9 Unique Things To Do in the Outer Banks, NC
Hello, friends! I hope you enjoy this article! For more tidbits and fun of OBX, you can read about my 2017 experiences here!
Have you ever felt so connected to a place that you can't separate yourself from it? Like that is where you belong, where your heart feels most content?
That place for me is the Outer Banks of North Carolina. [Cheesy, but so true!]
In case you have never heard of this place, Outer Banks is a long stretch of coastline and barrier islands on the edge of North Carolina. The whole Outer Banks [OBX, for short] runs some 175 miles, with the southern half located away from the mainland coast and out into the Atlantic Ocean. The whole chain of land is quite impressive on a map, but even more impressive to see and experience in person. This beautiful land, especially the southern islands, are ever-changing in shape due to the shifting of sands. Fun fact - this shifting makes the waters around the area very difficult to navigate, even for the most experienced captain. The southern waters, around Hatteras Island, earned the name "the graveyard of the Atlantic". Yep, as creepy cool as it sounds.
My family traveled to OBX for the first time in the summer of 2002, when I was 14 years old. I don't know what exactly made my parents decide to vacation there, but I'm sure they had no idea what they were starting! We stayed in a small town called Rodanthe, located about halfway along OBX. We would learn from the first trip that all of the towns and villages along OBX have their own rich history and attractive qualities. The entire region has a little something for every vacationer - whether you seek a more active adventure, or you just want to chill and rejuvenate.
To our family, that first vacation many years ago sparked a love for the Outer Banks that has been all encompassing. Yes, the beautiful memories that we've made and that warm feeling of nostalgia probably make up a lot of its appeal. But the other half is a charismatic, mysterious pull that has been so strong, that it makes it hard for any of us to choose anywhere else to take a vacation. And we normally don't.
In fact, I don't even think of traveling to the Outer Banks anymore like "going on vacation" ... I feel like I'm going home. :)
Our planned trip this year will make the 9th time that I have been to the Outer Banks. The whole family is spending the week together, and I am as excited to see and experience the ambiance as ever. In honor of this upcoming trip, I am going to share with you my favorite unique places to go and activities to do!
1. Beach Driving at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore
The southern half of the Outer Banks is designated as the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, run by the National Park Service. The beaches along this stretch are unbelievable - somewhat wild, primitive, largely untouched by development and maintenance. The towns have fixed borders, so they are small, yet adequate - and don't detract from the landscape. No chain stores, or fast food restaurants! To my eyes, this portion of OBX is the most like paradise.
The NPS sells permits to visitors and residents to drive and park their 4x4 vehicles along the shoreline of Hatteras Island. Much to the delight of fishermen and avid beach goers, there are several easily accessible entry ramps directly off the main highway, Hwy 12. It's a cool experience!
Beach driving along OBX is not for the faint of heart. I don't want to say you need to be an expert driver - I mean, I have done it - but it helps if you are familiar with your four wheel drive vehicle, and feel like you have a good handle on how it navigates. The sand is soft and the terrain is rough. It is not like those car commercials where the vehicles are just gliding along near the surf - it's much more complicated to navigate. I've seen many people over the years stuck tire deep in the sand, having to dig and push themselves out of ruts. My experiences driving were nerve wracking, but felt satisfying to accomplish! My husband has done the beach driving a few times now and has never had a problem, and only a couple quick moments of uncertainty.
We did not take advantage of beach driving for many vacations while I was growing up. But once we did, and realized how much more enjoyable it was taking away all the work of carrying beach paraphernalia and toting children, we were hooked! Beach driving also gives you the opportunity to get away from other beach goers and privately enjoy those unadulterated views of the ocean and beach that are very rare to come by in our crowded world.
Beach driving permits are sold online and at designated NPS offices. They can be purchased for one year access, or for one week visitor access. You can find all the information to obtain a beach driving permit, and the rules and regulations you need to know, right here.
