First in Flight, and Much More

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There are many surprises in North Carolina: Touring the Ava Gardner Museum, for instance, I was amazed not only that the actress and tobacco farmer’s daughter had an 18-inch waist, but that she maintained this miniscule measurement while living in the heart of barbecue country. This is the land of pulled-pork sandwiches, Brunswick Stew, and coleslaw so good it doesn’t need mayonnaise.

It’s also the site of the highest sand dune on the Atlantic coast, where lighthouses that once guided settlers to a safe harbor still stand proud, and where Southern hospitality is a staple. Here, sweet iced tea replaces the evening martini and history follows travelers from county to county. It’s a great place to take a late-summer or fall vacation.

Our journey began in Smithfield, thanks to a picnic basket brimming with sandwiches piled high with slices of country ham from Johnston County’s Smithfield’s Ham Shop, pulled pork sandwiches from the White Swan Barbecue, banana pudding with vanilla wafers, and southern fried chicken and a gallon of sweet ice tea from Smithfield Chicken & Biscuits. My traveling companion and I were ready to spend a few days lolling on the shimmering beaches along the state’s barrier islands. And after our feast, we envied Gardner’s tiny waist even more.


But the actress is not the area’s only claim to fame. Another dark-haired legend, Blackbeard, famously prowled the waters between Ocracoke and Hattaras Island, suffering the end of his piratical career at Okracoke Inlet on the North Carolina coast in 1718. His story can be seen onstage in “The Lost Colony,” an outdoor drama that is performed June through August on Roanoake Island in the Outer Banks — the chain of barrier islands midway down the Atlantic Seaboard. A lavish production written by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Paul Green, it is billed as America’s longest running outdoor theatrical production. It’s perfect for family viewing, and ends with a summery burst of fireworks.

I hadn’t come to North Carolina for movie stars and pirates, however. My original purpose was to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial, atop Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk. But after a visit to the museum, I was lured away by the local down-home eatery Kill Devils, a beach shanty on Highway 12 serving smooth as silk homemade custard. Fresh blackberry was on tap the day I visited. For a traveler with a sweet tooth, this beach highway is a dream come true, overflowing with shops offering trays of fresh salt water taffy and homemade fudge.

I reserved a room at the vintage Roanoke Inn in the wellpreserved town of Manteo on Roanoke Island, near the waterfront and the radio tower that transmitted the breaking news of the Wrights’ 120-foot flight. Night owls should sign on for the two-hour Historic Old Manteo candlelight walking tour, for which the guide is the local police chief of 10 years, Francis De’ Ambra. Our group consisted of 14 history buffs who listened in rapt attention as Mr. De’ Ambra ticked off names and dates like a detective. He pointed out the church where Andy Griffith sang in the choir and he told some spookily plausible ghost stories speculating that Virginia Dare, who vanished with the lost batch of colonists, might have resurfaced as Pocahontas. The Native American princess inspired the name of a lovely local country inn in Manteo called the White Doe Inn.


Surrounded by 900 square miles of water and the world’s third largest estuary system, this region is a magnet for “ecotravelers” — although many of them drive SUVs to designated spots on the shore. Cape Hattares National Seashore, the nation’s first, extends 70 miles from South Nagshead to Ocracoke Inlet. Set aside a full day to visit the Bodie Island Light House, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge (with more than 265 species of birds), and Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, America’s tallest at 208 feet.

But for a taste of the area’s other kind of natural beauty, return to the Ava Gardner Museum, which will host the second annual Ava Gardner Festival this fall (September 30–October 1,

Ms. Price is the co-author of “Fun With the Family in Southern California” (Globe Pequot Press).

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