North Carolina

Outer Banks Travel Guide: Offbeat Fun the Average Beach Can't Match

Filed Under: North Carolina

On North Carolina's Outer Banks, you'll find offbeat fun the average beach can't match. Learn to hang glide in Kitty Hawk, take the ferry to Ocracoke, and climb all 208 feet to the top of Cape Hatteras lighthouse. There's plenty of fresh seafood here, and a wide selection of mom-and-pop hotels perched on the ocean's edge. Check out our guide to enjoying these remote and historic islands.

What to Do
History buffs will enjoy the Wright Brothers National Memorial, where the pair from Ohio launched the first powered flight in 1903. Climb to the top of Kill Devil Hill, a 90-foot dune overlooking the ocean, and see the precise spot of liftoff. At nearby Kitty Hawk, enjoy hang gliding lessons over the soft sand of Jockey’s Ridge State Park..


Adventurous visitors will want to climb the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, the tallest in the country. Striped like a barber pole, the lighthouse challenges climbers with 248 spiral steps -- roughly the height of a 12-story building. It may be hot, humid and noisy inside, but the view from the top feels like flying over the waves. Don't miss Cape Hatteras's sister lighthouses in Bodie Island and Currituck, either.

Nature lovers will enjoy the wild horses at Corolla. Descendents of Spanish mustangs, these enduring animals have persisted on this windy shore since explorers wrecked here in the 1500s. Rent a Jeep and take an off-road tour of the beaches they inhabit, or join a guided safari

Just taking the free 40-minute ferry ride to Ocracoke makes the trip worthwhile. Once ashore, visit Teach's Hole to see a pirate flag display, weapons exhibit and a documentary about Blackbeard's life. Be sure to explore the island by bike. Many hotels offer bikes for free. 


Where to Eat 

For breakfast, visitors will enjoy Lighthouse Bagels & Deli in Corolla, which offers more than a dozen bagel varieties. You won't find lox or capers in many other spots around here. 


It’s hard to beat Austin Fish Company in Nags Head for fresh seafood. Family-owned for 50 years, you’ll appreciate the budget-friendly takeout prices. Austin’s also sells seafood by the pound to cook yourself. 


In Ocracoke, stop by Howard's Pub and Raw Bar for raw clams and oysters on the half-shell. For the squeamish, they come steamed. So do the mussels. Set inside an old Pullman car, The Kill Devil Grill eatery goes beyond standard diner grub with wood-roasted chicken, fried shrimp, crab cakes and a daily blue-plate special. 


With locations in Corolla and Kill Devil Hills, JK's serves up ribs to die for, aged western steaks, lamb and veal from the Midwest that’s always corn-fed. There's also plenty of fish that hasn't had to travel far. 


Roadside Bar and Grill in Duck is well-known for its clam chowder. Tucked in the town's oldest house, the restaurant serves Southern-style seafood favorites such as shrimp and grits with tomato pie. For dinner, try The Blue Point, also in Duck. The fare is pricier than takeout, but a bowl of oyster stew and a plate of seared sea scallops justify the splurge. 


Where to Stay 

With its oceanfront balconies, the independent Nags Head Inn is relaxing enough to enjoy the beach without leaving your room. But the surf is literally just outside the door, and an indoor pool makes a stormy day’s swim possible. 


The Cove in Ocracoke provides wine and goodies along with breakfast, and bicycles come free. At the 3-story Castle, also in Ocracoke, it's hard to say which is the bigger treat: the free rental bikes or the cheese grits. The lighthouse suite comes with a private cupola and wet bar, while saunas and whirlpools lend comfort after a long bike ride or a tussle with the Outer Banks surf. 


As the name implies, Lighthouse View motel in Buxton features up-close views of the Cape Hatteras beacon. Lodging here can range from inexpensive efficiencies to spacious oceanfront cottages. Whichever you choose, all you need to go surf fishing is a pole and a pair of flip-flops. 


It may seem like an offbeat amenity, but once you stay at the Avon Motel, in the quiet village of Avon, you'll appreciate having a lighted fish-cleaning station on-site. You can walk to the nearby fishing pier and pull dinner right from the ocean. 


Getting Around 

Nearly every Outer Banks visitor arrives by car, and NC 12 connects the long strip of barrier islands. But to get to Ocracoke, you’ll need a ferry. Check schedules, plus weather reports in hurricane season, especially August and September.

About the Author

Josh Shaffer is a feature writer and columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, where he lives with his wife, son and 2 dogs. He grew up in Maryland, but has been graciously welcomed by the Tar Heel state.

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