TO A FIRST TIME visitor, the dearth of Southern culture in the Outer Banks in North Carolina is surprising. For generations, local families have survived by harvesting the sea, creating a population of entrepreneurs who tend to think outside the box. Even the local accent is unique to the region. Known as a high-tide brogue, it borrows inflection from the areaâ??s Irish and English roots, with nothing Deep South about it.
Still fueled to a large degree by fishing, the local economy is even more dependent on tourism. Essentially 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. During the late spring, summer and into fall, OBX attracts as many as 500,000 visitors drawn by stunning wide beaches, stellar fishing, a shallow coastline dotted with historic wrecks and a picturesque string of quaint villages.
Most sun worshippers stay in the oversized McMansions that line the beaches, six, seven and eight-bedroom abodes that can easily host a multi-gen family gathering or getaway of multiple couples. The size and diversity of the housing stock coupled with competitive ratesâ??you can rent a six bedroom beachfront house with a ton of amenities from about $4,000 in high season, less than half that after Labor Dayâ??makes OBX a worthwhile destination for a longer beach getaway. Some real estate companies will stock your fridge for you, and you can even hire a personal chef to take care of the cookery while youâ??re on vacation.
FIND YOUR OBX
How do you know which town on this scenic 200-mile spit of islands fits your M.O.? In general, the busiest and most commercial towns are in the Northern Beaches, places like swanky Duck (so dog-friendly there isnâ??t even a leash law), Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk. Thatâ??s where youâ??ll find a concentration of bars and restaurants, family fun activities and shopping. Farther south is quaint Roanoke Island, with its pedestrian-friendly downtown and Elizabethan gardens. If you yearn for solitude and pristine nature, Hatteras is even quieter still, with vast stretches of land devoted to sand dunes and sea oats, the perfect place to unplug and commune with nature.
The islandsâ?? past is defined by mystery. The first group of outsiders, who came to this narrow stretch of land some 30 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, was a ragtag contingent of 117 men, women and children. They came ashore on Roanoke Island in July 1587, intent on founding the first permanent settlement in the Americas. Three years later, when a supply ship returned to the spot, the settlement had vanished without a trace. This mystery is entertainingly recounted in The Lost Colony, Americaâ??s longest running dramatic musical. Performed seasonally in an open-air waterfront theater set at the edge of Roanoke Sound, the family-friendly show spotlights more than 200 actors, technicians and designers on a stage three times larger than most Broadway venues. The theater is adjacent to Roanoke Islandâ??s Festival Park, an interactive family attraction that includes costumed interpreters and the Elizabeth II, a representation of one of the original ships.
BY AIR AND BY SEA
Famous for being the site of the first controlled-power 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, kids and history lovers will appreciate the full-scale reproduction of the 1903 Powered Flyer, an ideal place for a group photo. There is also 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 south from the Chesapeake. Frequent severe weather, strong currents and navigational challenges presented by rocky shoals earned the area the nickname The Graveyard of the Atlantic, with conditions 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 arenâ??t planning on diving the wrecksâ??which draw intrepid divers from all over the worldâ??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.
From simple fish houses to upscale dining, the towns of the Outer Banks dish authentic eats. For breakfast, Stack â??em High Pancakes and So Forth in Kill Devil Hills is a family-owned fave since 1981. Belgian waffles topped with chocolate chips, coco loco French toast combines chocolate with coconut and the signature five-stack of â??cakes, is light and best served with bacon and real maple syrup. For lunch, stop at Oâ??Nealâ??s Sea Harvest in Wanchese. Also family owned, the Oâ??Neals operate a seafood business, bringing in fresh catch daily, including soft shells when theyâ??re in season. Locals in the know buy their fish here and order lunch, too: Shrimp, scallop, oyster or soft shell poâ??boys, grilled fresh tuna and shrimp salads and crab cakes. Seating is inside or outside on the deck.
You wonâ??t find a better fine dining experience than at Kimballâ??s Kitchen in the stunning Sanderling Resort in Kitty Hawk. Charming and romantic, this restaurant offers glorious views of the Currituck Sound and its inspiring sunsets. But itâ??s chef John Lawrenceâ??s cuisine that earns the real oohs and aahs. Lawrence, whose resume includes stints at Tides Inn, along with the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, focuses on pristine local seafood, hand-cut pasta and aged steaks accompanied by house-made bÃ©arnaise or a killer bacon Vidalia onion steak sauce.
Donâ??t miss the duck fat roasted potatoes or the lobster Mac â??nâ?? cheese. An impressive craft cocktail program keeps company with a fine line up of local beers and well selected New and Old World wines. A spendy treat, to be sure, but the cuisine sets the bar high.
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 sport fishing 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.
Itâ??s also one of the best places for kite boarding. A cross between surfing and flying that definitely isnâ??t for the height-averse, this sport has really taken off in Hatteras and a few others spots along the Outer Banks. Even if youâ??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, itâ??s all about the pristine beaches. Sometimes, if youâ??re lucky, you can drive for miles along a two-lane coastal highway with only rolling sand dunes and sea birds for company.
The Sanderling Resort in Duck, N.C., is one of myriad Outer Banks locations where vacationers can enjoy sun, surf and restoration. Photo courtesy of Sanderslings Resort.
By Beth D’Addono