Top 5 Outer Banks, NC

by Tegan

Happy 2021 to all of you, from the gorgeous Outer Banks of North Carolina! 

After spending Christmas with Tegan’s family in her hometown of Raleigh, NC, we had planned a visit to Charleston and Savannah, two low-country gems that we were so excited to share with you as our inaugural post of 2021. 

But, as with everything else in 2020… as the trip got closer, we didn’t feel that visiting cities was the safest or most responsible option. 

And so, Savannah and Charleston were added to the very (very, very) long list of trips cancelled this year, and we pivoted to some quiet winter beach time in Kill Devil Hills instead.

As we look back, we kicked off 2020 with a whirlwind 2-week trip in Japan— which feels like it was a million years ago instead of this time last year! When COVID hit, we already had trips booked to hike the Julian Alps in Slovenia, relax on the shores of Lake Como in Italy, and explore Seattle, New Orleans, and Atlanta. As we do every year, we looked forward to our annual visit to Alex’s family farm in Canada. Tegan had planned to hike in Glacier and Grand Teton National Parks with her mom and sister, as well as enjoy some time together with them at a time share in the Florida Keys

We were also supposed to attend 5 weddings, Alex’s 10-year high school reunion in Canada, and had countless other plans, weekend getaways, and adventures on the horizon, as did all of you. We miss our friends, routines, and ability to plan ahead, and we feel a deep sadness for all the loss so many have experienced and for the continued divisiveness we see in our country. 

Despite these setbacks and disappointments, though, we ultimately are leaving 2020 feeling so, so fortunate. 

We not only both kept our full-time jobs, but were able to transition to working from home fairly seamlessly. 

We are so thankful for our continued health and the health of our families and loved ones, for our healthcare workers and grocery store employees, and for the leadership of our state and local officials. 

Overall, like many of you, we really got to know our backyard this year. We spent the spring, summer, and fall exploring state parks in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine– certainly doing more hiking and biking than we’ve ever done, and checking lots of local gems off our bucket lists, which we were so happy to share with you. 

We are so grateful to our “quarantine pod” buddy Nate and his adorable pup Maya for always being down for a weekend adventure or to try a new cookie recipe, and being so generous with the use of their car as we’ve explored all over New England together. 

We have also felt truly grounded in our community and in our surroundings this year– marveling at the changing seasons on our afternoon walks around our neighborhood, trying out home workouts and recipes galore, and annoying our poor cat to no end. We also launched this travel site (which has been a long-term dream of ours), got totally addicted to the Great British Bake-Off, read lots of books, played lots of games, and kept up virtually with friends and family. We remain grateful for these connections. 

Lastly, thank you to you, our readers, for all the wonderful comments and engagement with our content so far. We are really enjoying the blogging community and the online friends (hopefully someday “IRL” friends!) that we have made.

We’d love to hear about your 2020 in the comments! We wish you all much health and good fortune in 2021 and beyond, and look forward to continuing to travel when it becomes safe to do so once again.

Thank you for indulging us in that bit of 2020 introspection! And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Your Guide to the Outer Banks, North Carolina

The Outer Banks are a collection of razor-thin barrier islands about 120 miles in length, stretching from the border with Virginia all the way down to their southernmost tip at Ocracoke Island (the last-known refuge of the pirate Blackbeard, only accessible by ferry and quite remote!) They separate 3 sounds– the Pamlico, Currituck, and Albemarle sounds– from the Atlantic Ocean. When visiting, don’t miss the towns of Corolla, Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Buxton for beachy small-town vibes.

Located about 3 hours from Raleigh, the Outer Banks (or OBX to locals) are a fantastic place for a getaway– with a beautiful balance of historical attractions, pristine beaches, and lots of relaxation. Intriguingly, there weren’t any bridges between the Outer Banks and the mainland until the 1930s, which led to the preservation of a fascinating regional dialect called the “High Tider” or “Hoi Toider” accent among locals. It is much more similar to the English accent of original settlers, and is totally distinctive to the southern accent that characterizes the rest of North Carolina.

The area is teeming with historical attractions, to be sure. The first English settlement in North America is here, at Roanoke Island. The first English person born in the Americas, a baby girl by the name of Virginia Dare, was born at Roanoke prior to the entire colony disappearing in 1587– one of the U.S.’s most intriguing (and never-solved!) mysteries. The spookiness continues, as the Outer Banks was also the site of hundreds of shipwrecks, leading it to be known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, commemorated in an excellent museum in Hatteras Village. Lastly, the Wright Brothers took to the skies from Kill Devil Hills here in 1903– marking the first successful flight of a “heavier-than-air” aircraft and giving North Carolina its nickname of “First in Flight.” 

