It’s easy to social distance at remote Outer Banks

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is an historic landmark in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. Courtesy Outer Banks Visitor Center

Beach bonfires, pristine skies and fewer visitors make autumn an appealing time to visit

We booked our summer vacation in October 2019, when mention of coronavirus would’ve seemed euphemistic for vacation hangovers. My wife and kids, along with a couple other families we’d known since high school, would spend a week in June on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Once the pandemic hit, we debated cancelling the trip. But desperate for an uplifting getaway, we decided to proceed with caution. By sheer coincidence, the Outer Banks proved perfectly suited for social distancing, especially the less-populated Hatteras Village area.

Shaped like a colossal fishing rod with a bluefin tuna on the line, the Outer Banks is a vast, thin strip of sandy barrier islands that spans for 130 miles along a northern stretch of the state, separated from the mainland by the Pamlico Sound. Dotted among the four main islands are 10 villages and six official towns, with Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills being the largest in what’s called the Northern Beaches.

The lone road that traverses Ocracoke Island, at the southern end of the Outer Banks, connects two ferry embarkation points. Courtesy of Josh Green

Credit: Josh Green

Credit: Josh Green

Even in developed centers, however, there’s a sense of remoteness, that you’re way out somewhere, and that the tourist crushes of Destin, Gulf Shores or any spring break hotspot are some other universe. Cape Hatteras National Seashore, in fact, has the largest tract of undeveloped beaches in the eastern United States that’s easily accessible by car. And you can cruise up and down the beaches in a Jeep or suitable truck, if you obtain an off-road permit ($50 for 10 days) from nps.gov.

Sure, dozens of more palm-studded, tropical beaches are much closer to Atlanta than the 600 miles and nine hours it takes to reach Nags Head via interstates and a state highway. Fresh from quarantine and in no rush, we opted to approach from the south and take two ferries to Hatteras Village, which added about two hours of travel but afforded a seafaring sense of adventure and quick tour of gorgeous Ocracoke Island. But the Outer Banks (OBX) stands out in ways that make the journey worth it.

The Sound and Gulf Stream waters are considered some of the East Coast’s best fishing destinations, and Nat Geo’s “Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks” crews would likely concur. As the birthplace of flight (the Wright Brothers famously caught air in Kill Devil Hills) and graveyard to thousands of sunken vessels, from pirate ships to German U-boats torpedoed during World War II, the islands' history is rich.

Fishing is a popular activity in the Outer Banks. Courtesy Outer Banks Visitor Center

A chartered fishing excursion on a private, 26-foot Pathfinder Tower boat christened Hang-On! took us to the very Ocracoke Inlet waters where the Royal Navy finally caught and beheaded Blackbeard, the world’s most infamous pirate, 300 years ago. The dads aboard plus Capt. Steve Gwin, a lively guy who moonlights as an actor, snagged a few fish during the four-hour excursion, including red drum, flounder and an impressive 20-inch speckled trout. But the highlight may have been watching dozens of stingrays and sea turtles cruise by in the Sound’s shallow, clear waters.

Outer Banks wildlife is hardly relegated to the water. Shores throughout the islands are known as a sea turtle hubs. And wild horse herds — descendants of Spanish mustangs marooned five centuries ago — still roam the islands in designated places on Ocracoke and near the Banks' northern extremes.

Elsewhere, Hatteras Island is home to one of the country’s tallest brick lighthouses. The Sound is a windsurfer’s paradise, and the wide, grey-white beaches we visited recalled the windswept shores of Jekyll Island. Roughly 80 percent of land is protected from development. Southern Living magazine dubbed the OBX “The South’s Best Island” in 2017, to cite one recent accolade. That’s a bold statement, but not hyperbole.

With its sun-bleached bungalows, salt-encrusted seafood joints and rainbows of vacation rentals, Hatteras Village, where we stayed, is a low-key, unpretentious, quintessential Southern beach town. Getting around by bike or golf cart is a breeze. In a week, I didn’t see a restaurant patio or expanse of sand that I would call crowded. The sparser population of the OBX’s southwestern tip means less light pollution — and truly magnificent stargazing, once the bonfires died down during our beach parties at night.

