Is 'Duck' a place or an instruction?
February 18, 2011 9:27 AM   Subscribe

Help two Londoners plan a road-trip to the Outer Banks - we have no idea where to start! Advice from Americans is needed...

Me and my boyfriend are attending a wedding in the Outer Banks in September of this year. Our friends who are getting married have kindly rented a guest house in Duck for a crowd of us who are coming over from the UK, we're going to stay there for a week, hang out, and generally explore the area. They're getting married at the end of the week, then we're heading home.

As we're paying for flights over there, we want to head over a week early and do something fun beforehand. The initial idea was to go to New York, spend about 4 nights there, and then spend two days driving down to Duck. But financially I think that's out, New York hotels are so expensive. Also we live in London so it's nice to visit somewhere a bit more relaxing when we're on holiday. PLUS we've both already been there together and we'd like to see some different parts of the US.

I'm looking for suggestions of a fun road-trip we could make first - somewhere we could fly into from the UK, drive down to the Outer Banks and see some things along the way. There are a few qualifying factors/special snowflake details:

- Would it be cheaper to fly into and out of the same airport? In which case we're looking to fly into somewhere that's not too far from the Outer Banks to drive back to (and drop off the car). We can make a big detour/loop in the first week and a quick drive back after the second.

- I'm not a driver so my boyfriend will be doing it all, therefore we're not looking for an epic driving experience, we'd rather spend more time exploring and visiting places. We'd also consider flying somewhere interesting first, exploring it, and then taking public transport/flying to somewhere in the Outer Banks where our friends can pick us up.

- Cheaper is good but we're not on a total bargain budget, just don't think we can stretch to a week's accommodation in New York.

- Oh and one total wild card; we own our own flat in London so we were considering doing a week-long house-swap, but not sure if it would be too difficult to organise for a specific date.

I don't know the USA at all and have only been to New York before, so any suggestions would be gratefully received!
posted by Encipher to Travel & Transportation (34 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The best airport for you is Norfolk International, which is in Hampton Roads, the big metro area a little more than an hour from the Wright Brothers bridge, which you'll drive over to reach the Outer Banks. (Other components of Hampton Roads include Suffolk, Chesapeake, and Newport News.) Once over the bridge you'll turn north to reach Duck. Turning south you'd pass through Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head. Many people continue on down the Outer Banks to Cape Hatteras. and beyond, taking the ferry to Okracoke.

September (after the Labor Day holiday) and October are the best months to go there (unless there's a hurricane). Enjoy!
posted by Rash at 9:48 AM on February 18, 2011

Flying into/out of the same airport isn't neccessarily cheaper. I've done open-jaw tickets from London to the USA 3-4 times and there really was no major difference in price when compared to traditional round-trip for the same dates. YMMV.

BUT...picking up and dropping off the rental car at the same location usually is MUCH much cheaper, so that may make the airport question moot. I've done a few USA road trips and we always did a loop-style trip. This way we avoided the extra charges that come with returning the car to a second location.
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 9:53 AM on February 18, 2011

Norfolk is the closest major airport, but the Washington DC airports are maybe a four hour drive away, so that's a possibility given that you are interested in a road trip.

One possibility for the road trip is just a big circle through southern Virginia. You could check out Shenandoah National Park, Charlottesville (UVA), Lynchburg, skate along the VA/NC border over to the coast. Plenty of Civil War historic sites along the way. Beautiful country. You'll get a taste of the South, that's for sure.
posted by dzot at 10:08 AM on February 18, 2011

Best answer: I was in the Outer Banks last March and had a great time just driving the whole way down - from Duck (up towards the northern end) down to Ocracoke towards the south. It's not an epic drive by any means - we did it in 3 days and never drove more than 4-5 hours/day. Not sure what would be open in September - in March a lot of hotels/restaurants, especially in Ocracoke, were just opening for the season, so do be sure to check. A few highlights for me included:

- Nag's Head & Kill Devil Hills (IIRC, about 20-30 minutes from Duck?). The surrounding area is pretty built up, but Jockey's Ridge State Park in Nag's Head is a must-see, with sand dunes stretching out to the horizon in a deliciously "lunar" way. My gf and I went hang-gliding there and would absolutely recommend it - you only go about 20 feet off the ground, for perhaps 10-15 seconds at a time, and the sand is super-soft, so it's far more exhilarating than scary. Go see the Wright Brother's National Monument, too (and don't forget to stick your arms out and make airplane noises at the spot where they made their first flights!)

