If ever there was a place that allows you to experience an unspoiled natural setting while gazing out at a spectacular ocean, it's North Carolina's gorgeous Outer Banks. The Outer Banks are a long line of virtually untouched barrier islands that start at the Virginia Border and stretch over 120 miles to Ocracoke Island. This string of peninsulas forms a natural border between the Atlantic and mainland North Carolina. Incredibly, the natural beauty of the Outer Banks has remained intact even though the area welcomes around 5 million visitors every year. There are no large cities here, only sleepy fishing villages and beautiful small towns. And it is these towns that will point you in the right direction to start exploring one of the most magnificent destinations in America.
Corolla (pronounced Car-rah-la) is the northernmost kick-off point of an unforgettable Outer Banks trip. Apart from the panoramic sea views, you'll likely spot a handful of the roughly 100 feral Banker horses roaming the beaches and roads in this tiny town. And that's just the beginning of the sights in this wonderful place.
The 500 permanent residents here are very proud of their gorgeous red brick lighthouse and love showing it off to tourists every year. The 162-foot Currituck Beach Lighthouse opened in 1875, and today, people can climb the more than 200 stairs to the very top to look out of the Currituck Sound and the vast Atlantic Ocean. Far down below are stunning beaches and the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education. Here, you'll find several fascinating wildlife displays and exhibits. When you inevitably get hungry from all the fresh air, the North Banks Restaurant & Raw Bar has you covered with scrumptious sea dishes. Or you can visit Uncle Ike's Sandbar & Grill for traditional and delicious bar food.
Fifteen miles south of Corolla is the thriving coastal community of Duck. This eclectic town is surrounded by maritime forests, delicate wetlands, and some of the most dramatic dunescapes in the US. And that's not even mentioning the gorgeous beaches.
Here, you can explore a soundfront boardwalk as you gaze at the Currituck Sound shoreline. There is more than enough space for fishing, surfing, and watersports, and if you time your trip right, you can enjoy the annual Duck Jazz Festival that happens every October in Duck Town Park. At the park, you'll also find an outdoor theatre, picnic shelter, and canoe launch. When night falls over Duck, you can head to the AQUA Restaurant for a casual dining experience or enjoy traditional Caribbean-style seafood at the popular Sunset Grill & Raw Bar.
A mere five minutes away and comfortably wedged between Duck and Kitty Hawk is the atmospheric town of Southern Shores. This was the first planned town in the Outer Banks region, and it's well known for its low, flat-roofed houses. The Outer Banks is narrower here, which limits development but allows the vast sea of moss-covered trees to flourish. There is a bike and walking path beside the road, but no public beach access without a parking permit.
This doesn't mean you shouldn't stop here on your way from Duck to Kitty Hawk. You can feel like a kid again at the H20BX Waterpark with its abundance of rides, slides, and lazy river. You can also play a round of golf or try your hand at a new yoga routine while looking out at the water. For food, you can visit the Southern Shores Pizza & Deli, which brings a NYC flavor to its delicious pizza and subs.
Next up is Kitty Hawk, yet another beautiful Outer Banks town. The name Kitty Hawk comes from the native Algonquin American Indian word Chickahawk, which means "a place to hunt geese." While this is a small town with less than 4,000 inhabitants, it is still world-famous for being the place where the Wright brothers sent a telegram from the Weather Bureau office to let their father know they had made the first controlled powered airplane flights at Kill Devil Hills, which lies four miles south of Kitty Hawk. Today, the Wright Brothers National Memorial stands in Kitty Hawk as a reminder of this incredible historic feat.
Other than the memorial, the Kitty Hawk Pier is a must-visit. The 1000-foot-long fishing pier provides unmatched views of the sea, sound, and surrounding marsh. It is also a hugely popular wedding venue. For an adrenaline-filled adventure, you can hit the dunes at Jockey's Ridge State Park, not far from Kitty Hawk. The Jockey's Ridge dune is the tallest natural dune on the US East Coast and the perfect place to go kite flying and hang gliding. When it's time for dinner, you'll find some excellent dishes at the Black Pelican Oceanfront Restaurant, including fresh seafood, mouthwatering steaks, tasty pizzas, and lots more.
Kill Devil Hills
As you continue your southward journey towards the other end of the Outer Banks stretch, you'll find the quirkily named Kill Devil Hills. Some say that the name came from rum strong enough to "kill the devil", while others believe the town was named after the strong gales that blow here. Kill Devil Hills is only 3.6 miles away from Kitty Hawk and is the largest town by population in the Outer Banks region.
