An Outer Banks 2017 Vacay: 10 Tips for Staying on Hatteras Island
This is the last installment of a three part series on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, focusing specifically on our experiences from vacation 2017! Be sure to check out part one about what we did, and part two about where we ate!
For the past 15 years of my life, my entire vacation desires have been centered around one place: Hatteras Island. While I do love and recommend the whole Outer Banks of North Carolina, Hatteras Island - with it's quaint town and villages, along with the Cape Hatteras National Seashore - is my very favorite. It's the one little part of the world that I call home, even if it's only in my imagination!
As mentioned in part one and part two of this series about our 2017 vacation to the Outer Banks, I have experienced many different sights, sounds, and tastes all up and down Hwy 12. While I regret absolutely none of it, some choices and strategies have aided in the many successful vacations my family and I have had. So, I share these tips with you in hopes of helping you get the absolute best experience out of your trip to Hatteras Island. [Yes, you should go!]
These are only MY opinions - however, I would never steer you wrong. I want you to enjoy yourself to the fullest on the most beautiful place on earth!
1. If Possible, Drive On The Beach
I can't stress this enough: if you want to get the most out of your Hatteras Island experience, you need a 4-wheel drive vehicle capable of navigating the sands, plus a National Park Service driving access permit.
Can you go to the beach on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore without a 4-wheel drive? Of course! There are many National Park Service facilities with parking places and board walks to walk over the dunes - with a lot of them even being handicap accessible. But if you want THE BEST experience, you need to drive.
So what are the advantages? For one, you don't have to carry your beach paraphernalia or small children. No more trudging through hot sand. You have access to more shoreline, so if you go off season [fall/winter], and even sometimes during peak season [summer], you can find places where you don't have to share the beach with ANYONE. It's the most relaxing, wild, amazing experience! You get to see and enjoy all the beautiful terrain of the shoreline. Plus, driving [or riding, in my case] on the beach is just pure fun! It's worth the cost, which is $50.00 for one week. You can get your weekly or yearly access for a beach driving permit and read all about requirements and regulations here.
2. The Best Time To Visit
There's no bad time to go to Hatteras Island. Really, there isn't. The only suggestion that I have is to not plan on vacationing during the winter months; that time being between mid-November and mid-April. From what I understand, a lot of local businesses shut down, and the weather is particularly fickle. You would not get the full "vacation" type experience. Because it is farther north on the map, it can have some some cold temps, and occasionally even a skiff of snow!
I have visited in May, June, July, and October. The Memorial Day weekend and 4th of July weekend have been the busiest I have seen the Island, yet it was nothing at all compared to a more general vacation populated area like Daytona or Myrtle Beach. Everyone still had their own piece of the beach and we were even able to drive on the shoreline to places where no one was! The restaurants were more crowded, and we had to do some waiting. Hwy 12, the Island's main corridor, was slow in some places. Yet everything was navigable and we didn't mind one bit. Plus there are a lot of cool holiday celebrations!
The summers are particularly swampy - once in July, it was so hot, that there were multiple heat advisories during our stay. The humidity was so thick, that I was drenched by just stepping outside! Some people prefer visiting the beach that way - I do not! It is my opinion that the mild 75-85 degree temps in May and October are much more my speed.
So, out of all the times to go, May and October are winners in my book. The prices for rental homes and condos are much cheaper, since it is considered either "mid season" or "off season". The water is warmer in October. There's less bugs. As mentioned, the temps are nicer, the traffic is lower, and all the businesses are still open.
This is totally my preference. Just know - any time of year is going to be worth it!
3. Rent A Vacation Home or Condo
Some people like to camp, and that's cool - there's multiple RV parks and camping sites [even a KOA!] all along the island. You can find more about camping or RV-ing here.
But for most, the best bet is going to be renting a vacation home or condo. Yes, there's a couple of hotels on the island, but I find that the comfortable factor really goes up when you start looking at all the amenities and space you would have in one of the many vacation rentals available.
We have rented from Midgett, Surf or Sound, and Outer Banks. We have had great experiences with all three companies. They were all especially friendly and accommodating. Their websites and online booking services are great. I recommend them all!
There are houses to fit any budget. However, prices for all houses can double during "peak season", which is somewhere around late June through mid September.
If views are important to you, you will definitely have to pay a higher price. A good compromise for my family is that we usually pick a soundfront home - you can watch the sunset from your deck and have quick sound access. They are usually a little less than an oceanfront home. Your most affordable homes and condos will be either oceanside or soundside, meaning they have little to no view. But, one of the greatest things about Hatteras Island is that wherever you stay, you are usually less than a mile - and sometimes much, much less - from the beach!
I would encourage you to search all the sites mentioned on this blog, and comparison shop to find your perfect home for your price. Make a list of what is important to you in a home - What village do you want to be in? Do you want beach access or sound access? A hot tub or a pool? How many bedrooms and bathrooms? - and then use your filters on the websites to find what you want. You may have to make some compromises, but in the end, you can rent somewhere that you'll be satisfied with. That is, if you...........
4. Plan Ahead
This sort of goes hand in hand with finding a home - your best bet to stay somewhere that meets all your needs is planning ahead! If you start to look for accommodations a couple weeks before departure, you'll more than likely have to compromise, big time. Especially during peak season, the "middle of the road" nice and affordable homes will be gone by early Spring. The moment your dates are set, start looking and snatch something when you find it, especially if there is a deal! Some places will even let you go ahead and put a deposit down for the next year on the home you like.
