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Outer Banks and Crystal Coast

Outer Banks and Crystal Coast Itineraries

Outer Banks and Crystal Coast for Families

Outer Banks for History Buffs

Wild ponies, sand dunes, lighthouses, history and a new kiteboarding capital

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North Carolina’s Outer Banks and Crystal Coast deliver rich history, local music and dramatic entertainment along with water sports and truly special pristine beaches along the Atlantic for family enjoyment. Don’t be in a rush to travel here, and don’t expect big city action. Enjoy a slow pace and return often to soak up the relaxation.

North Carolina’s Outer Banks

This region is poised between sky and water, shaped by storms, and constantly changing as the forces of nature vie to reshape them. The coastal region has long been a favorite escape for generations of families making lifetime memories. Head to the Outer Banks for a classic beach vacation, extreme sports, its special ecosystem, or a walk through history.

The Banks preserve some special history and traditions, including Blackbeard the pirate, Banker ponies, the Lost Colony, the history of flight, hidden beaches, famous lighthouses and world-class fishing.

More recently the Banks are also known for world-class sports. Surfers hang out in Corolla, Cape Point on Hatteras, and around Jennette’s and the Nags Head pier, home to international surfing competitions. Look for windsurfers at the famous Canadian Hole on the inside of Hatteras Island and launching from the shores of Avon. Kiteboarding resorts rule in Waves, rapidly becoming a hotspot for the new Olympic sport.

History buffs enjoy Roanoke Island, site of the first British attempt at creating a colony in America. Its mysterious fate is slowly being discovered through archeological explorations. You’ll hear several versions of its story here, including the famous “Lost Colony” summer theater production, where Andy Griffith got his first acting experience. Roanoke has Civil War history to share as well, and the Freedmen’s Colony played an important role in the local African American history.

Many come to the Outer Banks for the largest, grandest, and most concentrated collection of lighthouses on the East Coast. From north to south, the region is home to five historic lights – Currituck Beach, Bodie Island, Hatteras (most famous of all because of its dramatic move), Ocracoke and diamond-patterned Cape Lookout, loveliest of them all. Thanks to the National Park Service and dedicated preservation groups, all except Ocracoke can now be climbed. Don’t overlook the fascinating stories of the life-saving crews that once patrolled these beaches. The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station on Hatteras Island tells the story best.

If music is your thing, visit Ocracoke Island where locals combine elements of folk, bluegrass and old sea shanties called Ocrafolk. There’s an annual Ocrafolk Festival in June, but you can hear performances by local musicians and storytellers at the Deepwater Theater & Music Hall throughout the summer.

The beaches here are among the finest, most unspoiled beaches in the country, with many designated as “the best” by Dr. Beach, who releases a deeply researched annual list. Most are protected by the National Park Service. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches from Nags Head on Bodie Island all the way to the southern end of Ocracoke Island, and is easily accessed via the Beach Road, NC 12. Cape Lookout National Seashore, farther south, is far more isolated. Its beaches, on the Core and Shackleford Banks, are only accessible by boat.


North Carolina’s Crystal Coast

The sugar-white sand, warm south-facing shores and gentle surf of Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores and Emerald Isle have attracted families for generations. If you’re looking for one of the most remote beaches on the East Coast, head to Bear Island in Hammocks Beach State Park, which is quite a getaway.

You’ll find a fun and fabulous dining nirvana in Beaufort, within the port city’s charming and historic downtown.

 


Enjoy an itinerary designed especially for history buffs or for families

When To Go

Traditionally a summer destination, the Outer Banks are increasingly seeing visitors all year. Birdwatchers come to the region in winter when huge flocks of snow geese, ducks and shore birds arrive to spend the cold months. The fall, with persistent steady winds, is favored by wind-surfers. Spring sees many families making early visits to the beach to get a early start on their tans.

Week-long vacations are the norm on the Banks, however many rental companies are now accommodating shorter visits with weekend or partial week leases on vacation cottages. The historic villages on the Banks, including Manteo, Hatteras Village and Ocracoke are ideal for a weekend getaway.

High and Low Season

Prices on rentals peak during the traditional high season at the beach, Memorial Day to Labor Day. However, many realtors offer shoulder season rates that vary widely, so search around for a deal. Holiday periods, including Valentine’s Day weekend and the weeks around Christmas and Easter, also see rates skyrocket. In Manteo, with its many romantic B&Bs, weddings frequently drive up rates in May and June.

Weather and Climate

The coast of North Carolina generally enjoys a temperate climate with temperatures rarely dipping below freezing and snow a very unusual occurrence. Temperatures in the Nags Head area range in January, the coldest month, from a low of 35°F to a high of 51°F and in July, the hottest month, from 72°F to 86°F. Winds on the Outer Banks average a constant 10 mph (that’s what attracted the Wright Brothers to the region), adding a cooling factor in summer and an extra shiver factor in winter.  August has the warmest water of the year, and the most rain and thunderstorms.

