Plan your summer trip to North Carolina's Outer Banks


There must be magic in the air down on the Outer Banks. How else can you explain a place where wild horses frolic on a beach and humans can learn to fly?

That’s what I thought on my first visit there as a lifelong resident of landlocked states who, truth be told, rarely craved a beach getaway. They were never as idyllic as the postcards promised – I guess I’d just never gotten one from the Outer Banks. Like so many others, my wife’s family would make annual pilgrimages, and after they offered me an introduction, I finally “got it.”

The natural barrier islands protect roughly 200 miles of mainland North Carolina coasts from Atlantic storms despite themselves being delicate land formations mere hundreds of feet wide in some stretches. Home to a dozen national wildlife refuges, protected seashores and state parks, the combination of beauty and power, immense breadth and serene fragility, make for quite the draw.

And travelers have definitely noticed. Between four and five million people will make the trek to the Outer Banks – or OBX – this year, nearly double the numbers from 15 years ago, according to the local tourism bureaus and park authorities, meaning it pays to plan ahead. Despite the crush of attention, the coastal towns and soul-restoring views still retain that breezy charm – yet another example of the magic of the Outer Banks. Here’s my top tips for making the most of your trip.

Seeing wild horses on the beach is a highlight of a visit to Corolla © Getty Images

Step 1: Choose where to base yourself

Location is key in OBX as each town has a distinct feel, yet traveling between them has its challenges. Traffic on Hwy 12, the main artery throughout the Outer Banks, can harsh the vibes up north, while Ocracoke Island to the south is only accessible via ferry. Beachside parking lots are also smaller and fewer in number than you typically see at mainland beaches, so you’ll need to gauge how important it is to be easily walkable to a beach access point. Here are some of the highlights, listed from north to south.

Corolla

Vibes: Upscale yet unpretentious mix of posh rental properties, shopping, and natural beauty. While geographically the Outer Banks start in far southern Virginia, typically people are referring to the communities of North Carolina when talking about OBX, and Corolla is as far north as you can drive in OBX without needing a beach-safe 4WD vehicle (Remember: pronounce the town name as kur-ALL-ah, and don’t get your kah-ROLL-ah stuck in the sand).

Do: Getting a glimpse of the wild mustangs, ancestors of Colonial Spanish steeds, on the dunes of Currituck National Wildlife Refuge is a trip-defining highlight. The nonprofit Corolla Wild Horse Fund has a resource page on how you can do this safely yourself if equipped with a 4WD, but if not, a plethora of local tour operators exist. In town, climb the steps at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse before grabbing a beach read at Island Bookstore.

Eat: Splurge on a crabcake benedict breakfast at Seanna Tavern before your lighthouse visit. In the evening, cool off with a drink at the laid-back Corolla Beer Garden. 

Stay: Vacation home rentals are everywhere and for every budget across OBX. Go Airbnb if you are looking for a smaller or more affordable stay, but for large groups I’d recommend one of the local vacation rental outfits like Twiddy & Company, which dominates the northern OBX market and will have more staff support on-call. The Inn at Corolla boasts sunset views of Currituck Sound.

Three brightly colored kits fly above sandy dunes covered in grass
Fly a kite in the near-constant winds of the Outer Banks © Steve Bower / Shutterstock

Duck

Vibes: Quaint and family-friendly, the town of Duck is a charmer with a boardwalk lined by souvenir shops and seafood joints. Art crawls and free concerts in the park will let you tap into a coastal town atmosphere straight out of Netflix’s Outer Banks (Disclaimer: I’ve never seen an episode, but the show is actually filmed in South Carolina anyway.)

Do: Rent a set of wheels from Ocean Atlantic Rentals and zip up the bike path before picking up a kite at the boardwalk shops to fly at the beach. Follow the boardwalk down to Duck Town Park and watch reeds dance in the wind.

Eat: Grab an almost-too-pretty-to-eat donut from the original Duck Donuts location that spawned the nationwide chain. The Blue Point serves up straightforward but delicious takes on seafood classics like scallops or shrimp and grits, while the Paper Canoe’s intimate dining room and creative presentations are perfect for date night.

