You may have seen TV weathermen battered by hurricanes in Cape Hatteras, or maybe you’ve watched the new Outer Banks series on Netflix, but you may not be otherwise familiar with the “OBX” unless you live within a day’s drive. The Outer Banks of North Carolina are a thin, scrappy string of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, and they are one of our favorite places, and beaches, on this planet so far.
Outer Banks beaches are glorious in summer: the water is warm enough for swimming; the beach sand is soft and clean; the ocean bottom is hard packed and free of seaweed and rocks; the waves are big enough for surfing, but not killer. And while there can be rip tides, there are few other dangers–sharks, jellyfish, or algal bloom issues are pretty rare. In the off season, there’s always a place to go where you have the beach to yourself. If you’ve never had the experience of an empty beach as far as the eye can see, dunes taller than houses, and a steady, strong briny wind, visit the Outer Banks in the shoulder season months (September/October and April/May).
The Outer Banks means something different to everyone…every person has their favorite townlet or tradition of vacation rental vs. hotel, but we’ll save those details for a future post. If you want to make the trip but are uncomfortable with the idea of a hotel right now…that’s fine, you’re in luck! We recommend gathering your “pod” and going in together on a rental house instead of a hotel…this is what most OBX vacationers do and it’s a big part of OBX culture. You’ll be able to save money by cooking and grilling meals together and, if your house has a pool, it will come in handy on a windy day when the ocean may be too cold or choppy for swimming. Another great thing about the Outer Banks is that many rental properties, and all of the towns, are very dog-friendly. It’s not unusual to see dogs on Jockey’s Ridge or even dining outside at a restaurant. We’ve collected a variety of pandemic-friendly activities for you below, but call before you go if you can’t find the right info online.
- Jockey’s Ridge State Park: One of our favorite places anywhere. It’s the largest/highest active dune system on the East coast. It’s incredibly beautiful, and has a unique ecosystem. There are usually clear, cool rainwater ponds to wade and splash through, and you’ll see hang-gliders, trick kites, and people (trying) to sled down the dunes. On warm days, go in the morning or evening and bring a bottle of water and sunglasses with you—the sand can get scalding hot, and is very bright in full sun. You’ll want to hike all the way to the top for the lovely view. You can also walk the Mountains-to-Sea trail if you like, which starts in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains and ends at Jockey’s Ridge.
- Wild horse tours: The “Banker” ponies are one of the biggest attractions for the OBX. Originally left behind by Spanish colonists, today’s horses are “penned in” by a sound-to-sea fence, but otherwise roam freely on the 7,544 acres that they share with nearly 700 houses, and thousands of cars and people (Corolla Wild Horse Fund). Tours to see the horses usually last around 2 hours, and you can go with a variety of tour companies in a variety of vehicles: jeeps, hummers, ATVs, pickup trucks, and air-conditioned vehicles. I highly recommend seeing the wild horses at least once; it can be quite surreal. Open air tours are still operating during the pandemic, at 50% capacity.
- Wright Brothers National Memorial: The first flight happened right here. Interesting and informative….a must for any museum nerd or aircraft enthusiast, but smaller children will likely be bored. Lots of outdoor walking/exercise opportunities. Includes museums, gift shop, presentations, and movies, if you wish to go indoors.
- Lighthouse photography: Inside tours and climbs are currently closed to visitors, but photo ops are still fun! Visit all 5 lighthouses along OBX. Gotta catch em all!
- Nags Head Woods Preserve: One of the largest remaining maritime forests on the East Coast. There are a variety of hiking trail lengths and difficulties, including ADA accessible and pet friendly trails.
- Elizabethan Gardens: Lovely way to spend a couple hours if you like plants, butterflies, and English gardens, and you can bring your dog as well.
- The town of Manteo: Even if you don’t want to set foot indoors, strolling the quaint, walkable cobblestone streets and boardwalks of the historic town of Manteo for an hour or so does not disappoint. If you don’t mind going indoors, there’s a local brewery on the main corner, as well as antique shops, a great local bookstore, tons of specialty gift shops, scuppernong wine tasting, and more.
- Take a day trip to Ocracoke Island: Take a leisurely, scenic drive south from Nags Head along Highway 12 and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Enjoy the tall dunes, sparkling water, and stops in the little towns of Rodanthe, Waves, Avon, and Buxton. After about an hour, once you’ve reached the tip of Hatteras, you can take a free car ferry to Ocracoke, which also takes about an hour. Ocracoke Island can only be accessed by air or water, and is home to a quaint historic town, Ocracoke Village, bordering undeveloped national park/seashore. Ocracoke recently suffered widespread damage due to hurricane Dorian and, while it’s up and running again, don’t expect perfection. But they could probably use the tourism dollars right now.
Eat and Drink
Things are changing by the minute in these strange times, and I’ve been very impressed by how the Outer Banks is keeping up! Many restaurants have been quick to develop online ordering options, takeout options are widespread, and many restaurants have fashioned some form of outside dining option even if they didn’t have one before the pandemic. I’m only offering a few, recently tested options, and will leave the rest up to your exploration.
Outer Banks Brewing Station: This is a wind-powered brewery and restaurant featuring a large outdoor beer garden with live music, as well as a playground. Regional dishes and seafood, some fusion dishes, seasonal ethnic pop ups, and growlers to go. They’ve been featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.”
Fish Heads Bar and Grill (until Thanksgiving): Amazing views from the Outer Banks Fishing Pier, quality seafood, simple bar food, and great service. Local and craft beers, as well as wine; no liquor. Seating is outdoors on the pier, with some cover. Live music most nights. Plan ahead if you want a seat. Parking is along the road at peak times.
Seafood markets: Getting takeout bushels of crabs, peel and eat shrimp, or “steamer dinners” (low-country boil) is a thing in most seaside towns, as well as in the Outer Banks. We can recommend Whalebone Seafood Market, which not only sells a variety of seafood fresh off the boat, but also makes their own delicious seafood dips, sauces, and spices.
Outer Banks Distilling: This is a popular spot that sells and offers tastings of their “Kill Devil Rum.” It can get a bit crowded, but they are currently limiting the number of people indoors, and there are a few tables outdoors. Highly recommend picking up a bottle of the Pecans and Honey rum to take home.
Brew Thru: The Brew Thru is just what it sounds like–a drive-through, beer-focused convenience store with friendly, full-service and swag available; getting the annual Brew Thru t-shirt is a must. Brew Through started in the 70s and is an OBX staple and loved tradition.
The beach, in general, is one of the best and only pandemic-friendly vacations we can recommend this year. Let us know if you can recommend a favorite out-of-the-way spot!