What a perfect day to visit an island. Capt. Ron White steers his sailboat, The Good Fortune, toward Cape Lookout.
National Seashore, a lesser-known strand of the necklace of barrier islands containing the Outer Banks. The eastbound voyage from his home port of Beaufort takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes, if the ocean breezes blow just right. And they do on this fine, sunny day.
"The winds are best in spring and fall, but we can get some nice breezes this time of year too," he says, cranking in the mainsail just a bit. "They're great for sailing right now--about 12 to 15 knots from the northeast, which makes for flat seas and smooth water. Oh, and people don't get seasick, either," he laughs.
The sharp bow of his sleek 41-foot craft nods gently in agreement as it slices through the sun-sparkled waters. Along Beaufort Inlet, Ron points out terns, brown pelicans, and egrets, along with wild island ponies on Shackleford Banks, a strip of sand pointing to Cape Lookout's diamond-patterned lighthouse on the horizon.
The excitement of finding someplace new and unspoiled thrills you as Ron approaches the fishhook-shaped landmass curling from east to west at the southernmost end of Cape Lookout island. He takes in the sails and drops anchor in the pristine waters of the deepwater harbor called Cape Lookout Bight. Other pleasure boats bob gently in the calm, protected waters; children squeal in delight as they jump off the old Coast Guard docks into the cool, sparkling water. That's when you notice that you can see all the way to the bottom.
"The water is amazingly clear," Ron notes, as he lowers the 12-foot whaler from the stern. "It's perfect for snorkeling. You can see 30 feet underwater on a good day."
But there's something more compelling right now--the irresistible lure of going onshore and exploring. That's where you really need to go; locals say you haven't seen the North Carolina coast until you've been ashore at Cape Lookout.
Take the easy, short hike over to the ocean side--the cape is flat with sand hissing over the scattering of grass and old cedar stumps. On the beach, what at a distance appears to be rocks or trash turns out to be a gold mine of seashells washed up by strong currents. At low tide or after a summer thunderstorm, the beachcombing can be fantastic. With miles of solitude and sand, Cape Lookout is a beachcomber's paradise. "You can find big lightning whelks up to a foot long," Ron notes. "Queen helmets too, which are the shells they make cameos from, up to 6 inches across." A rock jetty stretches out into the ocean at the sand spit forming the cape's northern curve; it's a favorite area for scuba divers.
Once you've stuffed every pocket you have with seashells, it's time to explore the human presence on Cape Lookout. Waddle up on the boardwalk to the lighthouse, still flashing a warning to oceangoing ships about the dangerous Cape Lookout shoals to the southeast. A white brick, two-story house (once the assistant keeper's duplex) contains a small museum on the first floor; exhibits and photographs show the distinctive diamond-patterned lighthouse looking as lonely in 1893 as it does now.
If you've been to other lighthouses on the Outer Banks, such as the famous Cape Hatteras tower, you'll be impressed with how solitary the Cape Lookout Lighthouse appears. Perhaps it's because the island is so flat: There are no sand dunes here. If you didn't know any better, you'd think this was the southern edge of the civilized world.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse, one of six operational lighthouses in North Carolina, has two airport beacons rotating once every 30 seconds. You can't go up in the tower, but hiking to its base can give you an up close impression of its command over the potentially dangerous shoals offshore. The Coast Guard maintains the fully automated light; it is the only major lighthouse operating during the day as well as at night.
Volunteers with the National Park Service, which oversees Cape Lookout, live in the duplex during warmer months. They can show you around, point out a shady spot for picnicking under the pine trees, and share stories of drama and despair. (Get them to tell you about the Crissie Wright, a three-masted schooner that wrecked here in a January 1886 storm.)
You've already got the best guide, however. A marine biologist who's made thousands of trips to the islands over the past 24 years, Ron maintains a contagious enthusiasm for Cape Lookout. "There are 56 miles of coastline with unspoiled beaches and no development, and that's just counting one side," he says. "You can only get here by boat or ferry, so there aren't the crowds you get at other beaches."
Ever changing and constantly split and rejoined by storms and seas, Cape Lookout National Seashore retains more primal beauty and remoteness than its older, tamer sibling, Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Because no bridges connect Cape Lookout to the mainland, the human element remains minimal and somewhat ghostlike.