World’s Best Adventures is your partner in planning your next vacation. If you’re craving beach time but not necessarily the glitz or crowds that other U.S. beaches can host, consider spending your time in North Carolina.
Florida and California tend to be the states most famous for their beaches, but this string of islands off the coast of North Carolina in the Atlantic Ocean is one of the better kept secrets in the United States. You’ll find uncrowded beaches, reasonably priced hotel/motel stays, and plenty of outdoor activities to tucker out rambunctious children every day. On top of that, this is home to one of the key moments in American history – where the Wright brothers made the first controlled flight of a powered aircraft in 1903.
The closest airports are Norfolk International Airport (approximately a two-and-a-half hour drive, coming in from the north) and Raleigh Durham International Airport (approximately a four hour drive, coming in from the west). Either way, you’ll be cruising through some beautiful scenery.
There are roads to the Outer Banks, and you also have the convenient option of the Ocracoke Express Passenger Ferry, which can get you top the places where cars just can’t go. (At the time of publication, the fare is $5 one way, $10 round trip.)
Where to stay
There are many options dotting the islands and the North Carolina mainland. For the best rates, plan to book rooms approximately three to four months ahead of time. Basic motel/hotel rates run around $50-$150 per night, depending on the time of year you go and what type of hotel you select (a basic motel will be the least expensive, while more amenities will of course run the rate up).
Traveling with a crew? You’ll find plenty of vacation home rental options. There are also a few bed-and-breakfasts and resort options if you’d like a more upscale experience. And for a truly budget-friendly option, bring the tents and choose from one of the many campgrounds.
Surf Side Hotel (6701 S. Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head, NC) – This three-star hotel can have nightly rates inching closer to the $200 mark, particularly during the busy summer season. Reviewers say it’s worth it, though, for the beach access, central location, comfortable beds, and free breakfast. You’ll also be charmed with a free daily hospitality hour from 4-5 p.m. daily, where wine and snacks are provided. You won’t have to worry about rain days, either – there’s a heated indoor pool and hot tub that’s open year-round.
The in-room amenities are fairly basic, though you’ll find a refrigerator and microwave in every room, which we consider a plus. And every room has a view of the ocean.
*Traveling tip: When selecting accommodations, consider both your budget and the value. For example, at Surf Side Hotel, you have access to a full free breakfast and a refrigerator and microwave in your room. These amenities can significantly cut down on food costs during your trip, meaning you may be able to spend a bit more on accommodations. However, if you’d rather eat out for every meal, you may choose to go with a different, lower-cost hotel that may not offer those same amenities.
Best Western Ocean Reef Suites (107 S. Virginia Dare Trail, Kill Devil Hills, NC) – This three-star hotel is right next to one of the top tourist destinations in the area, the Wright Brothers National Memorial. This all-suite hotel is great for families, offering private patios/balconies, living areas, and kitchens. Amenities include free WiFi and breakfast. Some suites have ocean views.
This can be a pricier option (rates during the busy summer season can be $250+), but you’re paying for both space and location.
*Traveling tip: If you find a place where you’d really like to stay but are put off by the rates, do research on that area’s busy season. Beaches will generally be busier over the summer and on school holidays. If you can swing it, consider changing your vacation dates to a time of year when you can stay at exactly where you’d like.
What to do
It would be a shame to come here and only stay for the beaches (although you certainly could – and they are amazing!).
For families with kids dipping their toes into United States history, and/or if anyone in your family is an aviation fan, a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial is a must. This is where Wilbur and Orville Wright achieved the first successful airplane flight in 1903. Now run by the National Park Service, there is a nominal fee for admittance (at the time of publication, it was $10 for people 16 and older; free for children 15 and under). Expect to spend around one to two hours here going through the museum and hiking up to the memorial on the dune where the first flight took place.
When you’re ready for an indoor activity, check out the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoake Island. With stunning views of the ocean just outside, it feels like literally stepping under the sea. While small, expect to spend about two or three hours here. Kids in particular will enjoy the interactive touch tanks; plus, there’s plenty of room to run around and burn off some excess energy.
And be sure to not miss the many lighthouses in the area. Some, including the popular Currituck Beach Lighthouse, allow you to walk up and catch the breathtaking views for yourself. They also provide the history of the area, from the towers themselves to the shipwrecks that took place over the years.