Harley Adventures through North Carolina’s Gorgeous Outer Banks

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Updated 07.16.2020:  Are you ready for another amazing boomer road trip adventure? Well, get your Harley helmet ready because Diane White is back with the latest addition to our ongoing boomers-on-bikes series.

This time, Diane is taking us to one of the country’s most beautiful, yet relatively under-the-radar locations: North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The drive travels from the South Carolina coast to islands in North Carolina.

Riding North Carolina’s Outer Banks

a woman and two men standing next to motorcycles on a ferry
Jean Davis, Jim White, and Glenn Davis take a turn at watching over our bikes during the two-hour ferry ride through shallow North Carolina sounds to Ocracoke.

Spring ripened towards summer and our travel itch rose along with the thermometer. We pondered: how best to enjoy nine days of blue skies and T-shirt temps?

Part of the answer was easy—swing a leg over the Harley’s saddle and ride out—but in which direction?

Biker buddies Glenn and Jean Davis, similarly afflicted with Seasonal Ride Fever, proposed a destination perfectly suited to June. None of us had ever been to North Carolina’s unique string of barrier islands referred to as the Outer Banks.

Discussion over!

The next day, Richard and JoAnne Knieriem stepped across the street to tap on our door.

“Can we go?”

We didn’t ask “Go where?” On our close-knit little South Carolina island, vacation plans quickly become community knowledge and sometimes even community property.

Plus, Richard had acquired his first motorcycle the prior year. Of course he meant “go ride”.

“Absolutely. Three Harleys are always better than two,” Jim sagely observed.

Planning for Outer Banks’ Pirates and Mysteries

As you may know if ever you’ve tried, crafting an enjoyable 9-day itinerary for six adult travelers is not easy. When the group is half male and half female, difficulty level doubles. If all three males are also high-achieving alphas with unshakably correct opinions on pretty much everything, well—just use your imagination.

Diane volunteered to facilitate trip discussions and draft itinerary proposals for everyone’s review and feedback. Ten days of emails, phone calls and revised drafts later, we had a plan acceptable to all. Two especially alluring Outer Banks areas, notorious pirate haunt Ocracoke Island and mysterious Roanoke Island, earned our group’s top “stay and see” votes.

Remember to solicit input from all. Ask basic questions rather than assume. How much actual experience with the proposed type of active travel does each group member have? How do they feel about those experiences? If someone lacks direct experience but says they’d love this kind of active travel anyway, what makes them think so?

Also remember that boomers who like active travel often feel younger in mind than body. Some bite off more than they can chew because “time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future”. When planning an active boomer group trip, read between the lines and include appropriate rest and recovery opportunities.

South Carolina back roads and swamps

Yes, we had to travel through South Caorlina to reach our neighbor to the North. The itinerary for days 1 and 2 honored our three guys’ main travel guideline, which is “FUN = RIDING”.

We rode for two days straight, stopping only for gas or lunch while traveling north on South Carolina’s eccentric, rambling two-lane back roads through farms, swamps, and pine forests. You can certainly go faster on the state’s far better engineered interstates, but only these two-lanes still deliver the sights, smells, and sounds of rural South Carolina, including her swamps and cypress groves.

At first this stretch seemed like an ode to agricultural South Carolina, with large fields of cotton, corn, wheat, soybeans, or hay interspersed with lovely pastures grazed by an impressive variety of herbivores. We stopped to admire a large herd of longhorn cattle and, later, even glimpsed bison foraging alongside billy goats!

herd of cattle in a field with trees behind them
Texas Longhorns roam some fields in rural South Carolina too! We found these on SC 125 between Millett and Jackson.

Then the well-tended farmland gave way to Francis Marion National Forest and a vastly different perspective on South Carolina. This wilderness of marshes occasionally punctuated with bald cypress groves will inspire and refresh any traveler’s spirit.

South Carolina marsh view with grasses interspersed with water
The ride from Beaufort to NC’s Outer Banks offers many romantic views of South Carolina’s lovely marshes and swamps. This one is on Hwy. 21 at Whale Branch.

We overnighted in Shallotte, NC before continuing to Cedar Island and the 4 PM Ocracoke Island ferry. With no bike tie downs provided, we stood by our Harleys hoping they’d stay upright during our two-hour rolling voyage to Ocracoke. Happily, they did.

