My mom and I recently traveled back to North Carolina to visit my sister and part of our time was taking a 4 day girls weekend in the Outer Banks.
If you haven’t ever been to the Outer Banks, definitely add it to your travel bucket list! The Outer Banks are similar to the Florida Keys in how it’s a 200 mile long chain of islands interconnected by one road and many bridges–it takes hours of passing stunning scenery to get from one end to the other. Some of the less populated islands can only be reached by ferry!
What I love about the Outer Banks is how rural much of it is–did you know parts of the Outer Banks still have wild horses roaming free?–plus you also get beautiful Atlantic sandy beaches, quaint beach towns AND lots of history.
I highly recommend seeing both the northern part of the Outer Banks AND the southern part–they are a night and day difference from each other and both are equally amazing. The northern part is the most visited and most touristy, we started our adventure in the southern part since my sister hadn’t seen that section of the Outer Banks yet. We were able to cover both in a long weekend at a fast pace. You could easily stretch it out to a week if you have more time.
We started our adventure in the town of Morehead City, NC. This was just a quick stop for the night since this is the closest town you can stay in before actually being in the Outer Banks. We’d traveled 6 1/2 hours to get to this point and since we were starting with the rural section of the islands first, wanted to start fresh first thing in the morning. If you stay in Morehead City like we did, I recommend staying at the Bask Hotel at Big Rock Landing. It’s a little older, but has huge 2 bedroom apartments with a water view and includes a free breakfast. If you have less of a journey that we did, I’d suggest taking the ferry and staying on Ocracoke Island.
You catch the ferry to Ocracoke Island from the Cedar Island Ferry Terminal. It takes 2.5 hours and you SHOULD make a reservation in advance, especially in the summer! Ocracoke Island is seriously the cutest little island! It’s only 16 miles long and many people were biking and driving around on golf carts. Good food, pretty sites, cute shops and scenic views–Ocracoke has it all. If you’re spending a week visiting the Outer Banks, I’d suggest staying on Ocracoke for a couple days. It isn’t very crowded since you can ONLY reach it by ferry, but it’s too dang adorable to skip! Being from the Seattle area and seeing large passenger ferries regularly, we couldn’t get over the small ferry sizes.
We’re almost to Okracoke Island, how cute is it already?!
Based on recommendations by the ferry staff and online reviews, we ate lunch at SmacNalley’s. It was really close to the ferry, inexpensive and casual, and is a good stop for burgers, sandwiches, etc. I had the crab cake sandwich special and my sister ordered the oyster po’ boy (and we shared them;). Both were yummy!
We had a scenic view from the restaurant, yes that’s our ferry in the background!
Our next stop was Ocracoke Lighthouse, the smallest of the lighthouses along the North Carolina coast. The Outer Banks has 4 scenic lighthouses and the North Carolina coast has 6 in total. You can’t go inside of the lighthouse, but a worthwhile 5 minute stop on your way to the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry.
I’d read rave reviews about Okracoke Coffee, and being from Washington state HAD to stop since I’m a self admitted coffee snob and take coffee very seriously. This is one of those “the line is backed out the door places,” and an Ocracoke institution, we fortunately found it not too busy since we waited until the middle of a very warm day to get hot coffee.
An interesting side note about Okracoke, many of the businesses are smack dab in the middle of residential neighborhoods and are ran out of houses!
I ordered a hot grasshopper latte and my sister got it iced. It was SO good! It’s a perfect combo of toffee, chocolate and mint and not too sweet. My mom ordered an iced coconut mocha, which was also yummy.
My mom’s been obsessed about the wild ponies of the Outer Banks ever since she read about them in Sunset magazine years ago. On your way to the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry, you can stop off and see a feeding area for the “wild” horses of Ocracoke. They fenced a large area for the wild ponies to roam on Ocracoke to protect them from getting hit by cars and running through the middle of town. You might be wondering HOW wild ponies got to the Outer Banks in the first place….from shipwrecks back in the 1500s! Here’s a link for more info on the wild horses of the Outer Banks!
CAPE HATTERAS ISLAND
A large part of Hatteras is a National Park, called the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Hatteras Island has long stretches of vacant beaches, mashes, sand dunes and maritime forests. This is the most rural of the Outer Banks islands we visited and one of the most beautiful! One of the main attractions, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, is the tallest lighthouse in the U.S. and the most photographed. I loved driving past the big, gorgeous beach houses down in this area.
To get to Cape Hatteras on Hatteras Island, coming from the south you need to take the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry. This is a free ferry service that takes 30 minutes and you don’t need a reservation.
We walked to the top of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and I highly recommend it! It’s 258 steps to the top but there’s numerous landings if you want to stop and take a break. The lighthouse protects the most dangerous stretch of the Atlantic Ocean, which was known as “the graveyard of the Atlantic.”
The lighthouse used to be 2,900 feet closer to the ocean, but was successfully moved in 1999 to protect it from the rising sea level.
We had gorgeous views from the top! The thin stretch of land jutting out in the far left of the photo below is the “new” island called Shelly Island that just developed this past April. It’s too dangerous to get to, but experts predict it might be gone by next year.
