Insider’s Guide: Outer Banks Vacation
If you’ve never explored the beaches of these amazing islands, it’s high time. Follow our guide to one of the South’s most dramatic coastlines.
Lay of the Land
Most Southerners have never seen this incredible razor-thin line of sand drawn in the Atlantic. Bisected by a two-lane thread of asphalt, State 12, these islands are home to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, 75 miles of protected coastline.
The Outer Banks begin on the Carolina-Virginia border. Where they end is a matter of debate, though Cape Lookout generally garners the most votes. In a typical four- to seven-day vacation, you can easily visit Bodie (BOD-ee), Hatteras, and Ocracoke, with time for a day trip to Manteo, a beautiful waterfront town on Roanoke. No matter how much you plan to see, you’ll enjoy your trip more if you book most of your stay on the island best suited to your travel personality.
Bodie Island, the northernmost of the three, is attached to the mainland at its northern tip, where you can rent a vacation home on the “off-road beaches”—no stores, restaurants, hotels, or even pavement. On southern Bodie, however, are Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills, some of the biggest tourist draws on the Outer Banks. Between these extremes are upscale Corolla and Duck, two of the prettiest villages on the islands. In general, if you like a lot of variety and traditional creature comforts, such as chain hotels, book on Bodie. A day trip to Roanoke Island (roanoke-island.com) is an easy drive from here (no ferry required).
Photo: Wild horses descended from Spanish mustangs
Hatteras Island is a starkly beautiful place. It’s also an adventurer’s paradise—high winds, big waves, and soaring dunes. This island has a relaxed, just-use-common-sense attitude. Surfers and kiteboarders come here to test their mettle, but Hatteras also draws families who like digging in for a week with nothing but the beach on their agenda. By day, they stock their SUVs with food, drink, fishing rods, and beach toys and line Cape Point for what has to be one of the biggest tailgates in the South. At night, their bonfires cast a glow on the sand as families relax together in the moonlight.
More information: hatterasguide.com
Ocracoke Island, accessible only by air or water, wants to be that sleepy fishing village of yesteryear. Too many travelers have discovered it for that to be true anymore, but Ocracoke still has a quirky island charm. Leaving the ferry dock, you’ll find yourself in a beehive of overnight vacationers and day-trippers pouring into the restaurants, shops, and inns ringing Silver Lake Marina. Beyond the village lies a pristine 13-mile stretch of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, one of the few spots in the South where you can experience sand, surf, and sky in total solitude.
More information: ocracokevillage.com
Beach Houses & Hotels
There are 12,000 rental houses on the Outer Banks, by far the most popular lodging option for those who frequent the islands. Houses generally rent by the week. Rental houses can accommodate groups of about any size—some have more than 20 bedrooms—with amenities from private pools to elevators to in-home theaters. We recommend renting through Twiddy & Company, twiddy.com.
If you need a shorter stay—or just prefer hotels and inns—try beautiful beachside Hampton Inn at Corolla, the Comfort Inn on Hatteras, or the chains in Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills. Beyond that, most lodging is locally owned and older construction, so don’t expect flat-panel TVs and WiFi. Try The Castle on Silver Lake, The Ocracoke Harbor Inn, or The Anchorage Inn & Marina.
Photo: Whalehead Club at Currituck Heritage Club in Corolla
Driving the Beach
You can drive on many Outer Banks beaches without endangering wildlife, and there's nothing quite like a windblown cruise along the Atlantic to get you into the adventurous spirit of the place. Bring your own 4X4 or rent one from Island Cruisers, islandcruisersinc.com, whose tiny Geo Trackers can show you a whole day of fun for a thimbleful of gas. They’re cheaper to rent than a Jet Ski (about $160 for eight hours). Owners Eric and Valerie Stump will outfit you with everything you need, including a tire-pressure gauge, maps, and the all-important number to call if you get stuck.
You can visit five lighthouses on the Outer Banks. Some are open for climbing/touring.
Photo: Ocracoke Lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina
Ferry Ride Fun
A current ferry schedule is essential on the Outer Banks (ncdot.org/ferry). Moving north to south, you can drive from the mainland to Bodie and from Bodie to Hatteras via bridges. But you’ll need a ferry to cross from Hatteras to Ocracoke (a free 45-minute ride) or from Ocracoke to the mainland (2 hours, 20 minutes; $15 advance reservation recommended).
Ignore the people who tell you to avoid the longer ferry ride. Churning across beautiful Pamlico Sound is a relaxing, wonderful way to begin or end your trip, especially if you pack some snacks and cold soft drinks.
Seasonal Openings & Closings
The National Park Service closes certain beaches on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore during wildlife nesting seasons. To make sure your beach of choice will be open during your scheduled vacation, visit nps.gov/caha; click “News” from the left-hand menu, then “News Releases.” Some restaurants and guided tours close in late fall, when the weather turns cold and the number of visitors naturally gets smaller, so make a list of your picks and give them a quick call before you go. You'll find plenty to do, even in the off-season, but you'll have a lot more fun if you know what your options are in advance.
Photo: Jockey’s Ridge in Nags Head
The Local Perspective
There’s a reason why walking tours of Ocracoke point you to things that used to be there. “A great number of people who fish here, boat here, and surf here have an unusual sense of the history and heritage of the Outer Banks,” says author and documentary filmmaker Kevin Duffus. “It sounds odd to say it, but a lot of the people who come here come for things you can’t see.”
Photo: Merchants Nina Pignato and Carole Thompson