It's also important to plan ahead for bad weather days. If you spend a beautiful sunny day doing indoor activities like museums and shops, and then the next day it is raining or storming, you will be bored. Check the forecast! The weather does change very quickly on the island - thunderstorms usually move through in a snap, and it normally doesn't rain for long. But it's best to be prepared to get the best out of your time available.
5. Be Courteous
I understand this shouldn't even have to be a tip, but hear me out.
I actually live an area that has a lot of tourism. I see a universal theme at places of vacation - low respect or disregard for the local population. Yes, they need you to come and visit and spend your hard earned money, and they should be aware of that. But you need them, too - to provide the services you need and make your vacation smooth and enjoyable. Besides that, you wouldn't like it if someone littered in your yard, drove like a crazy person, went where they were asked not to, or they were rude to you when you are just going about your daily business. Remember that they LIVE there, it's their home! Treat the island like you are borrowing and sharing it, not like you own it.
6. Bring The Family
Hatteras Island truly is a family destination. There are accommodations for everyone, including handicap accessible facilities, dog-friendly establishments, and especially a lot of activities for the kids.
The Pamlico Sound is so shallow and easily accessible, that it is perfect for small children and older adults to play in. Most museums and the National Park Service have special activities for kids of all ages. The whole family will love the bumper cars and putt putt golf in Frisco, and visiting one of the many ice cream shops. Shell hunting is a great activity to add to other classic beach activities, such as building a sandcastle or using a boogie board in the waves [check for rip tide warnings].
There are so many things to do and see that cater to all situations and vacationers. Everyone will be able to have a great time: from the grandparents, to the children, to the pets. Don't hesitate to bring them all!
7. Line Up Early For the Hatteras/Ocracoke Ferry
This may seem like a very specific tip, but that's because it's worth mentioning!
Many people really enjoy taking the free vehicle ferry from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke Island, including myself. However, the line can be atrocious. We have waited up to 2 1/2 hours to just get on the ferry, and then it took another hour to make the trip over!
The best way to avoid the crazy line is to get in line early for the ferry. And by early, I mean before 10 AM Eastern Time. If you take this tip, you will thank me. Sometimes it can be very HOT waiting in that line during the middle of Summer!
One of the good things is that if you get stuck waiting in line, there is a schedule of departure you can go by, or you can ask one of the ferry workers walking around among the cars when the next ferry is departing. If you know you have time, there are several shops and a comfort station you can visit to get refreshments and souvenirs.
Do note, for whatever reasons there are, the line to get back to Hatteras from Ocracoke is usually not as crowded. Plan on a 1 hour wait time during peak season. Most of the time, however, it's more like 30 minutes. There are no shops or refreshments at the ferry landing, but there are bathrooms available.
8. Take Advantage of the Free Literature
At just about any business that you go to on the Island, you will find a load of Outer Banks vacation guides, magazines, coupon books and brochures. GRAB THEM ALL! Seriously! It seems like a waste, but unless you've just done so much research that your entire time is scheduled before you arrive, you can find some very helpful info and ideas in this material. There are also things like tide charts, sunrise and sunset times, restaurant menus, basic service information [such as doctors or the library], and the opening and closing times of all the shops and places of interest.
One of my favorite sources of reading is something I discovered this year - the Outer Banks Magazine. It is released annually, each May. It features pieces of local interest, not just tourist information, and presented in a true magazine-type format. The articles are interesting and well written, with fabulous photography! They are available for FREE throughout the island. You can buy copies of the magazine and have them shipped to you on the Virginian-Pilot site. You can also view the issues online here.
9. Be Aware of NPS Rules and Regulations
The National Park Service is the keeper of the Cape Hatteras shoreline, and you don't want to forget it! The amazing amount of access to the beaches for all tourists and the preservation of important wildlife is possible because the involvement of the NPS. I would venture to say that without them, the whole Island would probably be defaced, over populated, and no doubt destroyed by people who did not care much for its unique characteristics and importance to our nation's history. Although I can understand how the local population may sometimes be rubbed the wrong way by their enforcement of rules and regulations [especially fishermen, trying to make a living], for myself, I generally support their mission and enforcement of key rules and regulations.
The NPS staff is generally very friendly and informative, and all their facilities are well-maintained. They really can make the experience on the Island a more comfortable, enjoyable time.
However, you have to do your part as a responsible user of the land. To avoid citations from patrolling Park Rangers, you will need to observe all the rules that are set in place. These are usually displayed throughout the island on informative brown-colored signs. This really comes into play when you take my #1 tip, driving on the beach. You have to be a responsible user of public lands, including while driving, or you will be fined. And you are responsible for knowing the rules.
It is my advice to go to the NPS website for the Cape Hatteras National Shoreline and read through all of the features and regulations of the area that the NPS operates and enforces. Not only will it strengthen your knowledge of the area, it'll ensure that you have the most enjoyable experience and coexist well with the special laws of the seashore.
10. Be Present
I guess this one is more like life advice, but I find it particularly important when visiting somewhere with the slow pace and relaxed feel of the Island. You are going to be looking at some of the most beautiful views and terrain in the whole of the United States. Take your pictures, make your plans, use your phone - but do it all in moderation, and with a light heart. You're on vacation! It's not a race, there's a lot of time to go and do and see. Take advantage of opportunities but also take a nap! It's the best part of taking in Hatteras Island - slowing down, breathing in the salty air, reflecting on the beauty all around you. There's no one else quite like it in the entire world.
Need more information regarding Hatteras Island or the Outer Banks? Visit these very helpful sites:
If you have any questions about Hatteras Island or the Outer Banks, feel free to leave them for me in the comments!