Fun & Tasty Things to Do in the Outer Banks, NC for the Whole Family
Looking for the perfect Mid-Atlantic getaway destination? There are more fun and tasty things to do in the Outer Banks, NC — for the whole family or a quiet weekend for two.
The rustic barrier islands of the Outer Banks lie off the coast of North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. At first, even the name sounds romantic. Affectionately known as the OBX, this narrow series of sandbars and islands is a land of firsts... America's First Beach where the English first tried to settle in the New World. First National Seashore at Cape Hatteras. The Wright Brothers' First Flight. And the site for so many first family vacations. Given so much history and countless generations, you might assume there'd be no more room on the Outer Banks to get out and play. But amazingly, mass development has been curtailed, and even occasionally washed away. Mother Nature still reigns supreme here, reminding locals and visitors who's boss every now and then. She's what makes the OBX what it's always been, and thankfully still is today.
Fun Things to Do in the Outer Banks, NC
If you’re not quite familiar with the North Carolina coast, one look at a map will show you why the Outer Banks are considered the wild and rugged coastline of the state. This narrow spit of land hardly seems attached to the mainland, and is so narrow in parts you can see water out of both sides of your car window as you drive along. The Outer Banks jut out into the Atlantic getting battered from the harsh winds before the coastline tapers down-state toward Wilmington NC and its island beaches, and into the calmer South Carolina lowcountry.
From sun and sea, to sandcastles and lighthouses, and plenty of fresh seafood and family activities in between, there’s something about the OBX your whole family will love. To help you get started planning, check this helpful Outer Banks vacation planner.
Wright Brothers Memorial
The Wright Brothers chose the Outer Banks to experiment with flight for three reasons: wind, sand, and isolation. And a visit to the Wright Brothers Memorial brings all three into sharp focus. You can imagine them running in the wide open sand dunes (now grass) working to get their biplane contraption off the ground. You can visit the reconstructed camp building and hangar, the Visitor Center which will reopen in the Fall of 2018 after major renovations. Then walk a short way up Big Kill Devil Hill to the base of the Monument itself. The statues near the Monument make for great photo ops too!
Jockey's Ridge State Park
Jockey's Ridge State Park is the tallest natural sand dune on the east coast of the US, making it one of the best places on the OBX for outdoor enthusiasts whether it's hang gliding you're into (with an onsite vendor) or sandboarding (permit needed). The hard-packed surface at the top of the dunes makes it a great place for flying kites, and the amazing view arcs from the Atlantic to Roanoke Sound - perfect for sunset!
TIP: Mobility-impaired Visitors: Call ahead 24-hours in advance and schedule an all-terrain-vehicle ride to the top of the dunes.
There's Rum in Them Thar Hills!
It's a tasty nickname and oh so appropriate that the term "Kill Devil" refers to rum! With the emphasis on the first word - as in "Kill Devil" - it's not at all surprising that Native Americans gave it this name. Given the treacherous coastline along the Outer Banks, sailors were often left to hide their booty when their ships ran aground. Bottles of rum were often hidden in the dunes for a later retrieval, leading the area to become known as Kill Devil Hills.
Today, the Outer Banks Distilling company makes several varieties of Kill Devil Rum from sugar cane, and boy is it ever good! Surprisingly, the Silver rum was incredibly smooth - enough for me to pick up a bottle to take home. Another fan favorite is the Honey Pecan Rum, a flavor I didn't care for as much as the Silver, though it was a great addition to the Signature House rum drink later that night at Kill Devil Grill!
There's a thriving art scene in the Outer Banks, and several notable galleries and artists to look for when you visit. Local artist Pem Bryant turns authentic seaglass into wearable works of art such as statement necklaces, bracelets, and rings. His work is featured at KDH Co-Op Gallery which features the work of local artists from around the OBX. Seaside Art Gallery features the work of prolific local and national artists who share a love of the Outer Banks. We visited during their annual and much-anticipated Miniature Art Show, where - like tiny jewels - the art was smaller but the attention to detail (even under a magnifying glass) was astounding!
Outer Banks Lighthouses
With the rich maritime history here, it's no surprise the lighthouses of the Outer Banks are a big attraction, and there are five you can visit. Four are historic: Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and Ocracoke Island Lighthouse. One lighthouse in the village of Manteo - Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse (2004) - is a relatively new addition to the quaint downtown, and is an exterior reconstruction of a screw-pile lighthouse that once stood at the southern entrance to Croatan Sound near Wanchese. You can even climb to the top of three Outer Banks lighthouses - it's a thrilling good workout and nothing else beats the amazing view!
Outer Banks Seafood
If you love fresh seafood, you'll love the Outer Banks for some of the most unique sea-to-table experiences, and of course fresh blue crab, fresh shrimp, fresh cobia... you get the picture! The fresh seafood is what makes this part of the country one of the top food destinations in America. Take a Crabbing and Shrimping Charter adventure with local Captain Marc Mitchum where the kids can help send out crab floats or retrieve the day's catch. It's hands-on and lots of fun - and chances are always good you'll see lots of dolphins and other marine life on the water. It's also a great lesson in where so much of the local food comes from.
