- Written by Andrea Gross Andrea Gross
A few days before my husband and I leave for a beach vacation on the North Carolina coast, I happen across a news article written by Adam Wagner of the region’s StarNews:
“Researchers are calling an iron-hulled Civil War-era steamer found near Caswell Beach one of the best-preserved blockade runners they’ve ever seen …”
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 to 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 16th century, blockaded and bombarded from the sea during the 19th, and a major port during the 20th.
We have a lot to explore between beach outings.
We time-travel back more than 400 years by going to the Outer Banks near the North Carolina-Virginia state line. Here, not far from the Bodie Island Lighthouse, is Roanoke Island Festival Park, which features a full-size replica of a British merchant vessel.
In 1585 seven of these vessels sailed to the New World in order to claim territory for England. The waters were so hazardous that the area is often called “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
“A big part of navigating is going the direction the wind wants you to go,” says a sailor, authentically outfitted in 16th-century garb.
A man standing next to me grins. “Seems that the history of America was written by the wind,” he says. Point well taken.
Near the ship is a small Algonquian town, replete with longhouse and dugout canoe, that shows what the mariners found when they followed the wind across the ocean. A few steps farther and we see a representative English village, where a blacksmith and woodworker explain how the first settlers lived.
Life on coastal Carolina had improved considerably by the 18th century, as is evidenced in Beaufort, 175 miles south. Today costumed docents give tours of nine historic buildings and discuss daily life during the Colonial period.
Of course, living on water’s edge is both a blessing and a curse. Beautiful? Absolutely. Dangerous? Definitely.
Having learned during the War of 1812 that their young country was vulnerable to attacks by sea, the United States government rushed to build forts along the Eastern seaboard.
But for North Carolina, the enemy came not from across the Atlantic but from across the Potomac.
When the Civil War broke out, the Confederates quickly occupied Fort Macon, which is surrounded on three sides by water. They held the fort for nearly a year, until April 1862 when they were forced to surrender.
We fast-forward through a century and a half during the two-hour drive to Wilmington, the largest city along the coast.
While Wilmington has a 230-block historic district filled with buildings that are both imposing and funky, it also has a vibrant downtown filled with thoroughly modern attractions.
There’s top-notch theater (much of it produced in a 150-year-old building), cutting-edge restaurants, and an eclectic assortment of shops that, among other things, offer bookshelves laden with 2 miles of books and cupcakes infused with cherry compote.
After ensconcing ourselves in the historic French House B&B, we take a Walk & Talk Tour that covers topics ranging from the town’s early days and the importance of the city’s waterfront location to the role of North Carolina during World War II.
Now parked in the river near downtown Wilmington, the USS North Carolina was one of the fastest and most highly decorated battleships in the American fleet. It takes us nearly a half day to see the exhibits, explore the decks, and listen to the recorded stories of the men who lived in the cramped quarters, worked in the engine room, and fired the giant guns.
We’re still in a sober frame of mind as we head toward Southport, a charming community not too far from the North Carolina-South Carolina state line.
During the 1500s when the British were settling Carolina’s northern shore, the Spanish were exploring the future state’s southern coast. Today the area is equally well known as the filming location for the Nicholas Sparks’ movie Safe Haven. How times have changed!
Finally we get to Caswell Beach. Off to the left is Old Baldy, the oldest existing lighthouse in North Carolina. Right behind us is the Oak Island lighthouse, the newest and most southern lighthouse in the state.
And in front of us, in the Atlantic Ocean, is the spot where the historic blockade runner was discovered.
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 a perfect vacation.
For an expanded version of this article, as well as information on how film lovers can “follow the stars” along the North Carolina coast, go to www.traveltizers.com.
Photos © Irv Green unless otherwise noted; story by Andrea Gross (www.andreagross.com).