight replicated in life sized art that includes the plane and the people involved in that historic first flight. The exhibit is hands on and offers some great, fun, photography opportunities. Two exhibit buildings were closed to the public due to tropical storm damage but were expected to reopen quickly. One of the biggest surprises we enjoyed began with airplane engine noise and ended with an astonished crowd watching an Osprey aircraft practicing take offs and landings just beyond a row of trees bordering the First Flight Airstrip.
For us, the journey to the Outer Banks of North Carolina was quite a bit farther to drive than to the beaches of the Florida or the Gulf Coast; but it was an enriching experience to see the birthplace of powered flight, lighthouses that have stood against time and storms, and beaches that we had not yet experienced. The collection of photographs, seashells, and souvenirs assembled during this trip will encourage happy memories for years to come. This vacation season seemed the time to visit somewhere different leaving politics and the economy far from mind. I hope this travelogue helps steer you toward visiting one or more of the areas we were fortunate to visit this summer. With so many families planning a 'staycation' during this difficult economic period planning a future vacation may provide a reason to smile, start saving money, and give you a short escape from the daily grind as you plan a future get away.
Here are some helpful tips and thoughts on planning vacations:
Use the internet to research your entire itinerary including routes, hotels, costs, and attractions.
Research local eateries and attractions before arriving to discover if restaurants are aware of specific dietary concerns (i.e. Gluten free fare) and if the attractions are open and what the fees are.
Have a photo ID for all persons under 16 years of age.
Research the area to see if there is something of interest to you that you have previously been unaware of.
Monitor your credit card use and keep all receipts in a safe place.
Be certain your credit card contact information is up to date in the event of attempted unauthorized purchases.
Have all of your electronic device chargers easily accessible.
Buy one multi-package of all the battery types your electronic devices use. I recommend rechargeable batteries for households with lots of electronic devices.
Smokers, please take an empty plastic bottle or can to the beach with you for your butts. Do not leave butts on the beach!
Beachgoers, please do not take glass bottles www.Visittopsailislandnc.com/ onto the beach with you. No one expects to break a bottle but accidents still happen.
Be aware of whether your beach has a Life Guard on duty or not.
To help entertain the kids while on the road, you can use the tried and true use of Trivial Pursuit game cards without actually playing the board game.
Turn off the automated Global Positioning System and use a travel atlas. Look for tourist attractions and notations of historic sites along the route.
Listen to out-of-state local radio stations and share each other's knowledge of the songs; you can tell your kids stories about the oldies and they can tell you stories about the newer music.
Of course counting license plates is a classic traveling pastime, but add the element of sharing what people think they know about that state and the game takes on a new light.
A road trip can be a good bonding experience if you plan ahead and incorporate an in-car activity that engages the group and makes it fun to turn off everyone's personal electronic devices for a while.
When it comes time for the adults to relax, do not forget a small bottle of bleach for the jetted tub or spa in the hotel room.
Lastly, remember vacations make memories, and the next time you feel stressed you will have memories, or a souvenir, of an experience that made you happy then and is easing your stress now.