Come October and November, when the humidity drops, nighttime skies are even clearer. The angle of the earth in autumn creates more dramatic sunsets of vibrant red, pink and gold, and 80-degree temperatures and warm seas are known to hang around past Halloween.

Beach bonfires all year long are a popular pastime on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Courtesy of Josh Green

Credit: Josh Green

Credit: Josh Green

A favorite OBX pastime is the bonfire social — indeed, huddles of people around self-dug firepits stretched for miles on our last rainless night — and the fall’s evening temps are well-suited for such gatherings. But note that a permit is required for beach fires. We obtained one for free when purchasing bundles of wood for $6 apiece at Lee Robinson General Store in Hatteras Village. For bonfire permits in Cape Hatteras National Seashore, go to nps.gov.

Major festivals celebrating jazz, seafood and the OBX migratory birds of autumn have been postponed until 2021, but additional perks of cooler months abound: shellfish come into season, fewer people flock to the islands and lodging prices generally dip. That’s prompted some families and teachers forced into virtual learning to rent houses for weeks at a time this year.

At the Outer Banks, for the first time since March, the ills of the world were the last thing on our minds. That week spent way off the mainland made worries about health and dwindling work melt away. And the endless cycle of dark news seemed like an alternate reality, a flashing, distant squall that wouldn’t make landfall if we didn’t let it.

If you go

Hatteras Island, N.C., is about 650 miles northeast of Atlanta via I-20 and I-95. Alternate access from the south, via ferry, is scenic and fun but takes longer.

Things to do

Hatteras Harbor Marina Charter Fleet. This popular harbor in Hatteras Village offers the area’s most experienced charter fleet, all experts in year-round fishing for everything from marlin and tuna to red drum. Half-day excursions run about $500 for six people. 58058 N.C. Highway 12, Hatteras Island, North Carolina. 252-986-2166, www.hatterasharbor.com

Cape Hatteras National Seashore. More than 70 miles of public beaches, some with access for off-road vehicles, with restrictions during bird migration and turtle nesting season. Permits $50 for 10 days. Camping for tents, trailers and motorhomes, $20-$35 a night. Permits not required. www.nps.gov/caha/index.htm

Ferries to Hatteras Island. $15 per vehicle, one-way, from Cedar Island to Ocracoke Island (approximately two hours). Ferry from Ocracoke Island to Hatteras Island is free. Embark from 3619 Cedar Island Road, Cedar Island, N.C. 252-225-7411, www.ncferry.org

A.S. Austin Co. Friendly local renter of bikes, kayaks, golf carts and more. 57698 N.C. Highway 12, Hatteras Island. 252-986-1500, asaustinhatteras.com

Dine

Breakwater Restaurant. Upscale but approachable seafood dining overlooking Pamlico Sound, dinner only. Entrees $20 and up. Outdoor seating. 57878 N.C. Highway 12, Hatteras Island. 252-986-2733, dine.breakwaterhatteras.com/

The Gingerbread House Bakery. Quaint, longstanding bakery and pizza joint near the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Large pizzas $17 and up. Takeout only. 52715 N.C. Highway 12, Frisco. 252-995-5204, gbhbakery.com

Stay

Sanderling Resort. A highly rated property with multiple pools in the Outer Banks' northern reaches. Around $300 per night in fall. 1461 Duck Road, Duck, North Carolina. 833-297-9531, sanderling-resort.com

Hatteras Island Inn Buxton. Budget-friendly option a short stroll to the beach with a large swimming pool. From $89 per night. 46745 N.C. Highway 12, Buxton, North Carolina. 252-995-6100, www.hatterasislandinn.com

Tourist info

Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. 1 Visitors Center Circle, Manteo. 877-629-4386, www.outerbanks.org

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