While of course peak season is the summertime, we recommend a winter visit, too! It’s not too cold (though it does get windy!) and it’s lovely to stroll around the various beaches. In the summer, tourists definitely descend in full force. There are certainly more things to do in the summer (and many attractions, like mini-golfing and many of the ice cream shops, etc. are only open seasonally), but the Outer Banks rock year-round.  

If you only have a few days in town, check out our 5 favorite things to do below. Enjoy!

Top 5 Things to Do + See in the OBX

1. Lighthouses galore!

North Carolina (and the eastern seaboard in general) are home to some really quality lighthouses, whose dedicated lighthouse keepers protected sailors from grisly fates for centuries. Despite having lived the last several years in New England, Tegan is a Carolina Girl at heart and is adamant about the superiority of North Carolina’s lighthouses. While she may be perhaps a bit biased, the lighthouses are without a doubt one of the best things about the Outer Banks region.

The Outer Banks has 6 lighthouses in total: the Currituck Lighthouse in Corolla; the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse in Manteo; the Bodie Island Lighthouse (pictured above) in Nags Head; the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (also pictured) in Buxton; the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse in Ocracoke; and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse near Beaufort (also a gem of a town!) Each lighthouse has distinctive colors and patterns, assigned by the Lighthouse Board so that sailors could tell them apart during both day- and night-time.

If you are low on time, the Bodie Island Lighthouse is perhaps the easiest to visit if you’re staying in the Nags Head or Kitty Hawk area. However, the most famous lighthouse in the region is certainly the Cape Hatteras lighthouse

Measuring at 198 feet, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse in the United States, and was built to protect sailors from one of the most dangerous parts of the eastern seaboard. Right offshore from Cape Hatteras, the Gulf Stream and Virginia Drift meet, which create a water pattern that often forced ships to crash into a 12-mile sandbar called Diamond Shoals. It is estimated that thousands of ships crashed here, leading to the area being known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” 

Interestingly, it was Alexander Hamilton who originally requested that a lighthouse be built here in 1794, after his ship almost crashed! However, the original lighthouse turned out to be too short to be effective at its mere 90 feet, so the lighthouse was extended in 1853 and rebuilt entirely in 1870. Due to erosion, the lighthouse was moved a bit further inland in 1999 and is operated by the National Park Service. Today, you can climb the lighthouse for $8— but keep in mind it’s quite hot in the summer and very, very narrow! 

While you’re in the Hatteras area, be sure to check out the 1874 U.S. Weather Bureau welcome center, as well as the fantastic Graveyard of the Atlantic maritime museum, where you can learn all about the treacherous water patterns in the area. 

Tip: Keep in mind that if you’re staying in the Kitty Hawk/Nags Head area like we did, Cape Hatteras is over an hour away on NC-12. While the area may look small on a map, it is very long and narrow, with only one lane going each way. This can make progress a bit slow, but it is absolutely worth it to visit!

2. The Wright Brothers Memorial

You may (or may not) have noticed that North Carolina’s classic license plate says “First in Flight,” as the infamous Wilbur and Orville Wright (more often known simply as the “Wright Brothers”) made the first successful powered flight right here in the Outer Banks, on Kill Devil Hill on December 17, 1903. They conducted research here for 4 years prior to their successful flight, and opened a whole world to us. As travelers, we owe them quite the debt of gratitude!

Today, the area has a fantastic memorial to these fearless flyers, and is operated by the National Park Service. There is a replica of the airplane that they flew, as well as a statue at the top of the hill and marked flight lines showing exactly where the December 17th flights took off and landed. Keep in mind that entrance costs $10 per person– this seems a bit steep to us. However, it is well worth a visit to such an auspicious location.

3. Jockey's Ridge State Park and Nags Head

Jockey’s Ridge is an absolutely fantastic state park in the Nags Head area of the Outer Banks. Home to the tallest sand dune on the east coast, this free (!!!) state park is a must-see. You can spend hours scampering all around the dunes and marveling over the massive hills of sand, flying kites, sand-boarding, and more. If you’re in the mood for something a little more adventurous… check out hang gliding at Kitty Hawk Kites! There are tons of nature trails and so much fun to be had here– this is definitely our favorite spot in the Outer Banks! 

Nags Head is a good place to stop for groceries, souvenirs, etc. as it is one of the larger and more central communities in the area. 

4. Roanoke Island: the first English settlement in North America... and an enduring mystery

By the late 1500s, England was eager to compete with Spain’s holdings in the “New World” and sought to establish a colony to rival the then-Spanish colony of Florida. In 1584, a scouting mission arrived in the Outer Banks and returned to England to recruit volunteers to form a colony. Two Native Americans, Manteo and Wanchese of the Croatan and Roanoac Algonquin tribes, went to England, too. They returned in 1585 to secure a settlement and explore further, but there were a lot of interpersonal, weather, and other issues that led to huge problems securing the settlement. 

