The Ideal Outer Banks, North Carolina, Beach Vacation

Pair an island with an inlet town for a beach-to-bay, approved-by-locals week on the Carolina coast.

The Ideal Outer Banks, North Carolina, Beach Vacation

A lovely village feel meets miles and miles of undeveloped seashore on Ocracoke Island.

Photo by Lorenzo D’Angelo / Shutterstock

As a born-and-bred Tar Heel, I often struggle with recommending just one North Carolina destination to visiting friends and family. Do they crave craft beer, crisp mountain air, hiking, biking, and whitewater kayaking? I send them to Blue Ridge mountain towns like Asheville and Blowing Rock. If a hip college town and modern, farm-to-table cuisine is more their vibe, I encourage a visit to downtown Durham, Chapel Hill, or Pittsboro.

Then there are my personal favorite vacation destinations—North Carolina’s scenic coastal towns, from the Crystal Coast to the Outer Banks, complete with miles of sandy beaches, surfer-friendly waves, and throwback family fun (Putt-putt! Go-Karts!).

This summer, as the crowds descend, consider a week spent exploring hidden-gem outlet towns and North Carolina’s quickly growing inlet towns. Each is ideal for outdoor adventure, U.S. history, fresh seafood, and Southern comfort food and drinks. For this itinerary, we combine the best of both the Inner and the Outer Banks with Ocracoke Island and New Bern.

Ocracoke Island

How to get to Ocracoke

There’s nowhere quite like the Outer Banks’ Ocracoke Island. You literally escape the mainland: The island is only accessible by ferry, boat, or, if you have access to a small plane, a public airport available for landings and departures during daylight hours.

Skippers are welcome in private watercraft to Ocracoke’s marinas, but the majority of Ocracoke visitors travel by ferry. (The North Carolina Department of Transportation operates several daily ferry services from the mainland; cars and RVs welcome.)

Where to eat, drink, and stay on Ocracoke

A lovely village feel meets miles and miles of undeveloped seashore on Ocracoke Island. Officially founded in 1715, when the colony of North Carolina established Ocracoke as a port, the island is the southernmost town within the limits of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the most remote inhabited island of the Outer Banks. The ferry ride is a calm, soothing affair if you sit on the top deck and enjoy the miles of ocean waves and diving seabirds.

Even though tourism is now one of the island’s main industries, it still feels remote, quaint, and secluded, thanks to an absence of any chain restaurants and stores and quiet sandy paths for walking and biking throughout the village.

With a late afternoon arrival, there’s time to enjoy the sunset from the docks before heading to Ocracoke Oyster Company for dinner. All seafood is caught locally, and specials change with the catch of the day. Try the oysters Rockefeller and stuffed flounder special, a pan-seared flounder topped with a crab cake and clam chowder sauce, paired with an oyster stout beer, made in part from oyster shells. If you can, leave room for owner Janille Turner’s homemade cherry cobbler.

Check into the Ocracoke Harbor Inn, which overlooks Silver Lake Harbor and has a private deck attached to each room. The recently renovated Pony Island Inn is another lovely spot near the main streets of Ocracoke.

The next morning, chocolate croissants beckon from Magic Bean Coffee Bazaar, as does the Greek breakfast next door at Helios Hideaway. (I highly recommend the Greek pita wrap—the dough is incredible.)

Lunchtime! Smacnally’s offers a diverse fresh-catch menu, to be enjoyed while watching seabirds dive and boat owners jet in and out of the Anchorage marina.

At 1718 Brewing Ocracoke, a flight of beers (with cheeky names like Notorious F.I.G.) goes well with the fish tacos, prepared with the grilled catch of the day, and burgers topped with barbecue, made by Plum Pointe food kitchen. Sit at a picnic table outside, where there’s live music (think Jimmy Buffett acoustic vibes) and a front-row seat to memorable sunsets. It’s like a massage for the soul.

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Ocracoke Lighthouse is the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the country.

Photo by Victor N. Overton / Shutterstock

Best things to do on Ocracoke

Head toward the 16 miles of undeveloped coastline for a day of beaching, fishing, or surfing. Take the South Point Road Ramp 72 (also a popular running path) access road and enjoy the marsh views. No car? No problem. Transport services like OBX Beach Shuttle Services can drop off and pick up. (Some sections of the beach are only accessible by foot, other areas only by 4WD vehicles, which you can rent through private outfitters like Ray Stallings of OBX Beach Shuttle Services—call 252-908-2994.) Even in peak summer months, the expansive beachfront area means you won’t be crammed in next to your neighbor.

Much of the land and dunes of the island are protected by the National Park Service. To experience some of the remaining natural oases, visit Springer’s Point Nature Preserve, a 122-acre amalgam of ancient maritime forest, wet grasslands, and salt marsh, accessible by a sandy path off of neighborhood streets. (There’s no public parking lot, so walking or biking is best.) Purchased by the Coastal Land Trust and designated as one of the state’s significant natural heritage areas, follow the Preserve’s 0.8-mile nature trail to Teach’s Hole, a sound-side beach overlooking where Blackbeard the pirate met his fate in 1718. Along the way, flowering yucca bushes and centuries-old live oaks line the trail, while anoles (small lizards) scamper by.

As you head back toward the village, take a quick walk on the boardwalk approaching Ocracoke Lighthouse. Built in 1823, it’s the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina. You could spend an entire afternoon wandering the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum or the shops along historic Howard Street (for retail therapy). Village Craftsman has hand-crafted goods by local artisans–I couldn’t resist buying several pieces of pottery and jewelry for family members.