- Ocracoke Island. You'll need to take a ferry to get there (be sure to make reservations in advance), but that in itself is a fun little trip. I hear Ocracoke gets crowded during tourist season, but at least when I was there it was a very cute, very sleepy little island town. We hired bicycles and rode all around, visited a pretty spot where Bluebeard was meant to have held a large pirate gathering ... good times.

There were other highlights if I can get back to this thread in a bit, but I hope this gives you a start. Hope you have a great time!
posted by DingoMutt at 10:09 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There are a lot of Revolutionary War* historical sites/parks/museums in the area north of Norfolk - Jamestown, Yorktown, Williamsburg all have reenactments and stuff to see. I was going to suggest Philadelphia as your big city instead of New York, and/or drive down through Washington DC. Lots of history museum stuff in all those places.

Another thing to think about when you want to see America is not the buildings but the landscape. The Outer Banks will have a lot of beach type scenery, but I think you could drive a while and see mountains, or the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is not that far - it's got forested wetlands. Other mefites might have better suggestions for landscape in that area.

And another thing you might think about, given the size of the USA, maybe you plan this as having 3 airplane legs. Decide what you want to see regardless of where it is located, fly from UK to there for a visit, fly to the Outer Banks for the wedding, then fly home. Rent a car in each location.

*Maybe you would call it "American War of Independence"
posted by CathyG at 10:10 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing Norfolk International -- traveling south from DC on 95, the traffic alone makes it 6 hours. Norfolk is about 90 minutes from Duck.
posted by MeiraV at 10:14 AM on February 18, 2011

Seconding Rash. There are no airports in the immediate vicinity (well, there are some civil aviation sites, but nothing with scheduled commercial service). Norfolk is your best bet. If you are set on sightseeing, you could come in to Washington and see that (airports: Dulles, National, BWI), but the shortest/easiest drive from DC is I-95, and is fairly unpleasant (think of the M-6, roughly).

One consideration is that if you try to cross the Wright Brothers bridge-or indeed, do anything on the roads at all-on Saturday afternoon, you will hit copious amounts of traffic, as that is when rental terms start/end. This shouldn't be as bad in September, but it still is not great. Consider taking the "swamp route" (US-17 to US-64) and crossing over at Manteo. Less traffic, more interesting scenery.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:15 AM on February 18, 2011

Best answer: If you fly into and out of Norfolk, you could also try visiting Williamsburg, VA - there's the Colonial Williamsburg historical park and Busch Gardens amusement park.

You could also fly in to Washington, DC and drive down from there - it's maybe a 5-hour drive? You could stay in DC for a couple of days (can be pricey but better than New York) and stop in Richmond, Williamsburg, or Norfolk/Virginia Beach on the way, either just for lunch or for a day or two.

Or if you don't mind going further out of your way you could visit Baltimore MD, or even Philadelphia, or go out to the western part of Virginia (Blue Ridge Mountains). I don't know North and South Carolina well at all, but maybe someone will suggest something there.

