Nature holds sway in the Outer Banks — Photo courtesy of Beth D'AddonoWhen it comes to beaching it, everybody is different. Some sun worshippers long for action, a busy Boardwalk and plenty of after-dark activity.
Then, there’s the Outer Banks.
This series of North Carolina barrier islands attracts a mellower crowd. A strip of laid back beach towns connected by bridges, the Outer Banks, or OBX for short, is home to about 60,000 residents year-round. That number nears 500,000 during the summer and fall, vacationers drawn by powdery sand, stellar fishing and a shallow coastline dotted with historic wrecks. Most stay in the McMansions that line the beaches; six, seven and eight-bedroom homes that can easily host a multi-gen family getaway, a girlfriend's weekend or a sporty man-cation.
Beach houses are grand in the Outer Banks — Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
Which town is for you?
You’ll find the most bars, restaurants, shopping and family activities to the north in communities like upscale Duck, Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk. Farther south is Roanoke Island, with its walkable downtown, historic fort and Elizabethan gardens. Hatteras is even quieter still, a setting ideal for nature lovers.
Duck is one of the more upper crust towns along the Outer Banks — Photo courtesy of Renee Sklarew
To a first time visitor, the dearth of Southern culture is surprising. Local folk have survived by fishing for generations, creating a population of entrepreneurs who tend to think outside the box. Even the local accent is unique to this part of the country. Known as a high tide brogue, it borrows inflection from the area’s Irish and English roots, with nothing Deep South about it.
The first group of outsiders, a rag tag contingent of 117 men, women and children, came ashore on Roanoke Island in July 1587. Three years later, when a supply ship returned to the spot, the settlement had vanished without a trace. This mystery is brought to entertaining life in The Lost Colony, a show performed in a waterfront theater at the edge of Roanoke Sound. America’s longest running dramatic musical, the family-friendly production is quite the enterprise, performed on a stage three times larger than most Broadway venues.
By air and by sea
Famous for being the site of the first controlled powered flight, The Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk is a must see. Besides the chance to climb to the top of Big Kill Devil Hill, the kids will love the full-scale reproduction of the 1903 Powered Flyer, a great place for a family photo op. It’s a great little museum filled with remarkable photos. Turns out, Orville was quite the shutterbug.
Despite its history of enterprising maritime ventures, the Outer Banks is also part of a treacherous coastline that stretches from the Chesapeake nicknamed The Graveyard of the Atlantic. Severe weather, strong currents, and navigational challenges presented by rocky shoals are responsible for some 3,000 shipwrecks from Kitty Hawk south to Ocracoke.
Besides being the watery home to the most German U-boats sunk off any state coast in America, ships from colonial days through the Civil War and both World Wars are buried in the watery depths. If you aren’t planning on diving the wrecks – which draw intrepid divers from all over the world – visit the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras to learn more.
The perilous waters are also the reason the Outer Banks is home to five striking lighthouses, beacons of navigation that are fun to climb and offer stunning panoramic views.
Hatteras Lighthouse is one of five navigational beacons in the Outer Banks — Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
Back to nature
Cross the three-mile bridge over Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Island, a 42-mile-long arc of sand that at its most distant point is just 25 miles from the mainland. Made up of seven small villages, about 85 percent of the island is made up of unspoiled Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Once a small commercial fishing village, Hatteras evolved into a major Gulf Stream sportfishing destination, with blue marlin in particular a tantalizing catch. Family-owned seafood businesses and fishing charters thrive here, making OBX a paradise for catching, and eating, local seafood.
It’s also one of the best places for kiteboarding. A cross between surfing and flying that definitely isn’t for the height challenged, this sport has really taken off in Hatteras and a few other spots along the Outer Banks. Even if you’re not inclined to give it a go, watching the colorful kite sails carrying surfers airborne is lyrically entertaining.
Birders flock to Hatteras, where they might spy nearly 400 species of birds in places like the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, a magnet for migrating species, shorebird nesting areas and wading bird rookeries.
At the end of the day, though, it’s all about the pristine beaches. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can drive for miles along a two-lane coastal highway with only rolling sand dunes and sea birds for company.