Outer Banks, North Carolina

A view over the Silver Lake harbor, Ocracoke.

A few years ago my wife and I went to the North Carolina's Outer Banks just to check them out: they are closer to where we live, and less crowded, than Florida. Having spent a week in Hatteras Village and Ocracoke, we really liked the place — enough to return there eight more times. Many people who visit once, come back, and I can understand why.

North or South?

Most of the tourist traffic on the North Carolina's Outer Banks concentrates in the Northern part, from Kitty Hawk to Nags Head. This is the area of commercial strips, ugly beach condominiums, loud women with hordes of noisy children and tired husbands, drinking cheap beer by gallon.

To enhance your experience, the developers have thrown in a number of "vacation attractions": waterslide parks, minigolf courses, eateries with bland, unmemorable food, just name it. Well, this is a free country and bad taste is still legal here. What is a nightmare to me, may be a dream vacation for someone else.

What a contrast between that and the Southern part of the Banks! As soon as you pass the Oregon Inlet, the road becomes less crowded, sand dunes largely unspoiled by development, beaches emptier and cleaner — this is a place to visit.

Many people may be happy in the Northern part. Make your bookings and enjoy! If, however, your idea of a seaside vacation spot is closer to mine, then the Southern part will be your choice, especially Hatteras and Ocracoke; read on.

Outer Banks offer more than 120 miles of ocean beach; large stretches of it quite empty and good-looking. This is a stretch of beach a few miles North from Hatteras Village.

Cape Point, Hatteras Island, accessible with a four-wheel drive. The small island in the background (shown during low tide) has moved about 100 meters in the last year.

How to get there

First you have to get to Norfolk, Virginia. Driving from Washington, Philadelphia or New York you may use the Interstate 95 (faster!), but I prefer to take Rte. 13, through the Eastern Shore and the 22-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (the second span has been completed in 1999).

From Norfolk get on the I-64, then Rte. 168/158 South (which has been much improved in 2001/2002). This takes you straight to Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks. You may take a break here to visit the Wright Brothers Museum (follow the road signs).

From Whalebone follow Rte. 12 South. The ugly part of the Outer Banks ends here, and the traffic becomes much lighter.

After the Oregon Inlet driving turns into a pleasant experience. Sometimes you may see the ocean on the left and the Pamlico Sound on the right, both at the same time. You can make a short stop at the wildlife sanctuary at Pea Island, with the visitor's center right off the road.

At Hatteras Village the road ends — to get to Ocracoke you need to take the ferry, which is free and runs every 20-30 minutes or so in season.

In season, the ferry becomes quite crowded, but the longest I ever had to wait was 30 minutes.

The passage lasts 40 minutes, taking you to the northern tip of the Ocracoke Island, where Rte. 12 continues, as a narrow strip of asphalt between dunes, for another 13 miles to the Ocracoke Village.

Here. You came as far South on the Outer Banks as possible.

Hatteras and Ocracoke

These are two places really worth recommending on the Outer Banks (well, there is not much more in the Southern part, anyway). Each of these villages is located at the Southern end of the corresponding island and can be used as your base for the exploration of the shore.

Ocracoke is like a small European vacation village, where you can walk or ride a bike to almost anywhere. It is so relaxed, that sometimes you may feel like in a slow-motion movie. It has a picturesque natural harbor, the Silver Lake bay, and the main street offers a choice of dining, shopping and entertainment, but without excess.

The harbor is overlooked by a small but pretty lighthouse.

Hatteras is more spread and does not have a clear center, but offers a somewhat wider variety of beach-related diversions, together with the neighboring villages of Frisco, Avon and Buxton, up North on Rte. 12.

Given the short distance and a good ferry connection, there is nothing wrong with staying in one place and enjoying the other, but my choice is to split the stay 50/50 between both.

The local store in Ocracoke has an ATM (another cash machine is at the bank, at the end of the village).

Pelicans waiting for a handout in the Ocracoke harbor, as seen from the deck of the Jolly Roger.

The beaches

To really experience North Carolina beaches, a four-wheel drive car is a must. Some of the nicest spots are accessible only in this way.

Pack some food, lots of beer (I suspect you may not be admitted to a beach without a well-stocked cooler, and the size seems to be a matter of prestige); if you fish, get your rods — and spend a day doing nothing, a blast!

