|Waterfront beach houses in Nags Head, Outer Banks, North Carolina. Photograph: Alamy|
With its white beaches, warm sea and crab shacks, the North Carolina coast rivals the Caribbean. Douglas Rogers picks its most alluring resorts, plus great places to eat and sleep
W hen my wife and I moved from New York to Virginia three years ago, one of the first things we noticed was an unusual bumper sticker. Every second car (I exaggerate only slightly) had a white oval sign with the letters OBX on it. Often, alongside those three letters, was a skull and crossbones or pirate face. At first we assumed it was a local sports team, until – seeing the same sticker on vehicles from Maryland, Kentucky and the Carolinas – we asked a neighbour to enlighten us.
“Outer Banks, North Carolina,” she said. “Best beaches in America.”
“And the pirate?”
“That’s Blackbeard. He hid out in the Banks, lost his head there. You’re English – don’t you know this?”
I confessed I had no idea. I thought the US’s best beaches – at least on the east coast – were in Cape Cod, Long Island or Florida. As for Blackbeard, to me he was all about the rum-soaked islands of the Caribbean. What was he doing pillaging North Carolina?
But it turns out the Outer Banks – and much of the North Carolina coast – is a pretty decent copy of the Caribbean. In summer, its beach towns and barrier islands, from the Virginia border to Wilmington, near South Carolina, are crammed with surfers, sun-seekers and holidaymakers from across the American south. And with temperatures in the 20s in May and well into October, it’s an ideal (and quieter) choice for some spring and autumn sunshine, too.
People come for powdery white sands, bath-warm water that turns turquoise around the islands, and maritime history: Blackbeard – Bristol-born Edward Teach – was killed in a naval battle off Ocracoke Island in 1718. But the area also has windswept national parks, feral horses descended from Spanish mustangs sent ashore from galleons in the 16th century, and remote colonial beach towns that, until recently, were so cut off that older residents still speak with the regional English accents of their forebears.
The coast is long, of course, over 300 miles, and unlike in California there is no highway to connect it all. It’s good to know where to go before you start to explore. Here are my five best islands and beach towns in the Tar Heel State. Pack your surfboards – and your swords.
Corolla and Duck, Outer BanksThe Outer Banks is a narrow ribbon of barrier islands, barely 100 metres wide in parts, stretching 200 miles from the Virginia border to Hatteras, a windswept fishing village. The main tourist towns are Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills, where the Wright Brothers famously took flight, but the northern villages of Corolla and Duck are more refined, with pretty hedgerow-lined lanes and stilted beachfront mansions.
On our first visit, we rented a house on Corolla’s 4x4 Beach – so named because that’s the only way to get to it. The beach is part of a wild horse sanctuary, and every morning we were woken by neighing mustangs cavorting in our backyard. Bob’s Corolla Wild Horse Tours (from $39 adult, $29 child, +1 252 453 0939) offers two-hour open-top Jeep safaris with expert guides. In Corolla, the red-brick Currituck Beach Lighthouse, built in 1875 is still operational and, from the top, 220 steps up, there are views of Roanoke Island on the inlet side of the Banks, site of the first English settlement in the Americas in 1585. The 107 men and women were never seen again, so the island is referred to as the Lost Colony.
North Banks restaurant, Corolla
This vintage wooden-floored tavern and cocktail bar serves seafood classics such as lobster tail, steamed clams and grilled line-caught fish. It’s not on the water, but the produce is caught fresh by local fishermen on either the ocean or the Currituck sound side.
• Mains from $18, Tim Buck II Shopping Village, 794-G Sunset Boulevard, northbanks.com, +1 252 453 3344
Twiddy Vacation Rentals
This site lists over 1,000 properties in the OBX, from two-bedroom flats to seven-bedroom mansions. Seven days is the minimum stay, but four-bedroom houses cost as little as $450 a week in spring or autumn.
The Sanderling, Duck
For those who don’t want to self-cater or can’t stay a week, this is the coolest hotel in the OBX: a chic, orange-hued resort with three pools, a spa, two restaurants and private access to a glorious beach. A day spent in the sun ends around the firepit by the alfresco Sand Bar, as waves crash just beyond the dunes.
• Doubles from $159, +1 855 412 7866, sanderling-resort.com
Ocracoke IslandOnly accessible by boat or small plane, Ocracoke (pop: 948) lies 21 miles south of Hatteras in the Pamlico Sound. The free Hatteras ferry only takes an hour, but it lands passengers in an earlier century. Blackbeard hid out on the protected sound side with pal Calico Jack Rackham, just off what is now the busy harbour. Cedar-shaded lanes, crunchy with seashells, lead past period homes and spooky vine-covered cemeteries. Time slows down here: the main mode of transport is the golf cart or bicycle. There’s an annual Blackbeard Pirate Jamboree at Halloween, but the history is not all piratical: older locals still talk of seeing German U-Boats off these shores during the second world war, and the British cemetery is the resting place of sailors from HMS Bedfordshire, torpedoed in 1942. The main attraction, though, is the spectacular coastline. Families will enjoy Lifeguard Beach, with white sand, clear blue water, and showers and toilets. Locals and summer regulars like to drive on to Airport Beach a little way south, to bathe, picnic and fish as the sun goes down. The water is so warm that swimming is pleasant even in October.
Flying Melon Café
There are scores of seafood joints in Ocracoke, notably SmacNally’s on the docks, but the best fish in town is at the Flying Melon, which offers Creole-influenced food cooked by a New Orleans transplant. The parmesan-crusted flounder and drumfish étouffée (stew) are as good as any in the French Quarter.