2. Visit Some Coffee Shops
You probably know by now, as evidenced by my Instagram, that I'm seriously addicted to coffee. In 2005, Travis and I made a list and visited several different coffee shops all along the Outer Banks. It was so much fun! We never made it to any coffee in the northern towns (Duck, Corolla), so I cannot vouch for those. But these are the three that I love the most so far, located along the Southern end....
This was one coffee shop that Travis and I visited a couple of times in 2015, and I was able to go again last year. Unassuming and simply tucked beside a Forbes candy shop in Nags Head, it has a small, homey atmosphere. The "Froo-Froo" drinks, which is what they call their espresso-based creations, are always very good - I've tried two or three now! My favorite so far is the Samoan, which has coconut, caramel and mocha with chocolate whipped cream. [a thousand times yum!] The staff is very friendly, and lots of people bring their dogs in with them, which is always a plus to a dog lover like me!
I have only been able to visit here once, but the toasted marshmallow latte I had was too good to not be mentioned! Travis tried an iced chai for the first time ever here, and it was so good, too. Located on Ocracoke, the small barrier island only accessible by ferry [see below!], it is a popular place. I would expect to have to wait on a summer morning!
I don't even know where to start with the description of this place, because everything about it to me is perfect! The Dancing Turtle is always hopping, full of good natured patrons and nice staff. The funky decor and island atmosphere is laid back and super chill. You may even see some dogs running around, which as a fore mentioned, is two of my favorite things in the world coming together! They even sell Dancing Turtle Coffee Shop themed dog items! Their coffee and pastries are soooo good - my favorite order being the turtle biscotti and a large iced almond joy mocha. Travis' favorite is a blended iced mexican hot chocolate. My Mom enjoys their flavored coffees.
The Turtle [my affectionate name for it] is always a vacation staple and highlight of my trip!
This is definitely one of the most unique experiences of a trip to OBX, and is not to be missed! While all the other islands are pieced together by bridges, Ocracoke island sits off by itself, and is only accessible by private boat or by a free vehicle ferry. The ferry system is operated by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and runs all year on a set schedule, only affected by unfavorable weather conditions.
After you park your vehicle on the ferry, you can get out and enjoy the sights and sounds of the water, wildlife, and scenery of the most barrier parts of Hatteras island. If you head to the netted end of the boat, you can get sprayed by the wakes fairly well, which is actually really nice on a hot summer's day! Or, there is a temperature controlled passenger's lounge and bathroom on the upper deck that you can visit. The upper deck has great views!
Once you arrive at Ocracoke Island, you'll drive a few miles to the small fishing village of Ocracoke. It is a very laid back place, with lots of shops, a few restaurants, and nice scenery, including an old lighthouse. It is also rich with history, including some serious pirate connections, which is just so cool. It is definitely worth visiting! [Learn more about Ocracoke Island here]
I have rode the ferry to Ocracoke every time we have been to the Outer Banks, except for after Hurricane Isabel in 2004 [road was cut off, it was a mess!]. So it's safe to say that I do love it! The best part of Ocracoke are the pristine beaches, and the best part of the ferry is the experience of being right out there in the waters that so poignantly characterize the area.
However, when it comes to the ferry, I've experienced some cons.
Sometimes, there's a wait to board a ferry. A while can mean 20 minutes, or a while can mean 3 hours. It just depends on your place in line. As you can imagine, it fills up quickly during tourist season, and the best time to go is early in the morning. There are comfort stations and some shops to visit while you wait on the ferry going to Ocracoke - but the wait going back to Hatteras is a bit less eventful, but usually doesn't last as long.
In the dead of summer, the heat can be very intolerable. The ride itself is also pretty long, anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. It's worth it, but it's best if you're prepared. The best thing to do is entertain yourself with a book or a game on your phone. This is especially true if you have kids!
4. Explore Manteo
Manteo needs it's own blog post, I have so many great things to say about it! Located just a tiny bit off of the Outer Banks, back towards the mainland, it sometimes is overlooked. But it has a great Southern, small town feel to it. If I was going to select somewhere to live along the Outer Banks, Manteo would be home!
