written and photographed by Marcia Simon , CTA, APR, copyright 2022
The ferry from Cedar Island on North Carolina's mainland to Ocracoke takes two and a half hours – just enough time to transition from "hurry up" mode to "island time."
Ocracoke is the bottom of North Carolina's barrier islands known as the Outer Banks, or OBX. The ferry pulls into Ocracoke's island-vibe village where you'll soon see enticing small shops, intriguing seafood and BBQ restaurants - and a few motels that make it pretty tempting to stay and soak up the atmosphere.
Being on a discovery mission, a lunch stop of fresh tuna and mahi-mahi sandwiches at touristy Howard's Pub and Raw Bar was enough of a break before heading north along Ocracoke's 16-mile stretch to the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry. This crossing took an hour from point to point. Unlike the Cedar Island trip that allowed reservations and cost $15 for a car and two passengers, this ferry is free and operates on a first-come basis. Mid-afternoon in June was early enough to beat both the summer crowds and the day-trippers from Hatteras to Ocracoke who wait in long lines to return before dinnertime.
Continuing the journey up the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and hoping to stumble upon the kind of quaint B&Bs and inns that mark the New England coastline, the area was instead dotted with family-style motels and row after row of big beach houses on stilts. It was evident that house rentals are the big draw for families who come for a week or more to Hatteras and neighboring Frisco, with kids, beach toys, and sometimes grandparents in tow. The Outer Banks are all about the beach. These barrier islands stretch for 200 miles along the Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. Mini-golf and ice cream are always within reasonable distance.
For adults traveling without kids, it may be about the shrimp and oysters, both of which are local, fresh and delicious. Want a really fresh catch? Head to one of the outer Banks' five fishing piers or head out on a charter boat. Parasailing, jet skis and kayaks are all easy to find. But chilling at the beach is the #1 pastime here.
Without a care or a reservation, the Surf Side motel in Nags Head, about halfway from bottom to top of the barrier island, came into view and had an available oceanfront room with a balcony. Sipping wine and watching sunlight fade away, that magical sound of ocean-meets-shore made for a relaxed evening, voluntarily disconnected from emails and nightly news.
It's funny how you can overpack and then realize you brought long pants you'd never wear, but not enough shorts, and how suddenly you yearn for a new pair of flip flops. What a great excuse to pop into stores along the way. You'll see a chain called Wings (sometimes Super Wings), which is not a restaurant as Northerners may initially think, but a T-shirt, sunscreen, beach towel and souvenir stop.
A little farther north is Kill Devil Hill, home to the Wright Brothers National Memorial. If you happen to have a National Park Pass, you'll get in for free; otherwise, it's $10 per person. If you have time, make it a point to stop.
Orville and Wilbur Wright chose this spot to test their dreams of flight because its windy for lift off – and sandy for (hopefully soft) landings and inevitable falls during trials and development. Kitty Hawk, as the area was known when the Wright Brothers came here in 1902, is today known as Kill Devil Hills. In 1903 the brothers achieved success with the first-ever powered aircraft. Orville flew and controlled the plane. And this marked the very beginning of airline travel as we know it today.
The Sanderling in Duck
Duck is a town toward the northern end of the Outer Banks, and The Sanderling is a lovely hotel about four miles north of Duck's town center, wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Bay. The Sanderling is truly the only resort of its kind in OBX, with 120 guest rooms and suites, plus house rentals (accommodating from 8 to 16 guests) and views of the ocean or the bay. Two outdoor pools (one for families and kids; the other adults-only), one indoor pool, a spa, outdoor hot tub, fire pits, plenty of beach chairs and umbrellas, and bike rentals make this a comfortable place to spend a few days.
Restaurant choices include the Lifesaving Station, which serves three meals daily in a casual, family-style atmosphere. The cuisine is southern coastal and regional using locally sourced ingredients when possible. It has a friendly bar, too.
Fine dining at the Sanderling's Kimball's Kitchen features floor-to-ceiling windows facing west to watch the sunset.
The third restaurant is the outdoor Sandbar where bare feet are acceptable and frozen drinks are specialties. From top-quality salads to burgers, it's a convenient spot to grab a bite near the pool, the beach, or your room.
Although not part of The Sanderling, The Paper Canoe is a highly recommended restaurant directly across the street. It's a favorite with locals, so make a reservation far in advance if you want to watch the sunset and enjoy a creative menu.
By the way, a sanderling is a bird – a type of sandpiper that runs up and down the beach chasing waves. Sweet.
Duck – The Town – and Beyond
To get to the Sanderling, you'll pass through the town of Duck, known for its boutique shops and low-key restaurants. Duck is cute.
The town park offers one of the access parking lots to the boardwalk, which is about a mile long, and weaves its way along the coastline, dipping in and out of retail clusters, pubs and ice cream stands.
Venturing north of Duck you'll find Corolla, a lively yet laid back tourist area. Take a 4WD beach Hummer tour to see the wild mustang horses on the northernmost beaches of the Outer Banks. Another option to see the horses is by kayak tour.
The mustangs are descendants of domesticated horses brought to the area in the 1500s by Spanish explorers and left behind — either by choice or accident. They are technically now wild. By the way, wild horses can also be seen on Ocracoke Island just south of the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry docks.
Leaving the Outer Banks to return north on the mainland from Corolla or Duck, requires a short drive south to Route 158 just north of Kitty Hawk. This goes over the Wright Memorial Bridge, the most-travelled route to and from OBX. You'll pass H2OBX Waterpark, which screams fun and makes you wish you had made time to go there for a great family fun day.
The closest commercial airport to the Outer Banks is 60-miles away in Norfolk, Virginia. Most people pack the car and make this a road trip. If you plan to go in summer, reservations in advance are highly recommended.
Marcia Simon is a travel advisor, travel writer and founder of FriendlyGroupTravel.com, specializing in customized trips for families, small groups and solos. Connect at facebook.com/friendlygrouptravel, Instagram @friendlygrouptravel, Twitter @friendsgotravel or call 860-399-0191.
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, has been exploring new places since she was 17 years old and traveled around Europe on a Eurailpass with her best friend. Decades later, she still considers travel the best investment of time and money she's ever made for herself and her family.