Outer Banks in 3 DaysThree days is barely enough time to get to know any major destination. But AAA travel editors suggest these activities to make the most of your time in the Outer Banks.
Day 1: MorningTo fully appreciate North Carolina's Outer Banks, a car is a necessity. This long, slender strip of barrier islands stretches 113 miles from Ocracoke at the destination area's southern tip to Corolla in the north, and you'll want to experience every bit of this sunny slice of heaven. Though this itinerary begins in Ocracoke and ends in Corolla, you can set out from either direction.
Part of the fun of the Outer Banks is getting there. If you're approaching the area from the south, you can begin this adventure with a ferry ride from Cedar Island or Swan Quarter to Ocracoke ; just remember to make a reservation and factor in the 2.25- to 2.5-hour trip time. Phone the North Carolina Department of Transportation Ferry Division at (800) 293-3779 for information about fees and schedules.
Once you and your car reach Ocracoke Island, spend some time exploring this laid-back fishing village. A favorite hideout of Edward Teach (aka the pirate Blackbeard) in the early 18th century, the town is now popular with vacationers in search of peaceful surroundings and windswept beaches. The best way to see the sights is by bicycle, so stop at a rental outlet and pedal off along narrow, tree-shaded streets to the Ocracoke Lighthouse, built in 1823; Silver Lake, the village's focal point; and the British Cemetery, the burial site of four English sailors who washed ashore after their patrol ship was sunk off Cape Lookout by a German U-boat during World War II.
Day 1: AfternoonIf the brisk ocean breezes and exercise have made you hungry, there are a couple of casual restaurants in Ocracoke to consider for lunch. You can quench your thirst with a beer from the more than 200 brews available at Howard's Pub & Raw Bar Restaurant, then dive into a half-pound burger, fresh-shucked oysters and clams, pizzas and hand-cut fries, all made to order. The rooftop deck is a great place to kick back, relax and enjoy splendid views of the harbor, ocean and island. Equally casual is Jason's Restaurant, where the emphasis is on pizza (you can choose from more than 20 toppings) and pasta dishes, though there is also an extensive list of sandwiches (including subs) and fresh seafood.
As you leave the village heading north on SR 12, the only highway through Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the Outer Banks, it's awfully tempting to pull off the road and make your way through the sea oats and dunes to the seashore's undeveloped beachfront for a brief splash in the surf. Don't linger too long, though, since you'll want to save enough time to stop and see the herd of wild Banker ponies (said to be descendants of Spanish mustangs or possibly distant relatives of horses left behind by 16th- and 17th-century explorers) scampering around their pasture, which is about 7 miles north of Ocracoke.
When you reach the northern tip of Ocracoke Island, another ferry ride awaits. You don't need a reservation for the brief, 40-minute trip to Hatteras Island, and the ride is free. Set out again on SR 12 and enjoy the solitude as the highway meanders past long stretches of deserted beach, occasionally interrupted by small clusters of vacation homes. There are several interesting diversions along the way, and a stop at a couple will provide insights into the history, culture and lifestyle of the Outer Banks.
Your first option is in the small village of Hatteras, not far from the ferry docks. Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum explains the meaning of its name with exhibits about the treacherous offshore waters that caused more than 2,000 shipwrecks beginning in the 1500s before a series of lighthouses were built in the 19th century to safeguard ships sailing near the Outer Banks, in particular the hazardous Diamond Shoals. The entrance to the museum itself resembles the frame of a shipwrecked vessel.
Just a few miles away, provides insights into the traditions of the Native American tribes that lived not only here on Hatteras Island but in other parts of the country as well. You can see artifacts from their everyday life such as pottery, beadwork, basketry, tools and weapons, and nature trails lead through a wooded area, providing access to a pond and labeled plants and a chance to spot waterfowl and wildlife.
Lighthouses are always fascinating, and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse near Buxton is no exception. This symbol of the Outer Banks, built in 1870, is distinguished by its black-and-white diagonal stripes. An observation deck can be reached by climbing 257 (somewhat strenuous) steps. The lighthouse is also known for a well-publicized move: In 1999 it was physically relocated further inland to safeguard it from beach erosion and encroaching surf. The keeper's quarters also serves as the visitor center for the national seashore.
