Outer Banks a true 'Vacationland' for Western Pa. residents
In 1981, the Pittsburgh Press published a map of the Steel City showing the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers flowing from the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds of North Carolina.
The map probably left some subscribers scratching their heads — but not regular readers of Press columnist Gilbert Love. His decades-long promotion of the Outer Banks as the go-to vacation destination for Western Pennsylvanians may help explain why a disproportionate number still travel there every year.
Love said Pittsburghers had been frequenting the Outer Banks since the 1930s and even earlier.
“Many Pittsburgh district sportsmen … were going to the Banks when the islands could be reached only by boat and the best road was the beach at low tide,” he wrote.
The opening of the wooden Wright Memorial Bridge in 1930 — and its concrete replacement in 1966 — helped smooth the 500-mile trip. What used to be a 12-hour drive can now be made in less than nine, said Joe Pasquale, 72, of South Park.
“It's within a reasonable driving distance to the (Atlantic) shore,” he said. “People from this region can be — I just think they have a comfort zone. They know the area; they know what to expect.”
Pasquale has vacationed at the Outer Banks since the 1970s. His wife, Bernadette, 68, went there as a child growing up in West Newton. The couple now rents a home in Kill Devil Hills that sits in “almost a direct line” from the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
“The last time I remember missing was when I was called up for federal jury duty,” he said.
Diane Hordubay, 51, of Penn Hills has vacationed there with her family for about 20 years and likes the familiarity of going to the same place in Duck, N.C.
The kids walk to the beach, and the women go shopping, she said. They patronize the same pizza place every year and have most of their meals at the house.
“We've done it for so many years that each of us has certain things we bring,” Hordubay said.
Her parents, now 80 and 90, go with them and walk the beach.
“I love that they're still able to do that,” she said.
Hordubay said she regularly meets people from the Pittsburgh area who travel to the Outer Banks every summer.
“It seems like a common destination for a lot of people. I'm not sure why,” she said.
Marketing of the Outer Banks as a Pittsburgh vacation destination dates back to at least the 1950s. Newspaper advertising often called North Carolina “Variety Vacationland” and touted its historic sites, beaches and sporting opportunities.
“Along the same historic coast which saw the First Colony and the First Flight, you will find miles of fun in surf and sand. North Carolina's fabulous Outer Banks and two national parks are now easily accessible by paved roads,” read one newspaper ad in 1953.
Those marketing techniques have grown in sophistication over the years, so much so that coastal tourist destinations can now target their advertising to readers of Pittsburgh Magazine and other regional publications.
Pennsylvania is the sixth-highest provider of out-of-state visitors to North Carolina's coastal region, sending 4 percent of the 9.4 million overnight visitors annually, according to a 2016 study by Visit North Carolina , formerly the state division of tourism.
There's also plenty of anecdotal evidence that Pittsburghers love the Outer Banks, said Aaron Tuell, spokesman for the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.
“There's just always a ton of Pennsylvania people down there,” said Tom Gamber, 52, of Greensburg.
A native of Eastern Pennsylvania, Gamber grew up going to the New Jersey shore but has been vacationing in the Outer Banks for about 15 years. His family has stayed all along the coast, including Avon, Corolla, Nags Head and Kitty Hawk.
He prefers the more laid-back pace and reasonable rates of the Outer Banks.
“Going to the beach for the sake of the beach is kind of what I like about the Carolinas,” he said.
Brian and Elizabeth Behler of Hunker said they like the family friendly atmosphere and the friendliness of the locals in Nags Head. Still, they don't have to go far to find someone from Pittsburgh.
“The amount of people that we run into that are from up here — you'll see the license plates or Steelers stickers on their cars,” said Elizabeth Behler, 48.
She grew up in Ohio but spent a week each summer with her grandparents in the Outer Banks. She continued that tradition 22 years ago after getting married.
“It's a great place to take your family. There's a lot for the kids to do,” she said, mentioning the Wright Memorial, the Lost Colony, the lighthouses, the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island and the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.
She said the Virginia Dare Trail, known to regulars as the beach road, hasn't been “built up” like Myrtle Beach, S.C., or Florida destinations.
Andy Jarusinsky, 46, of North Huntingdon enjoyed his vacations so much that he decided to bring a taste of the Outer Banks back to Pittsburgh. In June, he opened a South Hills franchise of Duck Donuts, a chain with its origins in Duck, N.C.
“We had a great social media following prior to opening, based on people's experience vacationing (in the Outer Banks),” he said.
Duck Donuts, which specializes in warm, made-to-order donuts, was founded by Mechanicsburg native Russell DiGilio. Inspired by donuts he enjoyed while vacationing in the Outer Banks, he opened the first store in Duck in 2006.
Former Pittsburgh resident Scott Shields found similar inspiration in the Outer Banks, which is now his adoptive home. A graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania's Academy of Culinary Arts, Shields, 40, is now the proprietor, with his wife, Melissa, of Blue Moon Beach Grill in Nags Head and Blue Water Grill & Raw Bar on Roanoke Island.
As a youngster growing up in Pittsburgh's North Side, Shields spent his summers in the Outer Banks. His parents, Will and Karen Shields, both Western Pennsylvania natives, first crossed the Wright Memorial Bridge as newlyweds in 1970.
“I cut my teeth at Jennette's Pier (in Nags Head),” he said. “We walked across the street to fish there when I was still in a stroller. I fell in love with the beach.”
Upon graduating from IUP, Shields said he didn't waste any time moving back to the place that he found so alluring. He later met his wife there, and they opened their Nags Head restaurant in 2009.
“Ever since I've been coming here, there's been a big Pittsburgh following,” he said. “I think it's because this was a blue-collar beach, a working man's beach, and Pittsburgh is a blue-collar town.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shuba_trib.