By Jonathan B. Tourtellot
National Geographic Traveler
Geotourism Editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot, focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. Columns that originally appeared in the print magazine will now also be published on the Web for National Geographic News. Look out for TravelWatch every Friday.
Each coastal community decidesby action or inactionwhat kind of experience it offers the beachgoing public that supports it. If you went to the shore this summer, did you spend your off-beach hours walking or biking on quiet lanes past charming houses, weathered gray from the salt-sea air? Or were you stuck, as I was, in three lanes of traffic waiting to make a left turn into the sun-blasted asphalt expanse of a shopping center just like the one you left back home?
North Carolina's Outer Banksthat thin, 300-mile-long thread of beaches that forms the world's longest system of barrier islandsillustrates the extremes, from the sprawling hodgepodge of Kitty Hawk to the still-quiet charm of Ocracoke.
Kitty Hawk celebrates its centennial of the first manned flight in 2003, but the Kitty Hawk that the Wright brothers knewa fishing village of only a few houseshas morphed into an unbroken slurry of vacation cottages, filling stations, mid-rises, subdivisions, and franchises that now spills 21 miles southward along the beach, stopping only where it fetches up against the boundary of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. (Lengthy protected stretches keep many segments of the Outer Banks undeveloped, emphasizing the contrast: Where protection ends, houses begin, often within inches.) From Kitty Hawk south through Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, and South Nags Head, each colorful name identifies no distinguishable townjust notches along a belt of beach-burb. KittySnag, I call it.
The beach itself still appeals, but not the five-lane Route 158 Bypass, which runs parallel to it a few blocks inland. Acres of parking lots surround shopping centers and outlets and real-estate offices and stores selling T-shirts, coolers, kites, and seashells labeled "Product of the Philippines." Driving the bypass, you get a kind of franchise déjà vu: Food Lion, Exxon, BrewThru, Food Lion, Exxon, BrewThru. At night, over-lit businesses and unshielded floodlights on hundreds of rental houses keep the sky pale. Worst offender: The glass-wrapped beach-gear stores called Wings, each pouring out enough candlepower to light up a baseball diamond. Seashore romance? Here your nighttime walk on the sand is not by starlight, but by electric sky glow.
Remnants of character remain. Amid the beach-wrack of Nags Head (or is it South Nags Head?) the 70-year-old First Colony Inn sits clad in cedar shingles and wooden, white-railed porchesa glass of oak-aged sherry at a Kool-Aid party. One Florida-style concrete mid-rise pokes into the inn's ocean view. When I visited, construction was under way on a miniature golf course right behind the inn"as if we needed another miniature golf course," sighed the day manager.
Not that there's anything wrong with miniature golf or beachwear stores. In fact, one or two older sections of KittySnag feel comfortably funky. From your '50s-era beach cottage, you can stroll to a family-owned convenience store, a miniature golf course, a fishing pier. Note the verb, though: stroll. In most of KittySnag, you need a car to buy a Coke.
Now skip 90 miles south, to Ocracoke, a village on the sound side of a barrier island accessible only by ferry. Here, you can walk and bike on narrow lanes past charming houses. While relaxing at a harbor-side lunch table, you can watch pelicans and fishing boats.
In 1983, right next to the harbor, the flat-roofed, multistory red-brick Anchorage Inn rose above the clapboard village, incongruous as a cow at a clam bake. That affront led the individualistic islanders to go against their own grain and enact Ocracoke's first ordinance to control new construction. Some residents think this initial pass at good stewardship needs to be tougher.
They may be right. Contrasts like KittySnag-Ocracoke pop up all along the eastern seaboard: Hyannis vs. Chatham on Cape Cod, Ocean City vs. Chincoteague in Delmarva, Myrtle Beach vs. Pawleys Island in South Carolina, Fort Myers vs. Sanibel in Florida. In most cases, sprawl advances and charm retreats.
Population growth is part of it. In 1902, when the pricey new automobile began taking the well-to-do to the beaches, the U.S. had 80 million people. Now, the same beaches must cope with a mobile population that's pushing 300 million. But coastal communities can choose how they respond to that demand. Ugly sprawl will happen unless they plan and zone for alternatives. Some towns may solicit industrial tourism with high-rise hotels. If so, clustering them helps. I'd rather see a mile of high-rises and 20 miles of charm than see one remnant mile of charm amid 20 miles of sprawl.
What can visitors do? I, for one, have adopted a fairly painless policy: I avoid spending money in ugly places. Beach cottages in cookie-cutter subdivisions are out. No harsh lights will cast my shadow at a Wings store. People who care about the locale will get my business.
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