Majestically tall sand dunes, steady winds and lack of nosy neighbors attracted the Wright Brothers to test their flying machine at the Outer Banks of North Carolina more than a century ago.
Today, the sand bars of OBX between the Atlantic Ocean and The Sound (“soundside” overlooks several small, shallow estuaries separating these islands from the North Carolina coast) have much the same appeal to thousands of road-tripping families arriving by car and ferry.
The Wright Brothers on the Outer Banks
Outer Banks beaches are too casual to lure more recent celebrities but they don’t need to, because the Wrights made Kill Devil Hills (location of the flight) and Kitty Hawk (their home) household names. Their aviation feat was an improbable-looking Wright Flyer, a primitive but ingeniously designed, double-winged craft that only flew 200 feet and stayed off the ground for 15 seconds on December 17, 1903.
This is the exciting stuff visitors experience at the Wright Brothers National Memorial on US Highway 158. See the dramatic monument soaring up from a grassy knoll. The actual park houses the crude sheds in which the brothers lived and built their plane.
Outer Banks Beaches
Even before the Wright Brothers, the eastern North Carolina seashore was a popular summer resort for the wealthy, especially around Nag’s Head. In 1930, the opening of the Currituck Bridge allowed the masses to enjoy the barrier islands as well. Go for the 900 square-miles of water surrounding vast stretches of sandy beaches, sculpted sand dunes and the third largest wildlife refuge and estuary system in the world. The relative isolation of these communities is the bonus.
Most New Englanders probably know the Banks from having watched tense, wind-blown reporters on TV shouting their hurricane reports the southernmost point. (Keep in mind that those winds often create Red Flag conditions at the beaches, when lifeguards caution against swimming in the strong currents. Those are perfect Soundside swimming days.)
To the south is the 72-mile-long region that comprises the nation’s first national seashore, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, home to campgrounds and “America’s Lighthouse.” The 208-foot-tall, brick Cape Hatteras lighthouse dating from 1871 had to be relocated inland in 1999 and can still be seen. Just south of that is Cape Lookout National Seashore, a less visited park that comprises three sandbanks: North Core Banks, South Core Banks and Shackleford Banks, unspoiled hosts to their own wild horses (at the Rachel Carson Preserve), turtles, seabirds and a barbershop-pole-striped lighthouse.
Today, beyond the broad beaches, many quality (but not cheap) family adventures beckon. Of course, the beach, shelling, hiking and sightseeing are free and add priceless time outdoors to your vacation.
Kayaks, Fish and More Outer Banks Watersports to Enjoy
When the sandy beaches and swooping pelicans lose their allure, here are some of my favorite things to do:
Kayaking Ecotours. Set sail with Kitty Hawk Watersports on six different tours (all regulated to ensure social distancing) suited to families. There’s the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge Tour, home to black bears, alligators, bobcats and wonderful things like that, and the Dolphin Tour usually done aboard a larger boat.
Many rental houses come stocked with beginner fishing gear. But if you want a sure catch, fish on the Crystal Dawn with the whole family. The lively mate makes sure you bait the hook safely and cast your rod expertly. Bring a family cooler if you want to keep your fish — many restaurants will cook them for you. Enjoy, but bring sun block.
Explore the Elizabethan Gardens and stroll beautifully laid out walkways through all kinds of dramatic statuary, many of which actually go back to Renaissance Italy. The Shakespearean herb garden, for example, contains plants mentioned in the Bard’s great works. When the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, expect the return of special programs including children’s workshops.
Outer Banks Environmental Preserves for Rainy or Any Day
Put Pea Island & Alligator River National Wildlife Refuges, accessed by trail markers Cape Hatteras National Seashore on your list. When all facilities are open, children can work with park rangers to unroll a seine net which drags the bottom of Albermarle Sound. The Visitors Centers also provide virtual tours by cellphone so that families can learn about wildlife like turtles, bears, and red wolves through ranger talks and “safaris.”
The Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve is a tiny gem of Southern mystique, a carefully conserved swamp and marsh zone. Stroll the boardwalk to hear the gurgling sounds of plantlife decay; that turns the water such a deep shade of tea brown. It rains a lot on the Outer Banks and this is one of those places that thrives in the weather.
The Audobon Center at Pine Island, off Corolla, is a 2,600-acre sanctuary known for its birds, upland maritime forest and wildlife; all framed by a classic hunting club preserved since 1913.
Go dune bashing at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Jockey’s Ridge is the tallest active sand dune in the eastern U.S. and the most striking in an area characterized by sand dunes. How high is high? About 100 feet — or in more vivid terms — 6 million dump-truckloads. Check if facilities for kite flying, sand boarding or hang gliding are open; you can take lessons there and do your own Wright Brothers thing. Plus there’s a boardwalk and good access to soundside swimming if you don’t want to get sandy.
