Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina

Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Rachael McGrath photos.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Rachael McGrath photos.

North Carolina's Outer Banks in a vacation rental house

By Rachael McGrath

Spring swimming in the cold Atlantic Ocean in the Outer Banks, North Carolina.
Spring swimming in the cold Atlantic Ocean in the Outer Banks, North Carolina.

For spring break this year I decided to take my teenagers to the windswept barrier islands and fishing villages of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina.

The Original Hatteras Light.
The Original Hatteras Light.

In the early 2000s, I lived in Raleigh and Chapel Hill, NC.  During those years I spent some great long weekends in Hatteras Village.

After I returned to the Northeast, road trips to Cape Hatteras became impossible as I welcomed my children into my life – who wants to drive 12 hours with a pack of whiny toddlers?

I shelved my dreams of going back until my kids were older, and this year I decided they were finally old enough to tolerate the long, long ride to the real beach.

Beaches in the Northeast are predominantly privately owned, with the exception of Cape Cod National Seashore. Cape Hatteras National Seashore is less developed than Cape Cod, especially once you get south of Nag's Head.

Renting a Beach House

Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station
Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station.

We rented a house from Sun Realty in Avon, which is about halfway down the 70 mile long National Seashore.

Renting a house in Avon was a good choice because it was convenient to Food Lion, the only large chain grocery store on the island.

In Hatteras Village, the adorable Red & White Market has been serving the community since 1866.

There is also Conner's Market in Buxton, which is another old time family market.  The Outer Banks is one place the big box stores have not yet reached, and that is a blessing.

For the entire length of the southern Outer Banks, there were two Dollar General stores, and one chain grocery store. Many of the gas stations and gift shops are still Mom & Pop owned as well.

(Trust me, there are plenty of chain stores, outlets, and commercial sprawl a short drive away in Nags Head and Kitty Hawk if you need that.)

Riding the Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry is always fun.
Riding the Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry is always fun.

Paved Road Ends

There was no continuous paved road to Cape Hatteras until the final portions of NC Highway 12 were completed in 1953. I purchased a wonderful history of Highway 12 at the gift shop in the North Carolina Aquarium and read half of the book in one night.

From the completion of the highway in 1953, travelers to Hatteras still had to cross a ferry over Oregon Inlet to reach Hatteras Island.

In 1938, Stockton and Anderson Midgett, aged 13 and 17 years old, began a bus service from Hatteras Village to Nag's Head. The Midgett family have been serving Hatteras Island in one way or another for 3 centuries – previously they were involved in the Lifesaving Service.

Despite having to sit on a pillow to see over the steering wheel and not possessing a driver's license or permit (not required in that remote locale) young Stockton Midgett became a skilled beach driver.

From 1938 to 1963, the Hatteras Bus Service ran daily service a distance of more than 50 miles in a place that had no proper road.

Through their bus runs, the family had the opportunity to invest in real estate on the shore, and now Stockton's son Tim owns Midgett Realty. Since the 1960's the family has been serving the island by helping people find their dream vacation home.

Avon NC sunset.
Avon NC sunrise.

The Herbert C. Bonner Bridge

In 1963, the Herbert C. Bonner bridge spanning Oregon Inlet was completed. Electricity to the island followed the road development.

Whenever I visit Hatteras, I marvel that people lived there for hundreds of years without roads, electricity or good sources of fresh water. It's always awe-inspiring after dark when the stars come out and one can imagine how dark and isolated the island must have been.

Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station--this boat is 100 years old!
Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station--this boat is 100 years old!

If you're staying in the area, it might be a good idea to consider renting your vacation home through one of the local realty companies, like locally owned Midgett Realty, so some of the money goes to the local economy.

We enjoyed our beach house, which overlooked a small freshwater pond and had a distant ocean view.

April is a perfect time to visit Hatteras, the weather was predominantly sunny and 77 degrees during the day.

My brave young children and their cousins all had a few bracing early spring swims, which is good for the soul.

