Why This North Carolina Beach Escape Has a Fall Fan Base

Sep 7, 2021

Even if you’ve never been to the Outer Banks, its location at the crossroads of history and pop culture means you’ve probably heard at least something about this North Carolina enclave. Maybe you have a sense of the quaint local beach towns and villages, thanks to everything from Nicholas Sparks’ Nights in Rodanthe to Netflix’s Outer Banks. Or the aviation-inspiring coastal dunes, thanks to the Wright Brothers’ first flight footage. Or the centuries’ worth of seafaring stories, thanks to the nation’s famed tallest lighthouse. (And, okay, to Netflix’s Outer Banks once again, because the newly released second season—which draws heavily on maritime lore—became the most-watched series on the platform.)

But what you may not know about the real Outer Banks is this: Come fall, a dip in temperatures, crowds and prices coincides with an uptick in everything from the numbers of big fish running offshore to the kinds of breezes that make for epic wind- and kite-surfing. Put otherwise: Autumn is many an insider’s favorite season here, and you’ll want to see why for yourself. Read on for our top five reasons:

The fish and seafood bonanza

A string of barrier islands and spits separating mainland North Carolina from the Atlantic, the Outer Banks is, well, swimming in aquatic life. And for millennia, locals have feasted accordingly. From the Algonquian tribes’ spear and net-fishing techniques to OBX on the Fly’s electric kayak fishing tours, the methods for landing a catch may have changed, but the lure of the local waters has not. Actually, if anything—given the Outer Banks’ midcentury rise to fame as a serious sport fishing capital—that lure has only increased.

For the most comprehensive sampling you can get at one time and place, peg your visit to the Outer Banks Seafood Festival (October 16) in Nags Head, where you’ll find all manner of contest—from a chefs’ cook-off to a People's Choice Award—plus shrimping and shucking demos, live music and endless local delicacies. Among the food vendors on hand will be Shipwrecks Taphouse & Grill, immediate past winner of the Chef’s Challenge award. Another favorite to look out for: Proof Bakery, whose award-winning shrimp-stuffed pretzels are so beloved, more than 1500 of them sell per festival.

If you want to source your own delicacies, options abound. Head out on a charter expedition, and you may well find mackerel and blue marlin through September; swordfish, sailfish, white marlin, bluefish, wahoo, speckled trout and red drum through October; various tuna species through November—as well as the trout, snapper, grouper and bass that stick around into winter. Of course, some of the above are catch and release, and you’ll need a license for any fishing you do. The tackle shops and charters will expertly help you navigate whatever you need to know.   

Also consider pier fishing, surf fishing and the aforementioned kayak fishing—a sport so popular that calendar includes the Outer Banks Kayak Fishing Tournament (September 18-19), the Hatteras Island Surf Fishing Challenge (September 24-26) or the NCBBA Red Drum Tournament (October 20-23).

If crustaceans call to you instead, the OBX is no less obliging. For DIYers, there are crabbing and shrimping charters—though if you’re staying alongside a waterway, you may well be able go crabbing in your own backyard through early fall. And oyster lovers take note: There's a new NC Oyster Trail to check out, and the Outer Banks is home to five of the featured farms—most with boat tours—as well as six of the featured restaurants.

Each serves up its own brand of local flavor, but the oysters at Manteo’s Blue Water Grill and Raw Bar come with a particularly special pairing: views of the adjacent Pirate’s Cove marina, and in the distance, the Bodie Island Lighthouse, one of the tallest in the US. Note that the actual tallest—the legendary Cape Hatteras Light Station we alluded to up top—is about an hour to the south of here and 2900 feet inland from where the complex originally stood.

The wave and windsport lover’s heaven on earth

It isn’t so much which way the wind blows in the OBX come fall (north, northwest and northeast, for the record), but rather, how consistently and usefully: very. Kiteboarders and windsurfers will typically find at least 20 good days per month this time of year, while strong swells draw surfers into the mix, too. So the spectacle alone—a kaleidoscope of kites, sails and boards—is worth taking in. And all the more so if you’re part of it.

To that end, check out the range of rentals and lessons up and down the coast. You may also want to consider timing your trip to a seasonal event, from The Easterns (September 19-25) in Nags Head, where the East Coast’s best amateur surfers will compete, to OBX-Wind (October 30-November 6) at Cape Hatteras, where windsurfers of all levels will meet up for fun and wide-ranging competition (think slalom, freestyle and long-distance).

