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Many newcomers to the Outer Banks find the best way to delve into the local history, scenery and culture is via a tour, and luckily the Outer Banks has a world of different tours available. Vacationers can take to the sea, skies, or the land for an in-depth view of the Outer Banks, and can choose from quick one-hour excursions to overnight trips that explore the region's little known hidden treasures.
For an introduction to everything the Outer Banks has to offer, or to experience the North Carolina Coast from an entirely new perspective, hop on board a boat, kayak, bus or plane, and begin a guided adventure that will surely leave your family completely fascinated with the rich landscape of the Outer Banks.
Kayaking has become one of the most popular water sports on the Outer Banks, due in no small part to the miles and miles of water available for dipping in a paddle. From the small canals of the Currituck or Pamlico Sounds to the rushing ocean waters, the Outer Banks is the perfect playground for kayakers, and visiting explorers who want to scope out the best kayaking locations can embark on a local kayak tour.
How Kayak Tours Work
Kayak tours are available throughout the Outer Banks, from the northern beaches to Ocracoke Island, and generally launch from the nearest sound or local harbor for a trip filled with picturesque scenic views and amazing waterfront sunsets. Kayaks, paddles, and life vests are typically provided, and before the tour begins, kayakers are generally given a brief instruction on how to maneuver in the water.
Perhaps one of the best aspects of local kayaking is its accessibility - virtually anyone can learn how to navigate a kayak in mere minutes, and the gentle exercise of paddling, particularly in the sound, is easy for riders of all ages.
Once launched, kayak tour guides can take participants on a variety of different excursions, from scenic glides along Downtown Manteo or Ocracoke Village to nature tours that explore the soundside canals in search of Ibis, Egrets and Great Blue Herons. Simple nature tours are one of the most popular types of kayaking tours, as this adventure covers all aspects of the local Outer Banks wildlife, from the jumping baiting mullet that may run alongside the vessels to pelicans and cormorants who make brief appearances along the way.
Sunset tours are also immensely popular among vacationers, as the sun setting in the Pamlico, Roanoke, Albemarle or Currituck Sounds produces a brilliant array of colors across the water and sky, and it's hard to beat the vantage point from a waterfront kayak.
Regardless of which type of tour your group chooses, be sure and bring bottled water, sunscreen, and bathing suits, as while the majority of new kayakers stay high and dry, the occasional splash of saltwater is all but inevitable.
Where to go for Outer Banks Kayak Tours
There are a number of local and regional kayak tour companies on the Outer Banks, and basically every major sound access point has them available, from Corolla and Duck's waterfront docks to Hatteras Harbor.
One of the largest kayak tour providers is local water sports giant, Kitty Hawk Kites, which offers tours via all their store and sports locations throughout the Outer Banks. A number of tours are available, including nature tours, sunset tours, and even overnight trips.
For any kayak tour, be sure and make your reservation well in advance. Large groups can usually be accommodated, and little equipment is required. In fact, all a kayaker needs is a sense of adventure and a love of the water, although a waterproof camera tends to come in handy too, especially on a local Outer Banks sunset tour.
Kayak tours are generally available from mid-March through the fall when the water and air temperatures are at their best. Make-up tours are also available for inclement weather days, and kayakers can expect to spend anywhere from an hour to 4-5 hours on the water.
One of the best ways to tour the Outer Banks is by water. With well over 200 miles of waterfront, there is certainly a lot to cover, and a boat tour can give passengers a whole new perspective of this fragile chain of barrier islands, as well as introduce vacationers to a whole new world of offshore Outer Banks treasures, such as Bird Island, Pelican Island, and all the winding marshy canals and sandbars in between.
How Boat Tours Work
Because of an Outer Bankers' natural love of the water, a wide variety of tours are available, from Manteo to Ocracoke, and visitors basically have their pick of the type and style of boat tour to board.
Kids can embark on a swashbuckling Pirate Cruise, which blends local pirate lore with live-action pirates storming the decks, or a Boat Tour Safari, which focuses on the Outer Bank's local wildlife, including birds, turtles, and dolphins.
Speaking of dolphins, a number of Outer Banks dolphin tours are also available. These tours slowly navigate the waters of the Pamlico, Albemarle and Roanoke Sounds in search of these friendly locals. Birding tours to Pelican Island or Bird Island are also available, as well as overall scenic explorations of the soundside and oceanside.
For romance, embark on a sailing sunset cruise off the Manteo Waterfront, or take the whole gang on a party boat for a few hours of living it up on the high seas. Clearly, there is no shortage of tours available, and excursions can last anywhere from an hour or two to an entire day of navigating around the Outer Banks.
Before booking, you'll want to see what tours are available closest to your area. Decide ahead of time what kind of "tour" would best fit your family, and on what kind of vessel. On the Outer Banks, visitors have their pick of boarding a small cruise ship, a charter fishing boat, or even a sailboat. Can't decide? With dozens of boat tours available seasonally, there's always time for another boat trip or two during your vacation.