Stay: If Twiddy or Airbnb listings in Duck aren’t to your liking, Village Realty has an office in town. There’s also a string of hotels along the narrower stretch of land between Duck and Corolla, of which the posh Sanderling Resort is the most elegant.

Kitty Hawk/Kill Devil Hills/Nags Head

Vibes: This trio of neighboring communities has both more things to do and more people doing them than elsewhere else in OBX. Look here to trade a more crowded beach for more accessible amenities and rental prices.

Do: It was Kitty Hawk where the Wright Brothers famously launched their proto plane experiments, and the Wright Brothers National Memorial stands here to commemorate the exact spot the inventors squared off with gravity. Jockey’s Ridge State Park has the tallest living sand dunes system on the Eastern Seaboard. Want to try jockeying yourself? Book a beach horseback ride.

Eat: Beachside grillshack John’s Drive In has been slinging burgers and sweet treats for nearly 50 years, while Sam and Omie’s comfort food from the sea has been a crowd-pleaser for nearly 90 years.

Stay: You’ll find more motels and national chain hotels in this area if that fits your needs better than a full home rental. If you want to get away from the crowds, the kid-free Colington Creek Inn on the Roanoke Sound side offers a calm oasis in Kill Devil Hills.

Roanoke Island

Vibes: The community of Manteo on Roanoke Island in the sound should be your hub if you’re more of a museum hound and history buff than a beach bum. 

Do: Try to solve one of the country’s oldest cold cases by investigating the notorious 16th-century disappearance of the “Lost Colony” at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, where roughly 120 British colonists vanished without explanation. Walk among the flowers at the stately Elizabethan Gardens, a living memorial at the site.

Eat: The oysters, whether broiled or raw, at Blue Water Grill for lunch will tide you over till your reservations for a steak dinner at the 1587 Restaurant and Lounge inside the Tranquil House Inn.

Stay: The island features a number of cozy inns and traditional bed and breakfasts. There’s the aforementioned Tranquill House, but the views and boardwalk access at the Roanoke Inn are tough to beat.

People relaxing and playing on a sandy beach on a sunny day
Book accommodations early to stay in laid-back Ocracoke Island © Liz Albro Photography / Getty Images / iStock

Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands

Vibes: At the end of the line at the far south Outer Banks are Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands, the more secluded and chilled-out alternatives to the bustle of northern OBX (though accommodations still fill quickly in peak season).

Do: Just getting here will be part of the adventure. The drive down Hwy 12 to Hatteras along Cape Hatteras National Seashore will treat you to views of both the ocean and the sound, while Ocracoke is only accessible via ferry. Once settled, enjoy a less-crowded beach or walk the trail through Buxton Woods.

Eat: Howard’s Pub is a funky favorite hangout in Ocracoke with decent burgers, or change it up with Thai curry ramen at Cafe Pamilco. 

Stay: Home rentals in these areas are best accommodated through one of the rental offices that specializes in these communities, like Ocracoke Island Realty or Hatteras Realty. 

Step 2: Booking your accommodations

We’ve done large home rentals for our trips to OBX, a must for a dozen people traveling together, including kids, but researching options can feel daunting. Not only are there multiple rental agencies, but prime spots book up quickly, over a year in advance in some cases, and Twiddy warns that its stock of large homes is nearly 80% booked for the summer by January 1 of a given year. What’s tricky is that due to variable leasing agreements between homeowners and rental management companies, booking availability can feel a bit scattershot, with rates for future years listed as subject to change even as you are allowed to place a hold. If going with a rental home, start looking now and reserve immediately. Even if you plan to keep your eyes open for alternatives and would have to forfeit a small hold fee for a change, better to lock in early.

Home rentals aren’t necessary for every group, understandably, but if staying in a hotel, splurge on that quaint inn if at all feasible. Many bars aren’t open late and the OBX nightlife is more chill than thrill, so stay somewhere you’ll enjoy relaxing in the evenings.