If you want to read more about the development of this new island, here’s a great article by National Geographic and a drone photo. We couldn’t drive close to see it since the road was partially flooded and you need a 4 wheel drive vehicle.We also drove past the Serendipity House, most know for it’s role in the Nicholas Sparks movie “Nights in Rodanthe.” This isn’t really a tourist site and was moved within a cluster of private homes with no place to park. We didn’t realize this, so just stopped briefly in someone’s driveway to take a quick photo.
This is why the house was moved, photo credit source and interesting info about the house here.
Hatteras Island and Bodie Island are connected by a bridge, our one stop on Bodie Island was to see the beautiful Bodie Lighthouse.
Here’s my sister and I working on our selfies with lighthouses of the Outer Banks! Yes, that was our third lighthouse selfie photo of the day 🙂
Our next hotel was in the tourist town of Corolla, we drove straight past the rest of the Outer Banks tourist towns and right to our destination. Our itinerary didn’t originally plan on staying in Corolla, we had to change dates slightly and that’s what was available. I’m really glad we were able to drive all the way north, however!
Corolla is the northern most Outer Banks island. It’s touristy and also has many residential homes, we stayed right on the beach at the Hampton Inn. Other than going to the beach twice to see the sunset and sunrise, we didn’t do any tourist stops on Corolla. If you have more time, things to do in the area include:
- Currituck Lighthouse and the historic area around the lighthouse, which I’ve heard includes adorable little stops. We had already gotten to Duck before we realized we messed up our collage of Outer Banks lighthouse selfies by forgetting to go to the Currituck Lightouse!
- Carova Beach is another place you can spot wild horses roaming the beach. You can take a guided tour if you don’t have a 4WD vehicle.
The gorgeous sunset:
The beautiful sunrise:
The charming town of Duck was one of my favorite towns in the Outer Banks. It’s filled with adorable shops, great food, beautiful beaches, is bike friendly and has a really nice boardwalk lined with fun places to browse.
The shops, the beach and water sports are the most popular activities in Duck. It’d be a terrific place to stay and is a close drive to the activities of Corolla, Nags Head or Kitty Hawk.
I’m always looking for fun places to eat when I travel, and since I’ve never eaten a doughnut from a stick we HAD to stop at Donutz on a Stick! They make everything fresh right in front of you. I’m not even embarrassed to tell you this was our lunch for the day!
You can order two to a stick or four, I’d already lost one of my doughnuts by this point trying to get a doughnut photo!
And if your dog needs a treat or if you’re just a dog lover, be sure to stop at Outer Bark!
KITTY HAWK & NAGS HEAD
Kitty Hawk and Nags Head are two busy towns in the northern part of the Outer Banks. After driving through the serene beauty of Cape Hatteras, it was a shock to my system to pass so many strip malls, cars and full parking lots. That being said, there are a lot of things to DO in the area for families in particular. I’m not even joking, every other block we passed another place to play mini golf!
I’d definitely suggest staying in these areas if you’re renting a beach house and want close access to water sports, fun kids activities, restaurants and the grocery store. As we drove through town the opposite direction the next day, we drove on the main drag next to the beach that parallels the busy highway. I HIGHLY recommend you take this drive through town, it’s beautiful and the bright colored beach houses are too 🙂
We stayed in a STUNNING Kitty Hawk rental home .5 mile from the beach in a gated community with a swimming pool. It’s honestly the best Airbnb rental I’ve ever stayed at! The house is lovingly decorated by an interior designer who lives in it off-season. And yes, it’s kid friendly! Those white slipcovers are washable 😉
And before you start thinking you can’t afford beach houses with a swimming pool, it didn’t cost any more than two rooms at a 2-star basic hotel! When you’re traveling with multiple people and can break up the cost, it’s honestly the best way to go.
One of our favorite stops was the Wright Brothers National Memorial. We listened to a 30-minute talk about the Wright brother’s story that was interesting, the park ranger was hilarious, and Orville and Wilbur’s story is inspiring. My sister regretted not taking her boys here on her last trip to the Outer Banks after hearing about the Wright brothers tale.
Standing on the hill next to their monument, you can see various markers to how far their first gliders could go.
Did you know Kitty Hawk used to be ALL sand?? That’s even just 100 years ago! It was developed in the 1930’s and turned into a tourist destination made popular because of the Wright Brothers.
Here’s another view where you get a glimpse of the ocean front beach houses.
If you have more time, make sure to go to Jockey Ridge State Park and visit the sand dunes in Nags Head!
We stopped at Barefoot Bernie’s Tropical Grill and Bar for lunch. I don’t have a photo, but the Red Snapper Reuben is literally one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life and a restaurant favorite! It’s a casual place and I highly recommend it if you’re ever in Kitty Hawk! Their cocktails are pretty amazing too 🙂
We drove through the historic town of Manteo on our way out of town. This would be a PERFECT place to stay for a girls weekend or couples weekend! It’s not directly on the Atlantic Ocean, but is still part of the Roanoke Sound. The historic and charming town has the cutest houses and shops! We had such a great time driving up and down the narrow historic district roads looking at houses.
Tops Things to do in Manteo
- Go to The Lost Colony Theatre
- Visit Elizabethan Gardens
- Visit the Fort Raleigh National Historical Site
We didn’t have a chance to see the tourist sites of Manteo, but this is exactly where we’re headed next time we come back to the Outer Banks! 🙂 I hope you enjoy your visit and hope my tips were useful!