“I see you’re going to OBX, be sure to eat at Duck Deli,” was the final advice from the attendant as he handed me the Enterprise Rent-a-Car keys at Norfolk Airport in Virginia. Well, who knew that OBX is a.k.a. the Outer Banks, just where we were going, and that Duck is the village just down the beach from where we would be staying at The Sanderling Resort & Spa. It’s actually just a short run down the road to the Duck Deli (hickory-smoked BBQ’s the thing) and an outlet for Duck Donuts (made to order; choice of six glazes, three different sprinkles).
Beginning on the North Carolina/Virginia border and joined to the mainland by the Wright Memorial Bridge, the Outer Banks is a chain of narrow barrier islands that shelter the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean. From the villages of Corolla and Duck in the north down to Cape Hatteras, Highway 12 links most of the islands into a long skinny vacationland of immense seaside beauty, natural and cultural history, and laid-back fun. Further, the destination seems particularly and perfectly suited to a few niche-market travelers: families, honeymooners and kiteboarders.
The first thing a first-timer easily discovers is that the most impressive thing about OBX is the spectacular beaches—about 130 oceanfront miles of them—all white, broad, pristine and amazingly empty, although they fill right up in summer. Then you happily find out that great fish and seafood you expected doesn’t disappoint; that OBX is packed with history, starting in 1584 with Sir Walter Raleigh’s first English settlement in the New World, which after 1587 just disappeared without a trace; and that if you want to see the famous wild horses of Corolla, descendants of those that escaped from the Spanish stock brought to the Outer Banks in the 16th century, take a guided wild horse safari by 4×4, over beaches, dune fields and maritime forests.
What travelers may know best about this appealing corner of our country is that aviation began here at Kitty Hawk with Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first successful motor-powered flight in 1903. And in the spirit of flying, adventurers come from all over to fly kites in the 400-acre Jockey’s Ridge State Park, encompassing the tallest sand dunes on the east coast. They also flock here to take to the skies when kiteboarding, hang gliding and parasailing. Kitty Hawk Kites (kittyhawkkites.com) seems to be an institution on the islands, selling every kind of kite-on-a-string imaginable, as well as sports equipment—surf boards, skim boards, paddleboards, and body boards. The adventure company also offers lessons in all the “airborne” activities and takes you wave running, dolphin touring, kayaking, wall climbing and wreck diving.
OBX takes pride in its five lighthouses—and a few accompanying museums—whose beacons were first lit by whale oil. Built in the 19th century, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, at 208 ft., is the tallest brick lighthouse in the nation. It is one of two here (the other is the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla) that permits climbing to the top. Back on terra firma, recommend a stroll through the Elizabethan Gardens on the shores of Roanoke Island, sited right where the first English colonists landed. Flowering paths lead to gardens recreating 16th century landscaping, such as the Queen’s Rose Garden and Shakespeare’s Herb Garden. Jeff Lewis, the gardens’ manager, recommended that we “come back in late-fall and winter when spectacular camellias and daphne are in bloom.”
Other than walking the beaches, this editor’s favorite discovery was the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, a historic site & museum on Hatteras Island, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Until 1915, when the U.S. Life Saving Service was incorporated into the U.S. Coast Guard, the service operated stations along remote, isolated shorelines and is credited with some of the most heroic sea rescues in American history. At Chicamacomico, you tour around the site’s complex of beautifully restored Gothic-style buildings and with luck, the tour is in the company of site director James Charlet, who breathes new meaning into the lives of the “storm warriors” who manned the crew’s quarters, survivors’ room and cook house.