Discovering pirate history on Ocracoke Island

Houses and docks on a blue lake
Shoal Bluff Motel’s many charms include this beautiful Silver Lake view. Facing west, it’s especially enchanting at sunset with cocktails!

Today, legal and innocent tourist pastimes fuel the economy of tiny Ocracoke Island, but its original leading industry was piracy. Remember Blackbeard?

He and his marauding mates hung out on Ocracoke and hosted boisterous post-plunder celebrations at what is now called Springer’s Point Nature Preserve. Unfortunately for that dread pirate, in November 1718 British Royal Navy party-crashers ended both the merriment and Blackbeard’s life.

Small as it is, Ocracoke Island offers quite a nice range of lodging options. Our Harley mini-gang chose 49-year-old Bluff Shoal Motel, a classic small Mom-and-Pop throwback on Silver Lake.

This budget motel is superbly located and well maintained while remaining true to its unpretentious roots. We pulled our bikes right up to the long porch on which the motel’s seven rooms all front, unloaded our bags, and hurried inside to discover which retro pastel color tile graced our bathrooms (Jim and Diane’s was pale pink, Glenn and Jean got pale green, and Richard and JoAnne scored the pale blue).

What to do on Ocracoke Island

Two peaceful days flew by on Ocracoke. When you go, don’t miss historic sights like Ocracoke Light, America’s second oldest working lighthouse. However, leave plenty of time to live in the moment.

White lighthouse with an outbuilding on Ocracoke Island
This Ocracoke Light, built in 1823, replaced a wooden lighthouse erected nearby in 1794 and has now operated continuously for almost 200 years.

Stop by the Slushy Stand for rental bicycles to get around the island, wander quiet beaches shared with wild ponies, shop the village, sample roadside eateries, and browse artisans’ galleries. The distaff side of our group also savored simple joys like leisurely cocktails while viewing the sunset on Silver Lake from Bluff Shoal’s dock, short walks to dine in white tablecloth restaurants, sleeping late, and no reason to even think about touching those helmets!

Out and About in the Outer Banks

a house shaped like a round spaceship in Hatteras, North Carolina
Of course we stopped to explore the unexpected sight of a spaceship along Hwy. 21 in Hatteras! Wouldn’t you? Jim briefly considered swapping his Harley for that cool personal rocket in the yard, but the resident aliens wouldn’t deal.

On Day 5, our itchy-footed guys were smiling. Time to ride again! We ferried from Ocracoke to Hatteras and rode most of the Outer Banks Scenic Byway’s 145 miles before checking into our Nags Head base, the Fin’N’Feather, for two days of exploring historic Roanoke Island and nearby Outer Banks points of interest.

One thing we sure didn’t expect to see was a spaceship—but soon after leaving the Hatteras Ferry and cruising north on Highway 21, suddenly there one was! It turns out to be a spaceship-inspired residence, as well as the Outer Banks’ second most-often photographed tourist attraction.

A replica of the Wright Brothers wooden plane
The Wright Brothers National Monument has both indoor and outdoor museums. Here you can climb right aboard with Orville Wright on a full-size replica of their famous flying machine.

In beautiful little Manteo we enjoyed visiting The Lost Colony, Elizabethan gardens, great shops, and excellent restaurants.

We also spent several interesting hours at the Wright Brothers National Memorial complex in Kill Devil Hills and an exhilarating afternoon on and above the giant sand dunes of Jockey’s Ridge State Park, courtesy of Kitty Hawk Kites.

Tourists standing on a hill getting a kite lesson.
Richard and JoAnne Knieriem signed up for a lesson at Kitty Hawk Kites’ hang gliding school. Here they’re suited up and ready to soar over the Atlantic seaboard’s largest sand dunes.

All too quickly, Day 7 and the start of our return leg approached. So did a large rain front; we saddled up in full rain gear for 170 miles through swamps and lowland to lovely New Bern, NC.

Day 8 proved even soggier. We barely reached the sheltering canopy of Georgetown, SC’s Quality Inn and Suites ahead of intense lightning and torrential rain.

After a good night’s sleep, we rode the three-hour home stretch to Beaufort under cloudy skies, already sorry that this Outer Banks sojourn couldn’t have lasted longer.

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