Before the U.S. Life-Saving Service evolved into the Coast Guard, its sole purpose was to rescue victims of shipwrecks. at Rodanthe was the first such station in North Carolina and is believed to be the most complete such station still in existence. A stop at the restored complex will give you an understanding of those brave, dedicated men who risked their lives to save others.
As you continue your drive along scenic SR 12, the highway passes through Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge , a haven for migrating snow geese as well as ducks, terns, herons, sea turtles and raptors. A bridge (no more ferries) transports you across Oregon Inlet to Bodie (Body) Island and the resort area of Nags Head .
A handy thing to know is that navigation in the Nags Head area is by milepost; street numbers are rarely used. Green signs along the side of SR 12 (the Beach Road) and US 158 (the Bypass) tell you where you're at (i.e., Mile 16, Mile 7.5, etc.).
Day 1: EveningAfter a full day of ferries and sightseeing, a relaxing dinner is in order. Seafood is the star attraction at Owens' Restaurant, a Nags Head favorite owned and operated by the same family since 1946. White tablecloths set an upscale mood, yet the restaurant maintains a cozy feel. Creative salads with homemade dressings set the stage for fresh-off-the-boat seafood and crispy hushpuppies. Try the margarita sea scallops, the signature Miss O's crab cakes, any number of seafood platters or the 14-ounce prime rib. The weathered, gray-shingled building, reminiscent of an Outer Banks lifesaving station, has an interesting display of maritime memorabilia.
Take a quiet stroll along the beach to end a busy day; watching the moon rise over the water can be awe-inspiring.
Day 2: MorningMorning possibilities include swimming in the ocean, sculpting a sand castle, fishing or playing a round of golf. Or, better yet, try hang gliding from the highest sand dune on the East Coast at Jockey's Ridge State Park (instruction is available). Kids love to scurry up to the top of the more than 100-foot-high dunes and then roll their way back down. If you're not up to hang gliding, bring a kite (you can buy one at most local shops); the always-present wind guarantees a successful flight. A sand-covered boardwalk runs from the visitor center to an observation area—the perfect spot for capturing a souvenir photo.
From the state park, head across the causeway from Nags Head to Manteo on historic Roanoke Island. This is the site where the English, in 1585, made their first attempt at colonization in the New World. Across from Manteo's waterfront at Roanoke Island Festival Park, Home of Elizabeth II , you can see a ship designed to resemble the one Sir Walter Raleigh's colonists sailed on during their voyage across the Atlantic. Climb aboard and meet interpreters dressed as period sailors who relate, in Elizabethan dialect, tidbits about life on the ship during the long journey. You'll also want to check out the interactive exhibits at Roanoke Adventure Museum, which covers 400 years of Outer Banks history, and then head to the Settlement Site to learn from a group of 16th-century soldiers what life was like at this early British outpost.
Day 2: AfternoonBefore delving into more early American history, stop for lunch at family-friendly Darrell's Seafood Restaurant. A long-time Manteo favorite, Darrell's has been around since 1960 serving oysters, shrimp, flounder, crab and scallops as well as soups, salads, sandwiches (including a French dip) and delicious desserts.
American History (The Early Years) continues just a few miles north of Manteo at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site , the location of the earthen fort built by Sir Walter Raleigh's first contingent in 1585. The second group of colonists, sent by Raleigh in 1587, has the unfortunate distinction of being remembered as the “Lost Colony.” When ships bringing provisions returned to the New World in 1590, no trace of the earlier group could be found. You can see a reproduction of the fort and watch a 17-minute video presentation about the courageous colonists' settlement attempts at The Lindsay Warren Visitor Center .
Within the historic site is Elizabethan Gardens , planted in memory of those brave early settlers. Designed to resemble 16th-century formal English gardens, plantings include camellias, hydrangeas, a Shakespearean herb garden, rhododendrons, azaleas, dogwoods, magnolias, roses and chrysanthemums. A thatched-roof gazebo and statues of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in this country, and Queen Elizabeth I are other highlights.
There should be time before dinner to head back to your hotel and hit the beach. There's a lot of history in the Outer Banks, but the surf is awfully tempting. Regardless of where you're staying, the beach is probably not far away, so grab a towel and some sunscreen, let some sand sift between your toes, relax and enjoy.
