Part 1 of our 3 Part Series
Read Part 2 here! (Where to stay at the OBX)
Read Part 3 here! (What to do at the OBX)
First, I’m ashamed to admit that despite living in North Carolina since 2001, I have never taken an Outer Banks vacation. When we moved here, these barrier islands were not easy to reach. Highway improvements and expansion changed all that, though they didn’t change my perception ~ until this year.
Beyond that, I always pictured the “Outer Banks” as a homogenous area, characterized by large, oceanfront homes surrounded by nothing more than other large, oceanfront homes. I pictured wide sandbars (which they are), but without much in the way of creature comforts like restaurants, shopping centers and activities. Of course, those Nicholas Sparks movies didn’t help much; Nights in Rodanthe and Message in a Bottle aren’t exactly adventure films!
When I was invited to the Outer Banks for a media trip, I jumped at the opportunity. I was surprised to discover the diversity of the region. If you are unfamiliar with the region, this series can help you plan a vacation to this beautiful area. If you already know how awesome an Outer Banks vacation can be, I hope you’ll share your recommendations by commenting below!
Today’s post explains the three regions of the Outer Banks. The second post will explain lodging and dining options in each region. The last post will highlight activities across the Outer Banks to help you plan the perfect itinerary for your family! By the way, NOW is the perfect time to plan your Outer Banks vacation for next summer!
The Outer Banks, by region
The Outer Banks is essentially a string of barrier islands and small towns connected by Highway 12. There are two ways in (by road) and another, slower way in, by ferry (weather permitting). Most travelers come by road, from Route 64 through Manteo to Route 12 which connects the Outer Banks from north to south. The two routes come together at roughly the center point of these barrier islands. Travelers can turn left to go to Nags Head, Duck and Corolla. Or they can turn right and head to Avon, Buxton and Hatteras.
North: Duck and Corolla
The northern reaches include the quaint town of Duck and Corolla, home to the famous “wild horses.” Visitors here can expect world-class spas, upscale lodging options and high end dining. From North Carolina, get here by traveling east on NC 64 until turning left on Hwy 12. Visitors from the north (Virginia) come south on Route 158 before crossing the Wright Brothers’ Bridge and turning left.
Corolla, North Carolina. The most remote point on the Outer Banks, much of Corolla exists as the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge — and home to the famous wild horses. A vacation here consists largely of lounging on the beach, walking and biking the trails of the Refuge and relaxing at expansive beach homes with great views.
Duck, North Carolina. Formally incorporated in 2002, Duck is a resort town just a couple miles south of Corolla. Year-round residents number about 500, but during the summer tourist season, those numbers swell into the thousands. Duck is known for having great beaches, water sports and outdoor adventures, a nationally-recognized annual Jazz Festival, fine dining, and eclectic shopping. The town is built for tourists — easy to navigate by bike or on foot. High end and casual restaurants are connected by the Duck Trail and by an expansive boardwalk on the sound side of Highway 12. Duck is quite dog friendly, too — just follow leash laws!
Central: Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head
Most central, and also the most populous area, this region is closest to Manteo and the North Carolina mainland. Visitors to any of this area have three options for vacation home rentals: Soundside (facing the Albemarle Sound), Oceanside (homes along the Beach Road, though not necessarily oceanfront), and “between the highways” (Between Highway 12, aka “Beach Road,” and Hwy 158). Amenities like family friendly (chain and non-chain) restaurants, movie theaters, putt putt golf courses and shopping centers are easy to find making this an easy-to-plan Outer Banks vacation.
Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This town is a laid-back, upscale vacation getaway. Those who enjoy quiet getaways, nature and golfing might prefer the Soundside area. Oceanside vacationers will appreciate fabulous views of the Atlantic Ocean, but the beaches in this area are narrow providing only limited space for beach-combing, sand castles and lounging. “Between the highways” vacationers can enjoy easy access to the amenities of the area, with an easy walk to the beach. With afternoon rains a regular part of the Outer Banks summer, having access to shopping and theaters is a great perk!
Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Kill Devil Hills has 6,000 year-round residents making it one of the larger permanent communities on the Outer Banks. It’s also one of the most popular vacation destinations with a number of shopping, dining, entertainment and lodging options. Like Kitty Hawk, the sound side is quieter, offering quaint cottages for family escapes. Along the Beach Road, vacationers can enjoy great surfing and wide stretches of sandy beaches to relax. Vacation homes vary multi-family mega-houses to simple beach cottages at a variety of price points. Whether staying beach front or “between the highways,” easy access to entertainment and dining options provide something for everyone.
Nags Head, North Carolina. The most popular Outer Banks vacation destination, Nags Head is quintessential “OBX” (though I never knew it). Wide, sandy beaches with great surf are good for families and adrenaline junkies. Attractions like Bodie Island Lighthouse, Jennette’s Pier and Jockey’s Ridge State Park are unique to the area. “Between the highways” lodging provides families everything families might need for a weeklong Outer Banks vacation — shopping, dining and indoor activities for those beach breaks.
South: Avon, Buxton and Hatteras Village
At Highway 12, turn right to discover this unique region, home to fishing charters and great seafood. Less crowded than the central region, this area offers a surprising number of activities for active families.
Avon, North Carolina. This small town offers a great blend of attractions and solitude. Known for its unspoiled beaches, lined by beautiful dunes and luxurious beach mansions, Avon has many restaurants (including a few chain restaurants), a spa, gift-shops, a putt putt course and a fishing pier. Those who want a quiet getaway are sure to find it. Those who want lots to do will also find all they need (plus close proximity to Nags Head to the north for even more).
Buxton, North Carolina. Buxton’s geography makes it a unique destination of all the Outer Banks towns. Buxton is located at the point — where Hatteras Island goes from running primarily north-south to east-west. At the “elbow” the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse stands guard. Surfing at the beaches here is among the best in the world, thanks to the flow of the Labrador Current from the north and the Gulf Stream from the south. Sea fishing is a big attraction here as is driving 4X4s on the beach (license required), hiking the trails of Buxton Woods and kite boarding on the sound side.
Hatteras Village, North Carolina. At the southern tip of Hatteras Island, this section of the Outer Banks is quieter than the more populated towns to the north. This coastal fishing village is a quiet haven on the shore, with restaurants, art galleries and charter fishing and tour boats, it celebrates the shore. On vacation at Hatteras Island, enjoy charter fishing in the morning, watch as your fish is cleaned at the docks, and then head to the local restaurant to have it prepared for dinner.
Best destination in the Outer Banks?
As you can see, the Outer Banks offers a wide variety of vacation experiences. Which vacation experience would you enjoy most? What do you think is BEST for an Outer Banks vacation?
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