You could say the Outer Banks has been in the tourism business since 1587 -- the year early settlers attempted an unsuccessful colonization on Roanoke Island. Ever since, the mystique of these sandy barrier islands has grown, luring generations of families and friends to its charming waterfront communities.
More than 100 miles of soft sand embody the peace and quiet visitors crave and expect in the Outer Banks. A thriving surf community adds thrills as surfers catch gnarly curls at Rodanthe Pier. And because of its location bowing out into the Atlantic and cupping the shoreline, you're guaranteed a water view from either side.
But the beaches aren't the only star attraction here. After all, it was here that aviation was born, thanks to two ingenious brothers. Pirates made pit stops here, including Blackbeard (Edward Teach), who was killed in Ocracoke Inlet. And a string of working lighthouses makes great vantage points for finding shipwrecks visible at low tide.
From living history to the historic seashore, a visit to the Outer Banks will leave you with memories that last longer than the sand in your car.
The Sanderling, 1461 Duck Road, Duck, 252-261-4111; the sanderling.com. The top resort in the Outer Banks keeps getting better, thanks to a recent face-lift of its luxurious rooms, most of which have private porches facing the Atlantic Ocean. Guests enjoy pampering at the full-service spa, indoor pool and fitness center, and can take advantage of the Eco Center, which arranges guided kayak tours and sunset nature tours of Currituck Sound. Summer rates: $299-$450.
Oasis Suites, 7721 Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head, 252-441-5211; oasissuites.com. A good base for exploring the nearby Wright Brothers Memorial, this all-suite hotel evokes a modern flair with granite countertops, Jacuzzi tubs and dark wood floors. Full kitchens, an outdoor pool and soothing views of Albemarle Sound make this a cheaper alternative to renting a private home. Call for summer rates.
Roanoke Island Inn, 305 Fernando St., Manteo, 252-473-5511; roanokeislandinn.com. This cozy, waterfront bed and breakfast has a private boat dock, second-story porch overlooking the marshes and lighthouse, and a private two-bedroom bungalow option for bigger parties. Summer rates from $169.
The Left Bank, at the Sanderling Resort, Highway 12, Duck (inside Scarborough Lane Shoppes), 252-261-6145; thesanderling.com. Exquisite French cuisine is paired with a jaw-dropping list of top wines. The restaurant offers a three-course ($55) and five-course ($75) prix-fixe menu and is open for dinner only.
Penguin Isle Soundside Grill and Bar, Nags Head, 6708 S. Croatan Highway, Mile Post 16, 252-441-2637; penguinisle.com. This lively hangout is one of the best waterfront restaurants from which to view a Southern sunset. Nab a prime seat on the open-air deck and choose from aged-choice Angus beef and fresh seafood from the local Wanchese fish market. The wine list isn't too shabby either, earning a Wine Spectator's "Award of Excellence" since 1992. Entrees are $15.75-$38.
Sam & Omie's, Beach Road, Mile Post 16.5, Nags Head, 252-441-7366; samandomies.net. As reliable at the ocean itself, this institution has been satisfying sunburned bellies since the 1930s. Perfect for a quick afternoon bite, an evening cocktail or a legendary breakfast "omie"-lette stuffed with all kinds of goodness. Entrees are $10.95-$19.95.
Outer Banks Brewing Station, Mile Post 8.5, Highway 158, Kill Devil Hills, 252-449-2739; ob brewing.com. Drink responsibly for both you and the planet at the country's first-ever wind turbine-powered brewpub. Choose from seven strong brews (with names like Old Knucklehead Nut Brown Ale and Shipwreck Stout) while kicking back to live music.
The Pit, Mile Post 9, Nags Head, 252-480-3128; pitsurf.com. Once named "One of the Best Bars in the World" by Men's Journal, this ramshackle log cabin, lined with surfboards and gear, is a popular stop for national bands, churning out some of the best live music in Nags Head.
Roadside Raw Bar & Grill, 1193 Duck Road (N.C. 12), Duck, 252-261-5729. If the dance scene isn't your style, lounge here for live jazz Tuesdays and Thursdays. Light fare is served on the outdoor porch, or you can snuggle inside the cozy cottage for a late dinner and drinks.
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, 59200 Museum Drive, Hatteras, 252-986-2995; graveyard oftheatlantic.com. More than 1,500 sea vessels were shipwrecked along this treacherous stretch of the Outer Banks. Start at this museum for a quick history lesson in screwpiles and Fresnel lenses, and move north, touring various lighthouses along the way.
Wright Brothers National Memorial, between Mile Posts 7 and 8, Highway 158. 252-473-2111; nps.gov/wrbr. Stand on the very spot where Wilbur and Orville Wright launched the world's first powered airplane. View the 60-foot granite monument and make sure to take your camera for the awesome ocean views atop Big Kill Devil Hill.
Waterfall Action Park, N.C. 12, Hatteras Island, Rodanthe, 252-987-2213. Grab the kids and your sense of adventure, and head for this classic beach town amusement park. Waterslides, mini-golf, bumper boats, souped-up go-karts and even bungee jumping make for a fun, sand-free time.
Kitty Hawk Kites, Mile Post 12, Croatan Highway, Nags Head, 252-442-4124; kittyhawk.com. Every conceivable kite configuration you can possibly imagine is here, in a kaleidoscope of colors.
Whalebone Surf Shop, 2214 S. Croatan Highway, Nags Head, 252-441-6747; whalebonesurf shop.com. At this shop, you'll find surf culture to the extreme. Pick up a specialty Takayama board, rent one or catch a family surfing lesson so you can tame those curls at Rodanthe Pier.