Climbing a Lighthouse ... in Stiletto Heels?

Trip Start Sep 19, 2012
Trip End Oct 08, 2012

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Flag of United States  , Virginia
Monday, September 24, 2012

Ocracoke Island, known as "The Pearl of the Outer Banks," separates Pamlico Sound from the Atlantic Ocean. The island is a part of the Outer Banks, which are known for their treacherous seas. The large number of shipwrecks there have given these seas the nickname "Graveyard of the Atlantic." More than 1,000 ships have sunk in these waters since record keeping began in the early 1500s. Among the better-known shipwrecks: the USS Monitor, the first ironclad warship commissioned by the US Navy during the Civil War.

It all sounds so ominous, but it's really quite peaceful this time of year. Unless there's a hurricane. Which there isn't right now. So we celebrate by heading for breakfast at the Pony Island Restaurant. It's the first meal of substance since Wendy's yesterday in Swansboro, North Carolina -- if you can call Wendy's substantive.

At the Northern end of Ocracoke Island, we take the first of two (free!) ferries today, crossing to Hatteras Island. One of the highlights of Hatteras Island is the lighthouse, which you can actually climb -- 200 feet to the top ($3.50 for seniors). The light at the top is automated and is visible every 7.5 seconds. In good visibility, it can be seen for up to 20 miles out to sea. Fun fact: more than one million bricks were used in the construction of the structure, which was completed in 1870 at a cost of $167,500.

The lighthouse wasn't always at its current location. In 1999, the 4,830-ton lighthouse was moved about a half mile from its original location -- a 23-day process that resembled moving the space shuttle. The structure, somehow, was moved intact. Why relocate a perfectly good lighthouse? After years of study and debate, the National Park Service decided to stop fighting the constantly changing shoreline and move the lighthouse to a location that would better withstand the elements.

Whether at the old location or the new one, climbing the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is quite a workout. I should know. I sprinted to the top to check out the view and take a few photos. Click here for details. There are 248 iron spiral stairs to the top; it's like climbing a 12-story building. Fortunately, I meet all the requirements for being a lighthouse climber, including: not being carried by another person, not chewing tobacco, not wearing 1 -inch heels, and being at least 42" tall -- no jokes, please.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is by far the highest point on the island. Unlike our ride a few days ago through the Great Smoky Mountains, where we reached mile-high elevations, today we are riding almost entirely at sea level, plus-or-minus a few feet. It feels as though we're riding on a spit of sand in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Because we are. Much of the day, Pamlico Sound is to our left, and sand dunes on our right are all that separate the road (NC-12) from the Atlantic Ocean.

Along Hatteras Island near Buxton, North Carolina, you'll find the largest surf available on the East Coast. It's created by the convergence of the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream. At Hatteras Island Surf & Sail, you can rent a board by the day or the week. Surf's up, dude! Click here for today's surf report.


From Hatteras Island, we continue north on NC-12, through Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Bodie Island, Nags Head, and then -- before heading inland, we reach Kill Devil Hills, just outside Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. If you're an airplane guy, as I am and as Ray is (he worked at Boeing and piloted his own airplane), the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk is a totally awesome experience.

Kitty Hawk, of course, became famous after the Wright brothers of Dayton, Ohio, selected a nearby site to make their first controlled powered airplane flights on December 17, 1903. The Wright Brothers' first flight was 120 feet --as any Boeing PR person will tell you -- thats shorter than the economy section of a 747. The site of the flights is four miles south of Kitty Hawk, near the sand dunes known as the Kill Devil Hills. It now becomes quite obvious why North Carolina's license plates say "First In Flight." Click here for more information on the National Memorial.

And of course, click here or here to learn more about the Wright Brothers' first flight. Kitty Hawk fun fact: its sister city is Coulaines, France.