Where to go for Outer Banks Boat Tours
Generally, all major Outer Banks marinas and harbors have tours launching daily during the summer months, so a visitor in any Outer Banks area has a boat tour just waiting to be boarded nearby.
In particular, a number of tours depart from the Manteo Waterfront, from Oregon Inlet Marina just north of Nags Head, from the collection of small marinas in Hatteras Village, and from Ocracoke's busy harbor front. Be sure and check what tours are available in your area, and call ahead for departure times and rates. Also remember that boat tours are dependent on good weather, and a little Dramamine and sunscreen can come in handy on sunny or windy days.
Many tour companies offer "specialized" tours for small groups, which caters the tour to the group's specific interests. For example, Got 'Em Charters, which departs from Teach's Lair Marina in Hatteras Village, can take passengers inshore to search for dolphins, or to small water-locked islands where hundreds of whelks and conchs are waiting for beach-goers to snatch up, or even on extended day trips to the beaches of Ocracoke or Portsmouth Island.
One of the easiest ways to explore all 100+ miles of the Outer Banks is by a guided bus tour, and a number of regional and national charters are available for vacationers who want to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Bus Tours can be grand 3-7 day excursions, departing from regional larger cities such as Raleigh, NC or Virginia Beach, VA. They can also be commandeered locally, by experienced guides with a rich knowledge of the area, and the ability to take passengers to little-known Outer Banks points of interests.
Regardless of how you roll, a bus tour can give you a complete Outer Banks experience in a few days, or even just a few hours, and all you have to do is sit back, relax, and take in the gorgeous beach scenery.
How Bus Tours Work
If you're beginning your travels well off the coast, look for charters that leave from your nearest city. From Myrtle Beach to Dayton, Ohio, a number of renowned bus lines offer extended trips through the area, generally spending a night or two in each distinct "region" of the Outer Banks. For example, day 1 may be dedicated to the Currituck Beaches, while day 2 and 3 may encompass the central Outer Banks towns of Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, and Manteo, as well as all the attractions in between. Later in the trip, the bus may head south to Hatteras Island for an afternoon of exploring the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, or even further to Ocracoke for a walking tour around small and charming Ocracoke Village.
Accommodations and food are generally included, as well as admission to some of the Outer Banks' best attractions, ensuring that all a passenger has to do is climb aboard. Many buses are handicapped-friendly, have bathrooms and even snacks on board, and feature an experienced guide to point out attractions along the way.
For a bus tour while on the islands, local tours depart right from the Outer Banks and can last anywhere from an hour to a full-day of sightseeing, giving passengers an in-depth look at everything the Outer Banks has to offer.
Local Outer Banks tours can include short or long visits to the area's most popular attractions, like the 4 lighthouses scattered from Ocracoke to Corolla, the Wright Brother's Memorial, or the NC Aquarium and Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo. Special "themed" tours are available for groups as well, with a focus on local and regional history, ghost tours, wildlife tours, and even shipwreck themed tours. Before booking, call your local tour company to see what special types of trips are available.
You may also want to consider the particular areas you would like to visit. With so many different communities on the Outer Banks spanning hundreds of miles, it may be best to stick to a tour that covers one region, such as a Hatteras Island tour, a Corolla and Carova Tour, or even a historic Manteo tour. Well before making reservations, determine which areas of the Outer Banks your group would like to discover.
Where to go for Outer Banks Bus Tours
There are many renowned and well-reputed national bus charter tour companies that make trips to the Outer Banks from different terminals all along the East Coast. In fact, many bus tour companies proclaim that the Outer Banks is one of their most popular tour destinations for the area's remote beauty, plentiful attractions, and overall scenic drives.
Be sure and plan your bus tour well in advance, as reservations are required well before the trip, and spots can book up fast. Also, many national tours are seasonal, running from the spring into the fall, so that passengers can enjoy the best weather. Many folks find the cost of a 3-7 day bus tour to be comparable to a stay at a vacation rental home or local motel, and more convenient with all the driving left to a professional.
Locally, while there are a number of tours available, such as 4WD tours of Carova beaches north of Corolla, or small shuttles through historic downtown Manteo, one of the most popular bus tours available are the Hatteras Tours offered by local historian Danny Couch.
These tours are specialized to fit a group's unique requests, and can include comprehensive travels through some of Hatteras Island's most popular regions, or through little known areas beloved by locals. With a database of knowledge on Hatteras Island's 1,000 year history, Hatteras Tours are sure to give even the most seasoned Outer Banks vacationers a newfound wealth of local history and information. These tours are available by appointment, for single passengers and small groups, and generally run seasonally although winter tours may be available upon request as well.