If you only have time to do one thing . . .

One of the unique opportunities on Ocracoke is a tour of an oyster farm, just off of the island’s beaches. Call Ocracoke Mariculture guide Fletcher O’Neal at 252-588-0106 for a 1.5-hour tour of an oyster farm, complete with a tasting of very fresh (read: right out of the water) raw oysters.

Getting around Ocracoke

One of the beauties of Ocracoke is how walkable and bikeable the island is. Rent a cruiser and you can tour the entire village in an afternoon. There are no national chains or franchises on Ocracoke—it truly is an oasis.

When it’s time to leave, you’ll take the ferry back to the mainland. But before you depart the state, stop at an Inner Banks town like New Bern to enjoy a combination of historic beauty with modern fun.

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When the Brits still occupied North Carolina in the 1770s, these gardens was a place of respite for Governor Tryon.

Photo by Michael Neil Thomas / Shutterstock

New Bern

New Bern was founded in 1710 by a group of settlers from Bern, Switzerland (which remains New Bern’s sister city). Bern was given its name after the first animal that a group of hunters there encountered—a bear. Today, one of the highlights of visiting is going on a scavenger hunt for 85 uniquely designed fiberglass and ceramic bears scattered throughout town. Each was created for the town’s 300th anniversary celebration in 2010. With just under 30,000 residents, New Bern has a small-town feel, but there’s nothing sleepy about it.

Best things to do in New Bern

Start your adventure with lunch at Persimmons Waterfront Restaurant, which uses local, sustainable ingredients for dishes like its tomato pie, crab cakes, and fried green tomatoes. Much of the restaurant itself is made from sustainable materials—all of the table tops come from a red gum log discovered when dredging the adjacent marina over a decade ago; another repurposed log from a persimmon tree (persimmons are native to eastern North Carolina) was transformed by a local woodworking company into the host stand. Sit on the deck to enjoy the waterfront views of the Neuse River.

After lunch, walk through Union Point Park and New Bern’s downtown. Amid boutiques (Peacock’s Plume), ice cream shops, and family-owned businesses (Mitchell’s Hardware), don’t miss stopping at the corner of Pollock and Middle streets—the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola.

In 1893, New Bern pharmacist Caleb Bradham developed and began serving a carbonated beverage he called “Brad’s Drink”—later changed to Pepsi-Cola—at the soda fountain in his pharmacy. Much of that feel is still preserved today inside the original Pepsi Store, from the storefront’s soda shop counters and collection of Pepsi-Cola memorabilia to the old-timey popcorn machine.

Soda in hand, stroll back outside and notice where Spanish moss on trees gives the wide avenues and historic architecture a romantic feel. (It’s no wonder The Notebook author Nicholas Sparks lives here—his fictional towns look and feel a lot like New Bern.)

A New Bern Trolley Tour is the ideal way to learn and see much of the town’s history, including historic homes, the Cedar Grove Cemetery, and downtown’s striking Christ Episcopal Church. After a 90-minute driving tour, walk across the street for an on-foot tour of Tryon Palace. Formerly called the Governor’s Palace, this historic home, meticulously preserved, was the official residence of the British governor of North Carolina from 1770 to 1775. Among the antique furniture, wardrobe, and portrait paintings from the 18th century, you’ll hear tales of the former governor and his family. Walk through the 21 acres of gardens; in springtime, tulips, irises, and water lilies bloom.

Even though you aren’t at the beach, you can still enjoy a variety of watersports, thanks to the Trent and Neuse rivers running through New Bern. For kayaking, canoeing, windsurfing, stand-up paddleboarding and more, visit Stand Up Outfitters. Owners (and spouses) Kate and Charley Lewis will outfit you for whatever adventure you’re craving, and you can literally walk a few feet from the shop and head straight onto the water.

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Sit on the deck of Persimmons Waterfront Restaurant to enjoy the waterfront views of the Neuse River.

Photo by Anna Katherine Clemmons

Where to stay in New Bern

Comfort and familiarity abound at the Aerie Bed & Breakfast. Steps from downtown, the historic Street-Ward c. 1882 Italianate Victorian home mixes luxury accommodations—order champagne or a massage service to your uniquely named room or suite–with modern amenities and a delicious homemade breakfast by co-owner John. I loved the cozy Carolina Suite, with its tall windows, plush pillows, and oversized bathtub. The atmosphere was relaxed, friendly (a parrot greets you in the small guest-accessible kitchen, filled with sparkling waters, sodas, and snacks available to guests anytime), and lovely–I was reluctant to leave for my day’s adventures.

If you only have time to do one thing . . .

For dinner, head to the industrial-chic Cypress Hall Kitchen + Bar on downtown’s Middle Street. Head chef Ashley Moser’s menu is fresh and original, a mix of modern and traditional takes on Southern cuisine. (The duck pastrami pizza is divine and the pork rinds with pimento cheese and smoked deviled eggs worth the indulgence.) If you’re lucky, famed local oyster farmer Ryan Bethea may walk up to your table with a platter of Green Gill oysters, just harvested. Mema’s famous strawberry cake (named for Moser’s grandmother) is a must-order dessert; your server won’t reveal the secret recipe, no matter how hard you try.

Ultimately, your only challenge in visiting the Outer and Inner Banks is choosing which places to visit. This summer, a true North Carolina vacation awaits.

>>Next: The Best Beaches in North Carolina

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