Visiting the Outer Banks - An Off-Season Getaway
Updated: Apr 4
The Google Gods provided backroad navigation to the state line. The transition into North Carolina unrolled narrow lanes through road edge poverty and sprawling agricultural repeat of early spring greens and browns. It was mid-March and M and I turned southbound, heading to the Outer Banks for an overnight getaway. Our Outer Banks meaning the barrier island stretch from the lights of Corolla to Bodie.
Within our day’s drive domain, we hadn’t seen this area since the great plague and splurged in a spur of the moment want for change of scene. The hour and half drive from our home in Virginia Beach, Virginia offered easy traffic patterns, quieting playlists, and enough miles to invite decompression of our overscheduled weeks.
We usually draw OBX excursions in small radius to avoid accumulating lost hours of transition. M likes the whole day in Duck. Or we’ll explore the nature surrounding the Bodie light, then get lost in the high tops of Jockey Ridge. For anyone traveling this area, I highly recommend reducing your to-do list. Put a few checks on the daily schedule, instead of the want to see it all. This adventure was about the small island of Manteo.
Our first stop was The Elizabethan Gardens. Sculpted pathways along under-manicured edges and an overgrown canopy blended of softwood and deciduous offered a rare quiet. Elizabeth was never here, of course, but a bulbous bronze of her reigns in a little roundabout surrounded by the classic American obsession with the British invaders.
Created in historic pretense for tourism in the '50s, and opening that summer of 1960, the garden sprawls today in its own history. If you’re seeking the historic, be certain to visit the Hall that offers well designed exhibit panels timelining the natives, the colony anglophiles prefer to call lost than defeated, and the expansion of colonialism.
A highlight is the natural way the garden edges along the beautiful Otis Cove, north of Roanoke Sound. On this day, the wind was high and the water as rough as we’ve ever seen. Ruins of the older garden gates lean long taken into the rising water’s power. The ruins brought the sense of a time, of a culture, of a people that came before us. These souls, of course, being from a mere generation past.
Our next stop was to see Mother. The Mother Vine. Not an official tourist attraction, as you’ll visit personal property, but the owner has thankfully chosen to share their three century old grapevine with a welcoming parking space and concrete pathway to stand with Mother. It's reported as the oldest grapevine in North America. Carefully spread across wooden trellis, the shadows invited us to crawl beneath, but we respectfully remained untrespassing on the concrete. It’s worth the stop.
Off-season meant parking in downtown Manteo was easy to find. Quaint, inviting, and, for me at least, reminiscent of seaside villages experienced in literature. Make no mistake, Manteo, like most of the Outer Banks, is about money. About white, wealth washed Boomers and Gen-Xers enjoying a higher standard of living than the lost colony of seafaring, working class folks who once carved day to day livings along this rugged coast.
The shops are lovely, well appointed, professionally staffed, and every jingle of every door entry invited us to stay that little bit longer, spend that little bit more, share a smile and conversation with the employees, and just as often, the proprietors. It felt a world away from the normalized hustle rush of home. Do yourself a favor and take a second, or even third lap around the shops. Look up. Make eye contact with shop keepers and fellow travelers. We found lovely leather journals in Sam & Winston, gems to savor in Downtown Books, and perfect nook brighteners in Dare Arts. The creeks and groans of the art center's old courthouse building worth the visit alone.
We lunched at Avenue Grill & Goods, and have put it on our must list for future visits. Facing the inlet off Shallowbag Bay, it was previously all dining, but now three parts offer chance for exploration: the restaurant, the gift shop, the yoga studio. The vibe is coastal, but without the fatiguing parrots and it’s drinking o’clock somewhere signage. We ordered the day’s catch, rockfish, in sandwich form. I indulged in fried, M going for blackened. We both made slightly orgasmic noises with first bites.
The gift shop offered a blend of next-gen hippie and holistic that, again, replaced overused iconography with genuine offerings. Our take-homes included more great reads, as book shelves towards the yoga space crowded with blends of esoteric and self-awareness. M scored an interpreting dreams gem, and I a 400-page study of earth’s long lost pre-flood civilizations. We’re already brainstorming a trip to attend a yoga class or sound bath in the beautiful studio. I considered slipping under the closed rope for a warming savasana in the perfect afternoon light.
We spent the night in nearby Nags Head, bedding at the First Colony Inn. This was our second stay. On the main drag, its architecture has graced these banks since 1932. I have always been and will always be attracted to the early twentieth century buildings. These kinds of Inns are falling fast in the current century and I’m thankful our retreat has not been taken by storm or modernity. We chose the east face, nestling into a third-floor ocean view. By check-in, a northeast gale had risen the waves to whitecapped splendor.
If you stay at First Colony Inn in the off-season, or any season for that matter, be sure to check-in before 5pm. Our 4:30 arrival was greeted with a rush, as the staff was going home at the top of the hour. After the office closes check-ins will most likely be self-served. The rooms are large, comfy, and the reasonable price includes a satisfying full breakfast. Visit in the season to enjoy the wine-soaked afternoon socials in the homey back deck and garden.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina offers simplicity if you seek it. Keep its long, narrow shape in mind, and understand the region is much larger than first imagined. We remember coming home from past trips spent and exhausted. But that’s when we’d haul from Corolla to Bodie and everything between. These days, we slow down, choose one area, and always stay overnight.
Thanks Outer Banks. We'll be back soon.
© Copyright William Hazel, 2023