Everyone, from Outer Banks newbies to seasoned vacationers, has seen glossy postcards of the stunning aerial views of the Outer Banks. Now just imagine seeing these vistas up close and personal from the backseat or the cockpit of a small airplane circling over these barrier islands.
Aerial tours are an amazing way to get a new perspective of the Outer Banks. From historic Downtown Manteo to the small villages of Hatteras Island, the most unique way to tour the Outer Banks is from the air.
How Aerial Tours Work
There are two small "airports" on the Outer Banks, in Manteo and in Frisco Village on Hatteras Island (Billy Mitchell Airport), and while consisting only of a series of small airstrips, these two locales are the launching points for most all Outer Banks Aerial Tours.
On most aerial tours, only a small number of people can enjoy the ride, generally from 2-4 passengers maximum. The planes may feel small and cramped, however the views are simply unparalleled.
Once arriving at the airstrip and getting a quick briefing on airplane safety, it's time to launch off into the clear blue skies. From here, the aerial tours can last anywhere from quick 20 minute flights to 2-3 hour tours of huge swaths of the Outer Banks. In the central Outer Banks, passengers can explore downtown Manteo from thousands of feet off the ground, and then head for the beaches of Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills for a bird's eye view of a lovely beach day.
On Hatteras Island, passengers have their choice of circling around the lighthouse, and then heading south towards Hatteras Village and Ocracoke, or north towards Avon and the tri-villages.
Due to the small size of the plane, as well as the consistently moving bird's eye views, these tours are not for the squeamish or for folks who are scared of heights. Adventurous vacationers, however, will be rewarded with literally sky high views of the East Coast's most gorgeous islands.
A camera is all but required on these adventures, and passengers may want to bring a small bottle of water depending on the length of the tour. On a clear day, be on the lookout for small black shadows in the blue Atlantic waters - these are sharks and other large fish, and many aerial tour passengers descend marveling at just how close these critters are to shore.
Where to go for Outer Banks Aerial Tours
There are a number of reputable companies that offer tour services from Manteo and from Hatteras Island.
On Hatteras Island, visitors flock to Burrus Flight Services. A staple on the island for decades, Burrus Fight Services is locally run and is locally known as being instrumental for a number of historic aerial photos of Hatteras Island, from Isabel's Inlet just south of Hatteras in 2003, to Irene's new inlet south of Rodanthe in 2011. As veritably the only Hatteras Island flying service, reservations are strongly suggested well in advance. Expect to spend 20 minutes to 3 hours on the tour, and be sure and bring your sense of adventure, as well as a game plan of what areas of Hatteras Island and Ocracoke you want to explore.
In the central Outer Banks, aerial tourists have plenty of options, including OBX biplanes, OBX Air Tours, Barrier Island Aviation, and even Coastal Helicopters for those who want to veer away from an airplane ride. All of these tours launch from the Manteo Airport and are seasonally available with reservations. Several of these businesses also offer charter service from Norfolk's airport (ORF), ideal for vacationers who fly into the area and want to get to the Outer Banks in a hurry. Be sure and call ahead for availability and rates.
Wild Horse Tours
The quiet beaches of Carova are home to the Outer Banks' most famous, and perhaps longest dwelling natives, the Corolla Wild Horses. These mustangs are widely considered to be descendants of the Spanish Mustangs of the 1500s, and lone survivors of Spanish shipwrecks. It is widely believed that these horses washed up upon the Corolla and Carova beaches and thrived for centuries afterwards.
These mustangs can only be seen on the beaches of Carova, a 4WD accessible area only, located north of the village of Corolla. Here, they have 7,500 relatively undisturbed acres to enjoy for themselves, with only occasional Carova visitors to intrude upon their home.
A wild horse tour will take visitors through these desolate beaches in search of these horses, winding through sandy shores and maritime forests, consistently on the lookout for Corolla's most famous residents.
How Wild Horse Tours Work
Corolla Wild Horse tours leave from the village of Corolla, generally close to the 4WD ramp that provides the only access to the beaches of Carova, Swan Beach, and Northern Currituck. In this area of the Outer Banks, only a 4WD vehicle can make the trek, as there are no roads - just sandy trenches along the beach and sandy trails carved through the soundside to quiet vacation rental home communities.
When it comes to how to traverse these 4WD areas, visitors have their choice of driving their own Jeep led by an experienced local guide, or riding along with a tour group on an interestingly rigged 4WD vehicle, such as a tour bus with monster tires or a pick-up with a tour bus-like seating compartment in the back. Essentially, tour-goers have the option to tackle the rough beach driving on their own, or let someone else take the wheel.
Once on board, the tour takes an exploration of the beaches, always in search of wild horses. Often, the mustangs can be spotted in small packs wading through the surf, or peeking out from behind the dune line. Experienced guides recognize the patterns of the mustangs' behavior, and generally have a good idea of the best spots to find them.