And yes, returning a rental car at a different location can be ridiculously expensive - more than the base rental cost and maybe even more than the cost of a flight. CathyG makes a good suggestion about a 3-leg flight.
posted by mskyle at 10:16 AM on February 18, 2011

Flying into Charlotte or Raleigh might be reasonable, as well -- a bit of a drive (3.5 hours from Raleigh, 6 from Charlotte according to Google Maps). But I don't know North Carolina at all, so I'm not sure if there's anything to see on the way.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:22 AM on February 18, 2011

Best answer: If you like museums, you might want to fly into DC, stay there for a few days, and then drive down to NC (it'll be a five or six hour drive, but mostly freeways the whole way). Or, hey, Philadelphia is about as far north as New York--you could stay there more cheaply, take a train to NYC for a day, and do touristy things in Philly on other days

The Outer Banks are lovely, and doing that drive south (as Rash mentioned) when you get there is completely worth it (well, if you like amazing scenery--if that's not your thing, skip it). I'd drive down to Cape Hatteras and then take the ferry over to Ocracoke, just for the experience. Visit the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and climb it. Maybe hit the aquarium and the Queen Elizabeth II in Manteo (which is a side trip on this journey, but a small one). Unfortunately, there's not a lot beyond what I've just mentioned to actually do on the Outer Banks that isn't sporty or very touristy, which is why I recommend visiting DC first. It's basically a string of small towns where the primary industry is tourism. If you're into kayaking or want to try windgliding or surfing, this is your place.

I love it there, though--I grew up very nearby in eastern North Carolina. The best way to enjoy the Outer Banks, if you decide just to hang out there rather than drive down from somewhere, is to rent a cottage as near to the ocean as possible and then spend a lot of time lounging around on your balcony or on the beach, reading books, or playing cards and drinking (depending on your preferences). It'll still be warm enough to do that in September, but the rental prices will be much lower than they would be just a month earlier.
posted by hought20 at 10:23 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the drive from Duck to Ocracoke is not a three day drive. It's more like a 3 or 4 hour drive. I am very confused by DingoMutt's post.
posted by hought20 at 10:27 AM on February 18, 2011

Best answer: My suggestion is that you fly into Washington D.C. (Dulles International Airport), rent a car, and spend your first week driving south and a little west on the Blue Ridge Parkway, as September will be the start of fall season along that lovely road, atop the Blue Ridge. The first 60 miles are called the Skyline Drive, from Front Royal south to the beginning of the Parkway, proper, near Waynesboro, Virginia and the speed limit for the Skyline Drive is a leisurely 35 mph, but the
Skyline Drive will be pretty busy on nice fall weekends, so best you do this distance on a weekday. After that the speed limit goes up to 45 mph (but you'll probably average 20 to 25 mph, with all the stopping and gawking you'll be doing!). There are no trucks or commercial vehicles permitted on the BRP, so it is all car and camper traffic, on generally top notch, very scenic 2 lane road. Plenty of pull offs, and parking spots along the route, for scenic overlooks and walking opportunities. Take 3 or 4 days along the Blue Ridge, going about 2/3 of the way to the southern end, to around Roanoke, Virginia.

Get off the Blue Ridge Parkway at Roanoke, and take Highway 460 east, across the southern part of Virginia, through Lynchburg, to Petersburg (south of Richmond), and then southeast to Portsmouth/Norfolk/Virginia Beach. You'll traverse the Virginia Piedmont country as you do this, and you'll sense yourselves dropping down, towards the ocean, as the countryside flattens and gives way. Once near the coast, just follow the road signs from Virginia Beach south to the Outer Banks, and thence to your friends in Duck.

Spend your next week in Duck, getting your friends married off, and then scoot out of there, as late as a you can, for an 8 to 10 hour high speed trip up Interstate 64 to Interstate 95, towards Washington, D.C. and fly home out of Dulles International, again. If you do get out a day early, you can choose to spend it poking around Washington, D.C., or taking the more leisurely routes north through the eastern Virginia low country, that any road map will tempt you to discover for yourself.

You'll have made a big, beautiful triangle trip around the state of Virginia, doing all this, and have had a memorable 2 weeks in America, covering mountains, the Virginia Piedmont, and the Outer Banks, and you'll be talking about it all, the rest of your lives, I'm sure.
posted by paulsc at 10:31 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is somewhat duplicative, but since I live in the area..

