With so many South Carolina beaches within easy striking distance of the Upstate, it’s easy to postpone exploration of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The fabled towns dotting this barrier island chain have much to recommend them, however, from uncrowded beaches to the site of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Set aside a few days and just go. You owe it to yourself to see this diverse collection of coastal Carolina destinations. To inspire you, here are five OBX hot spots, listed north to south, and why you’ll love each one.
It takes a four-wheel-drive vehicle to visit this northernmost stretch of the Outer Banks in Currituck County, where wild horses are part of the landscape. If you’re not used to traversing soft sand dunes in a vehicle of your own, buy tickets for a guided open-air tour with a naturalist at the wheel. Remote and exotic Carova Beach, reached via a lovely drive alongside the frothy Atlantic surf, is dotted with low-lying tree copses and dramatic homes built atop vertical pilings. Horses descended from Spanish mustangs roam the shore and the grassy dunes, sometimes even seeking shade underneath the stilt homes, many of which are rentals. Horse-spotting, with sun on your face and wind in your hair, will be a highlight of your trip.
Corolla—pronounced “cuh-RAWL-uh”—is home to a 1920s-era Art Nouveau–style residence called the Whalehead, which overlooks Currituck Sound and is open to the public. An adjacent park with its own crabbing dock lies in the shadow of the 1875 Currituck Beach Lighthouse, offering stellar views to anyone willing to climb the 220 steps to the top. Stroll through Corolla Historic Village’s sandy lanes, where a cluster of restored cottages holds an art gallery, a spa, an artful furnishings store, and the Wild Horse Museum.
Set amid rolling dunes backed by live oak and scrub pine trees, Duck is undeniably chic in comparison to other OBX towns, yet isolated enough to retain its quirkiness. After dinner, follow the sounds of live outdoor music to one of more than a dozen venues. Check out the Backside Bar behind Roadside Bar & Grill, where surf videos play on a screen beneath the trees while the band plays. Happy evening crowds are a mix of barefoot boho groupies, Topsider and Polo-clad millennials, affluent empty nesters, and everything in between. Catching the sunset over Currituck Sound is a ritual at Aqua or The Blue Point.
KILL DEVIL HILLS
Folks usually think of Kitty Hawk when they think of the Wright Brothers, but the adjacent community of Kill Devil Hills is where you’ll find The Wright Brothers National Memorial. Inspirational for all ages, well-curated exhibits here detail Wilbur and Orville Wright’s experiments with flight in the early 1900s. Walk to the top of the original launch hill to stand in the spot where the brothers achieved the world’s first controlled and sustained heavier-than-air flight. To the south, in Nags Head, you’ll spy Wright-inspired students taking paragliding lessons atop large dunes. Nags Head is the terminus of Highway 64. This is the same Highway 64 that runs through Highlands, Cashiers, and Brevard before heading east to the gateway town of Manteo on Roanoke Island, which was settled by the English in the 1580s.
After threading the needle between the Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic, you’ll arrive at the luxurious marina at Hatteras Landing. This is your departure point for a 60-minute ferry ride to 16-mile-long Ocracoke Island. Shady and slow-paced, tiny Ocracoke is commercial enough to appeal to most (galleries display surprisingly high-quality works), yet rustic enough to keep the crowds at bay (air conditioning is scarce). Best explored by bicycle, the island’s winding roads are lined with charming cottages dating from the early 1800s. If you’re lucky, you might even hear one of Ocracoke’s elusive old timers speaking in the now-rare “Hoi Toider” (aka High Tider) dialect.
The island’s most infamous occasional resident was the English pirate Blackbeard. Learn about this buccaneer at Teach’s Hole Blackbeard Exhibit. (The contents of Blackbeard’s sunken ship can be seen by ferrying on to Beaufort, North Carolina.)
Chock-full of history, beauty, style, and delectable food, the Outer Banks are worth the trip. Make them part of your New Year’s travel itinerary.