OK, you walked in the ocean and got sand in your picnic snacks. Now what?
There’s more than beach to see on the North Carolina coast. Check out these one-of-a-kind attractions for a surfside side trip that’s amazing, fun for the family – and inexpensive.
Aurora: Pick-your-own fossils
The Aurora Fossil Museum owes roughly 90 percent of its collection to the PotashCorp.-Aurora complex nearby. The phosphate mine makes a point of digging up what geologists call the Pungo River Formation, a gray layer found beneath 10 to 13 metres of sand and clay.
That stratum was a sea floor seven to 23 million years ago. Just as now, the waters were relatively warm and shallow. A wide variety of primitive creatures lived and died here, and it was a hotbed for tiny animals whose remains decomposed into phosphates – a main ingredient of fertilizer.
From time to time, two sandbox-size piles of this prehistoric mine slag are dumped across the street from the museum in a little park. You’re free to go picking through it for fossils. The museum hands out a sheet with little photos that identify 27 of the most common pile finds.
Kids have a field day rummaging through the mound, delighted to find something. The pile’s pocket-size artifacts are genuine turned-to-stone fossils.
Aurora Fossil Museum admission: free. Details: 252-322-4238; www.aurorafossilmuseum.com
Beaufort: Island of wild horses
Down at the Beaufort, N.C., waterfront, buy a round-trip ticket ($18; $10 for kids) to Shackleford Banks, where humans haven’t lived for a century. The island’s notable residents today are 100-plus wild horses descended (depending on whom you ask) from shipwrecked Spanish steeds or 19th-century Carolinians. They’re the masters of this 14-kilometre isle in the National Park Service’s Cape Lookout National Seashore.
They’re small but full-grown. Be careful and don’t get too close: They’re wild.
Approach them slowly, with caution and from downwind. From 10 metres, you can spot their feral appearance, their untended manes and tails matted into dreadlocks by Mother Nature. (Get horse-watching tips at http://1.usa.gov/IqvdVX).
The wind-and-wave-swept island is great, by the way, for seashells: Bring a bag.
Bring a timepiece, too. If you miss the ferry, you’ll be stranded. And carry a water bottle: The only non-saltwater is in horse ponds.
Portsmouth: Ghost town by the sea
Southbound N.C. 12 stops on Ocracoke Island, across the channel from Portsmouth Island. And that’s where the ghost town is.
For close to a century, Portsmouth, on Ocracoke Inlet, was on a major trading route to the mainland ports. But in the 1840s, a storm opened up the deeper Hatteras channel and the village’s economy gradually wasted away. The last two residents left in 1971.
When Cape Lookout National Seashore was set up five years later, Portsmouth’s 100-hectare historic district was put on the National Register of Historic Places. Wander the quiet streets and go into a house that serves as the visitor centre; the post office/store, Methodist church, schoolhouse and live-saving station; the rest – the other homes are closed. There are a handful of cemeteries. And, in season, squadrons of hungry mosquitoes.
To get there, board the state ferry at Ocracoke (www.ncdot.gov/ferry) for the half-hour ride. Reach Ocracoke via the state ferry from Swan Creek or Cedar Island. The voyage across Pamlico Sound ($15 per car, one way) will take up to 2 1/2 hours.
Carolina Beach: Weird animals, stranger plants
Never know what you’ll find in the wild, but at 307-hectare Carolina Beach State Park, just south of Wilmington, walk the 800-metre Flytrap Trail to spot the rare, meat-eating Venus flytrap, only found naturally within a 120-kilometre radius of Wilmington.
Bugs are drawn to the colour and aroma of its leaves; if the insect touches one little hair trigger, nothing happens. But when a second is touched, the leaf halves snap shut on it in a tenth of a second. It takes three to five days for the plant’s fluids to decompose its prey, then the leaf reopens.
The park holds other botanical carnivores, by the way: pitcher plants, bladderworts, sundews and butterworts.
Unusual animal life includes reptiles: Carolina anoles, five-lined skinks and six-lined racerunners. Keep your eyes peeled for the rare gopher frog. Also rare – and there in summer – are painted buntings, a bird species that winters in the tropics.
You can occasionally spy an alligator at the park marina. And don’t miss the 15-metre Sugarloaf sand dune that has served as a marker for Cape Fear mariners since 1663.
Admission: free. Hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily; longer hours May-August. Details: 910-458-8206; www.ncparks.gov (pick “Carolina Beach” from the “Find a park” menu).
Ocracoke: Entering British territory
At Ocracoke, you can leave the United States and enter 697 square metres of British territory. It’s the British Cemetery, a sad legacy from World War II.
In 1942, German subs prowled the East Coast for merchant ships. In the first six months of 1942, close to 400 ships were lost to German U-boats.
America’s British allies sent ships over to protect New World commerce. Among them was the Bedfordshire, a fishing trawler converted into an escort ship for convoy duty. The Bedfordshire was sunk by U-boat 558 on May 11. The entire crew of the Bedfordshire was lost, and three days later, a handful of bodies of crewmen began washing up on shore.
They were buried in a corner of the Ocracoke cemetery later deeded to the Commonwealth War Grave Commission – so the sailors there can technically be buried in “home” soil. Though the British Cemetery is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard station at Ocracoke, a Union Jack flies over the graves.