Norfolk (ORF) and Richmond (RIC) are the two "bigger" airports around. Newport News/Wiliamsburg (PHF) is the smaller airport. Outerbanks shorthand is OBX.

Norfolk is as said, about 90 minutes from the OBX. Richmond is ~3 hrs from OBX. Newport News/Williamsburg is ~2 hrs from OBX.

If you fly into DC washington national (DCA), oh sorry, REAGAN national, or Dulles (IAD), it's ~1.5-2 hrs to Richmond, so figure 5+ hours to OBX.

DC has many things to see (museums, cultural etc). The public transpo is poor, but can get you around to the zoos and what not, depending on where you stay. (You'll probably still want a car)

Williamsburg VA has the colonial angle down , and if you like roller coasters, Busch Gardens is there as well (September hours may be friday-sunday).

Charlottesville VA (~1 hr West of Richmond) if you like a college town, near the mountains, can see Monticello, September is apple season/harvest fests, lots of wineries.

Public Transpo wise, there isn't much to get you to OBX.
posted by k5.user at 10:38 AM on February 18, 2011

Best answer: k5.user: "DC has many things to see (museums, cultural etc). The public transpo is poor, but can get you around to the zoos and what not, depending on where you stay. (You'll probably still want a car)

Not to derail, but I don't think that's true at all (former resident of Alexandria, VA here). The Metro could certainly be more pleasant, but does a fine job of getting you to most anywhere a tourist would want to go. And you almost certainly DON'T want to drive in DC anywhere a tourist would want to go-traffic is bad, the roads are confusing to a newcomer, there is little parking. National is right on two Metro lines; BWI is connected to town via MARC.

You'll certainly need a car to get from DC to OBX, but don't waste money renting it for any time in DC.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:50 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Williamsburg is FANTASTIC. I expect it would be particularly interesting as a Brit coming to visit, as they re-enact the time period right as the U.S. was revolting and breaking away. I went on my honeymoon there I like it so much. :)

When I moved to North Carolina I was told repeatedly not to stop for help at churches with boarded-up windows if my car broke down because those are snake-handlin' churches ... I think they were kidding and messing with the Yankee? But I've never been sure. :)

The Blue Ridge Parkway is definitely spectacular but there is PLENTY to see on the Outer Banks and the Virginia coastline.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:25 AM on February 18, 2011

Nthing Norfolk (ORF) is the closest airport to Duck.
I cannot recommend a trip to Ocracocke Island enough!
Drive down, take the ferry and stay a few days.Labor Day (Sept 5th) is the last big weekend down there, but things don't start closing until October.
Beautiful dunes and beaches and a cute island town.
posted by natasha_k at 11:32 AM on February 18, 2011

Best answer: I've driven through West Virginia around that time of year and it is gorgeous and wooded through much of the mountain region, even just sticking to the I-64 interstate, much less the smaller highways.

If you're thinking about doing a road trip to see landscape, I'd recommend looking at the neighboring few states (Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, etc) and looking up their "top scenic drives". My dad has had a lot of luck planning his motorcycle routes in that fashion.

Fares in the US seem to be cheaper through Newport News than Norfolk (ORF), at least the ones our friends keep booking and asking for rides to/from for have all gone through Newport News to save money. There are a lot of interesting things to do in eastern VA.

If you're into roller coasters, Busch Gardens will I think still be open and running at that time.