From Kitty Hawk, we head west and north on US-158, crossing the Wright Memorial Bridge into Virginia, and turn north toward Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Norfolk -- which are on the Elizabeth River. It's the most urbanity we will see for some time on this trip, so we hang a left south of Chesapeake and avoid what seems like a huge whiff of city life.

As we approach our destination of Williamsburg, Virginia (named in honor of King William III of England), we realize we've got to cross the James River, or ride around it. Fortunately, there's a (free) ferry to help us out. It's the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry, the only 24-hour state-run ferry in Virginia. Click here to learn more about this ferry, including its height restriction: 12 feet 6 inches. I think thats a maximum, not a minimum. This 15-minute ride comes courtesy of the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Tonight's ferry ride, on the vessel "Pocahontas," is the second night in a row we've been treated to a romantic sunset cruise.

Jamestown is a very historic place, having served as the capital of the colony of Virginia from 1616 until 1699, when the capital was relocated to Williamsburg. Historic Jamestowne is today a major tourist attraction, where visitors can view the site of the original 1607 James Fort. This is where the first permanent English settlement in North America took place.

Oblivious to the history surrounding us, we get off the ferry on the north side of the James River. Your history lesson would not be complete without a reminder of where the James River got its name: English colonists named it after King James I of England. James was the only son of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Laden with factoids from the past, we roll off the ferry in Scotland and make the short ride to Williamsburg, where we park our bikes for the evening.

Williamsburg was founded in 1632 as a fortified settlement on high ground between the James and York rivers. It served as the capital of the Colony of Virginia from 1699 to 1780 and was the center of political events in Virginia leading to the American Revolution.

Today, the city is home to Williamsburg Winery (Virginia's largest), a major go-kart track, the College of William & Mary, Busch Gardens, and the Kingsmill Championship -- an LPGA tour event held earlier this month at the Kingsmill Resort. For you golf fans, Jiyai Shin defeated Paula Creamer on the ninth hole of a not-so-sudden-death playoff to win the Kingsmill Championship. It was the longest playoff in LPGA history.

In the mid-1700s, long before golf came to North America, Kingsmill was a 1,400-acre plantation. Its main crop was tobacco. More recently (February 5, 2009), President Obama took his first trip aboard Air Force One, from Andrews Air Force Base near Washington DC -- to a conference held in Williamsburg. The 150-mile flight lasted about 30 minutes. The US Air Force, which operates Air Force One, estimates it costs about $180,000 per hour to operate the specially modified 747-200.

Today, I spent $14.40 on gas. That's how I roll, or at least that's how I rolled into Williamsburg.

Along with nearby Jamestown and Yorktown, Williamsburg forms part of the Historic Triangle, which attracts more than four million tourists each year.

Tonight, Williamsburg is home to two of those tourists -- and their bikes. Lodging: Day's Inn ($49 tax). Dinner at the Olive Garden, a one-minute walk from our room.


Day Four Summary: Climbing the Hatteras Lighthouse, flying with the Wright Brothers, remembering King James I.

To view today's complete route, from Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, to Williamsburg, Virginia, click here. Miles ridden today: 246, not including distance covered on the ferries. Total miles ridden since leaving Farragut four days ago: 1,066

What will tomorrow bring?
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Sarah on

What a great day! Lots of land, sea, and history! Ride safely!

Jim Lambert on

I presume when you were atop the Hatteras lighthouse you could see the Atlantic Ocean to your East and South, and pamlico Sound to your west. If it was clear, you could see the ferry crossing from Cedar Island to Ocracoke in Pamlico Sound (not the Atlantic Ocean). Not trying to be picky, but an unusual mistake by Gary that jumped out to an ex coastie. Travel safely, you are entering areas with some of the worst drivers anywhere, who aren't necessarily cycle aware.

Linda B on

Looks like your trip is treating you very well. Enjoy your travels.

JWC on

The Wright Brothers longest flight was in the foot hills near National City and Chula Vista in San Diego County.

Mary C on

Enjoying the ride :-)

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