Hurricane season, stretching from June 1 to Nov. 30, can wreak havoc on the Banks, and on your vacation. Refunds are rarely offered, even during mandatory evacuations. Late August through September is the most active time for storms, but even outside the official hurricane season, huge and fast moving northeasters can devastate roads, overwash entire islands, and drive everyone inland. Trip insurance, usually available from your cottage realtor, is a highly recommended addition to your holiday costs.

Events and Holidays

National Holidays include:

January (1st): New Year’s Day
January (third Monday):      Martin Luther King Day
February (third Monday):   Washington’s Birthday
May (last Monday):   Memorial Day
July (4th):       Independence Day
September (first Monday):  Labor Day
October (second Monday):  Columbus Day (aka Native American Day)
November (11th):     Veteran’s Day
November (fourth Thursday):        Thanksgiving Day
December (25th):     Christmas

Time Zone

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are located in the Eastern time zone.

To check the local time in the Outer Banks, click here.

Daylight Savings Time (DST) happens in the spring (early March, on a Sunday morning at 2AM). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (late October or early November on a Sunday morning at 2AM), clocks shift back one hour to standard time. The entire U.S. (except most of Arizona) participates in this ritual of ‘springing forward’ and ‘falling back.’

What To Pack and Wear

The Outer Banks are relentlessly casual, with shorts and sandals the usual day into evening garb in summer, with sweat pants and hoodies common in the cooler months.

In any season, the wind can kick up, so pack a windbreaker and rain gear.

Bring a pair of closed toe, rubber soled shoes for wearing on boats. Bug repellent, sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses are must haves for beach survival.

What it Costs

Prices on rentals peak during the traditional high season at the beach, Memorial Day to Labor Day. However, many realtors offer shoulder season rates that vary widely, so search around for a deal. Holiday periods, including Valentine’s Day weekend and the weeks around Christmas and Easter, also see rates skyrocket. In Manteo, with its many romantic B&Bs, weddings frequently drive up rates in May and June.

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in $US.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double

Eat
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Fly the Friendly Skies

Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.

But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.

Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.

That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.

 Have Car, Will Travel

Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.

There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.

Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Download the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8-10 per hour; gas and insurance are included.

Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.

Money Saving Tip:
Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)

Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day. By the way, when renting in California, there are no additional driver fees by law.

Insurance

Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?

Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.

Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:

Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.

Medical — Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.

Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.

Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.

Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.

Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.

Do I need travel insurance?

If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.

Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.

How do I choose an insurance provider?

Do your homework — check around.

The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.

Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).

If you have pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.

Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.

The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.

For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.

Exchange Rates and Currency

Currency

U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.

Coins in wide circulation include pennies (1 cent), nickels (5 cents), dimes (10 cents), quarters (25 cents). The 50 cent and dollar coins are seen occasionally.

Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so plan to have $20s or smaller bills in hand.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken into consideration. General guidelines include:

Restaurants:

For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.

To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.

Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill.

Hotels:

Most bell staff receive $1-$2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5-$10.

Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2-$3 per day and about $5 per day in higher end properties.

At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets, or simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Current etiquette calls for $10-$20 per person, per day for concierge help. Car valet staff expect $1-$2 for delivering you your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.

Other

Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.

Transportation

Most of the visitors who come to North Carolina’s Outer Banks arrive by private automobile. Exceptions include boaters who reach the ports and marinas on the Outer Banks via the great Intracoastal Waterway that runs from Norfolk, Virginia to the Florida Keys, and those who arrive via bicycle, a popular sport in eastern North Carolina.

While some visitors drive from home others fly into Norfolk, Newport News, Raleigh/Durham, Wilmington, or other regional airport, and hire a rental car. An automobile is vital for a vacation on the Outer Banks as public transportation is largely non-existent and attractions are strung out along the coast.

Getting There

By Air

Major airports near the Outer Banks include Norfolk International Airport (ORF) and Newport News/ Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) in Virginia, both about 90 miles from Kitty Hawk and convenient to the northern and central sections of the Banks. Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) and Wilmington International Airport (ILM) have good highway connections to the southern Banks and the Crystal Coast. All offer a choice of rental car companies to arriving travelers.

Several general aviation airports are located on the Banks for pilots who want to fly in themselves. Dare County Regional Airport (MQI) in Manteo; Elizabeth City–Pasquotank Regional Airport (ECG) in Elizabeth City; and Michael J. Smith Field Airport/MRH in Beaufort all offer full services and car rentals.