If you'd rather skip the adventure and go right for the food, pick up the day's catch at O'Neal's Sea Harvest where it's caught, cleaned, and if you want, cooked for you.
There are so many good OBX restaurants to try, but several stand above the rest for their unique setting, outstanding food, or both.
For breakfast, you can't beat the morning beach view at the Pier House Restaurant at Nag's Head Pier. Jolly Roger is another local breakfast favorite - one look at the quirky decor tells you it's been beloved for generations. Our breakfast at Cafe Lachine was simply outstanding with a perfectly cooked Eggs Benedict and home fries. And if your gang wants something sweet to start their day, head to Duck Donuts where all your donut dreams come true!
One of my favorite spots for lunch in the OBX is Trio Wine, Beer, and Cheese. Their specialty (in case you couldn't figure it out when you walked in) is wine, beer, and cheese from around the globe. Charcuterie platters are popular and perfect for two. Not in a carnivore kinda mood? Go for the Shrimp & Grits - it's some of the best I've had! Tortugas' Lie in Nag's Head has fresh and yummy Caribbean fare - my Quinoa Salad was loaded with fresh veggies and local shrimp, and I was coveting the Baja Fish Tacos at the table next to me :-)
Further down the OBX in Avon, Pangea Tavern also had a fresh and creative lunch. The Gourmet Garden Burger I had was INsane - a patty of locally sourced vegetables and quinoa was grilled with melted cheddar cheese and topped with spring greens, guacamole, tomato, and spicy aioli. Truly heaven!
We ate dinner at three of the best restaurants in Outer Banks, and would go back in a minute. Let's start with Kill Devil Grill. Housed in an original retro diner expanded out the back, the food here was expertly and creatively done. I've never before raved about chicken wings, but the Backyard Wings at Kill Devil Grill were crazy good. The waitress gave away a small secret (soaked in buttermilk for two days) but stopped short of giving it all away. They were falling-off-the-bone amazing with a perfect smoky taste and just a hint of heat. My Hanger Steak was also tender and perfectly prepared. Fantastic! Café Pamlico at the Inn at Pamlico Sound is an excellent choice for dinner at this boutique hotel with a commanding view over Pamlico Sound. Enjoy a craft cocktail before dinner on adirondack chairs at the waters edge, then head up to savor an exceptional dinner. The Cafe is a relaxed fine dining restaurant, serving fresh local seafood nightly among other offerings. Much of their garden's bounty is evident in each expertly prepared dish. My shrimp dish was lovely and garlic-y with shrimp so fresh and perfectly cooked!
Located in the original - and beautifully restored - Caffey's Inlet Life Saving Station No. 5, The Lifesaving Station at Sanderling Resort celebrates southern coastal cuisine using regional, organic ingredients. The atmosphere is casual and comfortable with a nod to all things nautical. My Chicken in Biscuits was a work of art - a fried boneless chicken breast with goat cheese, scallion, and sweet mustard over warm potato salad. Yum! And if you think that sounds yummy, take a look at their desserts!
Where to Stay in the Outer Banks
In the Outer Banks, you'll find lodging options to fit every budget and style - from upscale resorts and boutique hotels to multi-bedroom vacation rentals!
Upscale Resort in Duck
The Sanderling Resort in Duck is well-regarded as the place to stay for a romantic getaway or family vacation. With it's relaxed New Englandy feel, it's the kind of place you'll never want to leave. Since Duck is so close to the North Carolina/Virginia border, it makes a perfect base for seeing the wild horses at Chincoteague.
Wellness Resort & Spa in Avon
Further down the island in Avon, the Koru Village Resort & Spa is equal parts fitness and yoga center, tranquil spa, beach resort, and wellness retreat. 7 casual and green villas include membership to Klub Koru and free access to their local fitness center, spas, amenities, beach club, pier and fishing. Bonus... there's yoga on the beach!
European-Style Boutique Hotel in Hatteras
In Hatteras village, The Inn on Pamlico Sound is a European-style boutique hotel with 12 well-appointed suites and a host of amenities to help make your stay just like home.
OBX Vacation Rentals
The OBX is known for their fabulous vacation rentals - multi-level homes outfitted with all the creature comforts your family could want. And many of them are so large, they're perfect for extended families, multi-family vacations, or girlfriend getaways where everyone has their own room. We stayed in a Resort Realty vacation home that would be perfect for evergrowing families. Sunfish Sanctuary, located a block from the beach, has 6 bedrooms, 6 baths (and 1 half bath) and could easily sleep 18-20. The pool, spa, and gameroom on the lower floor (with pool table, video game, TV, fridge and kitchenette) is perfect for late night fun!
Many thanks to The Outer Banks for hosting me on this recent trip to the OBX. As always, all opinions are my own, based on our first-hand experience.