We've been sticking as close to the ocean as we can, catching tantalizing glimpses of the Atlantic between houses and over dunes and through trees. One of our more forested stretches took us through Camp Lejeune, where the gate guard gave our vehicle a snappy salute -- he was the only Marine we saw for the next Roosevelt Natural Area twenty-something miles. It's a lovely quiet road past patches of forest, with the occasional TANK CROSSING sign the only reminder that we were on military property.
The Theodore Roosevelt Natural Area, a piece of land purchased by his children and set aside as a bird and sea turtle sanctuary, has nature trails and a nice small aquarium featuring local marine life: lobsters, nurse sharks, fish, turtles and alligators. Yes, alligators can be found as far north as Albemarle Sound near the North Carolina/Virginia border; is their territory expanding? Outside is a natural trail down to the shores of the muddy estuary where we joined some school kids watching the herons and fiddler crabs.
We stopped for the evening at Cedar Island. Oddly enough this is a nearly deserted waterfront location, with the huge expanse of Pamlico Sound to the Cedar Island sand dunes North and West. We watched the evening ferry load and depart, walked around the sand dunes, swatted a few mosquitoes and went to sleep early.
We rose before dawn to see a distant thunderstorm over the outer banks, then boarded the 7:00 a.m. ferry for a smooth ride to Ocracoke, arriving at 9:15.
The town of Ocracoke is charming, with narrow lanes twisting and turning between the houses, and the whole town centered around its harbor. We like seeing the older clapboard houses with their big porches and tiny yards; the many newer buildings, many fancifully architected with gables and bay windows and extra decks, look like stacks of blocks lining the ocean front.
Bob had last visited the outer banks in the spring of 1981, and there have been lots of changes. The protected portions of beach and duneland are interspersed with settlements available for development of resort properties. A building boom is going on, and virtually all of the vacation condos are new Cape Hatteras Light in the last 20 years. The beaches and duneland are still gorgeous, and were well populated by surf fisherman and families on spring break.
All of the new vacation homes are three stories high; there must be a zoning restriction on high rises. From the top floor even inland houses will enjoy the ocean sunrise.
Trucks and SUVs have special carriers attached to the front bumper for surf-fishing gear. The rods stick up like fence posts and the cooler mounted between the rods goes out filled with cold drinks and returns (they hope) filled with fish.
The crowds of vacationers and tourists have driven away the sense of isolation on the outer banks. The bookstore at the Cape Hatteras lighthouse (which was relocated in 1999) is full of books about shipwrecks and pirates (Blackbeard was captured here) and people are collecting prints and models of lighthouses like crazy, but the outer banks are now just another Atlantic vacation destination.
The towns of Nags Head and Kitty Hawk are built up and sport brand new shopping centers, as well as motels, which were booked up. So we crossed Albemarle Sound and drove up the Currituck Peninsula, past farms which no longer raise tobacco, to Norfolk. No sooner had we checked in than a powerful squall dumped rain and hail on the parking lot outside. The hailstones bounced noisily off the air conditioning unit. It was over 80 when we left the outer banks, but it may be down to the 30s tomorrow morning.