The waters off Cape Hatteras may not be hospitable for sea captains—some 2,000 shipwrecks are recorded off her coastline—but these days the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a chain of barrier islands, is as welcoming as any top vacation spot. The cape itself, not to be confused with Hatteras Village or Hatteras Island, is a spit of land jutting into the Atlantic Ocean; it’s where you’ll find the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, as well as seaside villages and two-lane State Route 12, better known as the Beach Road.
On the must-see list: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, moved a half mile inland in 1999 because it sat in a perilous location. At 208 feet high, the structure is the tallest brick lighthouse in North America and open for climbing from Good Friday through Columbus Day. As for those 2,000 shipwrecks, artifacts can be found at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. Among the remnants on display is an original Enigma encryption machine recovered from the first German U-boat sunk by the United States in World War II.
Stop by Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, the Coast Guard of its day, charged with saving souls from the briny deep. The now restored station was built in 1874. Take a gander at the Lifecar, a once-used submarine-like rescue device. Birdwatchers flock to the 6,000-acre Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Considered the mid-Atlantic freeway for migratory birds, the refuge attracts more than 400 species.
For a quick ocean voyage, nab a ride on the free ferry between Hatteras and Ocracoke Island (about 40 minutes each way) or go out with a member of a charter fishing fleet. Tackle should be provided, as should a North Carolina saltwater-fishing license. And if your fishing trip is a bust, never fear, almost every restaurant serves fresh North Carolina-caught seafood, including soft-shell crabs (in May and June), oysters, flounder, tuna, and shrimp. For the best crab-cake sandwich, hands down, locals suggest the Quarterdeck Restaurant in Frisco. And in Buxton, the Orange Blossom Bakery & Café (it dishes up only breakfast) is the place for baked goods such as the Uglies, the cafe’s version of an apple fritter.
Shoppers should hit The Cotton Gin in Nags Head, known for its country and coastal-inspired goods like weathervanes, wind chimes, and handcrafted salt-glazed stoneware. Outer Barks in dog-friendly Duck caters to the canine crowd (don't miss the weekly Yappy Hour for locals and visitors). Pooches can romp on agility equipment or in a play pool, create a paw painting in the art studio or chow down at the buffet table on turkey frittata, Italian meatballs, and we're not making this up, wash it down with a Muttgarita.
Finally, if you have extra time on your hands—which we find hard to believe—head about an hour north to the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills to see the place where humankind first flew. To learn more, contact the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau (877-629-4386).