Explore the Carolinas: In the two states to our south, you’ll find beaches, cities, and mountain towns that make for idyllic vacation spots. Before you pack the car and head down I-95 this summer, get the lowdown on some new-to-you locations in North and South Carolina — and find out what’s new this year at your old favorites.
Drive time from Dulles: 5.5 hours
Grab your beach chair and amble over the dunes. In front of you, nothing but water and sand. No high-rises, no noisy amusement parks, just peace and quiet, nature, and sunrises. This is the Outer Banks. Whether you make a pilgrimage every summer or are new to this blissful collection of barrier islands, the Outer Banks always holds surprises. You will find so much more than beaches in this mostly undisturbed maritime environment.
Birding is big here. Because it’s positioned along the Atlantic Flyway, different species migrate here throughout the seasons. Delectable cuisine is another attraction. Fresh-caught crabs, shrimp, fish, and oysters find their way to just about every plate or pot.
You can learn about the islands’ captivating past in the museums and on stage at The Lost Colony, an outdoor theater. Wild horses couldn’t drag us away from the Corolla Jeep Adventures tours on one of the northernmost sections of the Outer Banks. Hop in a safari truck for an exhilarating 25-mile search for the untamed Corolla wild horses, descendants of colonial Spanish mustangs.
In the Outer Banks, what’s old never gets old, especially the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which looks the same as it has for centuries. The bonny lighthouse stands tall against the horizon, warning ships off the rocky coastline and treacherous shoals. There are still a few thousand wrecks offshore, some dating back to the Jamestown settlement in the 1600s. You can scuba dive off the coast to explore these shipwrecks. A few are even visible while swimming and kayaking or are uncovered on the beach.
After Union troops took over North Carolina’s Roanoke Island during the Civil War, the Outer Banks became a haven for enslaved people escaping to freedom. In the 1890s, some of the freedmen joined the crew of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station and saved countless lives. (These Life-Saving Stations combined with another agency to form a new unit called the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915.)
Your heart will soar when you picture Wilbur and Orville Wright in Kitty Hawk making that first powered flight across a sandy stretch in 1903 at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. You can check out a replica of the Wright Flyer there. Then, you’ll feel like you’re flying yourself when you slip and slide over the tallest living sand dunes on the Atlantic Coast at Jockey’s Ridge State Park.
Your vacation won’t be complete until you spend the day in Manteo, with its roster of dining, shopping, and attractions. We love the trendy fashions at Sisters Boutique & Gifts, with its luxury handbags and chic boho dresses. Bring home an enduring memory from the gallery at Dare Arts or a gift to share with friends — maybe North Carolina nuts — from Mackeys Ferry Peanuts. (Hint: The peanut butter or molasses cookies are irresistible.)
Relaxation in the Outer Banks, of course, means spending time on the fluffy, golden sands of its legendary beaches. The northern beaches in Corolla and Duck are wide and well protected by dunes and grasses. For a livelier experience, choose the central beaches at Nags Head and Kitty Hawk, where the long piers give you the opportunity to try your hand at fishing. If you prefer some alone time, you’ll find pristine, remote beaches in Hatteras or Ocracoke Island, the latter accessible only by ferry. No matter which coastal community you choose, all have invigorating mid-Atlantic waves perfect for bodysurfing and swimming. And for true nirvana, watch the sunrise from the beach.
Good for Newbies
Check out the mile-long Duck Town Boardwalk, where you can shop, dine, rent kayaks and jet skis, or just enjoy the sunset over Currituck Sound. Spend a day shopping and dining in Manteo, or head to Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, home to the Carolina Algonquian people; the Freedmen’s Colony; and The Lost Colony, which is a live performance of Outer Banks history. Climb the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Observe sea life from Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. Take an open-air tram tour inside the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, home to alligators, red wolves, and black bears.
Where to Eat
Aqua Restaurant & Spa in Duck. Enjoy the sunset, craft cocktails, and boat-to-table dining at this upscale restaurant.
Cravings Steaks & Seafood in Duck. What people love: Seafood pots to-go.
Poor Richard’s Sandwich Shop in Manteo. Try the giant sandwiches before exploring OBX.
Orange Blossom Bakery & Café in Buxton. The Apple Ugly and Chocolate Covered Ugly make it worth the drive.
Outer Banks Soft-Shell Crab Week, a restaurant crawl (pun intended), will be held May 15 to 20. Diners can sample the beach’s best soft-shell tapas dishes. This year, Ocracoke Lighthouse celebrates its 200th birthday. On May 18, the Ocracoke Light Station hosts a party. The annual Rock the Cape festival returns to Hatteras Island. There will be bands and beer during the three-day OBX Pridefest that starts September 8.
Where to Stay
Most visitors to the Outer Banks choose vacation home rentals, and there are rental agencies that specialize in direct bookings. To select a vacation home at a northern or southern island, first consider whether you prefer a village like Buxton or a busier community like Nags Head; outerbanks.com explains the options.
If you’re looking for a luxury full-service resort on the Atlantic Ocean, the historic Sanderling Resort in Duck continues to refresh and offer new activities, along with first-rate dining.
Feature photo by Starboard and Port, courtesy visitnc.com
This story originally ran in our May issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to Northern Virginia Magazine.