The wildlife viewing ops

As mesmerizing as the windsurfing multitudes may be, Hatteras is also home to another seasonal aggregation that’s at least as fun to behold: several species of sea turtles, whose nesting season at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore often runs through October—and will likely do so this year thanks to some last-season nesters. 

Your best chance of seeing moms and/or babies is at night or very early in the morning, and though there are measures in place to ensure that everyone keeps a respectful distance (see: the ropes and netting around the active nests), the rangers ask that you take a couple of extra precautions. First, however counterintuitive this may be at the beach, don't dig holes in the sand—or if you do, be sure to fill them in. Otherwise, the newly hatched babies can get trapped on their way to the water. Second, at night, try to turn off any extraneous lighting, whether your cell phone flashlight or the porch lights on your house if you happen to be renting right at the beach. Again, the goal is to help the babies reach the water as easily as possible, and any lighting that competes with the moon can throw off their tiny inner GPS's.

For stellar birding, head to the neighboring Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, where fall presents the possibility of—among other prized sightings—Eurasian widgeons, peregrine falcons and tundra swans. And if you’d like to add some mega-fauna to your list, head to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, where the 15-mile Murphy Peterson Wildlife Drive will very likely lead to bear sightings, for starters. (To the amazement of many visitors, who tend not to think of coastal zones as big bear hotspots, this refuge is home to one of the largest black bear populations in the Eastern U.S.) Less likely, but not impossible, sightings to hold out hope for: rare red wolves, cleverly camouflaged bobcats and the refuge’s namesake alligators.

The fall festival scene

Despite the thinned-out crowds (or because of them, as some would contend), fall takes on its own festive feel in the Outer Banks, where a whole lineup of events keeps the good times going.

If you’re a music lover, consider timing your trip to Manteo’s famed Bluegrass Island Festival (October 21-23), when the 22-acre Roanoke Island becomes Bluegrass central, and fans flock here from all over (book tickets and lodging ASAP; the event fills up fast).    

If you’ve got kids in tow, another October event is probably more their speed: Pumpkin Patch Saturdays, taking place the first four weekends of the month at the Island Farm. At this historic homestead, one of two outposts run by Outer Banks Conservationists, you can pick pumpkins, taste cider, play historic games and make fall-friendly crafts. As you get closer to Halloween, don’t miss the holiday treats on offer at the legendary original Duck Donuts.

But if you miss them, fear not: The following month brings more seasonal treats, not only to Duck Donuts—but also to the Hangin’ with Santa celebration at Kitty Hawk Kites in Nags Head (November 26-27). Though everyone loves the cookies, toys and Santa photo ops, the weekend highlight is arguably the celebration within the celebration known as Kites with Lights: a Saturday night extravaganza of twinkle-lit, large-scale kites set against the legendary coastal dunes of Jockey’s Ridge State Park.

And speaking of dunes that induce flight, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention one supremely local celebration that takes place at the tail end of fall: the 117th anniversary of the first powered flight on December 17. Needless to say, the daylong festivities take place at the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, where—among other wow factors—a fly-by is scheduled for the exact moment of the Wrights’ most fateful launch.

The abundant lodging options

With the summer throngs gone, you’ll have your pick of the Outer Banks’ famed vacation rentals. Oceanside or sound-facing, historic cottage or modern mansion…whatever you’re thinking, odds are it’s not only available, but also discounted from its peak-season pricing. But before you book, bear in mind that the area is home to a whole array of lodging options.

Hotels range from the gleaming new TownPlace Suites by Marriott to the long beloved Sanderling Resort. And for anyone who’s jumped on the retro motel bandwagon (or wood-paneled station wagon, as the case may be), good news: The See Sea is a classic of the genre.  

Of course, you may prefer to sleep under the stars—especially as parts of the OBX move ever closer to official Dark Sky designation. You'll find everything from basic beach camping to the well-appointed glamping cabins at the Cape Hatteras/Outer Banks KOA Resort. Then again, when you’re literally surrounded by nature—as you are in these barrier islands—anywhere you choose to lay your head pretty much has to be dreamy.

Ready to go? Start planning your trip to the Outer Banks with a free travel guide and these trip ideas

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