North Carolina's edges tend to be full of adventure. On the western side, there are plenty of peaks to climb, the Blue Ridge Parkway to traverse, and the single most visited National Park in the entire U.S. system. (Yes, that's Great Smoky Mountains National Park – thanks for sharing, Tennessee!) Most tourists set on visiting the state during this time of year focus on that sector, and for good reason, but here's a little-known secret: right now is a perfect time to go against the grain and head to the beach.
The Outer Banks region is iconic in its own right, swelling in the summer with locals and visitors alike. But the powdery white sands and miles of seashore remain accessible throughout the year, and the dawn of fall means fewer frustrations, cheaper rates, and more wide open spaces. The weather this time of year actually isn't as bad as many would think. Often, highs reach into the mid-70s, and the waterways are still warm enough for swimming. Unlike many summer destinations, the Outer Banks never truly shuts down. A great many people live in this region full-time, meaning that most stores, activities, and restaurants will still be alive and well as autumn crests.
For those with a few days to spare and a few extra miles to burn on the lease, there's hardly a better time to enjoy the drive from Manteo to Ocracoke than right now. Getting to Manteo is a fairly easy drive for those in Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. If you're flying in, your best bet is Norfolk, Virginia (ORF) – the drive down from there is actually fairly charming in its own right. Once in Manteo, I'd recommend starting your journey with a stop at The Christmas Shop and Island Art Gallery. It's a staple of Manteo, and given that the holidays are just around the corner, now's the time to stock up on gifts. Moreover, there's a hidden section upstairs that's piled high with Halloween goodies, enabling you to kill two shopping birds with a single, enjoyable stone stop.
The downtown sector of Manteo is also worth a glimpse, with a beautiful, historic waterfront to saunter along. Peek inside the Manteo Booksellers for a glimpse at a type of outlet that's becoming increasingly rare in our digitized world, and feel free to grab a glass of wine overlooking Shallowbag Bay at the Full Moon Cafe.
Once you're sufficiently nourished, head to Highway 64 and hop over the Washington Baum Bridge. That will place you on Highway 12, otherwise known as the Cape Hatteras National Park Rd. Practically the entire seashore here is protected, and it's honestly one of the more magical roads in American. Why? Highway 12 is planted roughly in the middle of the island, which is a long, narrow slice of land that plunges south towards Ocracoke. As you're driving south, you'll have sand dunes on either side, with the Atlantic Ocean just feet to your left, and the Roanoke Sound just feet to your right. On breezy days, parts of the road will be white due to light dustings from the dunes. You literally drive between sand dunes for miles and miles. I'd recommend a stop at one of the many parking lots along the trek, walking over the dunes, and having your camera ready. What I wouldn't recommend, however, is what far too many tourists attempt to do: park on the edge of a dune. Tow trucks in this region charge a pretty penny and they have plenty of business.
After an hour or so of nature, you'll hit the tiny beach town of Waves. There, you can pull off for a bite at Top Dog Cafe. It's a storied place, with outstanding local fish dishes and an insane $20 hamburger that will net you a prize should you devour it. Don't miss the local Kitty Hawk Kites, either. There's plenty more than kites in there, and it's all quintessentially OBX. Push ahead for another hour or so (and take plenty of pictures!), and you'll hit Buxton. Just south of there is the gratis ferry to Ocracoke Island, a picturesque community with some outstanding lodging options. Options, I should say, that are rarely available in the summer without paying a fortune.
Once here, opt for a B&B. The owners are true North Carolinians, the homes are delightfully aged, and it's a great chance to eat a bit of legitimate southern food at breakfast. The Castle Bed & Breakfast and Crews Inn are both great options, while The Cove is located far away from everything if you really want to take a deep breath and enjoy your surroundings. Leaving won't be easy, but remember: a return visit in the spring isn't out of the equation, now is it?