This Rooms to Explore feature focuses upon places to stay throughout the country and the world that becomes part of a visit to a destination. These are hotels, inns and other accommodations that help to bring the local history, culture and lifestyle alive in a very meaningful way — where the sightseeing and travel experience begin in the lodging itself. When I’m lucky enough to come across such places, I take pleasure in sharing my fortunate encounter, and my observations, with others.
It hadn’t been long since the medley of fish which graced the bowl of steaming seafood chowder that I was devouring had been swimming in the ocean nearby. The restaurant in which I was enjoying my dinner years ago served as a life saving station. The brave, hardy men who lived there ventured into the raging sea to rescue people from ships that sunk after striking hidden shoals which line the shore.
Today, the only kind of rescue that takes place in that history-rich building is to save diners from their hunger. The Lifesaving Station Restaurant is part of the Sanderling Resort, a Four Star, Four Diamond vacation destination perched on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, near the town of Duck. It’s one of a number of features which prompted a fellow guest to comment, “You’re staying in a piece of Outer Banks history.”
The two-story wood-shingled structure with an attached lookout tower, in which diners today enjoy southern coastal cuisine, was built in 1899 as a lifesaving station. Its original name was Caffey’s Inlet Lifesaving Station. The shallow shoals and treacherous waters off the North Carolina coastline once were dubbed “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” More than 6,000 ships met a tragic ending there over a span of 400 years, including at least 2,000 off the Outer Banks section alone.
Of 23 lifesaving stations built along the state’s shore, 11 lined the 200-mile stretch of the Outer Banks. When a ship in distress was spotted, the men in the stations took to sea to save the passengers and crew, cargo and vessels, in that order.
The beautifully restored Lifesaving Station restaurant is decorated with old photographs and memorabilia from its storied past. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and shares links to bygone days and its surroundings with other features of the resort.
Begin with the resort’s setting, perched on a narrow strip of land between the pounding Atlantic Ocean on one side and serene Currituck Sound on the other. That 30-mile-long channel got its name from a Native American word which meant “Where wild geese fly.” Situated along the Atlantic Flyway, its marshlands and maritime forests continue to provide temporary habitat for Canadian geese, swans and other migrating waterfowl.
A perfect way to explore and experience the Sound is to stroll along a 2.5 mile nature trail that begins at the edge of Sanderling Resort and leads through the 2,600-acre Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary. That preserve harbors 170 species of birds along with mammals, amphibians and reptiles.
The land for the preserve was donated by Earl Slick, a North Carolina businessman and developer who was drawn to the Outer Banks for its outstanding fishing and hunting. He built the Sandlerling Inn, as it was originally named, and purchased a private hunt club on Pine Island, part of whose land now comprises the sanctuary.
Even after a major renovation in 2013, Sanderling retains vestiges of the local color and history. The main building’s cedar shake siding and wide porches echo architectural touches common in the area.
Names throughout the resort provide reminders of history. Five rental houses are named for lifesaving stations, including Caffey’s, and of the men who were in charge of them. Kimball’s Kitchen, the fine dining room that overlooks Currituck sound and its glorious sunsets, recalls Sumner Increase Kimball, who organized the U.S. Life-Saving Service and served as its superintendent from 1878 to 1915.
Some activities included in the daily schedule also are associated with the setting. These include a touch tank of sea stars, hermit crabs and other critters provided by the North Carolina Aquarium, and guided kayak tours that offer guests close-up and personal introductions with the sound.
Topping the list are fireside storytelling events presented by John Grattan, who uses his talents as an area historian, guide, actor and singer to intersperse local legends with fascinating facts. His performances brings to life stories of fearsome pirates, devastating shipwrecks, heroic rescues and the history and life of the “Bankers,” as residents of the area are called.
These tales combine with other attractions of the Sanderling Resort (sanderling-resort.com) to make a stay there as much history lesson as holiday.
After gallivanting throughout the United States and to more than 75 other countries around the world, and writing about what he sees, does and learns, Victor Block retains the travel bug. He firmly believes that travel is the best possible education, and claims he still has a lot to learn. He loves to explore new destinations and cultures, and his stories about them have won a number of writing awards.