To sum it up, driving on the beach seems to be somewhat better in Hatteras, while if you prefer the park-and-go approach, Ocracoke may be my choice.

In Ocracoke, the beach near the village deserves a trip (take the five-mile, well-marked road off Rte. 12, marked as Ramp 72; on some days the road may be passable only with 4-wheel drive). In Hatteras there are two premium spots: Cape Point (one access road at the lighthouse in Buxton and another next to the airport in Frisco), and the remote South beach, at the tip of a long tongue of land, South of the village (the access road near the ferry); to access both these, a 4-wheel drive is a must.

Cape Point is the local meeting place; it is quite packed (but this is a part of its appeal!) yet friendly, while on the more secluded South beach you will see parked four-wheelers only every 200 meters or so.

Fishing of the Hatteras South beach; you can see the Ocracoke Island over the water.

On Ocracoke, Rte. 12 actually goes through the beach...

What if you don't have a four-wheel drive? Use one of the public beach access points, or just park somewhere at the roadside of Rte. 12, a 50-meter walk from the ocean. Even in high season you may have a half-mile stretch all for yourself.

Where to stay

Both Hatteras and Ocracoke offer a number of motels, inns, and B&B establishments. In Hatteras Village, Seaside Inn at Hatteras (252-986-2700 or 866-986-2700) has been my choice for four years. The oldest inn on the Outer Banks (built in the 20's), it was renovated and reopened in 1997 as a classy bed and breakfast, a place with personality, attention to detail and good taste.

The Seaside Inn turns out to be, after all, on a waterfront after a good rain.

The porch of the Seaside Inn is a good place to sip a glass of wine in the evening.

You will find Seaside Inn entering Hatteras Village from the North, on the left-hand side of Rte. 12, across the road from the CITGO gas station. (Turn left at the sleeping yellow dog named Medley.) The place doesn't look like much from the outside; it doesn't boast a swimming pool, and the walk to the beach is about five minutes — but if you stay here once, you will be coming back.

The ten-room inn is clean, well-maintained and decorated with antiques, but all this fades in comparison with its main attraction: the breakfast. One day the highlight is asparagus omelet, another, shrimp cooked in white wine or apricot crepes; you will be waking up every morning with anticipation of things to come...

The prices in high season range from $80 to $150 per night (which is not so steep if you take the breakfast into account), and if you are lucky, you may be able to book my favorite room, #4.

Note: 2003 update: I have just received an email from the new innkeeper, Mrs. Cindy L. Foster, that the inn is up to speed under the new management, and ready to receive guests. I haven't stayed there after the transition, but I'm going to check the place soon and tell you my impressions. Oh, yes, the yellow dog has moved out...

In Ocracoke my wife and I like staying at the Sand Dollar Motel, (252-928-5571) a small, unassuming, but clean and well-run place with a nice garden, one block from the main street. This is a quiet location within an easy walk to the village center and I can easily recommend it.

The best one out of ten rooms here goes for $75 a night (no breakfast, but coffee and doughnuts in the morning); it has a private porch with a walkway to a small but nice and secluded swimming pool.

Where to eat?

First of all, while on the Outer Banks, go for the seafood, even if you are not sure if you like it. You may change your mind. This may be the main reason I'm going there year after year...

The Breakwater restaurant, right in the Hatteras harbor, serves possibly the best food in Hatteras Village, and has an outside deck, from where you can view a sunset over Pamlico Sound while sipping a glass of wine before the dinner (dining is inside only).

The family-style Channel Bass right at the main road serves simple, down-to-earth seafood meals; the place is run by a bunch of older ladies and this may explain the consistently high quality of the food and its homey style.

More to the North, in Buxton, you will find the more upscale Labrador Bistro (reservations recommended) with an ambitious menu; the place needs to find a personality of its own, but is definitely worth a try, as the quality of food is first-class. (Frankly, I've tried it just once...)

A number of sound-side restaurants between Buxton and Hatteras Village serve meals which, while not bad, leave not much to remember; you will be better off visiting the places mentioned above. The ocean-side Down Under should rather be avoided.

In Ocracoke, the Back Porch Restaurant is touted in some of the travel books as the best restaurant on Outer Banks. Not true: it changed ownership (and, probably, the chef) in '98, and the food, while still quite OK and served in a nice atmosphere, is nothing to write home about.

