HATTERAS, N.C. — Hatteras Island along North Carolina's Outer Banks is a fickle but alluring place.
The island juts into the Atlantic, making it a bull's-eye for high winds, waves and the occasional hurricane. Cautious vacationers listen to weather reports regularly to make sure they don't need to evacuate ahead of an approaching storm. In August 2011, Hurricane Irene closed the only road across a bridge to the island, N.C. Highway 12, for weeks, and Superstorm Sandy did the same again last fall. Without the road, getting to and from the island requires two ferry rides — one from the mainland to Ocracoke Island, and a second one from Ocracoke to Hatteras.
And yet the island's appeals are irresistible — its beauty, its serenity, its calm. Yes, you can find plenty to do, such as fishing and wind surfing. But Hatteras also is the place to sit on the beach, walk on the beach and nap on the beach.
The best part about Hatteras? Most of what makes it special is free.
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore makes up much of Hatteras Island, meaning there's no development except in the seven villages — Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras. Some beaches are so narrow that waves lap under homes, while others are so wide that you're out of breath by the time you get to the water, even if you're lucky enough to stay in an oceanfront home. Vehicles are generally allowed on the beach, although not on the beaches in front of the villages during tourist season. Rules protecting birds and turtles mean driving is banned along some popular fishing areas at times so be sure to check. Details at http://www.nps.gov/caha/index.htm .
GRAVEYARD OF THE ATLANTIC MUSEUM
Some 600 shipwrecks litter the Hatteras coastline, giving rise to its nickname, Graveyard of the Atlantic. Most of the wrecks have been blamed on Diamond Shoals, an area of shifting sand bars that extends 14 miles (22.5 kilometers) into the Atlantic. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras is dedicated to local seafaring history.
The museum's focal point is a 12-foot-tall (3.6-meter) lens made in 1854 for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. It's known as the first-order Fresnel lens (first order refers to size, Fresnel was the name of its designer). Other artifacts include an Enigma machine from a German U-boat, used to encrypt and decode messages, and a display about Billy Mitchell, who proved in the 1920s that airplanes could sink battleships, an idea that other military leaders of the time openly ridiculed. In September 1923, Mitchell's bombers sank two obsolete warships off Cape Hatteras from the air to prove his point. The local airfield is named after him.
Admission is free; donations are encouraged. Details at http://www.graveyardoftheatlantic.com/index.htm .
BIRD WALKS, MOVING ISLANDS AND MORE
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers numerous opportunities to learn about nature, many of which are free. One new program teaches visitors (and maybe some residents) about barrier island migration and why the ocean keeps cutting into N.C. Highway 12, creating new inlets.
About 400 species of birds live in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and the USFWS offers free tours three days a week from late spring to mid-autumn and at least once a week the rest of the year. Details at http://www.fws.gov/alligatorriver/spec.html .
The National Park Service charges admission to climb both the Cape Hatteras and Bodie (pronounced bah'-dee) Island lighthouses. But nothing stops visitors from looking at the lighthouses and admiring them from the ground.
Bodie Island just underwent a $5 million makeover and was opened to the public in April for the first time in its 141-year history. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, recognized by its famous black-and-white barber pole stripes, is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. It was moved in 1999 to protect it from beach erosion.
FERRY FROM HATTERAS TO OCRACOKE
At the end of Hatteras Island, near the museum, you can take a free ferry from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke Island, which is still part of the national seashore. The ferry takes about 40 minutes.
On Ocracoke, you can visit a British cemetery and the Ocracoke Lighthouse, built in 1823 and noted for its white exterior. The Ocracoke cemetery has four of the 34 victims from the HMS Bedfordshire, which a German torpedo struck and sank on May 12, 1942. A fifth body washed up on Hatteras Island and is buried there, next to a British sailor from the merchant vessel San Delfino, which was also torpedoed by the Germans. Details at http://www.nps.gov/caha/historyculture/british-cemetery.htm and http://www.nps.gov/caha/historyculture/ocracoke-island-lighthouse.htm .
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc