With more than 300 miles of coastline, the Outer Banks has stretches of sand that are consistently rated among the top beaches in the world — a perfect setting whether you crave an active vacation or a simple barefoot walk along empty beaches.
The long stretch of beaches is a six- or seven-hour drive from Baltimore, and the sense of place can change markedly from one milepost to the next.
For a family with school-age children, the beaches from Duck to Nag's Head pulse with activity. The hubbub comes with choices of restaurants, amusement rides, museums, events and water activities.
Those who crave a quieter time could hardly do better than to spend time along Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where contemplative walks are measured in miles of undeveloped seashore. Nature lovers, especially birders, have much to indulge their passion. The National Seashore offers shelter to millions of migratory and endemic birds. Shell collectors can spend days sifting through the treasures that the ocean deposits at their feet.
Marylanders should note that, unlike Ocean City, the Outer Banks go on and on and on. The stretch from the Virginia border to Cape Hatteras alone is 100 miles. Here are some options for lodging, eating and playing, sprinkled along that beach route.
There is no shortage of hotels, and most major chains are represented. The trick is booking early for choice locations (think beachfront) and prices.
Hilton Garden Inn, 5353 North Virginia Dare Trail, Kitty Hawk, 252-261-1290; hiltongardeninn.com (then enter Kitty Hawk, N.C.). Located on the ocean, with swimming, surfing, shelling and sunbathing on the property. Rates: $200-$250 per night.
Spa Koru, Highway 12, Avon, 252-995-3125; spakoru.com. Spa Koru blends lodging and holistic spa services, including a full gym, yoga, massage, and classes and treatments. The lodging in off-the-beaten-path Avon is basic and ranges from $140-$210 per night during the summer. Each unit includes two bedrooms, a full kitchen, washer/dryer and more. Mix and match to create your own rejuvenation package.
The Elizabethan Inn, 814 Highway 64, Manteo, 252-473-2101; elizabethaninn.com. Located in the town of Manteo, with its waterfront park and restored ship of Sir Walter Raleigh. Next to major attractions such as the Elizabethan Gardens, Aquarium and The Lost Colony. Rates: $90-$180 per night.
Dining out rules along the Outer Banks, and restaurants run the gamut from high-end waterfront locations to wallet-friendly fast-food outlets in strip malls. Here are three solid choices for a memorable Outer Banks dinner.
Pamlico Jacks, 6708 South Croatan Highway, Nags Head, 252-441-2537; pamlicojacks.com. Located on the sound, a great place for dinner at sunset. Fresh seafood is the specialty. Dinner entrees from $14-$28.
Basnight's Lone Cedar, 7623 Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head, 252-441-5405; lonecedarcafe.com. Off the main drag, this delightful café has a home-grown feel. Fresh seafood, good service, on the water, fair pricing. Dinner entrees from $17-$28.
Breakwater Restaurant, at the harbor, Hatteras, 252-986-2733; odensdock.com. A bit pricier than other area restaurants, but the location, service and fresh seafood make it a perfect choice for that romantic dinner in the town of Hatteras. Reserve well ahead. Dinner entrees from $20-$30.
There are more family-friendly attractions on the Outer Banks than one would expect to find in a beach locale. Most are free or low-cost.
Wright Brothers National Memorial, Route 158, Kill Devil Hills, 252-441-7430; nps.gov/wrbr. Fee: $4 per person; under 15 free. Exhibits revolve around Orville and Wilbur Wright and the advent of early flight.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Highway 12, South of Oregon Inlet bridge, 252-473-1131; fws.gov/peaisland. Free. Administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, this 5,000 acre, 13-mile stretch of preserve is home to a wide variety of wildlife. There are free interpretive walks and lectures, as well as self-guided trails. Bring camera and binoculars.
Elizabethan Gardens, Roanoke Island, Route 64/264, Manteo, 252-473-3234; elizabethangardens.org. Fee: $8 per adult, $5 ages 6-17, 5 and under free. A unique concept and setting, at the site of the first English colony in the United States. Self-guided or professionally led tours.
Manteo Harbor, 1 Visitor's Center Circle, Manteo, 877-629-4386; outerbanks.org. Free. Great family outing. Roanoke Island Festival Park has 25-acres filled with historical events, a recreation of the Elizabeth II, one of the seven ships that arrived here in 1585, and many other shops and attractions.
Kitty Hawk Kites, 3933 South Croatan Highway (North side), Nags Head, 252-441-4124; kittyhawk.com. One the better outfitters for the adventurous, the shop offers exhilarating hang gliding sessions for beginners to intermediates. It also offers kayaking and kiteboarding experiences.
The Lost Colony, Roanoke Island (Route 64/264), Manteo, 252-473-2127; thelostcolony.org. If there's one don't-miss event during your vacation, it's the nightly performance of this spectacular outdoor play. Held on the water's edge, where the first English colonists set foot in the Americas, this drama re-creates the still- unsolved mystery of those colonists. The show is in its 73rd season, and tickets are $12-$24.
North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, 374 Airport Road, Manteo, 866-332-3475; ncaquariums.com/roanoke-island. Open 9-5 daily. Fee: Adults, $8, Seniors, $7, Children $6. A small, intimate aquarium that focuses on the state's freshwater and marine environments. Includes a large touch tank, shark exhibit, rattlesnakes enclosure and educational displays.
Whether it's a night on the beach or an evening immersed in magic, when the sun goes down the fun is just starting on the Outer Banks.
The Comedy Club of the Outer Banks, comedyclubobx.com. The Club has three locations spread over the Outer Banks; Corolla (The Flying Dutchman), Kill Devil Hills (Ramada Plaza Hotel) and Buxton (Finnegan's Dining Haul). Past talent has included Ray Romano and Drew Carey. Show and dinner packages available.
Mad Jack Comedy & Magic, obxtrememagic.com. Clive and Tracy are definitely at the extreme edge of comedy and magic. Catch them in Kitty Hawk at Mile Post 4.5 in the Music Showcase (outerbanksmusicshowcase.com), which offers everything from magic to Elvis tributes to country jamborees.
The Night Beach. Ninety-nine percent of OBX vacationers never visit the beach after the sun sets. Yet this is the most magical time of all. On well-lit nights you'll see hundreds of ghost crabs scurrying along the beach. Pick one up; they don't bite or pinch. Naturalists from the National Seashore and from the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island offer night tours, most of them for free. (www.ncaquariums.com/roanoke-island or http://www.nps.gov/caha/planyourvisit/events.htm)