Island hopping

A scenic cruise to all the old haunts

Harbinger, N.C., April 18–25—The 175-mile string of barrier islands that forms the Outer Banks of North Carolina has a rich and storied past. Tales of pirates and perfidy, herds of wild horses roaming the beach and even an entire colony of English settlers disappearing without a trace have helped shape the unique culture and added to the allure of this charming yet enigmatic locale.

The small towns that dot the small strip of land between the Currituck, Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds and the Atlantic Ocean formed the perfect setting for the 8th annual Outer Banks Bike Week. As I traversed Virginia’s Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel on my way to the Outer Banks, I began to get a sense of what lay in store. The air began to feel crisper, and I imagined that I could taste the salt from the ocean surrounding the sea crossing.

It wasn’t long before I pulled into the parking lot of Bayside Harley-Davidson in Portsmouth, Virginia. Bayside is the northernmost of the three Harley dealerships that sponsor Bike Week, and I needed to pick up the first of the three-piece pirate-themed rally puzzle pins. While I was there, one of the employees also handed me a card that needed to be stamped at all three dealerships so that I could enter to win a $1,000 shopping spree.

I continued south, leaving the Interstate and riding through progressively rural areas for another 65 miles until I arrived at Outer Banks Harley-Davidson. Outer Banks H-D is located in Harbinger, North Carolina, just north of the Wright Memorial Bridge leading to the Outer Banks and the third hosting dealership, Nags Head Harley-Davidson, less than 20 miles away.

A hundred miles of highway
The scene at OBX H-D was quite lively, with vendors, live music, food, and tons of people and bikes. This dealership served as the main venue for the rally with all sorts of activities taking place from morning till evening, all week long. Last year’s Bike Week was four days, and due to popular demand, the rally was extended to eight, giving rally goers more opportunities to explore the beauty of the Outer Banks. The OBX H.O.G. chapter led rides Monday through Thursday, which was great for those who wanted to tour the area but didn’t know their way around. And the weather during the week ranged from the mid-60s up into the low 80s—perfect riding conditions with only occasional rain sprinkles that didn’t last long.

There are a hundred miles of highway hugging the Outer Banks seashore, not including the less-traveled inland routes. And even with the 20,000 riders estimated to be in attendance, none of these roads were ever truly busy. I didn’t see a single traffic jam all week, unlike many other rallies where your time is spent waiting at traffic lights or backed up at Interstate on-ramps.

Monday’s tour, “Around the Sounds,” took riders through the back roads of eastern Carolina, and Tuesday was a guided tour to Knotts Island, home to Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge as well as two wineries. A new tour was Wednesday’s “Run 4 the Ferry” which was postponed due to a storm in the forecast. The rain did come but passed rather quickly, and that evening, a few of us headed to the sponsor party at Kelly’s Restaurant in Nags Head, and then down to REAL Watersports and the Mojo Café inWaves for the first of four official party nights. At the café we enjoyed a pig roast and party on the beach, with live music by the Mojo Collins Blues Band. On the way back, we stopped at Uncle Pauly’s in Rodanthe for some Shy Guy karaoke, where the mic was turned way down for performers too shy to sing in public (and, we supposed, to save the audience from some really bad vocalizing).

Thursday’s official ride was a Bike Week pin run to each of the three Harley dealerships, but some of us opted to try the Run 4 the Ferry once more because two of our H.O.G. leaders, Roger Kline and Floyd Lewis, graciously volunteered to lead the ride again! So we headed down Route 12 along the coast, through the seclusion and singular beauty of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and passing through several picturesque seaside towns. Before Wednesday’s ride, we were each given a ticket that, if stamped by nine designated rally sponsors, made us eligible to win a free week-long vacation during next year’s Outer Bank Bike Week, thanks to the generosity of rally sponsor Élan Vacations. We managed to get nearly the entire card stamped in those two days.

Later we arrived at the Ocracoke Ferry at the tip of Hatteras Island, some 85 miles from OBX H-D. We didn’t have long to wait at the pier, and the 40-minute crossing was quite relaxing. Ocracoke Island is only about 14 miles from end to end, but it’s an idyllic spot with lots to offer visitors. It was known as a pirate hangout several hundred years ago, and in fact the infamous Blackbeard met a violent end in a naval battle just offshore. Today there are feral horses descended from Spanish mustangs, pristine beaches, and quaint shops and restaurants where you can while away the day. After a great lunch at Howard’s Pub, we took a quick riding tour and headed back to the ferry. It was early evening as we rode north over the Oregon Inlet Bridge, and our reward after a long day of riding was a spectacular fiery-orange sunset that seemed to envelope us with its warmth. At that moment, it was easy to understand why people choose to make the Outer Banks their home.