My sister and her children drove down from Virginia Beach to stay with us for a few days. The kids had fun flying kites and swimming on the beach. We played Cards Against Humanity, relaxed in the hot tub, went to the aquarium and visited the fishing piers.

Jenette's Pier

Below the Rodanthe pier
Below the Rodanthe pier

Jenette's Pier in Nag's Head has been recently rebuilt by the State of North Carolina. It is solid, made of concrete, and the North Carolina Aquarium has space to run children's educational programs and a gift shop.

Sightseers on the pier pay a $2 walk on fee, a fisherman pays $14 a day. No fishing licenses are required with the pier fishing pass, and you can rent poles, purchase bait or other supplies.

The author's Kids on the pier in the Outer Banks, NC.
Kids on the pier in the Outer Banks, NC.

Jenette's Pier has beautiful fish cleaning stations with sinks and convenience areas for fishermen.

There is also a peaceful upper level on the information building, arranged with benches and rocking chairs so you can relax and watch the ocean and the sky.

On Monday, we took the free ferry to Ocracoke Island. Ocracoke has a reputation for being the historical hideout of the pirate Blackbeard, and some say he hid his treasure somewhere on the island.

Ocracoke has a picturesque, quaint fishing village charm in its narrow lanes of houses and a beautiful view of the lighthouse over the village and Silver Lake.

The Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry service is considered part of Highway 12, and the NC Dept of Transportation helps to fund the ferry, which is run by the Coast Guard.

The ferry ride takes about an hour depending on conditions and runs every hour in offseason, every half hour in summer.

The ferry ride is an adventure in and of itself, offering views of Hatteras Inlet. A tip I read is to try to get on the closest ferry to sunset, for a free sunset cruise with a guaranteed sun-over-the-ocean photo op.

There is an observation deck with indoor and outdoor space for sightseeing, as well as bathrooms.

Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in the Outer Banks.

Private Ferry

A seagull and the sunset.
A seagull and the sunset in the Outer Banks, NC.

If you're feeling adventurous, you can take a private ferry from the southern end of Ocracoke to uninhabited Portsmouth Island.

The last residents moved out of the village in 1978.

Today, Portsmouth Island Tours offers boat/ATV tours of the island.

About five years ago, my father spent the night in a courtesy cabin without electricity that's kept by the National Park Service for anyone either stuck on the island or crazy enough to want to spend the night.

Once you get to the island, you take an ATV tour to the abandoned village. Most people go home at the end of the day, but my Dad wanted to spend the night and convinced the tour operator to return for him the next day.

On Wednesday, we met up with my sister at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. This is not a huge aquarium, but it was affordable compared to many in the Northeast.

Kayaking the local waters in the Outer Banks.
Kayaking the local waters in the Outer Banks.

Admission was $12.95 for adults, and the aquarium has a very nice array of local exhibits showcasing the ocean life in the area.

A highlight was the sea turtle rehabilitation center and the wonderful gift shop.

We enjoyed driving the length of Highway 12, visiting the lighthouses and watching the kite surfers and parasailers.

On Thursday, the kids wanted to go kayaking. I called Hatteras Watersports in Salvo and the owner said he could set me up with kayaks, life vests and a put in on Pamlico Sound.

Many of the watersports companies were not open for summer, but Ron was very accommodating and we paddled off in our rented kayaks to explore the oyster beds and inlets near the Salvo Day Use Area. We pulled a few shoulder muscles,

North Carolina Aquarium.
North Carolina Aquarium.

got a little sunburned and thoroughly tired ourselves out before hitting the Sandbar and Grille in Buxton for a seafood supper.

Fishermen's Platter

In 2001 when I last visited Hatteras, the Sandbar and Grille was called the Soundside Restaurant.

They had the best fisherman's platter on the island, with the best view of Pamlico Sound.

We had a great dinner at Sandbar after our kayak adventure, and I asked the waitress how long it had been since they took over.

She said it had been about 10 years. I was delighted to find the place as good as Soundside, with a fisherman's platter so fresh the grouper's mama didn't know it was gone yet. I had cocktails and the kids had dessert.

