A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_158686" align="alignright" width="300"] Edward Collings Knight Jr.[/caption] Standing on the covered patio at Whalehead with a salty breeze blowing gently off Currituck Sound and the faint sound of birds

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_158686" align="alignright" width="300"] Edward Collings Knight Jr.[/caption] Standing on the covered patio at Whalehead with a salty breeze blowing gently off Currituck Sound and the faint sound of birds

A Century of Opulence in the Northern Outer Banks

Edward Collings Knight Jr. Photography courtesy of Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism

Standing on the covered patio at Whalehead with a salty breeze blowing gently off Currituck Sound and the faint sound of birds trilling nearby, it’s not hard to imagine what industrialist Edward Collings Knight Jr., and his wife, Marie Louise, experienced as they stood here with the same stunning view in the 1920s when they purchased a four-and-a-half mile stretch of land from the sound to the Atlantic Ocean in the northern Outer Banks and built this Art Nouveau-style mansion.

The wealthy couple shared a passion for hunting waterfowl, and built the lavish home, known as Whalehead, as a winter getaway and invited friends from their hometown of Philadelphia to travel to their private hunt club to pursue ducks and other wild waterfowl. It was the ultimate retreat, complete with hot water, indoor bathrooms, a refrigerator, and even an elevator.

Marie Louise LeBel Knight. Photography courtesy of Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism

After the Knights died, Whalehead was used as a Coast Guard barracks and a boys’ school — and the Atlantic Research Corporation even used the site to test rocket fuel.

“There are all sorts of things that happened here that are an important part of local history,” says Jill Landen, site manager and curator for Whalehead. “It tells the story of our maritime heritage.”

Developers were eager to acquire the home — not for its copper-shingled roof, Tiffany fixtures, and ornate hardware — but for its location. Luckily, Landen says, there was no road to Whalehead until 1984, which limited development possibilities and saved the mansion from being razed. Instead, Currituck County purchased the home in 1992. But like the developers who’d tried to purchase the land in the past, the county was more interested in the land than the house.

“Before the county purchased the property, there was no public access to the sound from Currituck Outer Banks,” Landen says. “They didn’t purchase it for the house, but once they had the estate, they had to decide what to do with it.”

Soon a painstaking renovation was underway to restore and preserve the home’s original architecture and features. Today, Whalehead is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the best-known examples of Art Nouveau-style homes in the country. The mansion turned sprawling museum depicts life on the Outer Banks in the early 20th century and is open to the public for self-guided tours and special events, including the popular Legends, Lore, and Ghost Tours. Landen is especially excited because, in 2025, the home will celebrate its 100th anniversary — a special milestone.

“We’re on the coast with hurricanes, nor’easters, and other storms,” Landen says, “and the house has lasted all this time.”

 

Take a walk over to Whalehead via the wooden bridge at Historic Corolla Park and take in views of Currituck Sound. Photography courtesy of Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism

More Than a Mansion

Whalehead is the centerpiece of Historic Corolla Park, a 39-acre park on the shores of Currituck Sound dotted with small ponds and canals, acres of lawns, and waterfront views. The park is also home to the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education and the Currituck Maritime Museum.

After traversing the wooden bridge to visit Whalehead, head to the neighboring Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education to learn about local wildlife, how the region earned a reputation as a haven for wild waterfowl, and why it attracted duck hunters from across the Eastern Seaboard through duck blind displays and exhibits on waterfowl decoys.

See historic boats and much more at the Currituck Maritime Museum. Photography courtesy of Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism

The brand new Currituck Maritime Museum showcases historic boats and other maritime artifacts while telling stories of the rich maritime heritage in Currituck County. It’s the perfect spot to learn about the importance of the nearby lighthouse and the life-saving station before walking over to Corolla Village to visit the historic buildings yourself.

The expansive green space, beautiful views, and waterfront make the park a popular spot for biking, walking, crabbing, and fishing; artists often set up easels and capture the surroundings. It’s also the site of several special events, including Corolla Cork and Craft, a weekly wine and beer tasting, and Christmas in Corolla.

 

A Trip Back in Time

Adjacent to Historic Corolla Park, Corolla Village highlights another chapter of Currituck County history.

The village was developed after the Currituck Beach Station, a life-saving station stocked with supplies to help in the event of a shipwreck, was built in 1875. The population increased to 200 residents, and amenities like a school, chapel, and general store were built to meet their needs.

“By the turn of the century, it was a bustling little village,” Landen says.

Corolla Village was a government town; residents had government jobs with the lighthouse, life-saving station, post office, and schoolhouse (built in the late 1800s and now the last original schoolhouse on the Outer Banks), but the population dwindled in the 1960s.

Today, you can stroll along the charming streets of this quiet, historic village and see several of the original buildings, some of which have been transformed into shops like the Island Bookstore and Spry Creek, and restaurants like The Kind Cup, The Juice Bar, The Shack Coffee and Beer Garden, and Corolla Village BBQ.

The red-brick Currituck Beach Lighthouse features 220 steps to climb — and a stunning view from the top. Photography courtesy of Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism

Don’t miss the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, one of the most visited sites in the village — and one of the most distinctive. Built in 1875, the red-brick exterior was designed to distinguish it from other lighthouses on the Outer Banks. Today, the original first-order Fresnel lens still flashes at 20-second intervals.

Visit the museum and original lighthouse keepers’ quarters, and then climb 220 steps to the top to take in sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound, Corolla Village, and the surrounding island.

“There’s so much to do,” Landen says. “You’ll be blown away by how much history is here [and] how beautiful it is.”

Stay the night in historic Corolla Village at — where else? — the Corolla Village Inn. Photography courtesy of Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism

Need an extra day (or two) to soak it all in? Check in to the Corolla Village Inn in the heart of the village, just a block off the main street. The cedar-shaked, 12-room inn offers a cozy stay where you’ll find subtle homages to Corolla’s history: Books on duck hunting. Whelks gathered from the nearby beach. A mantelpiece made with wood from a shipwreck. Photos offer a glimpse of the area when it was little more than a barren swath of land with just the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and a few fishing shanties — before Corolla transformed into a retreat for wealthy duck hunters like the Knights.

In the evening, head to the inn’s second-floor balcony to watch the lighthouse flicker on — and embrace the beauty that so many have found here for generations.

This story was published on Sep 20, 2022

Jodi Helmer

North Carolina-based journalist Jodi Helmer writes about food, farming, and the environment.