The best seafood in the Outer Banks

Now, here comes the good stuff: my two favorite places to eat at the Outer Banks. Listen to me now and thank me later...

My recommendation for dinner is the Pelican Restaurant in the center of Ocracoke Village. Find a table in a patio next to the outdoors bar; it offers some relief from the heat, and the people in the kitchen certainly know what they are doing.

The atmosphere is casual, and there is live acoustic music on some nights.

You have to try their jumbo shrimp, stuffed with cream cheese and jalapeno peppers, wrapped in bacon and served on a leaf of lettuce (don't even think about leaving it on the plate, after it got nicely soaked in bacon drippings — live dangerously!).

Other dishes are also worth trying (including good lump crab cakes), but if you don't try the jalapeno shrimp, your trip to the Outer Banks is wasted.

An owner of a local store recommended to us the Creekside Café (252-928-3606), right in the village center, above a bike rental place. And yes, sir, I'll be indebted to you till the end of my days!

You eat on a second-floor veranda overlooking the main village intersection, and the food is served in plastic baskets. But what food!

The blackened shrimp (medium-sized, not jumbo) are possibly the best shrimp I've ever had, period. And remember, I live in Maryland, close to the Eastern Shore.

The seafood cakes (shrimp/crab), served as an appetizer, are equally good. And their crab cakes are at par with those you can get on the Tangier Island, VA — do you need a better recommendation?

The best thing on the Creekside Café menu, however, is supposed to be the blackened flounder. It may not be available on some days; a local fisherman named Bobbie, whose catch is served here explained that on some days the fish is below the legal size. A fallback on those occasions is the blackened bluefish, also very good.

David McNew, the co-proprietor (who also often waits on tables, checks on the kitchen and entertains guests) explained the secret: the head cook is a local lady, 74 years old. 'Nuff said. The place was my discovery of the year 2000, and in the years since I have eaten there dozens of times, always enjoying it immensely.

Nightlife

Just kidding: these are Outer Banks after all. Everyone goes to sleep around 9PM.

One of the guidebooks recommends the Howards Pub just North of the village. We found it disappointing on all counts: food, drinks, service, ambience. Sorry.

For afternoon drinks we've settled down on the Jolly Roger, overlooking the Silver Lake harbor. This is a modest place, but serves the purpose well, the food is not poisonous, the service is good, and you can watch the harbor traffic. On a number of nights we found a good live music here (including local country & folk performers).

Note: On the Outer Banks you can find a good selection of wines and beers in restaurants and stores, but nothing stronger than that. Oh, well.

Other things to do

Beachcombing, anyone?

Bring your binoculars along

  • Take an evening cruise from Ocracoke, to see the sunset and, possibly the dolphins (we didn't have luck on this one). And then, the next year we were able to watch a dozen if them playing around our ferry on the way to Hatteras...
  • Fly over the Banks in a '65 Cessna ($60-$75 per couple, depending on the length; you'll find the operator's office shack in Frisco next to a service station); there is also a booth of Pelican Airways in Ocracoke.
  • See the pelicans fish (or wait for handouts) at the Silver Lake.
  • Use binoculars to watch wildlife in the nooks and crannies of the Pamlico Sound.
  • Or just do nothing, wandering aimlessly around and letting the time go by. Whatever. You are on the Outer Banks, you don't have to do anything.

A quiet evening at the Pamlico Sound.

A pelican at the Silver Lake.

For more information

The best guidebook I could find was North Carolina's Outer Banks — the Insiders' Guide by Mary E. Riddle and Catherine Kozak. This is a very good book with very bad maps, and the publisher has a short version online.

A small flyer published by the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association (POB 456, Ocracoke, NC 27960) lists many local businesses, including places to stay, and includes a good walking tour map of the village, with most places of interest clearly marked.

Even better, try the Ocracoke CBA on the Web.


For more photographs, see my Ocracoke Gallery page.

Pictures and text © 1998-2003 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak.
The photographs were taken with a Sony Mavica FD7 (1998) or Olympus C-3000Z (2000) digital camera and touched up with Corel Photo-Paint; feel free to use them for any non-commercial purposes.

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Posted 1998/07/25; last updated 2003/06/26 Copyright © 1998-2003 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak.