There’s more to the Outer Banks than sun, sand, and serenity. At Nags Head, you can spend a fun-filled day with your entire family, both on and off the beach. You can fish from the state’s longest public pier, climb the Eastern seaboard’s tallest dunes, visit a thrilling adventure park, then cap off your day with a delicious dinner at a nearby eatery.
You can’t miss it. It’s that visible.
If you’re driving along NC Highway 12 between Nags Head and Cape Hatteras, you’re sure to spot the Bodie Island Lighthouse (pronounced “body,” with a short “o”).
“The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” That’s what Southern seafarers used to call the North Carolina Outer Banks. Before the advent of electronic navigation, countless ships ran aground during furious storms, crashed into hidden shoals, or sank in the Gulf Stream’s fierce, turbulent current.
Are you vacationing with a large group? Perhaps you’re booking an Outer Banks getaway for a wedding party, family reunion, church group, corporate retreat, or multi-family gathering?
Have you ever been to Manteo?
If you’ve visited this quaint island town in the NC Outer Banks, you may have noticed a picturesque structure at the end of a wooden pier just east of the downtown area. It’s the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse… and it’s unlike any tower-style lighthouse you’ve ever seen.
Longing to connect with nature? Visit Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve in the NC Outer Banks. Bordered by US 158 to the east and Currituck Sound to the west, it’s a tranquil hidden oasis covering some 1,824 acres of unspoiled natural beauty.
Love the ocean? Then chances are good you love water sports. And no doubt you’ve done all the usual – swimming, sailing, fishing, boating. Perhaps you’ve also tried somewhat more daring sports, such as surfing, kayaking, and water skiing.
Perhaps it’s the quaint ticket booth where tickets are sold. It’s a real ticket booth—not a glass-enclosed room that is part of a building. The Pioneer Theater ticket booth is a small wooded structure, centered on doors that open into the lobby. And the price of the tickets that are purchased at that ticket booth? Usually $4.00 less movies in a multiplex charges today.
And the lobby…the lobby is small, a little bit cramped, but that’s ok because there is the sound of popcorn popping and the scent of it and the price of concessions is about half and sometimes a bit less than half of what is charged in most movie theaters.
This is the what all movie theaters were like at one time—a place in the heart of the downtown district surrounded by shops a restaurants. It is smaller than the theaters of major cities although it does seat around 300-400, but in every other way it is what going to the movies was all about 40 or 50 years ago.
The word unique is thrown around almost carelessly at times, but when it comes to the Pioneer Theater, unique is the only word that truly describes the Pioneer.
It is the oldest continuously owned family movie theater in the United States—no other theater in all the 50 states can make that claim.
1918…that was the year George W. Creef Jr. opened the doors to the first, and for a long time, only movie theater in Dare County. He had to be a little bit crazy to do it. The population of the county was struggling to reach 5000; Manteo was the county seat, but there were no roads or bridges connecting it to the rest of the county; even Roanoke Island was sparsely populated with perhaps 600 residents living there.
According to family lore George, Jr. took a trip up north, went out to a nickelodeon, became fascinated with motion pictures and purchased a projector. Movies were free at first, but, again according to family tales, the movies were so popular that he felt there could be a business opportunity.
Now located on Budleigh Street, the original location was one block over on Sir Walter Raleigh. That move was made in 1934 and by that time George’s son, Herbert, Sr., was running the show.
It’s been three generations of Herbert Creef’s in charge of the theater since that time. Herbert Jr. took over from his father—he usually went by H.A. and ran the theater almost until the day he died in 2012. Then his son Buddy—Herbert III—took over. Buddy is usually there. He’s the big man, 6’2” or 6’3”, with the full beard who almost always is dressed in sandals and shorts.
The seats are comfortable if utilitarian. When Buddy took over from his father back in 2012 he made a number of improvements, including a substantial upgrade for the sound system and improved technology for the projection room. As a consequence the quality of the movie experience is very good.
The movies are generally just off the first run list, giving viewers a chance to catch in July the movie they missed in June.
The Creef family has always believed that the movie experience is something for the whole family to enjoy. It would be the rare R rated movie indeed showing at the Pioneer.
A movie theater is not often seen as part of the experience of visiting an area, but in this case, that would seem to be the exception. For a family of four, a night at the movies will be about $20-$25 less than at a typical theater, and the experience of stepping back in time, is something that will make the evening a moment worth remembering.
There is a lot to like about Manteo. There is the feel of a classic small town America downtown, fantastic art at the Dare County Arts Council gallery, great restaurants with sidewalk service and the Pioneer Theater.
That is not hyperbole; there is some very good science to back that up.
Surfing on the Outer Banks
The shape of the Outer Banks is very much a part of why somewhere there are going to be waves. From Carova to Buxton, the Outer Banks face almost due east. At Buxton, which is where Cape Hatteras is located, there is a sharp bend to the southeast. That configuration means there is almost always a wind condition helping to create something to ride and, depending on where the swell is generated, there is going to be some place on the Outer Banks where the right conditions exist.
This is also where ocean currents collide—the Labrador Current runs into the Gulf Stream must north of Cape Hatteras, although that varies a bit by season. It does add energy to the waves.
There are a couple of other factors as well…but mostly it’s the sand.
The sandy bottom of the Outer Banks surf zone is constantly creating new sandbars, which is where the best break is always found. Generally the fetch of the offshore current is north to south, although that changes depending on wind conditions and swell direction.
As a consequence, there is usually a sandbar that has formed somewhere between Carova and Hatteras Village. It may take a bit of searching and perhaps an hour or hour and a half drive to the hot spot, but it is rare day indeed when there is no break and no waves to ride.
Back at the beginning of our blog we mentioned there is almost always something to surf on the Outer Banks. Summer is the “almost” in the equation. There are times during the summer that the ocean looks more like Lake Atlantic than the wave machine that it usually is.
There is a very well written and very informative article explaining what’s happening in the summer on OBXSURFINFO.com by Dr. Jeff Hanson, an expert on how waves form.Dr. Hanson worked at the Field Research Facility (FRF) at Duck—the Duck Pier predicting wave patterns and formations before retiring six or seven years ago.
What he explains is that the Outer Banks summer weather is dominated by a Bermuda high, which is why we have great weather in the summer. But that weather pattern also creates lighter winds and smaller waves.
There are exceptions to the smaller summertime waves.
The Atlantic tropical storm season runs from June through November. Although tropical systems are not common from June through mid August in the Atlantic, they do occasionally occur, almost always pushed out to sea by a combination of North American fronts and the Bermuda high. They do, though, generate very good surf conditions.
In many ways, fall is the best time for surfing on the Outer Banks. The peak heat of the summer is gone, but the water temperature stays in the 70s through Columbus Day and that pesky Bermuda high that has been suppressing waves has retreated.
Weather systems paralleling the coast will sometime create outstanding condition, although that is not a common occurrence. When it does happen, though, 5’-7’ waves with a long even break will be a part of the Outer Banks scene for three to four days.
The shape of the Outer Banks comes into play at this point, with the southeast facing area from Buxton to Hatteras Village catching the first of the storm’s wake, with the excellent conditions moving up the coast.
This is also a time of the year when reading what day to day conditions are creating becomes an important part of the Outer Banks experience. Wave energy has increased and as it does so, sand is constantly being transported to different locations creating new temporary breaks.
Wind conditions also play a role in the daily surf report. Generally speaking—although not always—west winds are helpful and east winds create chop and sloppier conditions.
After Columbus day a wetsuit will probably be needed.
Get your wetsuit out, your crazy on and be ready for a wild ride.
The nor’easters that march up the East Coast in the winter generate the largest waves the Outer Banks experiences all year. There are typically two to three good nor’easters during the winter and it’s reasonable to expect waves in the 8’-10’ range. However, a March storm this past season (2018) generated waves 12’-15’ in the surf zone.
It should be apparent but let’s be clear—these conditions are for experienced surfers only.
Some important information to have: the water is going to be cold—37-40 degrees north of Cape Hatteras; a little bit warmer south. Those northeast winds create some really sloppy conditions, but find the right sandbar and there will be a good break.
Try to find a sandbar a little closer to shore. There may be a great break 100 yards offshore, but with high surf and sloppy conditions, getting there is going to be a challenge and getting back to the beach isn’t going to be easy either.
Even though nor’easters create the most dynamic environment, even when the sun is out and conditions moderate, there are still some great waves to catch. It may take some research and asking a few questions but there will be something out there.