• Mains from $25, 181 Back Road, +1 252 928 2533
Ocracoke Island Realty is the main holiday rental company, but characterful Blackbeard’s Lodge is a good choice among the many hotels and motels. Rustic, pirate-themed and timber-built, it is run by a descendant of one of the early Ocracoke settlers, and has a small pool and bike rentals. In the mornings, there’s a wonderful smell of crepes and fresh artisanal breads from the Graceful Bakery food truck, which parks just across the street.
• Doubles from $60, +1 252-928-3421, blackbeardslodge.com
Beaufort, Crystal CoastWhite sands, clear waters, sunken galleons … It’s easy to believe you’re in the Caribbean on the Crystal Coast, an 85-mile stretch of shore south of the Outer Banks. Its ocean-side barrier islands can be visited on day trips from the historic town of Beaufort (est. 1718, and dubbed by some “the coolest small town in America”). Atlantic Beach, 20 minutes away by ferry, has two miles of pristine waterfront, an old-school pier and scores of crab shacks, diners and commercial fishing charters. But Shackelford Banks, part of protected Cape Lookout national shore, offers true isolation. It’s possible to sit on a beach towel and watch dolphins cavorting in the waves in front, and horses frolicking on the dunes behind. In Beaufort itself, the North Carolina Maritime Museum on Front Street is the official repository for all the artefacts – masts, anchor, cannons – recovered from Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, which ran aground here in 1718, and was only rediscovered in 1996.
Ann Street Inn
In the heart of Beaufort historic district is this three-bedroom 1832-built guesthouse run by Louisiana transplant Donna Babington. The Duke of Beaufort room has a Jacuzzi and private porch, and breakfasts are decadent: bacon quiche, sausage casserole, shrimp and grits.
• Doubles from $100, +1 877 266 7814, annstreetinn.com
Front Street Grill at Stillwater
This rustic-chic restaurant and rum bar is in a restored marine boathouse right on the waterfront. Recommended are the seared back-fin crab cakes with remoulade ($22), and “dark and stormy” cocktails, made with Goslings Black Seal rum and Saranac ginger beer – every pirate’s favourite poison.
• Mains from $19, 300 Front Street, +1 252 728 4956, frontstreetgrillatstillwater.com
WilmingtonOne might expect North Carolina’s largest coastal city to be a trifle rough, but its 300-block historic district is like a live-in Victorian museum. Horse-drawn carriages trot tourists past gorgeous colonial-style mansions, vintage riverboats cruise the Cape Fear river, locals in top hats tout ghost tours down oak-lined streets and everyone keeps an eye out for movie stars. Known as the Hollywood of the east, the city is home to EUE/Screen Gems, the largest US studio complex outside LA. The spectacular beach towns of Kure, Carolina and Wrightsville are only a few minutes’ drive away. Wrightsville Beach is best. Unlike on the barrier islands, it has some large, Florida-style resort hotels, but they overlook crashing waves and white sands, and the crowds are better behaved than at Myrtle Beach across the border in South Carolina. A highlight is surfing lessons for children, teenagers and adults at WB Surf Camp (from $70 an hour, + 1 866 844 7873, wbsurfcamp.com).
Dockside Grill, Wilmington
Steamed clams, hand-cut calamari and rum cocktails are the name of the game at this laid-back spot on the water’s edge. Good ol’ boys and well-groomed yachtsmen pull their boats into the dock and order from on deck.
• Mains from $18, 1308 Airlie Road, +1 910 256 2752, thedockside.com
Shell Island Resort, Wrightsville Beach
This is a slab-like modern all-suite hotel but it overlooks a great swathe of white sand, and has a fully catered beachfront pool.
• Doubles with kitchenette from $130, +1 910 256 8696, shellisland.com
Bald Head IslandA 25-minute ferry ride from Southport, this four-mile-long island at the mouth of the Cape Fear river is a world apart. There are no cars (all rental houses come with golf carts or bicycles) and 10,000 of its 12,000 acres are protected. The result is an ecological idyll with a spectacular oceanside beach for surfers; the calmer South Beach is great for families. Old Baldy lighthouse in the harbour, commissioned in 1817 by Thomas Jefferson, is the oldest in the state, and it’s worth climbing its 108 stairs for a 360-degree view of the island’s natural wonderland of beach, marshland and maritime forest.
Mojos on the Harbor
This is a popular locale for sipping rum and tequila cocktails while watching the fishing boats and ferries come in. It does great sushi, grilled shrimp and line-caught fish, and live bands play most nights.
• Seafood mains from $19, 16 Marina Wynd, +1 910 457 7217, mojosontheharbor.com
The in-thing for summer regulars is to get temporary membership (from $150 a week) of this family-friendly beach club overlooking Cape Fear Point. It has two pools, an outdoor Sandbar Grille, boules court and formal dining room, so it’s easy to spend the whole day here, between beach, pool and restaurant.
• +1 910 457 733, shoalsclub.com
Bald Head Island Limited Rentals
There’s one hotel on the island – the Marsh Harbour Inn, with doubles from a hefty $275 a night – so house rentals are the way to go. Bald Head Island Limited Rentals has hundreds of homes, from simple one-bedroom cottages to large beach-front homes. I like Captain Charlie’s Three(www.baldheadisland.com/vacation/rentals/captain-charlies-3),, a , a former lighthouse-keeper’s cottage perfect for three couples, costing $2,400 a week. couples.
• +1 800 432 7368, baldheadisland.com/vacation
More information at uk.visitnc.com. On skyscanner.net, flights from Heathrow to Raleigh/Durham via New York currently start at £589 return with American Airlines; Finnair has direct flights from £684