When 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 a 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 United States’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 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 sunshine, too.
People come for the 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, more than 480km, 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 Banks
The Outer Banks is a narrow ribbon of barrier islands, barely 100m wide in parts, stretching 320km 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 4×4 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 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.
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.
Only accessible by boat or small plane, Ocracoke, with a population of just 948 souls, lies 34km south of Hatteras in the Pamlico Sound. The free Hatteras ferry only takes an hour to get there, 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 World War II, 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.
Blackbeard’s Lodge: 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.
Beaufort, Crystal Coast
White sands, clear waters, sunken galleons – it’s easy to believe you’re in the Caribbean on the Crystal Coast, a 137km 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 (established in 1718, and dubbed by some “the coolest small town in America”). Atlantic Beach, 20 minutes away by ferry, has 3km of pristine waterfront, an old-school pier and scores of crab shacks, diners and commercial fishing charters.
But Shackelford Banks, part of the 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, which ran aground here in 1718, and was only rediscovered in 1996.
Ann Street Inn: In the heart of the Beaufort historic district is this three-bedroom, guesthouse built in 1832 and 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.
Front Street Grill at Stillwater: This rustic-chic restaurant and rum bar is in a restored marine boathouse right on the waterfront. Re-commended are the seared back-fin crab cakes and “dark and stormy” cocktails, made with Goslings Black Seal rum and Saranac ginger beer – every pirate’s favourite poison.
One 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 Los Angeles. 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.
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.
Shell Island Resort, Wrightsville Beach: This is a slab-like modern all-suite hotel but it overlooks a great swath of white sand and has a fully catered beachfront pool.
Bald Head Island
A 25-minute ferry ride from Southport, this 6.5km 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 and a calmer South Beach, which 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 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.
Shoals Club: 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 grill, boules court and formal dining room, so it’s easy to spend the whole day here, between beach, pool and restaurant.
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, a former lighthouse-keeper’s cottage perfect for three couples that costs $2?400 a week. – © Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2015