It’s rare for spring to have the spectacular waves of a winter nor’easter, but overall, it is the most consistent season of the year for good conditions. There are a number of reasons for that, most of it having to do with changing climate conditions, the flow of the Labrador Current and Gulf Stream and their interaction.
This is a good time to find those shifting sandbars and surf a chest high break.
Spring seems to spawn at least one if not two nor’easters. Conditions are generally not quite as dire as the winter nor’easters, but there are some great waves to ride.
North of Oregon Inlet the water stays in the 50s until June. Even south to Cape Hatteras water temps are chilly. A wet suit will be needed.
You can book biplane tours, hang gliding, aerobatic airplane rides, flight training, scenic air tours, and more with companies including Kitty Hawk Kites, Barrier Island Aviation, and others.
Classic Biplane Tours
Always wanted to soar above the sea just like the Wright brothers? Can you imagine the adrenaline rush they must have felt as they stamped their names into the history books of flight?
If biplane tours that recreate the iconic 1903 flight of these brothers is something you long for, book yours before you arrive in the Outer Banks. Because of the popularity, a lead time of several days to weeks may be required.
The open-air cockpit unleashes a different kind of rush for you (and a companion, if you choose) as you feel the wind on your face. Maybe you should put a checkmark beside your biplane tour instead of completely marking it off your bucket list because this is an adventure worth repeating!
Why is hang gliding one of the most popular activities to find on bucket lists? It mimics being a bird in flight. You are in total control of the glider as you swoop and fly wherever you choose. And, with the right training, anyone can do it.
Ask the company you book with about specific age limitations, but typically anyone from 4 to 94 can go (with proper consent). Physical limitations seem to slip away as you float, seemingly weightless, above the sea.
Tandem Hang Gliding
If the thought of going solo leaves you a tad nervous, tandem hang gliding might be a good first step. You and an instructor both mount the glider. You get the same exhilaration of solo flights, but with the security of knowing a pro is onboard.
Dune Hang Gliding
Ready to jump on and head off into the wild, blue yonder? Dune hang gliding starts with lessons, then puts you in the pilot’s seat your first day. If you believe hang gliding might be more than the fulfillment of a bucket list wish, this is the perfect way to decide whether investing in equipment is right for you.
Kids’ Hang Gliding
Have little ones that have already started a bucket list? If you’re constantly hearing “When will I get to hang glide?” it’s probably time to give in. This supervised option will give you peace of mind and allow your child to fly at low altitudes for short distances. Have your camera ready to capture the look on his/her face!
If the idea of scenic airplane flight sounds a little mellow, book an aerobatic tour instead. This allows you to mark the excursion off your bucket list with the best of both worlds.
On your way, you’ll get to see some of the best views of the Outer Banks area, including shorelines, lighthouses, monuments, and other notable sights. You could even spot dolphins at play, active sea turtles, or other marine life. Then hold your breath as the aerobatics begin.
What have you always dreamed of doing? Ask your tour pilot what’s s/he offers. Most offer heart-pounding barrel rolls, flipping the plane wing over wing as you swirl upside down then upright again. Are spins more your style? You might find yourself headed nose first toward the ground while spinning like a top.
Loops (think about rollercoaster cars that flip backward, head first) or zoom climbs that take you straight up… and up and up! Whichever aerobatics are available, they are bound to satisfy your bucket list requirements.
Could it be that your airborne aspirations are fueled by a desire to be a pilot? Controlling an aircraft all by yourself is an amazing feeling! If your inner thrill seeker has always wanted to learn to fly, make plans to get training during your stay in the Outer Banks.
Don’t have a military background or other experience with planes? You don’t need it. With a certified instructor, you’ll finally be able to lay the groundwork to becoming a pilot. What will your family do while you’re in training? Some flight training schools allow up to two passengers to accompany you.
Whether you’ve lived in the Outer Banks your whole life or are a welcomed visitor, seeing this region from the air is an entirely different experience. If your bucket list includes a desire to board a helicopter for a tour, what are you waiting for?
Schedule a short hop of 10 minutes or an extended flight for a couple of hours. Either way you’ll get a bird’s eye view of wildlife, landmarks, and nature locales plus loads of memories.
When you plan your next Outer Banks visit, bring your bucket list and prepare to strike a few adventures off.