The North Carolina Coast Feature
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Day Trip: North Carolina Coastal Drive
North Carolina's coast is a string of stunning barrier islands with long, two-lane roads and hidden gems that beg exploration. The most relaxing drives happen in late fall and early spring, when crowded beach roads become easy byways allowing you to contemplate shoreline views.
The tour begins at the entrance to Cape Hatteras National Seashore at the junction of U.S. 64/264/158 and Route 12. The entire tour follows along Route 12 south, passing tall, sea-oat-covered dunes on the ocean side and Pamlico Sound in the opposite direction. About 23 miles down Route 12, you can visit Bodie Island Lighthouse. Three miles later, your very small place in the world is apparent when crossing the tall Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet, where enormous Pamlico Sound meets the Atlantic Ocean's mighty waves. After crossing the bridge, look for shorebirds as you pass through Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge along the 12 miles to Rodanthe.
Planning Your Time
You'll take Route 12 south from the Cape Hatteras National Seashore entrance for this entire 80-mile drive. It takes from four to eight hours, depending on stops, so get an early start and allow a full day for the drive, ferry waiting time, and stopping at sights along the way.
At Rodanthe's Island Convenience store, ask about author Nicholas Sparks's best-selling book Nights in Rodanthe. The film version, starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane, was shot here. The store displays newspaper clippings about the filming and the beach house in the movie. Before you leave, pick up some souvenirs and some of the store's homemade biscuits, sandwiches, drinks, and munchies. This is also a Wi-Fi hot spot.
From Rodanthe, drive 23 miles of winding roads to Buxton, where you'll find Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse in the United States. If you are here before mid-October, you can climb the tower's 248-step, iron spiral staircase. A little farther down Route 12 in Frisco, a nationally recognized collection of Native American artifacts fills Frisco Native American Museum & Natural History Center. Galleries display native art from across the United States, as well as relics from the first inhabitants of Hatteras Island.
Afterward, proceed 12 miles to the 30-minute state ferry that leaves every half hour from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island. On Ocracoke, you can walk wild beaches or photograph the stark white Ocracoke Lighthouse, the second-oldest lighthouse in the United States still in continuous service. If you packed a picnic, enjoy it on the beach. Otherwise, stop at Howard's Pub, a friendly restaurant where you can check out a list of 200 bottled beers from around the world and enjoy thick burgers, hand-cut fries, or varied seafood dishes.
Island Convenience. Part grocery store, part souvenir shop, this convenience store stocks just about everything you need, whether it's gas, fishing tackle, or a Wi-Fi hotspot. Best of all are the biscuits and thick homemade chicken salad sandwiches at the store's deli counter. 23523 Hwy. 12, Rodanthe, NC, 27968. 252/987–2239.
Rusty's Surf & Turf. Bold, tropical, and south-of-the-border flavors spice up Rusty's Surf & Turf. This colorful restaurant offers local seafood, steaks, burgers, and sandwiches, as well as some Mexican dishes like fish tacos. Try the seared sea scallops with lemon rosemary aioli or the wahoo with Margarita Mojo Salsa. 47355 Hwy. 12, Buxton, NC, 27920. 252/995–4184. www.rustyssurfnturf.com. Memorial Day–Labor Day, daily 5–9; call for off-season hrs.
Orange Blossom Bakery and Café. This bakery-café is famous for fried doughnuts called "uglies," which come with apples or are smothered in chocolate. 47206 Hwy. 12, Buxton, NC, 27920. 252/995–4109. www.orangeblossombakery.com. Daily 6:30–11 am.
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