There is a cute waterfront park area, which has a replica of an old lighthouse.
Walking downtown, you can enjoy many little shops and restaurants, including this very cute bookshop!
Across a small bridge from downtown sits Festival Park, which is a "living museum" of rich Outer Banks history. It is so nice - up to date and interactive. This place focuses on the establishment of the first English colony [Roanoke] and the mysteries that surround it, plus the Native Americans that inhabited the area. There is a full size replica of an old English ship, the Elizabeth II. This is perfect place for families to visit! I love it.
North Carolina also has an aquarium here, which we've visited several times. It's a very nice facility - the exhibits are great, and even the outdoor areas are beautiful!
Two other sites worth mentioning are the Elizabethan Gardens and the Fort Raleigh Historical Site, where they host the famous Lost Colony play.
6. So. Many. Restaurants!
The delicious food that's found up and down OBX cannot be ignored! There are so many great places to eat. The variety swings from fancier, upscale restaurants to taco stands and sandwich shacks, and everything in between! Fresh seafood is abundant and delicious. You can find eateries that are very traditional, to modern and "hip". Even though some places seem remote and off the beaten path, the whole OBX is a true smorgasbord!
A few of my favorite places to eat are Miller's Waterfront Restaurant, the Black Pelican, Tortuga's Lie, Howards Pub, Duck Donuts, Scotch Bonnet Fudge and Lisa's Pizzeria. But really anywhere is worth trying once!
We usually cook at least half of our meals at the beach house, and that cuts down on the amount we spend dining out. As a result, there are still plenty of restaurants on my list that I can't wait to try out in years to come! [including the Lone Cedar Cafe, Buxton Lunch Company, Orange Blossom Cafe and High Cotton BBQ - just to name a few!]
8. Watch the Sunset on the Pamlico Sound
This is really one of the true, simple treasures that I personally enjoy. If the weather is clear, which has been more often than not on our vacations, then watching the sunset on the Pamlico Sound is a beautiful, calm way to end a fun filled day. If you don't rent a sound side vacation house [sometimes we do, sometimes we don't], then there are a few access points and small parking recreation areas that you can go to to view the sunset. The colors are amazing, and this is definitely a photo worthy moment in time!
One of the things I want to do this year is get up early and watch the sunrise over the Atlantic!
Last year was a girl's vacation with my mom, two sisters and aunt, and we took time to do more "girly" things. This included visiting a local community farmers market, doing lots of shopping, and finally taking a stop at this bookstore in Buxton - something I wanted to do for years and never had!
I didn't know what to expect when we decided to stop. I really thought that maybe it would just be a bunch of resale used books, which I am in no way opposed to at all, being a book lover. Come to find out, they actually do have an amazing used book section. But it was so much more!
There was lots of unused new releases, classics, lots of really cool "accessory books" like journals, and also multiple fabulous displays of Outer Banks history, fiction, guides and tales. My Mom, who is a teacher, was able to grab many great books to use in her class. I opted for a book about Hatteras Island history - and about $50 worth of more stuff!
The lady who checked us out was very accommodating and friendly. Parking could be really difficult if it's busy, as spots were limited, but it is located right off of Hwy 12 and easy to spot. The bookstore was much more than I expected, and it was so cute and charming, that I cannot wait to visit again this year!
There is so much more to do that I have not mentioned! Some of the more popular attractions include the Wright Brother's Memorial, Jockey Ridge Park, Janette's Pier, various water sports [paddle boarding, canoeing, etc.], Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, Life Saving Station Museums, and the most popular of all - the amazing lighthouses! I could go on and on... I'm pretty sure I could talk about the Outer Banks for DAYS.
There are also things left that I am dying to do in my future visits: walk the Duck boardwalk, charter a boat at Oregon Inlet, fish from a dock, dolphin tours, stay in Carova, visit Island Farm, attend the Lost Colony play, and the list goes on and on. I plan on a doing a few of these during our vacation this year. Be on the lookout for a future blog post! Maybe a vlog? :)