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Best Outer Banks Beach Vacation: Corolla, North Carolina
Photo of the Whalehead Club
Corolla Old & New
Corolla, North Carolina
Thirty years ago, Corolla was one of the last beach frontiers on America's East Coast. Wild horses still roamed free in the rugged, northernmost Outer Banks and there were few paved roads.
Sandwiched between the Currituck Sound and Atlantic Ocean, this part of North Carolina's Outer Banks seems like a barrier island when you're on it, but it's a peninsula which shares a narrow spit of land that borders the State of Virginia.
Prior to 1984, the area was blocked off to everyone but a few landowners, but during the mid 1980s it was opened up to developers who started building increasingly luxurious seaside accommodations, private beach houses with lush landscaping, and upscale shopping and dining complexes, turning the region into one of the most popular seaside destinations along the Atlantic Coast.
Lured by the relatively low cost of renting one of the smallest beach houses, which, because of the narrowness of the peninsula, was just a few blocks from the ocean and sound, my husband and I first started vacationing there in 1990 and have returned almost every year since.
In the early years, we had to travel 20 miles from our rental house to reach a supermarket, shop, dine out, or find tourist attractions, but we didn't mind doing so because we enjoyed spending time in nature and sharing the wide, uncrowded beaches with the wild horses of Corolla.
Time passed and we started vacationing with several friends who had children the same age as our son. For privacy, we each rented one of the smaller, still modestly priced homes.
After the kids were grown, one couple bought a new beach house which, like many of the newer houses, had 3 levels, 5 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, a great room and a family room. Amenities included a private pool and hot tub, which used to be a rarity but was now standard. They rented the home out during the busy summer season but always invited us to stay with them when they closed it in late September.
That was when we realized that fall was the most delightful time to vacation in Corolla. The weather was still warm enough to swim in the ocean, most of the shops and restaurants remained open, and the beaches were uncrowded, the way they were when we'd first started coming.
Tourists with very young children, or those who have no children, will find that it is also cheaper to rent a condo or house in the shoulder seasons of early fall and late spring.
Presently, weekly rental rates range from $800 up to $10,000, depending on season, size and age of the rental, its amenities and proximity to the ocean or sound.
No matter when you visit, there is much to do in Corolla and in the rest of this article I'll share information about the best attractions, tours and activities.
The Whalehead Club
Stunning Views of Whalehead Club Grounds
The Whalehead Club grounds are my favorite spot in the Outer Banks and I have many great memories of watching the Corolla Wild Horses graze there, attending wine festivals, Fourth of July celebrations, kayaking in the sound and having romantic picnics with my husband.
The Whalehead Club is a historic house museum with an intriguing past.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this 23,000 square foot Art Nouveau home is a grand residence with stunning views of the Currituck Sound.
Since 1999, the county has painstakingly restored it to exactly the way it looked when it was built in 1925.
When I first saw it, the house was run down and in such poor structural condition that no visitors were allowed in for tours.
Each year, I looked forward to seeing the progress of the restoration, which would ultimately cost $5,000,000. The copper roof was replaced and the exterior and interior of the house was painted in the same colors as they originally were. Presently, the house is decorated with many of the original owner's furnishings.
The Whalehead Club staff gives guided tours of the interior and tell fascinating tales about the original owners, Edward and Marie Louise Knight.
Mrs. Knight was a dignified, well-respected wealthy woman from Newport, Rhode Island, but she loved to hunt and was an excellent sharpshooter. Most proper ladies of that era did not hunt, nor were they accepted into hunt clubs, so Mr. Knight purchased Outer Banks land and built the Whalehead Club for her.
Current day tours are a fun way to learn more about the history of the house, its architectural style and different owners, plus all tour fees are used to maintain the property and grounds.
Learn About Local Wildlife
Wild Horses of Corolla
These exotic equines, believed to have roamed the northernmost regions of the Outer Banks for more than four centuries, have been genetically proven to be descendants of 16th-century Barbary Coast horses of Spanish and Portuguese stock.
Though it is not known exactly when or how they got to the Outer Banks, several interesting theories give plausible explanations. Some believe that early European explorers of Spanish and English descent brought them here along with other livestock and left them behind. Others believe the horses swam ashore after ships they were on were destroyed by storms.
When Corolla became a popular tourist destination, 14 horses were killed by automobiles and for their own safety, the herd was fenced to remain north of the paved road where they safely roam 15,000 acres.
Tourists are guaranteed to see them if they take tours that are guided by professionals.
Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education
Built in 2006, the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education is located on the sound between the Whalehead Club and Currituck Beach Lighthouse.
The center is a 22,000 square-foot, handicap accessible building with an auditorium, exhibit hall, classrooms and a gift shop.
Many programs are free, as is entrance into the exhibits, but some programs and staff guided activities do have fees. The most popular programs include sound habitat exploration, decoy carving and fishing in the sound. All programs require advance registration.
