With all that I write about Washington, DC, it might seem that I never leave here. Yet while I love the city and appreciate all there is to do in the area, I also love to travel. How and where I indulge that spirit has changed significantly since having children, as many parents can likely relate. But our family does get out of town now and then, usually on easy, drivable trips and, less frequently than I prefer, to farther-flung destinations.
Among the accessible escapes my hands-down favorite is the Outer Banks. Around every Memorial Day our family heads south for an extra long weekend getaway on North Carolina’s strand of barrier islands that bow into the Atlantic, despite there being closer beaches in DelMarVa.
Down there, the vibe feels a little more relaxed than its counterparts to the north, a quality I attribute to both the topography and hospitality. The Outer Banks possess a simple, gentler beauty. White-sand shores stretch for miles along the water. Rolling dunes studded with stalks of sea grass sweep across the landscape. Coastlines are relatively pristine, void of highrise condos and masses of people. And the locals live up to the southern stereotype, welcoming visitors with their signature charm and open arms.
Then & Now
Our Memorial Day tradition actually began about 12 years ago, before Levi and I had kids, before we were even married. We’d road trip to the town of Avon on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where a large group of friends – a couple of years there were nearly 50 of us – would rent a cluster of houses for what was essentially a multi-day beach party. (I’d go into more detail, but regaling might make me wistful, not to mention this is a family blog.)
Needless to say, the experience has changed a bit since those carefree, kid-free days. Now we rent houses with other families, and our days center around the children, not a case of beer in the cooler (the beer is there, just not our main focus). We also stay in closer towns, usually Nags Head or Kill Devil Hills, to save a couple of hours on the drive, but still have access to good surfing beaches for our friends who like to ride the waves. And non-beach family activities, which can be found all over, are extra plentiful in those areas.
Of course, beach time is our main recreation. And it’s always a quick walk from our house; easy access to the sand and water is among our rental criteria, so we don’t have to worry about loading up the car and parking. The broad, uncrowded shores let us spread out, and the kids have plenty of room to frolic, build sandcastles, and play in the surf. On good beach days the OBX waters and wind can produce anything from a mellow tide ebbing and flowing over the wet sand to rolling swells perfect for boogey board rides and surfing further off shore. Naturally, conditions get rougher with the weather. And off Cape Hatteras beaches, where two major currents collide, the waters can be gnarly—a popular playground for water sports enthusiasts, but a much less hospitable one for kids.
In or out of the water, our eyes are always peeled for wildlife—seagulls nosedive mid-flight to snag a beakful of fish, flocks of pelicans and other birds glide by in “V” formations, and crabs occasionally creep along the sand. Pods of dolphins jumping in the waves are a luckier sighting, and when the tide is low we can see small fish swim by our feet.
All the beach action stirs up appetites, so we always pack a cooler of food and drinks, as there are no food vendors lined up on these parts (and I’ll happily take the natural beauty over the convenience), but depending on the locale, there may be eateries on The Beach Road, the first street off the oceanside coast.
While we usually opt to walk to the beach, it’s also fun to take advantage of the opportunity to four-wheel it on the sand. The OBX is one of few places on the east coast that permits 4×4 driving on beaches. We accessed the beach at Oregon Inlet that way on our last trip, and the kids loved the ride along the sand and parking just yards away from the water in a row of other vehicles. A few other beaches allow driving at certain times of the year, and there are rules and regulations to follow if you go.
Recreation Beyond the Beach
There’s an abundance of family activities to enjoy all over OBX. Some boast natural and historic significance; others are just plain ol’ fun. We never miss an excursion to Jockey’s Ridge State Park, where the tallest sand dunes on the east coast are nothing short of spectacular. The best time to visit is early or late in the day when the sun isn’t at its strongest, nor the sand its hottest, but shoes are always a good idea, as the sand can scorch when it heats up. Watching hang gliders take off from atop the ridge and flying kites in the wide, open space delights all ages. Kites are available in just about any beach shop or grocery store, but you can pick up something special (and likely more expensive) at one of several Kitty Hawk Kites locations. A couple of hiking trails traverse the park, though tramping in the sand can be slow-going for little ones. Parking is at milepost 12, and there is a boardwalk nearby for a shorter walk over the dunes.