Day 2: EveningFor dinner, return to Manteo and 1587 Restaurant, a favorite of many locals for special occasions. The chefs use only the freshest local ingredients, including herbs grown on-site, to create imaginative cuisine. The menu changes with the season, and might include soft-shell crab, sesame scallops, molasses-brined pork loin, grilled rack of lamb and rib-eye steak, the latter two served with a choice of garlic butter or bordelaise sauce.
After dessert, head back to Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and a performance of an outdoor drama that has been seen by more than 4 million people since 1937. Presented in the Waterside Theatre on Roanoke Island, “The Lost Colony” is performed near the 1587 site of the first English settlement in the New World. The play relates—through drama, music and dance—that early attempt at colonization and the mystery that surrounds the vanished pioneers.
Day 3: Morning Start your day off right with breakfast at Miller's Seafood & Steak House in Kill Devil Hills, a popular brunch spot for both locals and vacationers. This family-owned and -operated restaurant serves up generous portions of chocolate chip pancakes, Texas-style French toast, omelets, country ham and other breakfast favorites. Be sure to order a colossal cinnamon roll on the side.
Visit the site the area is best known for: the Wright Brothers National Memorial . History was made here on a wintry day in 1903 when Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully completed the first manned, heavier-than-air flight. The visitor center has a full-scale reproduction of their flying machine, and markers on the airfield point out the distances achieved on each of the four flights the brothers made on that historic day. The visitor center and the nearby Centennial Pavilion have exhibits about the Ohioans, their gliders and the history of aviation. An imposing granite monument at the top of Big Kill Devil Hill commemorates the realization of the brothers' dream of human flight.
Day 3: AfternoonAAA/Inspector 563
As you leave the birthplace of flight and head to the northern end of the Outer Banks, a good place for a quick lunch is The Duck Deli in Duck. This small roadside diner in a wood-frame building along SR 12 is known for its barbecue—pulled pork, ribs, chicken and beef—as well as wings, baked beans, hush puppies and Philly cheesesteaks. The casual atmosphere, reasonable prices and fast, friendly service are a decided plus.
For an off-the-beaten-path experience, continue north on SR 12 to Corolla. Book an excursion with Wild Horse Safari , which takes passengers on off-road tours in open-air, safari-style beach cruisers to see wild Spanish mustangs running free on Currituck beaches. The mustangs are believed to be descendants of horses brought here more than 400 years ago by Spanish explorers. Naturalist guides provide information about area ecology and wildlife that can be viewed on the expedition, including shorebirds, dolphins and pelicans.
Historic Corolla Park provides two other worthwhile options while in Corolla. You can climb the 214 steps to the top of the unpainted brick Currituck Beach Lighthouse , which has been guiding navigation since 1875. The partially renovated Art Nouveau-style Lighthouse Keepers' House is adjacent. Or step inside the Whalehead in Historic Corolla to see the elegantly furnished “cottage” built 1922-25 as a winter retreat by a wealthy Northern couple who enjoyed wildfowl hunting on the northern Outer Banks. The home's cork floors, Tiffany lighting fixtures, copper roof and five chimneys are highlights.
Day 3: Eveningbhofack2/iStockphoto.com
Splurging on an exceptional meal is one of the perks of a vacation, and several fine-dining options in the northern reaches of the Outer Banks in Duck await your choice. Overlooking Currituck Sound is The Blue Point , which describes its menu as Southern coastal. Seafood is the focus here, from the she-crab soup to the crab cakes, but be sure and try one of the heavenly desserts. Sound views can also be enjoyed at Kimball's Kitchen , an elegant 60-seat bistro that is part of the Sanderling Resort complex. The restaurant's name is a reference to both the left bank of the Seine River in Paris, France, and the actual location of the restaurant on SR 12. Contemporary American cuisine with a French bent is matched with wines from the restaurant's highly regarded collection. The menu changes, sometimes daily, to reflect the best-available seasonal ingredients.
Linger over a glass of wine or coffee and a decadent dessert, but save time for watching the sun set over the waters of the sound, a walk on the beach and one last chance to pick up a seashell that will commemorate your Outer Banks visit.