Exhibits focus on conservation, waterfowl and hunting heritage, natural history, local heritage, ecology and fishing. The small aquarium and realistic marsh exhibits often have museum staff members who teach local visitors about the marine life that thrive in the Outer Banks.
Climb the Currituck Beach Lighthouse
Currituck Beach Lighthouse Photos
The distinctive red-brick Currituck Beach Lighthouse can be seen from many vantage points throughout the village and is surrounded by beautiful grounds. The 162-foot lighthouse was first lit on December 1, 1875 and was tended by on-site keepers who lived in the surrounding buildings.
The lighthouse became automated in 1939, eliminating the need for a regular keeper. Sadly its outbuildings fell into disrepair during the next 40 years until a nonprofit group called Outer Banks Conservationists (OBC) began restoring the lighthouse and buildings during the 1980s.
Thanks to OBC, the lighthouse and grounds are currently in pristine condition and for the modest fee of $7.00, visitors can climb the 214 steps to the top for a panoramic view of the Currituck Sound, Whalehead Club, and Atlantic Ocean.
Walk Through Old Corolla Village
Corolla Walking Tour & Guide Book
This fascinating book features an oral history section by Corolla's famous story teller, Norris Austin. Born in 1938, Norris has lived in Corolla Village longer than anyone else. In the winter of 2006 he agreed to record some of his memories and stories about growing up in Corolla. Co-author, Molly Harrison, re-organized and edited his stories to give the reader a sense of what life was like in this sleepy village before developers turned the area into a popular vacation destination.
The middle section of the book gives detailed walking tour instructions that include information about all of the structures and landmarks in Old Corolla Village.
The last section contains information about current day recreational activities offered in Corolla.
Historic Corolla Village
If you like discovering things on your own and want to meander through the historic Village of Corolla, it is fairly easy to follow the signs that are posted from the Currituck Lighthouse Grounds.
I suggest starting your walking tour at the lighthouse and allow yourself an hour or two for the mile long walk down Schoolhouse Lane and Corolla Village Road, which is dotted with small shops.
If you're hungry, stop at the Corolla Village Barbecue for a Carolina pork barbecue sandwich, or a rib or chicken meal. It's a carry-out restaurant, but there are a few picnic tables near-by. They also sell soft-serve ice cream.
Photo Tour of Old Corolla VillageClick thumbnail to view full-size
Five Fun Things to do in Corolla, North Carolina
Corolla Raceway Bumper Cars
- Race go carts at the Corolla Raceway located in the Timbuck II Shopping Village on N.C. Highway 12. This raceway features one large track with super-fast Indy cars. If that's too much excitement for your group, there are also freestanding, gas-powered bumper cars.
- Go skateboarding at Island Revolution Skate-park located in the Corolla Light Town Center, on NC Highway 12. The skate-park has 5,000 feet of extreme fun for the skateboarder in the family and is also fun for spectators.
- Take a Wild Horse & 4 Wheel Drive Nature Tour. The days when you could see the Corolla Wild Horses anywhere in Corolla are gone, but the wild horses have been relocated to the 4 wheel drive area north of Corolla so you must have an off road vehicle to see them. The easiest way is to take a guided tour with an outfitter. The guides know where the horses are, how to drive in sand, and are also knowledgeable about the history of the area. If you're adventurous and want to go it alone, you can rent a beach jeep.
- Try a water sport such as riding a waverunner, parasailing, or kayaking at Kitty Hawk Water Sports in Timbuck II on N.C. Highway 12.
- Take a Segway Tour at Back Country Outfitters and Guides, located in Corolla Light Town Center, N.C. Highway 12. You can choose a tour of Corolla Historic Village on a regular Segway, or the Spanish Mustang Reserve Tour which begins with a four-wheel drive on the beach up to a Maritime forest, where you'll ride the off-road, version of the Segway through Back Country's private Spanish Mustang Reserve.
Walk, Sunbathe, or Drive on Corolla's Beaches
Rate Corolla NC as Vacation Destination
Enjoy Corolla Beaches
Last, but not least, enjoy Corolla's beaches. There are many gazebo style entrances dotting the coast line and they look very similar to each other so if you like to walk long distances, make sure you check the mile marker that you started from.
Although the beaches are quite wide, you must still be aware that at high tide, the ocean may come right up against the sand dunes, so take that into account when you go for a walk.
If you have a 4 wheel drive vehicle, you can still drive it directly on the beach in the northernmost areas of Corolla. About 10 miles up the beach there's still a gate blocking you from entering the State of Virginia, and you'll have to turn around and go back the way you came. As with walking, plan your drive to avoid getting stuck in high tide.
Hope you have enjoyed your cyber-visit and get to visit this beautiful region of the Outer Banks in person some day.
I give Corolla, NC, a 5 star rating for its wide, clean beaches, many water sports activities, cultural activities, beautiful and abundant wildlife and family friendly accommodations.
The only negative things about it from my point of view are that it's very crowded during the summer season, but there are also more festivals, activities and special events that time of year.
I'm interested in your opinion of this vacation destination and appreciate your feedback and/or rating.