Thursday night’s party was at Port O’Call, a fun place with a good band and an enthusiastic crowd. Not being the party animal I once was (plus I was pretty tired from a full day on the road), I opted for an early night. But I couldn’t resist stopping at the Lucky 12 Tavern in Nags Head before heading back to my motel. The Lucky 12 is a tavern with a miniscule parking lot, both of which were packed to the gills all week. The food was great and the bands and the crowds were rockin’ every night. The welcoming, down-home vibe is due in no small part to owner and motorcycle rider Mark Ballog and his staff. In fact, we found ourselves at the Lucky 12 nearly every night. You could call it a biker bar, but that would be selling it short. It’s a place where locals mix it up with tourists, and college kids with senior citizens.

Different strokes
Early Friday morning, I wolfed down a homestyle breakfast at Sam & Omies in Nags Head, a dining spot favored by locals that was an easy walk from my motel, the Comfort Inn South. In fact, the motel was situated smack dab in the middle of all the rally activities—about 20 southeast of Outer Banks H-D, 25 miles north of the Mojo Café, and 10 miles east of Manns Harbor and Vertigo Tattoo. The rest of the rally sites and party spots were located just a few miles from the motel, making it easy to hit several venues in a single day—exactly what I did on Friday.

My first stop after breakfast was Nags Head Harley-Davidson, where the Harley demo fleet was set up. The place was quite busy, but those wanting to try out the latest Harley models were able to ride multiple bikes since demo rides were leaving every few minutes. In fact, the record for the number of demo rides at a rally for a single day was broken by the 270 times that bikes went out that day!

After picking up my puzzle pin, I headed north past the Virginia Dare Bridge and through the towns of Duck and Corolla, where another herd of feral horses roams the sands and marshes of the Currituck Outer Banks. These wild and rugged mustangs are descended from the horses the Spaniards brought to the New World hundreds of years ago. Local legend has it that the pirates of the Outer Banks would hang a lantern around a “nag’s head” and walk it up and down the sand dunes, making ships at sea think that they saw other schooners bobbing in a safe harbor. When the ship got closer, it would run aground, at which time the pirates would plunder the cargo while the ship’s crew stood hopelessly by.

When I reached the northernmost part of Corolla, the road suddenly ended and I found myself on the beach! I carefully wheeled my bike out of the sand and decided instead to walk along the Currituck Banks Maritime Forest Trail that led to the Currituck Sound, hoping for a glimpse of the wild horses. Alas, there wasn’t a single equine in sight. I reluctantly left this refuge of peace and solitude and headed back to Route 158.

Next stop was Kitty Hawk Baptist Church, which might not seem like much of a party place, but it had the most upbeat energy of all three rally venues on Route 158. You had to listen carefully to comprehend that the bands were belting out worship music. Several food and merchandise vendors were on site, and it was a pleasant way to spend an hour or three. There was no fire and brimstone here; just church groups offering free water, shop rags imprinted with religious messages, and willing volunteers ready to lend an ear or offer some solace.

I made a couple of quick stops at nearby rally sites Longboards and New York Pizza Pub; both of which also had a variety of vendors and entertainment. I sailed south along the shoreline and then rode over the series of bridges connecting Nags Head, Roanoke Island and Manns Harbor back to the mainland. I made sure to get past Roanoke Island in a hurry—an entire colony of English settlers disappeared without a trace in the late 1500s, and mystery still shrouds the island. To keep the drama alive, the missing 117 men, women and children have been memorialized by a symphonic stage production that’s been performed in Manteo every summer for over 70 years.

Vertigo Tattoo and Body Piercing occupies a century-old farmhouse on several acres of land in MannsLanding—the perfect location for a biker blowout. The 10th annual Outer Banks Bike Rally, considered an OBX Bike Week venue but actually a quite sizeable event in its own right, was well underway. There were tattoo contests and bike competitions every day, with Friday’s show featuring an antique contest won by Catfish and Karen, who came from Massachusetts with their ’82 Shovelhead. Vendors were situated around a huge field, with a dynamometer providing backup bass for the bands. Impromptu pole dances were taking place at the Strip Club Choppers setup, and across the midway Patch Magillacutty was riding the Wall of Death. That day’s burnout contest was won by a Sportster, the only bike that ran through all the gears without bogging or stalling. I guess I got a little too close to the action because by the time the winner was announced, my face was coated with black grime and my hair smelled like rubber.