Be warned that once the horses are spotted, visitors, (or anyone for that matter), are not allowed to touch, pet, or physically interact with the wild horses. They certainly look and act genteel, however, they are essentially feral animals. Regardless, spotting these wild horses usually leads to phenomenal photo ops, and a camera is all but essential on a wild horse tour.
Folks on the tour will also want to bring sunscreen, and plenty of water and other supplies, as the 4WD beaches of Carova have no grocery stores or shops of any kind - just a handful of homes and plenty of beaches. In the summertime, bug spray may also be a good idea in case the search for the wild horses veers west, towards the soundside marshy areas of Currituck.
Where to go for Outer Banks Wild Horse Tours
There are a handful of tours that offer both self-driven expeditions and guided tours, including Bob's Corolla Wild Horse Tours, which allows visitors to enjoy the scenery in their "one-of-a-kind" open-air vehicles, and Corolla Wild Horse Adventures, which allows tour participants to follow a guide in their own Jeep. Regardless of which tour you decide on, the popularity of Corolla's Wild Horses suggest that reservations should be made well in advance. Tours typically last a couple of hours, with morning and afternoon sessions available. Booking and reservations can be made while on the Outer Banks, or before your vacation online.
One of the best ways to access some of the most remote areas of the Outer Banks is by a 4WD vehicle, or specifically, an ATV. ATVs, also known as "4-wheelers," are small vehicles that resemble a dirt bike with 4 tires, and can fit up to three people each.
Be warned that an ATV tour won't entail high speed racing and jumping off of sand dunes, but with an ATV tour, visitors to the Outer Banks can explore some of the area's most elusive and off-the-beaten-path locales.
How ATV Tours Work
The best place to embark on an ATV tour is the now deserted and completely remote Portsmouth Island. Located south of Ocracoke Island, Portsmouth is one of the most southern islands that make up the string of barrier islands called the Outer Banks.
Portsmouth Island wasn't always so remote, and the island has a rich history of being one of North Carolina's busiest ports in the 1700s and 1800s. Unfortunately, as the inlets gradually filled in and the ports became impassible for large ships, business moved, and the small village of Portsmouth was slowly deserted, with the last two residents leaving in the 1970s.
Today, all of the original buildings that stood on Portsmouth Island, including the small Methodist church, the general store, the US Office, and the local residences, have been preserved by the National Park Service, and visitors on ATVs or on foot are encouraged to travel through and explore the town.
Perhaps the biggest draw for ATV tour participants, however, are the seashells. Portsmouth is quietly known as one of the best locations on the Outer Banks to go shelling, in part because of its isolation, and in part because of its gradual south facing beaches that allow fully in-tact whelks, conchs, and Scotch Bonnets to roll in with the surf in perfect condition.
On an ATV tour, be sure and bring a couple shell bags along with you, (although local ATV tours usually provide extra bags just in case), because after exploring the village, it's time to hit the 13 miles of beaches.
On this stretch, folks on the tour can slowly ride down the coastline with their eyes peeled for freshly washed-in finds along the shore. An experienced guide can give tour participants a deep history of the area, as well as a primer on the types of shells to look out for - Lightning whelks, channel whelks, Florida fighting conchs, Helmet conchs, olive shells and Scotch Bonnets all wash up on these beaches on a regular, if not daily, basis.
Before you go, you'll want to bring plenty of sunscreen and water, as there are limited facilities on Portsmouth Island with just one public restroom on the outskirts of the village, and the sun off the ocean can be much stronger than on the mainland. Because you'll need to ride a small boat to travel across Ocracoke Inlet and access the island and the ATVs, for visitors prone to seasickness, a little Dramamine may come in handy as well.
Where to go for Outer Banks ATV Tours
Portsmouth Island ATVs has been providing ATV tours of Portsmouth Island for year, and departs daily from the Ocracoke Harbor in the summer and shoulder seasons. Tours generally last a half day, or about 4 hours, and include a 20 minutes boat ride to and from the island, a tour of the village, (provided that the mosquitos aren't too brutal), and a couple hours of exploring the gorgeous beaches. Due to popularity, reservations are recommended well in advance, and tourists should arrive at the docks at least 30 minutes before departure. (Visitors who are travelling to Ocracoke Island via ferry should plan accordingly.)
Regardless of how you explore the Outer Banks, a guided tour can give your family a comprehensive exploration of these islands. Even lifelong locals have something to learn about this treasured region of the East Coast, and with centuries of rich history and miles of unparalleled scenery, there is always something new to discover around every winding canal or along every stretch of sandy highway.
On your next Outer Banks vacation, dive into the local scene with a bus tour, kayak cruise, afternoon sail, or a 4WD adventure on the sand, and discover why touring the Outer Banks is a fun and fundamental aspect of any beach vacation.