In 1587, despite all those problems, 118 men, women, and children left England for Roanoke Island. It was only supposed to be a temporary stopping point, but winter descended and the settlers were forced to stay there. By the time the next English supply ship arrived in 1590, they found the island totally deserted– and no trace was ever found of the missing settlers. This case remains unsolved to this day.

For a super neat interactive musical experience, check out the Lost Colony play on Roanoke Island! 

Today, you can visit the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service, to see where the first Europeans arrived. The historic site also seeks to preserve the heritage of the Native Americans who preceded European settlers, as well as the Africans brought to the “New World” in bondage.

5. Beach time on the pristine national seashore

While this may go without saying, one of the best things to do in the Outer Banks is simply to enjoy the beach! Whether you visit in summer or winter, you can’t miss at the very least a walk along the beach, if not a full day of sun and fun. The sand is so soft and silky, and the sunrises and sunsets are out of this world. 

Wild horses are often seen in the Corolla area beaches. Descended from Spanish mustangs, they are known as Banker horses and are completely wild. Note that you need 4WD to see them! (Don’t attempt this without 4WD– you WILL get stuck!) 

Have you been to the Outer Banks? Or maybe seen the Netflix show? (We haven’t… should we?) Let us know what you think in the comments!

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Saptarshi January 5, 2021 - 11:28 am

Wish you a very happy new year to start with! Such refreshing places to travel! Sand, Sea, History…. such a great mix of everything! Would love to visit some day…. great post!

Tegan January 5, 2021 - 11:30 am

Thank you, Saptarshi! Happy new year to you, too!

Carmen Castricum January 5, 2021 - 11:32 am

Wow, so many incredible things to do and see! As, for 2020, I personally describe it as a rollercoaster haha 😉 Happy (belayed) New Year!

Tegan January 5, 2021 - 11:43 am

Indeed– such a rollercoaster! Happy new year!

Daniella January 6, 2021 - 2:47 am

I love the positive attitude you guys have going into the new year – wishing you both only the best for 2021! This is a terrific post. I’ve never considered visiting North Carolina but now I’m intrigued.

Tegan January 6, 2021 - 9:18 am

I’m pretty biased (being from NC) but it’s absolutely worth a visit! Happy 2021, Daniella! 🙂

Kevin Foodie January 6, 2021 - 11:11 am

I visited Myrtle beach in SC and loved it. See blog site. North Carolina will be my next adventure.

Tegan January 6, 2021 - 11:14 am

Yes, Myrtle Beach is lovely, too! 🙂 Happy new year!

Alyssa Hixenbaugh January 6, 2021 - 11:43 am

I love lighthouses! This looks like a lovely trip and I’ve heard great things about NC! I may have to plan a trip this year.

Tegan January 6, 2021 - 1:52 pm

I love lighthouses, too! Hope you can visit soon!

Cathers January 6, 2021 - 5:27 pm

What a great trip this looks like! On the list of places to visit in NC when I can finally get back to the US after this pandemic!

Tegan January 19, 2021 - 9:06 am

Yes!!! I hope you can visit soon! 🙂

Sandra Ans January 8, 2021 - 3:59 pm

Such beautiful places! ♥
I am really missing traveling and your post made me miss it even more!

Tegan January 8, 2021 - 4:10 pm

Can’t wait until we can travel again!!!

Gail January 11, 2021 - 11:12 pm

I’m glad that despite the pandemic, you found things to be grateful for and are spreading optimism in the blogosphere! I cannot help but feel sad when you listed the plans and trips you booked for last 2020. BUT, with recent developments in vaccines, I’m hoping transportation and travel will go back to normal this year. I was supposed to travel to the US last year but postponed it. NC was not part of my itinerary but your post makes me want to include it! Would lose to visit Roanoke Island. <3

Tegan January 12, 2021 - 10:02 am

I really hope you’re able to come to the U.S. this year! Definitely sad we all had to cancel so many plans, but I’m just focusing on saving up for future trips! Happy new year, Gail, and thanks so much for your comment!

Emily January 18, 2021 - 6:53 pm

I LOVE all the lighthouses! I’ve never been as far as the Outerbanks, but this makes me want to visit as soon as it’s safe. So glad you had a safe year amidst the challenges!

Tegan January 19, 2021 - 9:05 am

Thank you, Emily! Happy new year! And yes, you should definitely check out the OBX! 🙂

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