Drive the Outer Banks and notice wind surfers and kite boarders gliding almost effortlessly across the waters that surround Highway 12. With an ever-present breeze and shallow sound, the Outer Banks is an east coast mecca for windsports. What better way for parents to bond with older kids than over a beginner’s lesson on Pamlico Sound? OceanAir Sports on Cape Hatteras offers affordable group lessons. All beginner windsurfing and kiteboarding lessons include gear rental during the scheduled session and there is other watersports gear for rent.
The Lost Colony is Outer Banks’ Top Cultural Event
In May of 1587, English ships set sail for the New World (with Sir Walter Raleigh on board) and landed on the Outer Banks in July of that year. Two years later, the colony of 116 men, women and children disappeared without a trace. The only sign of their existence was a tree carving of the letters “CRO.”
Roanoke Island Festival Park is committed to bringing that time and the surrounding mystery to life. There’s a 16th-century sailing vessel — Elisabeth II — with costumed interpreters using “the Queen’s English” to explain the customs and the caste system aboard the ship, a replica of those that landed here from England. There’s an historic reproduction of the 1580’s settlement, and a very cleverly designed, hands-on multi-dimensional museum that does a superb job of raising the curtain on the life of the times.
The award-winning play “The Lost Colony” is performed outdoors in period costumes and spiced with song and dance in the same park as the Elizabethan Gardens. We know from past visits that “The Lost Colony” — closed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic — is an excellent way to spend an evening with the family, whether you’re drawn by history, travel, entertainment, the arts, or simply a good romantic mystery.
Ocracoke’s Old-Fashioned Charm
Nothing is very far away on the Outer Banks — you can see from one side to the next — and the system of ferries connecting to the small off-shore islands is quite reliable. Ocracoke Island, for example, is a lovely 45-minute ferry ride south from Cape Hatteras which is just down the coast from the built-up areas north like Nags Head.
The ferry follows the arc of the lovely coast, and once on the island, the 12-mile drive to the village of Ocracoke (oak-ra-coke) passes through classic marshland, dunes and rugged, vast stretches of beach. Crowded in the summer, the island is a haven for travelers and hippies seeking tranquility and “coziness” in the fall. It’s possible to see the entire village by foot. There are accommodations for longer stays, but Ocracoke makes an ideal full day trip from Nag’s Head.
Ocracoke has some surprisingly good shops for sun and surf gear, some galleries and a few handicrafts stores, plus food trucks typically serving Mexican fast food fare. Look around for signs of pirates, as this town is said to be the long-ago home of the infamous Blackbeard. Ferries are free (except for a few) in North Carolina; check schedules at 800/BY-Ferry or visit the North Carolina Department of Transportation: Ferry Division.
Outer Banks Trip Planning Details
The Outer Banks is a destination that will require time to get to and time to appreciate. The 100-mile chain of barrier islands is well cared for, a protected place to explore by boat, bike, foot, kayak and of course, car.
It should be easier. A few airlines fly directly to Norfolk Beach, Virginia, an easy flight. From this point, 82 miles north, rent a car and make the drive to the Outer Banks. You’ll need a car anyway, so most visitors rent one at the airport rather then take the rather expensive shuttle and then rent a car when they get to the Banks.
Arriving from the South: Beaufort
During the coronavirus pandemic, all shuttles and ferries are operating with reduced schedules and limited capacity, so reservations are a must. We drove from the south and booked a night at the delightful Beaufort Hotel, as Ascend Collection resort, in the tiny waterfront town just south of the Ocracoke ferry.
This Beaufort (pronounced like “BOW-fort” and not to be confused with Beaufort, So. Carolina promounced “biew-fert”) resort is a great family resort, as you can see in the video, and the town’s Island Express Ferry Service runs daytrips to Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks. You may decide to skip the Outer Banks altogether. Those with more time to spend should check out Beaufort Cart Tours who provide guided golf cart tours of the town’s Civil War and pirate histories, plus assist those with mobility challenges to get around and explore.
Arriving from the North: Virginia or North Carolina
Drive from the north down Highway 168 to 158 to the causeway that takes you to the Outer Banks. Be warned, the ride down is a trip through some funky vintage Americana the kids will enjoy.
The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau is a good resource for places to stay, to eat, to go and whatever other needs you have and need help with. Their print “Outer Banks Travel Guide” is helpful.
My Top Tips
Many visitors find it cost-effective to rent condos or private homes for their vacation, saving on hotel costs and cutting down on their food bill. Village Realty is one of many local rental agencies. There are plenty of Airbnb’s too, of course.
Many families like the oceanside Outer Banks, where the most expensive rentals on Beach Road sleep family reunions and are often blanketed in morning fog or high winds.
The soundside is quieter, while convenient to the many restaurants and ice cream parlors along Bypass Road. Expect even more quiet on the other islands like Roanoke that are closer to the mainland. We found few places had the tranquility and grace of the Roanoke Island Inn as a home base.
If we whet your appetite, it’s time to find your own Outer Banks retreat.
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