KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. – Getting here isn’t easy, and once you do arrive, you won’t want to leave, but such is the salt life of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
The air here smells like the sea and money, as the Outer Banks is a destination for retirees and those with second, or even third, homes. There are also loads and loads of tourists. The local chamber of commerce said the barrier islands get more than 5 million visitors annually.
The Outer Banks start at the Virginia state line and continue south for roughly 120 miles to the end of Ocracoke Island, only accessible by ferry.
On our recent trip we went to the end of the road, both north and south, to get the full experience of the Outer Banks.
It is a place like no other, at least in the United States. The west side of the barrier islands are bound by the sounds of Pamlico, Croatan, and Albemarle. The brackish waters of the sound are as smooth as glass, and shallow, with most being waist deep, if you’re tall enough, at around four feet.
On the east is the Atlantic Ocean, wild and unpredictable and, on our trip, churned up by Hurricane Lee.
It means, for those so inclined, you can see the sun rise as it comes up on the eastern horizon over the ocean, then wait 12 hours, and see the sun set on the western horizon over the sound.
Both give you spectacular, memorable color.
It makes you want to live there. Then you Google, out of curiosity, and the $400,000 modest starter home that’s neither by the ocean or the sound brings you crashing back home.
Ocean front? If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.
There’s always the lottery.
We flew, then drove, to the Outer Banks. Getting there, even then, wasn’t easy. The closest airport was in Norfolk, Virginia. Then a two-hour drive to Nags Head, where we stayed the first part of the week.
You could drive from here. But it would be 17 hours, or about the same amount of drive time to Mount Rushmore, which, when we went there a couple of years ago, took two days.
The first four days, our accommodations had the advantages of being oceanside and serving a surprisingly tasty free breakfast. Our fourth floor room had a patio that looked out on the Atlantic, which cost extra but was worth it.
It also meant a short walk just over the dunes to the beach, which was also nice. The first part of the week was summer hot, and the beach, which didn’t have a lifeguard, was already under the yellow flag.
Quick primer. No flag equals good, yellow flag means hazardous ocean conditions and red flag means no swimming, too dangerous.
There was also the ever-looming threat of fatal rip tides.
The last half of the week we headed north to Corolla and to the Corolla Village Inn, above, a lovely, 12-room boutique inn that was more like staying at a wealthy friend’s place, and it also featured complimentary and tasty breakfast fare.
Splitting the trip into two meant that the first half was for seeing the southern end of the Outer Banks and for visits to the Wright Brothers National Memorial and Roanoke Island, along with a jaunt down the Hatteras National Seashore and then a ferry ride to Ocracoke.
We also went crabbing, which didn’t need a license and was as simple as throwing a baited net into the water and waiting. Crabbing, like fishing, takes patience.
It also meant lighthouses. We wanted to visit five stretching along the Outer Banks, and we made all five.
The worst part of the trip was the nearly three-hour wait for a ferry to get from Hatteras to Ocracoke.
Locals advised we were lucky, since Labor Day weekend saw waits of four hours or more.
Getting a ferry back was much easier, and the timing worked out, as we were out on the water for sunset. That meant the drive back up the Hatteras National Seashore was at night, which, again, worked out. The National Park Service said it has one of the “darkest night skies … east of the Mississippi River” and is renowned for its stargazing opportunities. Can confirm.
The back half of the week was up in Corolla and more laid back by nature.
One big highlight was seeing the wild horses, above, that the Outer Banks are famous for.
As the legend goes, specially bred horses were brought to the Outer Banks by Spanish explorers nearly 500 years ago. Some swam to shore after shipwrecks, while others got left behind as conquistadors went elsewhere or didn’t survive themselves.
Now, about 120 wild horses live north of Corolla and around the unincorporated beach community of Carova, only accessible by boat or by driving on the hard-packed sand on the beach.
You can do that – air down first – with a special permit. If you don’t take air out of your four-wheel drive vehicles, they’ll get stuck in the sand, or, even worse, set your transmission on fire, which is why the community has a volunteer fire department.
In both halves of the trip, there was lots of walking the beaches and splashing around in the Atlantic or sound. The walking often turned into shelling, which is just simply looking down and picking up anything that looks interesting.
About six pounds of shells and fulgurites, which are created when sand gets struck by lightning and fuses together in what looks like blobs of concrete, made the flight back. We didn’t find any sea glass, bits of broken bottles tumbled smooth by the sea. Hadley Twiddy, the owner and manager at the Corolla Village Inn, said the surf was too rough.
We also didn’t find any shark teeth.
If you went to the Outer Banks back in the 1980s or earlier, Corolla might be a little confusing. It was once a tiny community of maybe 20 until state Hwy. 12 was extended past Duck. Since that project was completed in 1995, more than 5,000 homes have been constructed, and the population, mostly seasonal, has swelled.
Twiddy is one of the few who has been there since before all that happened. Her family has a vast real estate empire stretching across the Outer Banks, and they’ve also been responsible for the restoration of many historic buildings in Corolla Village, namely the two-room schoolhouse and community church.
Corolla is also home to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, which was our fifth and final lighthouse of the trip, and the Whalehead, a restored duck hunting lodge from the 1920s.
Waterfowl is a thing there.
“Currituck” is an Indian word for the Land of the Wild Geese and was settled by Europeans in 1668. As the dynamics of the coast changed, the freshwater inlets closed early in the 20th century, and the land became ideal resting spots for migratory birds like geese and ducks.
It became a hunter’s paradise. The rich came to shoot birds from the sky, and the locals developed a thriving industry as guides and boat builders.
When you go to a tourist hot spot, sometimes it can feel that costs are just a little bit inflated with what one could call “rip-off” prices. That wasn’t the case in the Outer Banks.
Meals out, mostly lunches and dinners thanks to all those free breakfasts, were competitive with or less than Little Rock prices. We also hit the grocery stores a couple of times. Food Lions, the local version of Kroger, were everywhere and handy for snacks and drinks. They weren’t any more pricey than buying here at home.
Maybe it was because of the abundance of local seafood, or maybe it was due to going after Labor Day, and past peak tourist season, but there was no sticker shock that came with the tabs.
One of the best meals was a Swordfish Schnitzel, above, and it was all of $17 as an entrée that was big enough to split.
Being past Labor Day meant some attractions had already closed for the season. It also meant, in theory, that crowds would be smaller, but it seemed like all of Ohio had driven down for a few days.
We also didn’t rent a beach house. Weeklong rentals are popular, but it wasn’t necessary.
If you’re looking for something different, and don’t mind a flight, the Outer Banks should be at the top of your list to visit, if you haven’t been.
It really is like no place else and worth a week or more.
Would we go back? Yes, just not next year. There are more places to go and more out there to see before we become repeat customers of any locale.
But, truly, if we won the lottery, the Outer Banks would be a hard place to pass up.
Gwen Green contributed to this story.
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