Norfolk has the Naval Museum where you can tour the Battleship Wisconsin, and Naval Station Oceana has an air show Sept 23-25 this year.
posted by bookdragoness at 11:32 AM on February 18, 2011

Oh! There are quite a few scenic routes on Amtrak that I've always wanted to take. It's more expensive than driving and takes longer than flying, but you could see a lot of countryside while not having to drive at all, with time between legs to spend time in major cities.
posted by bookdragoness at 11:36 AM on February 18, 2011

A few years ago I found amazing flight rates from Raleigh(RDU) to Gatwick so the opposite should be true. However Raleigh is about 3.5 hours from Duck. You'd definitely have to rent a car. The Outer Banks are absolutely lovely the month of Sept. and its off season therefore a lot more quiet. Its definitely the place to just kick back and relax. The lighthouses, the Wright Memorial, and the town of Manteo are the best. Also be on the lookout for small wineries. Do keep an eye on the weather before you go. September is a prime time for hurricanes.
posted by PJMoore at 11:36 AM on February 18, 2011

My remembering was most hotels in DC moved to suburbs -- not "in town" -- thus access to metro rail (subway, best way to get in/around DC tourism sites) was very poor. That and subway hasn't made it to Dulles yet..

But agreed, driving in DC as a tourist, forget it. I meant a car to go other places and get to OBX.
posted by k5.user at 12:01 PM on February 18, 2011

Best answer: I wanted to help clear up and reiterate some things, since I live in the area:

BUT...picking up and dropping off the rental car at the same location usually is MUCH much cheaper, so that may make the airport question moot.

I haven't found this to be the case, so before you make any decisions based on this, you should price out airfares and the cost of car rentals online before you make reservations.

DC has many things to see (museums, cultural etc). The public transpo is poor, but can get you around to the zoos and what not, depending on where you stay. (You'll probably still want a car)

DC actually has really good public transportation, there's no reason to get a car. Just find a hotel near a metro station. I've stayed at a cheap hotel far out of the city, but close to a metro, and it's been great.

And definitely, as hought20 says, the drive from Duck to Ocracoke is a three hour drive, not a three day drive. You could easily drive down, see the lighthouse, spend a night or two in Ocracoke, and drive back up to Duck the next day.

And on that note, I agree with exactly what hought20 recommends (which is nice, since she's my partner). If I were you'd I'd fly into DC, spend a couple of days there, rent a car, take a day to drive down to the outer banks, and maybe go see Ocracoke. (Do you like camping? They have a great, giant campsite on the beach.) Then spend the week with your friends in Duck, and finally drive and drop off the car in Raleigh or Norfolk, whichever you can find the cheaper flight from.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 12:29 PM on February 18, 2011

Although there may be some flights from England to Norfolk or Raleigh-Durham, Dulles makes much more sense as the destination airport. I nth the ideas about DC - definitely worth a couple of days there. One idea: rent a bicycle to traverse the Mall and over to the Jefferson Memorial for a day.
posted by yclipse at 6:58 PM on February 18, 2011

For sure it will be miles easier to fly into DC than any other airport in Virginia from the UK - mostly because there are plenty of direct flights. (Unless you can pick up a cheap direct ticket to Raleigh or Charlotte, both in North Carolina.)

I haven't been to OBX for a long time, but it's quite different from the sort of place most of us Brits visit in America. (10 years ago when I worked there people commented on how good my English was, for a foreigner.) Anywhere you go in this part of the States will probably have at least novelty value.

There's no public transport to speak of in the Outer Banks. I took an overnight Greyhound bus from New York to Elizabeth City to get there (which was an experience). Someone picked me up, and I seem to remember that it took nearly an hour to get to Nags Head (which is further than Duck).

Anyway, before you get there, DC is an interesting place to visit for 2-3 days, no car required. Try Ethiopian food. Then drive down through Virginia. Vist places like Charlottesville, Williamsburg etc. When you're in OBX, drive down the length of the islands to Hatteras lighthouse and Ocracoke as suggested.
posted by plonkee at 1:52 AM on February 19, 2011

Response by poster: Wow - thank you so much! This is great information. Have just shown it all to my boyfriend and he really likes the itineraries that paulsc and hought20 have suggested. Flying into DC, spending a few days there, then taking a scenic drive around Virginia, possibly with some camping on the way (i'm not a huge fan except when the weather is good, but sounds like it will be). Also it would be good to go and see Ocracoke before we meet up with friends, because it all tends to get a bit more complicated trying to arrange things with 14 other people...

