Set out across the sound, around sandbars and marshlands, for a laid-back island time.
The North Carolina ferry system is extensive and aims to efficiently connect its communities with low- or no-cost transportation across great stretches of brackish water.
As you embark on the, say 2 hours and 40 minute trip from Swan Creek to Ocracoke, you’ll float past osprey, pelicans and sea gulls hanging out in marshlands and tide pools. You’ll feel the wind on your face and the gentle waves underfoot.
Hang out in your car (with the windows and doors open to catch the breeze—just make sure not to kill your battery) or roam around the ferry decks to get the best views of dolphins splashing in the surf or nearby barrier islands.
When you arrive in Ocracoke, pick up a map of the island and take a drive. If you purchase an off-roading vehicle permit for the week, you can take your 4×4 or rented 4×4 out on the beach for a private stretch of sand.
Consider any one of a number of tours—an ATV, shell-combing tour of a nearby ghost island, fishing tours or a longer boat tour out to see the stunning diamond-patterned Cape Lookout lighthouse.
Ocracoke is home to several of these fantastic tours, quaint shops, eateries, cottages for rent, and beaches galore.
It’s also home to the second oldest operating lighthouse in the United States.
Move on up the chain of islands by hopping on a free ferry from Ocracoke to Hatteras. On Hatteras, you’ll find shops, fishing marinas, the fantastic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Station and more beaches.
You can really spread out on these southern stretches of beach as most of the resorts and crowds gather up toward Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills.
Make sure to stop in at the black-and-white-candy-cane-striped Hatteras lighthouse in the evening. On a clear night, bring a blanket and look up at the stars while the ocean crashes nearby and the lighthouse swings its dual-headed beacon around to light up the night.
On up the strand, make a stop at Bodie Lighthouse Station for a black-and-white-horizontal-striped photo or two. Nearby Jeannette’s Pier offers a $2 walk out into the ocean. Look down as jellyfish, schools of silvery minnows and stingrays sway with the tide.
If you’re spending the night near Nag’s Head, consider taking in the award-winning ampitheatre production of the Lost Colony before settling in at one of the many beach- or sound-front resorts available.
Then take to the sky with the Wright brothers at the National Park dedicated to their first flights on the sand dunes of North Carolina. Here, you’ll find the dunes where the Ohio-born boys launched their gliders to the delight of onlookers and supporters.
Keep heading north, and you’ll come to the Carrituck lighthouse, a red-brick masterpiece that’s worth the out-of-the-way detour before you head off the islands by bridge to the mainland.
With you, you’ll take a piece of island serenity.
(NOTE: The Outer Banks are yours to explore on any budget and on any time scale. We’d recommend at least three days in the islands themselves to do it right, but that’s just a sampling of the Outer Banks. For a good tour, plan for a week to 10 days.)