Monday, September 30, 2013

A Late September Trip to Hatteras and Ocracoke

Despite living most of my life in Virginia, just a few hours away from North Carolina's Outer Banks, I never gave much thought to visiting these narrow barrier islands. I probably would not have gone there any time soon had it not been for my 80+ year old father fondly remembering past trips to the OBX which gave us the idea to do a family vacation there with him this September.  I found a house on Hatteras Island in Rodanthe for us to rent.
View of beach from our house in Rodanthe
I didn't know much about the Outer Banks before going, mainly imagining it to be an overdeveloped stretch of land with all-you-can-eat seafood restaurants, putt-putt golf and brew-thrus, and no atmosphere or culture whatsoever.  That's kind of how Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head were, but it was a pleasant surprise to go over the bridge onto Hatteras Island and notice the miles and miles of undeveloped land south of Nags Head.  It remains that way for 20+ miles all the way to Rodanthe - with the beach on one side and Pamlico Sound on the other.
Wide-open beach on Ocracoke
The ocean-side beaches in the Outer Banks are all straight and go on for miles in either direction.  That's great for walking long distances, but it's not as visually stunning as the crescent shaped beaches I've seen in places like Jamaica, Puerto Rico, or even Ireland.  I would like to have found a beach on the sound side where the water is shallow and calm and you can toss a frisbee or surf ball, but didn't put forth the effort to find such a spot.  (Perhaps the Salvo Day Use Area?).  It was easy to be lazy and sedentary on this vacation.  The Outer Banks has the effect on a person.

One of the main reasons for going was so that my dad could fish off of a pier, so we made sure to find a house close to the Rodanthe pier.  Unfortunately the wind made fishing undesirable.  Not catching much of anything didn't help either.  In addition to fishing, another popular activity on Hatteras island is kiteboarding.  It stays pretty windy, so there's always a lot of people trying out that crazy sport.  Next on the list of things to do would be hanging out on the beach, checking out the famous Cape Hatteras lighthouse, and going out to eat.  Going out to eat is a big deal in the Outer Banks.
Dad fishing on the Rodanthe pier
There's no shortage of restaurants and it's not long after lunch that you start to think about where you might want to go for dinner that night.  Some nearby places we liked included Waterman's Bar and Grill (excellent seafood, Carolina craft beers, friendly staff, sunsets, and a rum bar where you can order a bushwacker, painkiller, dark n' stormy, and more), Good Winds (somewhat bland atmosphere but well chosen beer selection and excellent views), Waves Market and Deli (awesome sandwiches and burritos plus basic groceries) and Lisa's Pizzeria (surprise - great pizza!).
The view from Good Winds of the Pamlico Sound
We were a short walk from the beach and the water in late September was still plenty warm for swimming, but it was so rough that being in the water or trying to boogie board was a pretty unpleasant experience.  So mostly I just hung around the house, played a bit of banjo, did some reading, and drank beer.  (We did take a fun side trip to the Full Moon Cafe and Brewery in Manteo - about 30 miles away - and I'll write about that in another post.)  On our last day, we decided to take the free car ferry over to Ocracoke.  That would prove to be the best decision we made all week!

The drive from the Rodanthe/Waves/Salvo to the Ocracoke ferry terminal in Hatteras can easily be made in under an hour at a leisurely pace.  Along the way you pass through the villages of Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras.  Ferries leave every half hour and can hold up to 30 vehicles.  It was a Saturday morning, so I was expecting there to be a long line, but we pulled right up and got on the ferry after a 4 or 5 minute wait.  Ocracoke is remote (you can only get there by boat/ferry or plane).  The 40-minute ferry ride quickly drops you off on the far end of the island and it's a 12-mile drive from there to get to the village.  There's nothing built up during those 12 miles - just ocean and sound until the narrow spit of land widens as you come upon Ocracoke village.
Looking out at Silver Lake from outdoor seating at Jolly Roger in Ocracoke
Unlike the other "communities" on the Outer Banks - which are all stretched out along of Highway 12 - Ocracoke actually has a town feel, with the village centered as it is in a semi-circle around a small harbor called Silver Lake.  There are some cool pubs right on the water, like Jolly Roger and SMacNally's, and several hotels and other modest accommodations with water views, plus a few artsy shops tucked away, historic sites, a lighthouse and some bike/golf cart rental places.  No chains.  Nothing corporate.  Fewer than 800 permanent residents.  Ocracoke had a vibe similar to other places that we have loved, and although we only spent a few hours there I'm already thinking about going back next year.

The only drawback that I could see to Ocracoke might be that there's no immediate beach in the village itself.  There is a 16 mile stretch of undeveloped beach that runs along practically all of the ocean side of the island, but beach access begins just a short ways out of town.  That's more of an observation than a criticism, really.  From what I saw, I'd have no problem returning Ocracoke for a week or more.  We also lucked out with a short wait before getting on the ferry coming back.  The ride each way was pretty smooth, even in rough, windy conditions, so there's little chance of getting sea sick on the ferry, even for a land lubber such as myself.
Flowers on beach in Ocracoke
I've done a few internet searches recently for islands worth visiting on the East Coast of the United States and the Great Lakes region, and I'm surprised that Oracoke didn't come up on such a query.  I enjoyed staying in Rodanthe, but based on what I know now I would definitely choose Ocracoke over any place on Hatteras.  It may not be the Caribbean, but for a quaint, sleepy, waterside village within driving distance of Central Virginia, you can't beat it!

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