I had a couple of other questions if that's not asking too much - when you're driving around like this, is it better to reserve accommodation in advance, or just turn up? How do you find nice places to stay? Driving in England you're fairly restricted to Travelodge/Premier Inn type places which are clean but dull.

My friend (who's from New York) told me that Washington DC is boring and blocky, but your answers are making me she she's a bit biased. Maybe we could splurge on a nice hotel there if we camp/stay in cheaper places when we're driving around. Would love to see the Smithsonian.

Again thanks to everyone for your answers, I wanted to mark them all as best, they were so helpful. I need to do some research on cheap flights and car rental. Am looking forward to this holiday so much.
posted by Encipher at 2:03 AM on February 19, 2011

I think whether or not you reserve a place to stay depends on where you are and what you expect from a hotel. If you're fine with something basic, there are hotels at freeway exits almost everywhere--though I think paulsc should probably speak to the wilds of Virginia. I've been up there a lot, but I don't know it well enough to know how sparse accommodations are. I know that when I used to make the drive down from Michigan through West Virginia and Virginia, we'd just decide it was time to stop for the night and then watch for a freeway exit with a hotel, and there we'd be. I think that if I was heading out through Virginia like this and wanted to stay in nice places, I'd haunt inn and B&B websites. That means a little more planning as to where you're going to be, of course, but. Again, I ought to let someone more knowledgeable speak to that. But you can google "inn + the town you'll be stopping in" and get a lot of information. Oh, and if it's high leaf season up there, I hear that things get packed? But that may be later in the season.

If you want to stay overnight in Ocracoke or anywhere else on the Outer Banks, I'd reserve ahead of time. And though my darling partner recommends camping, the campsite on Ocracoke was overrun with mosquitoes and it will get chilly at night on the beach (the site is right on the beach) in September. If you are okay with that, go for it, but I had my adventure and will be staying inside the next time we go to Ocracoke. But! If you go down there, definitely rent a bike, and make sure you do the walk through the woods over on the sound-side of the island. We also did a kayak tour when we were there, and that was awesome.

I think DC is fantastic, but it really depends on your interests. You could spend days and days in the Smithsonian alone, if you like museums (my favorites are American history and Natural history). I like the zoo. Heck, I like wandering down the street in Georgetown and shopping. I also liked walking down the mall and up to the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial; if it's a pretty day, that's a lovely walk. If you're really feeling it, continue on around the tidal basin--the Jefferson and FDR memorials are neat. There are also two things in DC that I never made it to when I lived in Baltimore and still really want to see: The Archives and the Arboretum. I also have one restaurant recommendation: Teaism. If you like tea. The food was just decent, but the tea and the atmosphere were swell.

At this point, Tooty and I are living vicariously through your travel plans. I just thought you should know. I miss both DC and the Outer Banks.
posted by hought20 at 6:14 AM on February 19, 2011

Best answer: "My friend (who's from New York) told me that Washington DC is boring and blocky, but your answers are making me she she's a bit biased. ... Would love to see the Smithsonian."

Well, I mean, it is ... except for the governmental parts. The monuments, the grand palaces of government, the museums, those are fantastic! The parts of the city that people live in kinda suck, and the sprawling, concrete wonderland of the suburbs is pretty awful. But that's sort-of like saying, "Man, only .1% of NYC is worth seeing, the rest of it is just boring housing and office blocks!" But it's hardly like you'll be wandering through staring at run-down, funny-smelling housing for students. (Not that I'm scarred by my experience or anything.) You'll be doing the Mall, the museums, the monuments, Arlington National Cemetery, Congress, etc. That stuff's great! (I love Mt. Vernon and Monticello if those are options!)

"I had a couple of other questions if that's not asking too much - when you're driving around like this, is it better to reserve accommodation in advance, or just turn up? How do you find nice places to stay? Driving in England you're fairly restricted to Travelodge/Premier Inn type places which are clean but dull."

