The Outer Banks, North Carolina

[This article originally appeared as a travel feature in The Baltimore Sun.]

The Outer Banks

By Lester Picker

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. Whether you crave an active water vacation or a spiritually recharging barefoot walk along empty beaches, the Outer Banks has it all.

The Outer Banks is just a 6- or 7-hour drive from Baltimore. The sense of place can change markedly from one milepost to another. 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 galore.

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 oceans deposit 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 places to stay, eat and recreate, sprinkled along that beach route.

Lodging

There is no shortage of hotels along the Outer Banks. Most of the 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, www.hiltongardeninn.com (then enter Kitty Hawk, NC).

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, www.spakoru.com. Spa Koru is a blend of 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 2 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, www.elizabethaninn.com. Rates: $90-180 per night. Located right 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.

Restaurants

Dining out rules along the Outer Banks, running 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. Located on the Sound, a great place for dinner at sunset. Fresh seafood is their specialty. Dinner entrees from $14-28.

Basnight’s Lone Cedar, 7623 Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head, 252-441-5405, www.lonecedarcafe.com/. Off the main drag, this delightful café has a home-grown feel to it. Fresh seafood, good service, on the water, fair pricing. Dinner entrees from $17-28.

Breakwater Restaurant, the harbor, Hatteras, 252-986-2733, www.odensdock.com. A bit pricier than other restaurants in the area, 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.

Attractions

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, www.nps.gov/wrbr. Fee: $4 per person; under 15 free. Exhibits revolving 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. 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.

Lighthouses. 252-473-2111, www.nps.org/caha, Free. Lighthouses dot the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, designed to save ships from joining the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Most popular are the Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, and Ocracoke (accessible by free ferry) sites. All are located along Route 12 and are clearly marked.

Elizabethan Gardens, Roanoke Island (Route 64/264), Manteo, 252-473-3234, www.elizabethangardens.org. A unique concept and setting, located at the site of the first English colony in the United States. Self-guided, as well as professionally led tours.

Manteo Harbor, 1 Visitor’s Center Circle, Manteo, 877-629-4386, www.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.

Fun

Kitty Hawk Kites, 3933 South Croatan Highway (North side), Nags Head, 252-441-4124, www.kittyhawkkites.com. One the better outfitters for the adventurous, KHK offers exhilarating hang gliding sessions for beginners to intermediates. They also offer kayaking and kiteboarding experiences.

The Lost Colony, Roanoke Island (Route 64/264), Manteo, 252-473-2127, www.thelostcolony.org. If there is one don’t-miss event during your vacation it is attending the nightly performance of this spectacular outdoor play. Set on the water’s edge, where Sir Walter Raleigh and the first English colonists set foot in the Americas, this drama recreates the still unsolved mystery of those colonists. Now in its 73rd season, tickets are $12-24 each.

North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, 374 Airport Road, Manteo, Toll Free: 1-866-332-3475. Open 9-5 daily. Fee: Adults, $8, Seniors, $7, Children $6. A small, intimate aquarium that focuses on the fresh water and marine environments of North Carolina. The large touch tank, shark exhibit, rattlesnakes enclosure, and educational displays are well done (Disclosure: I used to be the Director of this aquarium).

Hit the Beach. Anywhere along the Outer Banks. Swim, duck waves, look for seashells, walk, jog, sunbath (slather on the sunscreen!), surf, kiteboard, bellyboard, skimboard, watch dolphins and whales, read, photograph, nap.

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