Cape Hatteras has many daytime recreational activities, and many people are too tired after windsurfing all day to care much about nightlife.

There is a bar in most towns, so if you need to get out and rub elbows with the locals over a beer, the Lighthouse Sports Bar and Grille seems to be a popular choice.

For many of my friends who visit Hatteras, the preferred evening activity involves beach chairs, sand, and the beverage of your choice; as well as an early bedtime so you're rested for tomorrow's activity.

This is where the hot tub at our rental house came in: each person taking a turn in the evening filled up most of our time at night.

There is nothing like seeing the stars at Cape Hatteras, where there is very little light pollution. It’s even better with a glass of wine in the hot tub while listening to the ocean crash against the beach in the distance.

Sunsets are dramatic in the Outer Banks.
Sunsets are dramatic in the Outer Banks.

Fishing on Saturday Night

Our beach rental house in North Carolina.
Our beach rental house in North Carolina.

One of my favorite Saturday night activities in Hatteras is the fishing pier.

Bring your bottle of wine, a fishing pole and some bloodworms; and you have a night full of entertainment. In summer, the skilled fishermen congregate at the end of the pier, where they pull in things like puppy sharks.

It's great fun to sit for a while, drink some wine from the bottle and see what everyone is catching. You don't even need to fish to enjoy the people watching, the stars and the ocean breeze.

We visited the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, which had the original lens from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, as well as displays focused on the over 5,000 shipwrecks in the area since the 1600s.

We also visited the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, which was an early incarnation of the Coast Guard. There were Lifesaving Stations (many are still intact) all along the island, each with a lookout.

These courageous lifeguards would come to the aid of anyone in distress along the coastline, including those stuck on the “beach road” in cars.

These dedicated men volunteered their service and saved many thousands of lives. Visitors will also want to stop at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk, to see where the first flight took place.

The Elbow of Hatteras

A great place to walk is Cape Point, the “elbow” of Cape Hatteras.  This is a popular fishing and surfing spot, and the best place to look for unusual seashells.

Park at Parking Area 43 near the Cape Point Campground in Buxton, arrive about 90 minutes before low tide to walk along the beach and watch as the sea reveals its treasures.

If you happen to be traveling at a time when there is a space shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral, under good conditions there is a clear view from Cape Point.

My favorite lunch spot is still operating on Hatteras, the Buxton Munch Company. This quirky little place is a favorite with locals and has been “Rocking the Lunchbox since 1999”.

They serve breakfast and lunch, as well as bragging rights to the best shrimp and fish tacos on the island, as well as many healthy choices some even involving alfalfa sprouts. If that's your thing, this is the place for lunch.

I was delighted to discover that after an 18-year absence, much of Hatteras south of Nag's Head is unchanged. The exact same gas stations and little stores are there.

Some places have changed hands, like the old Soundside Restaurant, but for the most part, I found the island completely unchanged since my last visit in 2001.

Dad on a fishing boat in the Outer Banks.
Dad on a fishing boat in the Outer Banks.

Dad's Memorial Trip

This vacation turned into a memorial trip for my Dad, who passed away on March 25th. My father did not want a memorial service, so we've been trying to find creative ways to memorialize him.

His greatest love was fishing, and his second favorite love was travel.

He loved the freedom and fresh air of the fishing villages on Hatteras Island.

My cousin owns a marina on the mainland side of Pamlico Sound, and my Dad visited frequently to go deep sea fishing in the Gulf Stream. Cape Hatteras National Seashore was a place we both loved.

It would have made him happy to see my family and I playing on the beach together and flying kites in his memory.

Better than Disney

At the end of the week, no one wanted to go home.  My teenagers told me this was a better vacation than their trip to Disney a few years ago - probably because they learned a thing or two.

We agreed that next trip, we’ll try staying in the northern Outer Banks near Corolla to see the wild horses, take a horseback riding tour on the beach, and try kiteboarding lessons.

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