How to Spend a Week in the Outer Banks of North Carolina
While the Outer Banks is little more than a long sandbar, these barrier islands have gained a well-deserved reputation among travelers from around the world. Part of their allure stems from their broad appeal—whether you’re a solo traveler chasing adventure or vacationing with extended family, the Outer Banks is sure to please. And when the peak summer season is winding down is an ideal time for a visit, with fewer crowds, cheaper lodging, and still-warm temperatures perfect for enjoying the area’s abundant outdoor activities.
First, a few words on lodging and logistics. If you’re flying to the Outer Banks, the two closest airports are Norfolk International, about 80 miles north, and Raleigh Durham international, about 190 miles west. Whether you fly or live close enough to drive, you’ll need to use one of two main bridges that provide access to the islands. The 3-mile Wright Memorial Bridge accesses the northern beaches, while the 5.2-mile Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge intersects with the islands south of Nags Head. Whichever bridge is the most appropriate for your destination, try to time your crossing outside the hours of 11 am and 4 pm, since traffic is heaviest within these times.
If you’re renting a vacation home, opt for a Friday to Friday or Sunday to Sunday rental if possible. Saturday is the busiest day by far, and you’ll be caught up in traffic during the changeover from one group of visitors to the next. But keep in mind that vacation homes aren’t the only place to stay in the Outer Banks. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, there are plenty of camping options beginning in Kitty Hawk and extending south all the way to the remote Portsmouth Island—where you can camp right on the beach.
The Northern beaches are the most visited in the Outer Banks, including (from north to south) the towns of Carova, Corolla, Duck, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head. These areas may see the biggest crowds, but that also means they have the most extensive options for lodging and dining. Don’t leave the Outer Banks without sampling some of the freshest seafood you can come by, whether you opt for fancy, such as The Blue Point in Duck, or casual, like the Austin Fish Company in Nags Head.
The Northern beaches aren’t entirely developed, however, and a short drive on the beach always has the potential to reward you with sightings of Corolla’s wild horses, believed to be descended from Spanish mustangs that were left behind in the 1500s. If you don’t have an off-road capable vehicle or a permit to drive on the beach, you check out outfitters like Wild Horse Adventure Tours. However it happens, do your best to see these beautiful creatures, which are an iconic part of an Outer Banks experience.
Another worthy excursion: Climbing the tallest sand dune on the east coast at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nag’s Head. From the top, you’ll enjoy views of both the Atlantic Ocean and the Roanoke Sound (sandboarding is also allowed with a permit). For a more adrenaline-fueled experience, Kitty Hawk Kites, which has been around for 25 years, offers hang gliding lessons on the dune, and you’ll be flying solo by the end of your first lesson.
With your newfound appreciation for flight, head to Kill Devil Hills to see the Wright Brothers National Memorial, commemorating the advent of powered flight. The memorial and attached museum are open every day except Christmas, and adult entry is an affordable $7 (kids 15 and under are free).
What Roanoke Island lacks in beaches, it makes up for in history, and its unique, wooded landscape is well worth a day (or longer) trip from some of the beachfront locations. England’s first attempt to colonize the continent in 1585 was unsuccessful, but earthwork remnants from that effort remain visible at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Modern-day Roanoke Island also is home to the town of Manteo, with its boutiques, gift shops, and bookstores. In addition, it’s home to the fishing village of Wanchese, which provides much of the seafood for restaurants throughout the Outer Banks, as well as chartered trips into Gulf Stream waters for anglers to try their luck battling big fish such as marlin and tuna.
In spite of the 1963 construction of the Bonner Bridge, Hatteras Island boasts miles of beaches that are relatively empty compared to the ones farther north. The island is home to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which is the tallest brick lighthouse in the world at 202 feet. For $8, you can experience the spectacular view from the top.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was built to protect ships from the Diamond Shoals, which was the name given to the shifting array of sandbars right along the coast. Over time, so many ships sank here that it earned the area the nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic, and the museum of the same name on Hatteras Island is well worth a visit.
Hatteras also is becoming famous for stargazers, and dark skies experts have named it one of the best spots in the world because of its limited light pollution.
A short ferry ride will take you from the mainland to Ocracoke Island, which feels like a world away. Put even more distance between you and the outside world with an off-road vehicle permit ($50 well-spent for a 10-day pass to get off the beaten path and explore the beaches on the island). Ocracoke is only nine square miles with a population of less than 1,000, but there are plenty of options for accommodations and dining. Don’t be surprised if you end up wanting to turn a day trip into a longer stay—according to various historical accounts, the famous pirate Blackbeard felt the same way. Born Edward Teach but nicknamed Blackbeard because of the ebony color of his beard, he was the most notorious of the many swashbucklers who targeted cargo ships off the island during the 1700s. His legend is still very much alive on Ocracoke—yet another reason for a visit to this enchanting island.