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    Is the Outer Banks a Real Place?

    January 11, 2022

    We never thought we would have to write this, but yes, the Outer Banks is a real place. For the 40,000 or so of us lucky enough to live here and for the 3 million plus visitors who enjoy a break from everyday life when they stop by for a long weekend, week, or longer…it’s downright puzzling.

    But then no one ever expected the phenomena of the Netflix Outer Banks series.

    Outer Banks opening credits

    So at the outset, there are two points that need to be clarified: yes, the Outer Banks is a real place; no the Netflix drama Outer Banks does not in the least resemble the real Outer Banks. Well…to be fair, it is filmed along the Atlantic seaboard. South Carolina to be exact.

    Where Is The Real Outer Banks?

    The actual Outer Banks is as far east as it’s possible to go in North Carolina. On the north end, it borders Virginia; Ocracoke is the southernmost point. Portsmouth Island, just south of Ocracoke can also be grouped as part of the Outer Banks, but since no one has lived there since the 1970s, it probably doesn’t matter if it is or isn’t.

    Geographically the Outer Banks is a continuous spit of land extending from the Virginia border to Oregon Inlet. That’s the northern Outer Banks. Hatteras Island is from Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Village, and the island of Ocracoke is accessible by ferry only.

    There are three counties from the Virginia border to Ocracoke—Currituck, which is Carova and Corolla: Dare County is the heart of the Outer Banks stretching from Duck on the south end to Hatteras Village, and Ocracoke is in Hyde County.

    Aerial of Duck, NC's beach

    The Outer Banks School Systems

    For visitors, knowing which county is which doesn’t really matter, but for those of us living here, or anyone planning on moving to the Outer Banks, it’s good information, if for no other reason than the schools. All three counties have very good school systems, but there are some important differences among them.

    Dare County School Buses

    The Currituck Outer Banks has a small permanent population and that population is disproportionately retired adults and couples whose children no longer live at home. Because the school-age population is so low, the county does not maintain a school for Corolla children

    However, Waves Edge Village School is a free, K-8, public charter school in Corolla that is outstanding. There are about 45-50 students in the school now, but for students who either cannot get in or are in high school, it is a very long bus ride to Currituck High School on the other side of Currituck Sound.

    Unless things have changed, the Ocracoke K-12 school is the smallest in the state, but it consistently ranks among the very best.

    By far the largest school district in the area is Dare County Schools with almost 6000 students enrolled. The district has three high schools, in Buxton, there is Cape Hatteras Secondary School, First Flight High School is in Kill Devil Hills, and Manteo High School in Manteo. There are also two middle schools and five elementary schools.

    Coastal Studies Institute
    Coastal Studies Institute

    Since we’re discussing education, there is a Dare County campus of the College of the Albemarle (COA), a community college, in Manteo. The Coastal Studies Institute on Roanoke Island is a campus of East Carolina University. CSI is primarily a research facility although classes are also offered there.

    The Dare Campus of COA is currently undergoing a massive renovation and improvement.

    Where Do People Live On The Real Outer Banks?

    Almost no one actually lives on the ocean or in a beachfront home. A few, yes, especially in Corolla, but most of the permanent population is on the soundside.

    There are a number of reasons for that.

    Some of that is economic—beachfront homes are primarily rental properties and they are reserved for generating income. Also, during peak season it’s great for visitors, but the homes lining the beach are maybe a bit livelier than a family or permanent resident may want. Also, many of the beachfront homes have six bedrooms and more. Wonderful for bringing the extended family together, but not so good for a couple or family of four.

    An oceanfront home's deck
    The top floor deck of a 10-bedroom oceanfront vacation rental home

    There are certainly residential areas on the Outer Banks. Southern Shores is almost all residential, except for the beachfront. The main towns of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head all have populations greater than 3000. Kill Devil Hills is the most populous town on the Outer Banks with over 7100 year-round residents. Duck, with its small permanent population, seems more like a village than a small town, as do many of the towns on Hatteras Island.

    Soundfront shops in Duck
    The quaint coastal town of Duck, NC

    Like the rest of the country right now, housing is an issue. Year-round rentals are hard to find, and because there is very little land that has not been developed, homes are at a premium right now. There are some initiatives that should help the situation, but those will take at least a year or longer to come to fruition.

    What Is It Like To Live On The Real Outer Banks?

    Living on the Outer Banks is very nice. It can get kind of hot and sticky in the summer, but the beach is never far away—or for that matter any one of the numerous sounds on the western side. Winters can be an either/or situation. There is usually a snowfall once or twice in the winter, but there are also a couple of days of bright sunshine and 60-degree temperatures.

    Sound sunset
    A soundfront sunset on the west side of the real Outer Banks

    We do get an occasional hurricane, but they really are not that frequent. We also get nor’easters in the fall and winter. But every place deals with weather. Kansas has tornadoes and blizzards; the Outer Banks has hurricanes and nor’easters.

    From late spring through October, the Outer Banks is wide open. Stores and restaurants have extended hours and there is a lot to do. Far more to do than what an area with a population of 40,000 would typically expect.

    That is a direct result of the 100s of thousands of visitors who come to stay with us for a week or two.

    NC Coast Restaurant
    NC Coast waterfront restaurant

    And then it slows down and life gets a very small-town feel. Neighbors know neighbors; the schools become very much the center of social life, mostly because school events are some of the biggest gatherings in the fall and winter.

    Getting a late-night meal can be a challenge. Very few restaurants stay open past 10 p.m., and quite a number close for a few weeks to give staff and owners (almost all are locally owned) a break.

    It’s kind of nice and a great time to recharge and get ready for the next round of visitors.