On the northern end of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the town of Corolla is a popular vacation destination and the one-time home of North Carolina’s state horse, the Colonial Spanish Mustang, (for their safety the horses have been moved north of Corolla in the area beyond the paved road which is only accessible by 4-wheel drive vehicles).
The town has a long history. As is common with coastal land, nature has shifted the coast and created and moved dunes and inlets. Numerous hurricanes have changed the structure of the Outer Banks, which have effectively served as a protector to mainland North Carolina. Up until early 1800s, it was only accessible by boat and its residents survived through hunting and fishing as well as salvaging items from shipwrecks. Other towns came and went, but the residents of Corolla stuck it out.
Government jobs in the 1800s increased the population. Between 1873-75, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and the Jones’ Hill Life Saving Station were created. In 1895, Jones’ Hill (as the area was then known) had grown enough to get its own Post Office and the US Postal Service asked for suggestions for a name. Corolla (which is the inner part of a flower) was suggested and ultimately chosen by the postal service. In 1905 a one-room school was established. Some of these 19th century structures remain in what is now known as Corolla Village, a collection of charming buildings surrounding the 162-foot tall lighthouse, including the Corolla Wild Horse Museum and several charming shops.
In 1922 the Knights of Newport, RI began building their 21,000 square foot winter home, Corolla Island, which was completed in 1925. In 1940, under new ownership, Corolla Island was renamed the Whalehead Club, and was leased to the Coast Guard during WWII.
The Club was used as a boy’s school in the summers in the 1950s. Today, the building has been restored to its appearance in 1925 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Owned by the county, it and the lighthouse are both part of the Currituck Heritage Park. Whalehead offers seasonal tours of the building and hosts special events throughout the year.
In the 1970s, only about 15 people lived in Corolla. The road to town was an unpaved trail along the sound. The state later took over the road, and it became part of NC Rt. 12 in 1984. More than 1500 homes were built over the next ten years. Over 500 more were added over the next five years, most of which are vacation homes, with more than half 5000 square feet or more. This road continues through most of Corolla, but then simply ends at an expanse of sand. There are homes (and the horses) beyond this point, but they are not accessible without the use of a 4×4 vehicle.
Today the town of Corolla is relatively quiet and family centered. The houses are packed close together and are a variety of sizes and styles. Needing a place that would accommodate our extended family and two dogs, we rented a home a short walk from the beach with ample space inside, plus a balcony and “bird’s nest” rooftop sitting area which sat higher than most of the other buildings, where we could view both sunrises and sunsets.
A reservoir in our neighborhood was home to a few turtles, and the kids were entertained simply watching them. We also saw a few deer, including a fawn napping in our backyard.
We happen to own ocean kayaks and had brought them along with us (rentals are also available). We spent one lazy afternoon exploring the sound and another day my husband and son tried them out in the ocean. We also spent time lounging on the beach, playing in the ocean and the sand and searching for seashells. My niece was fascinated by the exoskeleton of a horseshoe crab that she discovered.
There are a number of restaurants in Corolla, but for the most part, we chose to shop at the Food Lion and Seaside Farm Market and prepared food back at the house.
We did pick up pizza from Tomato Patch Pizzeria our first night there, which was very good. We also enjoyed our dinner at Sunset Grille and Raw Bar in Duck where we got to sit outside on the dock and were amused by the fanciful drink glasses that we got to bring home.
Shopping included the traditional beachy souvenir shops, upscale gift boutiques and antique markets as well as outfitters for water sports. An 18-link golf course, mini golf, go carts and a movie theater are right in town, and tours via 4×4 vehicles are popular and are probably the best way to see Corolla’s horses. Fishing, surfing, kayaking and stand up paddle boarding rentals and lessons can be found for those who would rather be in the water.
The Outer Banks have much more to offer, outside of Corolla, but we spent most of our week locally. The ride in on a Saturday morning (which is when most of the rental periods start) had us almost at a standstill for a couple hours, causing some to not want to venture out until the week’s end. Having a fondness for lighthouses, I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit another one nearby, so my son and I made a trip south to explore.
The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is the location of the first English settlement in America, which tragically ended in mystery. All 117 people in the colony vanished without a trace. At a ranger-led talk at our visit, we explored the possibilities and most popular theories of this strange vanishing act. During the summer months, a live performance, The Lost Colony is put on by the non-profit Roanoke Island Historical Association. The nearby Roanoke Island Festival Park, a North Carolina Historic Site offers a peek into history as costumed interpreters demonstrate life in the 1585 settlement or onboard the Elizabeth II, which represents one of the seven ships bringing colonists to America in 1585.
The Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills celebrates the birthplace of aviation. While there, one can visit the Flight Line where history took place, peek into 1903 camp buildings and explore the Visitor’s Center.
Jockey Ridge State Park in Nags Head is home to the Atlantic’s tallest living sand dune. A visitor’s center and boardwalk provide information about the dune’s ecology. Shoes are a must while walking on the sand; the park website warns that the sand can be up to 30 degrees hotter than air temperatures.
Between Corolla and Cape Hatteras. there are 5 lighthouses. Just south of Nags Head, the Bodie Island Lighthouse (pronounced “body”) stands 150 feet tall and is open to climb subject to weather conditions. On the day of our visit, thunderstorms were threatening so admission was limited to the ground floor. The other lighthouses on these barrier islands are the Currituck Lighthouse in Corolla, the Okracoke Lighthouse (which is the nation’s oldest operating), the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (the tallest brick lighthouse in the country), and the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse.
The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras delves into maritime history. The coast of North Carolina is known for its density of shipwrecks, which is one of the highest in the world. The waters are known for their tales of pirates and Civil War battles, as well as engaging with submarines during the World Wars.
We only had a week on the Outer Banks, so we still have much to see. I look forward to future visits and to further exploring the historic sites.
This was previously published as Relaxing in Corolla, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and Outer Banks Offer Relaxation, History