The Outer Banks stretch much further than you first might think. It’s a 115-mile (185 km) long drive — plus a 40-minute free ferry ride across the Hatteras Inlet — along the main traffic arteries (Highway Bypass 158 and Highway 12) from Corolla’s untouched Northern Beaches to quaint and isolated Ocracoke Village in the south.
Today, you can take a road trip to explore a little bit more of the general area and get a better feel of the lay of the land. You certainly don’t want to spend the entire day cooped up in the car, and the roads can be congested in summer. Depending on where you are staying, you might want to make up your mind whether you would like to take a trip up north or down south.
The Chicamacomico Life Saving Station (N.C. Highway 12 Milepost 39.5, Rodanthe; 252-987-1552) was the first of 29 stations in use on North Carolina’s shores. The museum site includes structures from two historic periods. The original station was built in 1874, which was later turned into a boathouse, and the newer station dates from 1911. Keepers guarded the dangerous coastline with its lurking sandbanks along Hatteras Island for 70 years, pulling countless crewmen off wrecked ships to safety. Living History storytelling, a variety of exhibits and hands-on-demonstrations, highlight the most dramatic rescues of the last century. The Life Saving Service was integrated in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915, and Chicamacomico Station was decommissioned in 1954.
Have a bite for lunch, perhaps at the Boathouse Restaurant (Highway 12, Rodanthe; 252-987-2100) or grab a Hatteras Island Burger at the Top Dog Café (Highway 12, Waves; 252-987-1272).
You can’t leave without visiting a lighthouse. Each island has its own, different in design and history. There are five altogether, the most famous one being the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in the village of Buxton. At 208 feet tall (63 m), it is the nation’s tallest. Visitors can climb the 257 steps to the lofty balcony of this giant beacon built in 1870 and painted with distinctive diagonal black and white spirals. Erosion by wind, waves and water made the location of the lighthouse increasingly unsafe. So in 1999, it was cut from its original base, lifted onto steel beams and taken on an amazing 23-day trip on railroad tracks to a new and safer spot.
Ocracoke’s Lighthouse, a chubby white plastered brick building dating from 1823 and only 63 feet high (19 m), is the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina. There is also the Bodie Island Lighthouse, built in 1872 (156 feet or 47.5 m), Currituck Beach Lighthouse (1875; 150 feet or 46 m) and Cape Lookout Lighthouse (1859; 150 feet or 46 m).
Take a break at the Canadian Hole. This beach spot on Pamlico Sound 1.5 miles (2.4 km) south of Avon earned its nickname because it is a magnet, particularly for wind-jockeys from the Great White North. The breeze blows constantly, making The Hole a popular attraction for windsurfers and kite boarders of all skill levels. The calm waters of the sound are warm and shallow, a perfect place to try windsurfing on your own. Or you could just get out the beach chair and watch the swarm of sails dance over the water’s surface.
Catch the free ferry to Ocracoke. It’s a busy place during the high season but still manages to keep its romantic small-town flavor. After disembarking and heading to Ocracoke Village, you’ll find yourself on a road that is lined with marshlands and meandering creeks to your right. Blue herons stalk the swampy waters. To your left, sea gulls soar, taking a sudden plunge to catch a fish from the clear blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. At times, the slender island is so narrow you can almost see the sound and the sea at the same time. All of beautiful Ocracoke is part of the National Seashore, and nearly all development is restricted to surround Silver Lake Harbor. Have dinner on one of the patio restaurants overlooking the harbor before you start your long ride back into the sunset.
If You Go
Outer Banks Visitors Bureau
One Visitors Center Circle
Manteo, NC 27954
National Park Service
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Lookout National Seashore
Wright Brothers National Memorial
North Carolina Ferry System