Why Stop at Outer?

With beaches along its eastern, southern and western shores, Bald Head Island allows you to witness the sun both rising and setting over the Atlantic Ocean each day.
With beaches along its eastern, southern and western shores, Bald Head Island allows you to witness the sun both rising and setting over the Atlantic Ocean each day. (Bald Head Island Limited)
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2007

So, you've been going to the Outer Banks for that many summers? So long that you can remember looking into Hurricane Fran's eye. So often that you can tick off the mile markers blindfolded. For so many seasons that you might bronze your beach towel and donate it to the Outer Banks Historical Center.

Perhaps it's time to find a new spot in the sun. Say, North Carolina's Inner Banks.

Okay, so we made up that name. (Well, almost: Washington, N.C., and other eastern inland regions tout this brand name.) But the term seems to perfectly describe that part of North Carolina's coast that bends inward, 120 miles southwest of the Outer Banks and 30 miles below the Crystal Coast (sometimes called the Southern Outer Banks).

North Carolina's prodigious coastline stretches for more than 300 miles, 130 of which are within the Outer Banks. A little farther south, near Wilmington, another miles-long chain of islands heavily dusted with golden sand hugs the coast. Most of the islands are connected by bridges and are accessible by highways. A few are reachable by ferry -- and who doesn't love a boat ride, especially when the pelicans are dive-bombing for dinner?

Wilmington's archipelago -- which we will henceforth refer to as the Inner Banks -- shares some similarities with the Outer Banks. Both are a collection of barrier islands that are five or six hours by car from Washington, depending on where you plant your beach umbrella. Yet the Inner Banks have some distinct advantages:

· Visitors traveling by plane can fly directly into Wilmington's large airport, which is mere miles from the beach; for OBX, the nearest airport is 82 miles away in Norfolk.

· The area's strands are connected by multiple major routes, which helps disperse weekend beach traffic; OBX's Route 12 is the main artery -- you have no alternative unless you captain a ship.

· On rainy days, you won't be stuck inside the motel room working on a 10,000-piece puzzle; Wilmington is an engaging waterfront town with museums, shops, a battleship and other attractions that can distract you from gloomy skies.

The Wilmington-area islands come in various sizes (large to glorified lump) and populations (from thousands of people to just birds and turtles). We focused only on areas that are an easy drive from Wilmington and offer a gamut of amenities. Starting at Topsail Island just northeast of Wilmington, we didn't stop till we hit Bald Head Island, the southernmost isle on the Cape Fear Coast, which refers to those destinations bordering the Cape Fear River. Along the way, we noted the characteristics of each sun-baked land mass, such as its beach scenes, activities, restaurants and hotels. And to help you choose your favorite, we've matched each Inner Banks area with its Outer Banks counterpart, with the help of Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman, who rates America's top beaches. (Note: All hotel rates are for high season; prices drop after Labor Day.)

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