If you want to stay at nice or unusual places, you should reserve ahead, and look at B&Bs in North Carolina especially. If you're looking to save money, just watch for this sort of sign, which will appear as you approach nearly every exit on the interstate, telling you what options you have for gas, food, and hotels. (And as you pull off the exit, there will be arrows telling you which way to turn at the top, and how far you have to go, like "McFood --> .3 miles" or whatever.) You'll get plenty of chain hotel options that way. Many of the chains will also send you a book listing all of their hotels (yes, even overseas) -- we keep one for Super 8 in our car -- and you can look at what's coming up and call ahead from your cell phone if you want (and if you'll have one). (If you have a fancy cell phone, there's an app for that!)

On the Outer Banks I probably would book ahead. I'd also book ahead if you want to stay in Williamsburg. (Frankly, if you're staying in Williamsburg, it is SO WORTH THE MONEY to stay in the colonial houses.) Otherwise you can just pull off at likely-looking freeway exits for the "clean but dull" places. Other people can tell you about DC hotels. :) And here's a B&B link to get you started if that's what you want.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:14 AM on February 19, 2011

Best answer: Colonial Houses in Williamsburg. The "Inn Accommodations" are also good. The key point is that you're staying in the historic area. If you order room service, the dude who brings it will come in knee britches and a fancy cutaway coat. If you stay at any of the "official" hotels or lodging, you can have all your shopping sent back to your room instead of lugging it around. But staying in the historic area is a real treat!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:17 AM on February 19, 2011

There are quite a few scenic routes on Amtrak that I've always wanted to take. It's more expensive than driving and takes longer than flying

More expensive than driving if you already have a car, which the OP would have to rent. On the other hand, someone should weigh in on how scenic these routes are. Parts of the Northeast Corridor, around Philadelphia for example, are downright ugly. (I'm from Philadelphia, so I can say this.)
posted by madcaptenor at 9:33 AM on February 19, 2011

Camping on the Outer Banks in September may be okay w/r/to the mosquito (and, on the beach, the horsefly) problem. Notice I said "may."

Note that you won't be taking any public transportation to Duck. The bus hasn't gone as far as the beach for many years (it was 35 years ago when I had the experience of waiting overnight for it, at the Norfolk Trailways station).

But flying there is possible, but only via General Aviation (ie small prop planes). FFA is the First Flight Airport in Kill Devil Hills, adjacent to the Wright Bros monument. Once I had the opportunity to fly there, now regret turning down the offer.
posted by Rash at 1:19 PM on February 19, 2011

Best answer: "... I had a couple of other questions if that's not asking too much - when you're driving around like this, is it better to reserve accommodation in advance, or just turn up? How do you find nice places to stay? Driving in England you're fairly restricted to Travelodge/Premier Inn type places which are clean but dull. ..."

Along the BRP, there are some great inns and places to stay, but September is a popular time of year for the Skyline Drive and for some of these places, which often draw seasonal visitors themselves, from hundreds of miles away. Also, unless you make good time along the BRP, and get a lot further south than Roanoke, you won't come to any of the Parkway Lodges, except Big Meadows Lodge and Skyland Lodge on the Skyline Drive (first 105 miles of the BRP), and Peaks of Otter, just south of Roanoke. If you'll be doing the BRP mid-week, you'll have less competition for accomodations at these places, than if you happen to be up there on the weekends. But at that time of year, you probably want to make reservations for inns on the BRP, especially Big Meadows or Skyland Lodge, if you'll really want to stay there.