A teen is instructed in hang gliding from a kite on sandy dunes
Book a glider lesson with Kitty Hawk Kites to head out high above the sand dunes © Stephen B. Goodwin / Shutterstock

Step 3: Plan your days

I’ve listed a bunch of recommendations above, but we all know the reason you’re going to the Outer Banks: the beaches. Numerous options exist for renting beach gear including seating and umbrellas, paddleboards or even golf carts to shuttle your crew to different beach access points. Advance reservations are a must to get quality equipment. If you’re in a pinch and forgot something, call around to various rental agencies rather than just skimming their sites for a last-minute Hail Mary chance at snagging something.

The Wright Brothers launched their early flights from here because of the consistent sea winds, and you can glide along yourself with kitesurfing or glider lessons from Kitty Hawk Kites. I’m more grounded (i.e. terrified of heights) so a novelty kite that can fly over our beach chairs is more my speed. Keep an eye on surf and wind reports before committing to a plan for the day; poor water conditions or a strong wind out of the west (which blows in more mosquitoes and flies from the still waters of the sound) may be a reason to skip the beach that day and check out one of the towns instead.

Lastly, check the launch schedules at NASA’s Wallops Island and Kennedy Space Center facilities. They are sporadic and highly dependent upon the weather conditions being perfect at launch time, but we were fortunate enough to witness one in 2023, and watching a craft literally leave Earth’s atmosphere is a powerful and humbling experience. I can only imagine what Orville and Wilbur Wright would think.

Step 4: Plan your menu

Endless mid-scale dining options exist throughout OBX, with an emphasis on seafood, naturally, but anywhere that takes reservations will likely book up days to weeks in advance in peak season, so make some bookings before you even leave home.

If you’re traveling with family or another large group, an easy and fun way to beat the crowds is to have a seafood boil at home. Outer Banks Boil Company will assemble your preferred combo of shellfish and sides tossed with butter and seasoning, all wrapped to go. You’ll just need a stove to boil it on. It still pays to reserve your pot ahead of time in the high season.

Step 5: Decide how you’re getting there

The closest major airport is Norfolk International, which is a roughly 90 minute drive, without traffic, to the Wright Memorial Bridge into the Outer Banks, and depending on where exactly you’re staying, it could be another hour driving through OBX. Key words being “without traffic”, as high season will bump this up considerably, particularly at choke points near the bridge and in town centers. Do everything possible to arrive and leave midweek, as arriving on a Saturday midday will mean spending most of your first day of vacation staring at brake lights.

Whether coming from Norfolk or from further to the north, make a pit stop at Morris Farm Market near Barco, N.C., which has the largest selection of goods – and cleanest bathroom stalls – of the markets that dot the northern route into OBX. The southern route across Roanoke Island on Hwy 64 is typically less crowded, and the main way you’ll go if coming from Raleigh. Ferries to Ocracoke launch from Swanquarter and Cedar Island on the mainland, and as with everything in high season, book ahead for peace of mind if going that route.

Speaking of routes, doublecheck that GPS and make sure it’s not inadvertently directing you to a ferry in an ill-advised attempt to avoid traffic. Likewise, your GPS may route you through neighborhood side streets once in OBX, despite local attempts to have tech companies stop recommending these shortcuts (I’ve even seen locals post signs saying  “Google Maps lies! Don’t drive this way!” to deter detours). If you just can’t help yourself, at least be sure to drive slowly and respectfully through neighborhoods off the main drags.

Step 6: Pack your bags

For us, this is one of those “pack the car to the gills” kind of trips, as we bring food and supplies to stock the rental property during our stay. Aside from sunscreen and bug spray, you’ll also want to bring any toiletries and laundry soap that might not be provided by the rental. Better to bring from home rather than waste your time in long lines to pay premium prices after you arrive.

Buy the nicest, heaviest beach umbrella or canopy you can manage, as the winds will turn a cheap one inside out or send it flying down the beach, and you’ll need a respite from the sun. Pack a nicer lightweight button-up or dress if you want to spruce up for a dinner or two, though you can get by with beach casual pretty much anywhere.



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