Outer Banks, NC – so much more than just beaches
Mariners may have viewed these barrier islands with deserved trepidation, but vacationers wishing for the perfect beach experience see them as an iconic seaside destination. North Carolina’s Outer Banks, commonly called OBX, may be the site of the treacherous off-shore waters bearing the name Graveyard of the Atlantic, but this 130-mile stretch of islands is home to miles of unspoiled beaches, numerous national and state parks, and a collection of seaside towns and villages that offer visitors a relaxed, welcoming vibe.
Drive scenic Highway 12
Covering all 130 miles of OBX is a daunting task, but we did our best to experience as many of the highlights as we could. Sure, you can bask on a beautiful beach for a week; but you would be missing much of the history, culture, and charm of the Outer Banks. So take some time to drive scenic Highway 12 and live a part of the Outer Banks.
The legacy of flight is woven into the fabric of OBX history. A major attraction to visit is the Wright Brothers National Memorial. It was from the high sand dune of Kill Devil Hill that the intrepid brothers performed hundreds of glider flights that would prepare them for their historical powered flight. The Wright Brothers Monument sits atop Kill Devil Hill; and just below the hill a granite boulder marks the “first flight” take-off spot with smaller stone markers charting the four flights’ paths, distances, and landings. It was actually a moving experience to walk the very path where such history was made.
We decided to channel a little bit of the Wright Brothers by hang gliding with Kitty Hawk Kites on the massive sand dunes of Jockey’s Ridge Sate Park. Our 3-hour Beginner Dune Lesson included five solo flights. It was a truly exhilarating experience. Even if you are reluctant to try dune gliding, spend some time exploring Jockey’s Ridge and its amazing sand dune system, the tallest in the Eastern United States. Another attraction in the area relating to the birthplace of aviation is the Monument to a Century of Flight. The monument depicts 100 greatest achievements in aviation.
Duck and Corolla are charming resort communities boasting some of the OBX’s most gorgeous and extravagant vacation homes. Corolla is prized for its seclusion and its upscale, and at times funky, shops and restaurants, as well as its luxurious vacation home accommodations. A popular activity in Corolla is viewing the herd of wild horses roaming the northern beaches. A 4×4 vehicle is needed to access this area, or guided tours are available.
Duck is well known for its beautiful beaches with great shell collecting, water sports and outdoor adventures, and special events such as its nationally-known Jazz Festival. The Soundside Boardwalk connects many of the town’s shops and restaurants and offers outstanding views of Currituck Sound, while the Duck Trail provides visitors with easy access to the shops and restaurants on the opposite side of Highway 12.
Duck is home to the only 4-Diamond resort in the Outer Banks. The Sanderling Resort offers exquisite, newly-renovated accommodations, three restaurants, and numerous amenities such as its world-class spa and outdoor fire pits. Complimentary s’mores are provided with an overnight stay; we enjoyed toasting ours under the stars.
The nation’s first National Seashore
Popular with visitors to the OBX are the barrier islands’ five lighthouses. Three of the five are open to climbing. We climbed the 248 steps of OBX’s – and North America’s – tallest brick lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on Hatteras Island. The challenging trek up was rewarded with fabulous 360-degree views of Cape Hatteras and the surrounding area. With its distinctive black and white spiral pattern, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is a major attraction of Hatteras Island and is the international symbol of the North Carolina coast.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore contains more than 70 miles of undisturbed, scenic beaches and some of the prettiest natural drives on the East Coast. Bird watchers and outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy walking the nature paths or kayaking the waters of the 13-mile stretch of the National Seashore designated as the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Pea Island provides temporary stoppage for more than 400 species of migratory birds.
Much of Hatteras Island is undeveloped National Seashore, and you won’t find towering hotels, amusement parks, or large beach boardwalks on Hatteras. But you will find seven quaint villages scattered along the nearly 50 miles of coastline. Hatteras is ideal for visitors seeking a much quieter, more relaxed beach vacation with plenty of un-crowded and even undisturbed beaches with just enough amenities. For example, the village of Avon is home to Koru Village Resort, which features a full-service spa, salon, fitness center, beach club, yoga studio, quaint villas, and the Pangea Tavern, which proudly offers North Carolina craft beers on tap.
Some of the best fishing opportunities, from surf to offshore, can be found along the National Seashore. We stopped by the docks in the village of Hatteras to view the fishing fleet’s “catch.” It appeared that dolphin fish (mahi-mahi) was going to be on all the menus that night, as the boats’ mates tossed dozens of the colorful fish onto the docks to the delight of the many spectators. Maybe Hatteras Island is a little too undeveloped for your vacation desires, but a day trip from any of the central or northern communities is well worth the drive just for the scenery and experience of the Outer Banks’ more “basic” beach scene.
An island steeped in history
Another of the Outer Banks’ islands, one that is not along the Atlantic seaboard, is history-rich Roanoke Island. Its history and culture make it a popular attraction to OBX visitors. Roanoke was the site of the very first European settlement in North America. The disappearance of this settlement was to become one of the country’s most enduring mysteries and is the subject of the Symphonic Outdoor Drama, The Lost Colony, performed on the site where the actual events occurred. Roanoke’s rich history is front and center at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, which marks the exact site of the original settlement.
Families looking for a true “hands-on” Outer Banks experience can charter Capt. Marc Mitchum’s Jodie Kae, the 42-foot fishing vessel of OBX Crabbing and Shrimping Charters. Departing from “The Landing” in Wanchese Harbor on Roanoke, Capt. Marc and his mate (his son on our trip) get the whole family involved in catching and sorting shrimp and crabs – and the catch is yours to take home.
Though not a family activity, a visit to Outer Banks Distilling for a tour and tasting might be fun while on Roanoke. Drawing on Outer Banks history of shipwrecks and barrels of rum washed ashore, two local brewers and two local bartenders began distilling rum and called it Kill Devil Rum. With a smooth Silver Rum and its tasty Pecan and Honey Rum, Kill Devil Rum proves true to its motto – “from molasses to glasses.”
For years we had heard about North Carolina’s Outer Banks – its fabulous beaches and prime vacation communities. After our visit to these barrier islands, we discovered that there is so much more to OBX than just its nationally recognized beaches.
All photos by Jeff and Stephanie Sylva.
FTC disclaimer: This article contains sponsored links from The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, Kitty Hawk Kites, The Sanderling Resort, Koru Village, The Lost Colony Symphonic Outdoor Drama, and OBX Crabbing and Shrimping. Opinions expressed herein belong to the authors.