Many private pilots make a special flight to the First Flight Airport in Kill Devil Hill, next to the Wright Memorial, a place of pilgrimage for many pilots.

By Train

Amtrak offers daily rail service from Boston, New York and Washington, DC, to Newport News, Virginia, with bus connections to Norfolk and Virginia Beach. The Palmetto, Silver Meteor, and Silver Star trains offer service from New York City, Washington, DC, Charleston, South Carolina, and Florida, with stops in Richmond, Virginia, where you can connect with the train to Newport News. The Palmetto offers a connecting Thruway Bus Route from the Amtrak station in Wilson, NC to Morehead City on the Crystal Coast from the Amtrak station in Wilson, NC. The Carolinian running daily between New York City and Charlotte, North Carolina, also stops at Richmond, Virginia, as well as Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

By Bus

Greyhound offers scheduled bus service along US 17. Jacksonville (NC), New Bern, Washington (NC), and Elizabeth City are the closest terminals to the Outer Banks and Crystal Coast. No tickets are sold at the New Bern station, but you can order tickets by mail through the main Greyhound contact numbers.

Getting Around

The major sections of the Outer Banks have no public transportation, making a car essential for getting around. The area has very few roads, thanks to the long, narrow dimensions of the Banks. Bridges and causeways link most of the northern destinations on the Outer Banks, but a voyage aboard the ferries operated by the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation is required to visit Ocracoke Island. Currently, a free ferry runs from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke, while longer fare-charging ferry trips link the island with Cedar Island near Beaufort on the Crystal Coast and Swan Quarter on the Albemarle Peninsula.

State Ferries

Current ferry routes in the Outer Banks and Crystal Coast region include:
Bayview—Aurora across the Pamlico River near Bath. Crossing time: 30 minutes. Fare: Free.
Cherry Branch—Minnesott Beach across the Neuse River below New Bern. Crossing time: 20 minutes. Fare: Free.
Currituck—Knotts Island across Currituck Sound. Crossing time: 45 minutes. Fare: Free.
Hatteras—Ocracoke Crossing time: 40 minutes. Fare: Free.
Ocracoke—Cedar Island Crossing time: 2.25 hours. Fare: $15 for vehicles less than 20 feet; $1 for pedestrians; $3 for bicycle and rider; $10 for motorcycles; motor vehicles $15-$45, price increases with length of vehicle. Reservations recommended, especially during the summer season.
Ocracoke—Swan Quarter Crossing time: 2.5 hours. Fare: Same as Cedar Island Ferry. Reservations recommended.

Any size vehicle can be accommodated on the ferries and pedestrians and bikers are welcome. Pets must be on a leash or remain in the vehicle. The ferries have restrooms, but no food service beyond vending machines, so a box lunch is recommended for the longer voyages.

The state ferries run on regular schedules all year and in most weather, although they may be canceled because of high seas or strong winds. Call the terminal in advance to check on current conditions.

The scarcity of causeways and bridges limits automobile access to the Banks to just a few routes. Despite their popularity, the Banks are a bit off the beaten track, far from the major interstates, so allow extra time to reach them, especially if you have an appointment to make.

Bicycle Routes

One of the most popular bicycling destinations in the United States, Eastern North Carolina and the Outer Banks have several popular bike routes. The Wright Brothers Bike Route runs the length of the Outer Banks, 45 miles from Corolla to Hatteras Village, then over the ferry to Ocracoke. Most of the distance requires on-road riding.

Many long-distance bikers make the popular 100-mile round-trip, traveling from Manteo, down Hatteras Island, over the ferry to Ocracoke, then taking the ferry to Swan Quarter, connecting with US 264, and returning to Manteo. It can be done in one day if you start early in the morning.

Numerous companies offer bicycle rentals, and most will deliver weekly rentals right to your cottage.

Background

Art

Decoys

The Outer Banks is a well-known center of the wood-carving tradition of crafting ducks and other waterfowl. Originally used in hunting the huge flocks that once visited the Banks in winter, the tradition has now segued into an art form, with collectors often paying high prices for antique and rare carvings.

Several museums on the Outer Banks and Crystal Coast offer impressive collections of decoys, both antique and waterfowl created by contemporary carvers.

The Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education in Corolla contains the important Neil Conoley collection, with examples from all the most famed Currituck Sound school of carvers, and offers classes in carving.

Farther south, on Harkers Island, the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center contains numerous examples of decoys donated by local families who have carved waterfowl for generations. Many carvers gather at the H. Curt Salter Building, headquarters of the Core Sound Decoy Carvers Guild, just down the road from the museum, where you’ll often find carvers at work. Auctions are held several times a year.

Other decoy collections are housed at the N.C. Maritime Center in Beaufort and the History Place in Morehead City.

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