For some historical exploration, the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills honors the first airplane flight with a stone monument overlooking Kitty Hawk, where the achievement occurred. Exhibits and artifacts are on display in the Visitor Center, open from 9am – 6pm during summer, and a reconstructed hanger and Wright Brothers’ living quarters are open for tours, along with a pavilion housing relics of aviation from that time.
At the southern end of the Outer Banks, Cape Hatteras Light offers another historical glimpse, some of the best vistas of the Carolina coast, and a decent work out to boot. Visitors can climb the 248 steps of the spiral staircase to a lookout near the top of the lighthouse. Admission is $7/adults and $3.50/age 11 and under, and kids must be 42” to climb. I’ll be honest: it’s not the most pleasant of walks up—it’s stuffy and dark inside—but the view, experience, and bragging rights are worth it.
Our beach trips always include some mini-golf and go-carting, both available in many OBX towns. Most courses have themes that thrill kids, dinosuars, pirates, and trains among them. We hit Jurassic Putt in Nags Head on our last trip, and raced go-karts at the Nags Head Raceway after.
While we aren’t avid anglers, we usually visit one of the several OBX piers to watch fisherman reel in their catch and enjoy the vantage points from the water. There are wooden walks in Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head, and a few more on the Hatteras seashore in Avon, Frisco, and Rodanthe.
Finally, I must mention the outlets. The kids might not love it, but my girlfriends and I do, and we always make time to hit the shops. Located in Nags Head, there are over 25 stores at Tanger Outlets, many of them really good—my suitcase is always heavier on the return trip.
Part of the luxury of a house rental are home cooked meals, and you can stock up on groceries at Food Lion or Harris Teeter, both popping up in several places on Highway 12 in the northern section and Hatteras Seashore. Almost all houses come with outdoor grills, and we’ve never had a kitchen not stocked with a big crab pot. And like any good beach town, there are myriad places to get fresh seafood for a big boil.
Of course, it’s always nice to leave the cooking to someone else sometimes, and just about every restaurant is family friendly (save for a few upscale restaurants in the northern towns that may not be). We’ve enjoyed good meals at Blue Moon Beach Grill, and MexiCali Brews, and even the crude-sounding Dirty Dicks has a decent kids menu. But my number one, must-eat recommendation in OBX is a fish sandwich from John’s Drive In in Kitty Hawk. It’s one of those places that you have to hear about from a trusted source–consider me that source. Treat yourself to a shake while you’re there.
Getting There and Staying
The Outer Banks extend for a good 200 miles, so the distance door-to-door from DC can vary greatly, depending on where you stay. Corolla, Duck, and Southern Shores are the northern most towns, and they are often mentioned together since they are the only OBX towns with private beaches, accessible only to folks who stay in their villages. Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, and Kitty Hawk are just beyond. Shopping areas, eateries, and family entertainment are plentiful, though not overwhelming through that route. Drive further south, and you’ll hit Cape Hatteras National Seashore, mapped by Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras. Without traffic, it’s about a five-hour drive to the closer towns and a good seven to some places on the Hatteras Seashore. With really heavy traffic, you can add up to three to that.
Rentals are available everywhere, with size, location (oceanfront, oceanside, soundside, etc.), and amenities (private pool, hot tub, etc.) factoring into the rates. Weekly rentals are standard, but we usually negotiate a Thursday to Tuesday stay for our Memorial Day trip by booking closer to our travel dates, which while sounding risky has always worked our in our favor (knock wood). It practically guarantees a better drive, and we get a great house at a good rate. We’ve booked through Sun Realty, Stan White Realty, and always browse the listings on VRBO.com.
For more information about the Outer Banks, check out the official website.