The Kill Devil Hills beach looks like a wilder and more natural version of the Malibu beach strip. The foamy surf nearly kisses the wooden stairs leading from the houses, and the waves here are as mysterious as they are dangerous. If you decide to spend a beach day here, check the water and riptide condition signs before getting too close to the water. After a great day on the beach, you can fish for your dinner from the Avalon Fishing Pier and shop for side dishes at one of the fish markets in town.
Another ten minutes' drive, and you'll find yourself in the gorgeous town of Nags Head. Folklore has it that wreckers would hang lights on horses' heads (nags) to trick ships into wrecking themselves against the rocks. They would then loot these ships. The town's emblem even depicts a horse head, strengthening the tale.
Nags Head is one of the most beautiful towns in the Outer Banks and offers a variety of outings and experiences. These include dolphin cruises, adventure parks, shopping centers, and a host of seafood restaurants. Jockey's Ridge State Park also falls within Nags Head, so you can go hang gliding while taking in the magnificent views. Or, enjoy the hiking trail mile, take a boat trip, or have a picnic on the sand.
Don't forget to check out the 156-foot-tall Bodie Lighthouse, where you can participate in a full moon climb between June and September. If you bring the family along on your Outer Banks trip, spoil them with a visit to Whalebone Park or First Flight Adventure Park with its 50 obstacle courses. Afterward, you can all satisfy your appetites at Miller's Waterfront Restaurant & Sunset Bar & Grill, where fresh seafood and steaks await.
Moving along to the southernmost part of the Outer Banks, the next stop is Manteo, which sits on the mysterious Roanoke Island. It is the site where over 100 English settlers arrived in 1587 to build a new settlement. It is also the site where the supply ships found a deserted colony three years later.
Apart from this enduring mystery, there are several other things to explore and enjoy in Manteo in 2023. While there aren't any beach access points, you can get out on the water and enjoy the sunset as night descends over this special place. Book a shrimping and crabbing charter at the Shallowbag Bay marina or visit the unique Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. On the other side of the Manteo Bridge, you'll find Roanoke Island Festival Park, a tiny island boasting a replica of the Europeans' vessel. When it comes time to eat, you cannot miss out on the blue crab dip and shrimp tacos at Avenue Waterfront Grille or the mixed menu at Stripers Bar and Grille.
Nearly thirty miles south of the mystifying Roanoke Island lies the romantic village of Rodanthe. This small town is part of the so-called Tri-Villages, alongside Waves and Salvo. The borders between the three villages seem to blur, and yet each place has its own fascinating history and voice.
Rodanthe is an artist's dream, with seemingly endless shorelines and a hint of adventure around each corner. It is also home to the Pea Island National Wildlife Reserve, where 30,000 + acres teem with wildlife and birds. If you want to be as close to the water as possible, you can camp waterfront at Rodanthe Watersports and Campground, where tents and RVs are welcome.
The village also boasts the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station on the outskirts of Rodanthe. Crew members stationed here have performed several dramatic rescues over the years. The complex is now a museum and souvenir shop. Another landmark in Rodanthe is Neptune's Kitchen and Dive Bar which is a local favorite. You can dine on seafood, steak, excellent sandwiches, and steamer plates, all while catching rays and watching the waves.
Speaking of waves, this second town of the Tri-Villages is known for water sports. Waves was previously known as South Chicamocomico and even South Rodanthe. It got the name Waves in 1939 and has attracted ocean-loving visitors ever since. There is a watersports hub in the center of the village where you can rent gear and book kiteboarding and surfing lessons. Or, if you feel like stepping back in time, you can visit the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. The museum features nautical history, including shipwrecks, artifacts, and Civil War relics. You simply can't stay in Waves for just one day, so book a cabana from Watermen's Retreat to enjoy the surfing vibe in the town while feasting on delicious dishes at the Watermen's Bar and Grill.
The last and southernmost town in the Tri-Villages region, and also the final town on this list, is Salvo. This is a true seaside village in the sense that it only has a few tackle stores and a couple of general stores, and not a whole lot else.
It is one of the best places in the US to unplug, unwind, and enjoy several days of uninterrupted beach time. You can spend a few hours at the Salvo Day Use Area, where picnics and kayak trips are at the order of the day. If you love unconventional art, the Pea Island Art Gallery is a great spot to find pieces to add to your collection. You can even rent a vintage buggy to get around and find hidden gems in this gorgeous village. Stop at the Village Conery for ice cream or yogurt, or indulge in a few cocktails at Tina's Tavern. For food, you cannot go wrong with the Atlantic Coast Café for a hearty breakfast or lunch.
The Outer Banks don't end with Salvo. There are still the towns of Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Hatteras, and Ocracoke to explore. Each of these villages offers a unique and beautiful glimpse into life on the Outer Banks. So, the next time you want to watch the sunrise sparkling over the Atlantic, do it from an Outer Banks vantage point and experience one of the most unspoiled regions in the entire US for yourself.