Personally, if I get an early morning start onto Skyline Drive from Front Royal (a good target for you on arrival day, just off Interstate 66, if your plane is coming into Dulles International late morning/early afternoon, with several motels in the town and restaurants nearby), heading south, I stop at Big Meadows for late breakfast/early lunch, and a walk in the Alpine meadow nearby, then press on to the rest of the Skyline Drive. On fall weekends when traffic is heavy, it can take another 3 to 4 hours to get to Skyland Lodge, and so a lot of people just doing the Skyline Drive section of the Parkway, stay there; I've generally had better luck pushing on a bit further, and then camping, or staying off the Parkway, that first night. Charlottesville and the University of Virginia are nearby (35 miles), down the Piedmont side, and near to that is President Jefferson's home Monticello, which is a good side trip for the following morning, before going back up on the Parkway, and continuing south.

But there are many, many options other than the 4 major lodges on the BRP, in communities down in the Shenandoah Valley to the west of the Blue Ridge, on the Piedmont, to the east. You'll be "floating" over these communities up on the Blue Ridge all day, and you might find that going down 2500 feet of altitude to a nice Virginia country inn or B&B brings you a taste of the "real world" after the tranquil pace of the Blue Ridge. You'll have a lot more choice of lodging and food off the Parkway, and more selection of amenities and price points, too. And some of these smaller, off-Parkway accommodations are pretty ambitious in their offerings!

But if you really don't feel like planning, you can generally find a room and a meal at a Holiday Inn or Travelodge or Marriott within 50 miles of leaving any of the Parkway exits, just by driving in and asking, during mid-week. As the autumn colors arrive, weekend traffic starts growing as "leaf peepers" start fall weekend foliage trips, so you still may want to make definite plans in advance for Friday through Sunday evenings, until you're down to the Norfolk area.
posted by paulsc at 2:09 PM on February 20, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks again - this is all amazing advice. I love the names of all the places, Skyline Drive, Big Meadows Lodge, Blue Ridge Parkway.... The historic houses in Williamsburg look very cute. I have to admit I nothing about US history so I can see this trip will be a learning experience as well as an awesome holiday.

I am a big fan of holiday planning (spreadsheets and all) so I can spend many happy hours researching B&Bs to book once we have a rough itinerary. Think we are settled on flying in and out of Washington, am researching flights at the moment. My boyfriend is very keen on renting a 'big American car' so will have a look at what rental prices are like.

Thanks again to you all!
posted by Encipher at 2:33 AM on February 21, 2011

One other small suggestion I forgot to make, that could make this trip spectacular: if you can find one, and don't need a lot of trunk (boot) space for your luggage, rent a convertible, like a Ford Mustang, a Chrysler Sebring, or even a Mini Cooper. You may only put the top down a few hours a day, but what a fine way to spend some nice fall days!
posted by paulsc at 4:10 AM on February 21, 2011

In Duck itself, I would recommend The Blue Point for at least lunch.

posted by Jorus at 7:05 AM on February 21, 2011

Response by poster: Hello! Not sure if anyone reads updates on old threads but I wanted to say thank you all for your advice. We had an amazing time.

We flew into DC and had two nights there, and did a free walking tour of all the monuments and the city centre which was amazing! We also went to the Air and Space Museum. Then we went back out to Dulles airport to pick up our car (a Mustang!). The first day we drove to Front Royal, then down the Skyline Drive, which was kind of a bust as it was so foggy we couldn't see 10 feet in front of our faces. It was kind of funny though. That night we stayed in Staunton which is the cutest small town ever. Then we spent two days driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway, which was so beautiful. I want to go back! We stayed at Lexington one night, then hurried across country the second afternoon and staying just outside Emporia in Virginia.

Then we got to the Outer Banks and spent an amazing week there with our friends, including a beautiful wedding which was perfect despite the fact that it co-incided with a massive storm, and we had to move everything from the garden to inside the house, getting soaked in the process! OBX weather is definitely unpredictable. It's so lovely there though.

We drove back to Dulles airport over two days, and squeezed in a visit to the Dulles Air and Space Museum before getting on the plane home.

Now we're home and suffering intensely from the post-holiday blues! Thanks for all your help.
posted by Encipher at 2:21 AM on September 28, 2011

« Older Risks of aldosterone suppression test?   |   buffering... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.