It was a wildly diverse mixture of activities I’d experienced that day, from the serenity of Currituck Sound to the good folks’ hospitality at Kitty Hawk Baptist Church, juxtaposed with the Hooters girls giving bikini bike washes next door, followed by the riotous afternoon at Vertigo Tattoo. But that’s typical for OBX Bike Week—there’s something for everyone. And so many activities are scheduled that it’s impossible to make it to every single one.

Weekend wrap-up
Saturday morning, Hooters hosted a fundraising breakfast to benefit the OBX Professional Firefighters Association. The restaurant let a few firefighters loose in the kitchen, where they whipped up pancakes, sausage and eggs for three hours’ worth of hungry bikers. I shouldn’t be surprised that the meal was excellent because I hear some of these guys get plenty of practice preparing meals at their ladder companies in between fires.

I arrived at OBX H-D just in time for the Best Beer Belly contest where a guy named Matt took top honors with the biggest belly, although the contestant who could roll his somewhat smaller stomach came in a close second. What really amped up the crowd was the Miss Outer Banks Bike Week 2010 competition emceed by Captain Pamlico Jack, a pirate of uncertain lineage and a corny sense of humor who made the crowd groan with some really bad pirate puns. The lovely Brittany Musick took the title by popular vote, and was awarded $500 and two VIP tickets to NorVa, a well-known concert hall in Norfolk, Virginia.

OBX H.O.G. had been conducting 50/50s for six days, and each day the winnings got progressively larger, culminating with a $961.50 jackpot on Saturday. I learned that the top winner out of 20 entries for the Women’s Bike Show on Thursday at Nags Head H-D was Margaret Foulke with her 2005 custom Pro Street painted to portray her love of horses. Chuck Marshall of Suffolk, Virginia, won the shopping spree, and he and his wife and another couple they were traveling with spent every dime that last weekend. The big winner of the week was Kyle Jernigan of Saint Leonard, Maryland, who won the vacation house and restaurant gift certificates for the 2011 Outer Banks Bike Week.

In between the live music and the contests, I wandered through the dealership where the helpful, friendly staff told me that the interior design was meant to honor the Wright Brothers, whose first flight took place in Kitty Hawk in 1903, the same year Harley-Davidson began motorcycle production. The décor also integrated a pirate theme, making for an interesting mix of historical references.

I met Maurice Slaughter, owner of the three Harley dealerships, who gave me some background on the rally. He said that most people attending rode in from Virginia and North Carolina, although some of the folks I met came from Ohio and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as well as many riders from Pennsylvania, New York and parts of New England. The Outer Banks is only 350 miles from Philadelphia, and about 450 miles from my home in New Jersey—a decent day’s ride.

Maurice also told me that the community welcomes OBX Bike Week attendees with open arms. The county even swept the bridges of debris before the bikers arrived without him having to ask. He says that everyone reaches out to him with, “What can we do to help?” And unlike many other rallies, the law enforcement presence could best be described as unobtrusive. They weren’t looking to hassle anyone. As long as you didn’t do anything extremely stupid, you wouldn’t be harassed.

The last official party of the week was held at Outer Banks Brewing Station in Kill Devil Hills—another town that came by its name in a strange way. It is said that in the pirate days, a lot of ships transported rum that was so strong it would kill the devil, so the dunes where the pirates stowed their stolen booty were nicknamed Kill Devil Hills. The Brewing Station is a modern-day micro-brewery that produces beer with far less of a kick, illustrated by the rather laid-back crowd that was grooving to the live music that night.

Sunday morning brought the OBX Bike Week Farewell Breakfast at Jolly Roger Restaurant, also in Kill Devil Hills, where I happened upon the group I rode to Ocracoke with. This group of riders stayed together all week, taking every H.O.G. ride and hanging out at party spots at night. Maybe it was the fantastic scenery, or maybe it was the upbeat vibe, but by the end of the rally they’d become fast friends, sharing photos and stories on Facebook when they returned, with some making plans to meet up and ride together again.

The last official Bike Week event was a bike blessing at OBX H-D to send riders safely on their way home. My trip back north was by way of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and the Cape May Ferry, tracking the shoreline nearly all the way home. The scenic, relaxing ride gave me plenty of time to plan for next year’s rally, which is being extended again to 10 days! Maybe I’ll be able to get to some events I missed, like the Gravedigger’s Mud Bog Event in Grandy; Fun Day Drag Races at Outer Banks Speedway 50 miles west in Creswell; the famous lighthouses; the Wright Brothers Museum; the tours around the sounds and to Knotts Island; the tattoo contests and the rest of the bike shows, and maybe find a four-wheeler and track down those ponies…

If you can’t wait another year for Outer Banks Bike Week, then make your plans to visit Outer Banks Bike Fest October 1–3. Check out for more information on Bike Fest and the 9th annual Bike Week to be held April 15–24.


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