Best Things to Do in the Outer Banks, North Carolina
The Outer Banks, located on the East coast of North Carolina, is a treasure trove of barrier islands and 12 beaches. The rich and plentiful nature will astound you! Families who vacation in the Outer Banks, or OBX as it is commonly called, return annually and sing the beach’s praises to everyone that they meet. People who have not vacationed there have no idea what they are missing out on.
During a recent press trip, I had the opportunity to explore a good deal of the Outer Banks, an 81-mile area, for the first time. What I found was remarkable! I could kick myself for not having visited this stellar location years ago!
Here are best things to do in the Outer Banks of North Carolina that I got to experience on my trip. Be prepared for a supreme vacation destination.
Climb Hatteras Lighthouse
The crown jewel of the Outer Banks is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, “America’s Lighthouse.” It is the tallest lighthouse (210 feet) in North America and has the tallest brick beacon in the world. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved half of a mile in 1999 to save it from the encroaching sea. From mid-April to Columbus Day, you can climb the 257 steps to the top (8 resting platforms) and enjoy the killer views.
On my visit, I joined several other travel writers in the incredible heat to climb each step of the lighthouse just to say that I did it. Plus, the views were stellar from the top. Guides were available to offer help and water (for those in need), which I found reassuring. Be sure to visit Hatteras Lighthouse’s well-appointed gift shop and send a few postcards to your friends.
Visit the Sanderling Resort
The Sanderling Resort is a luxury hotel on the waterfront in Duck, North Carolina. It is one of the most charming hotels in the Outer Banks. My husband and I have dreamt of a stay at the Sanderling Resort since first seeing it in a famous luxury hotel magazine over 20 years ago. Whether you are staying there, just visiting for dinner (Lifesaving Station Restaurant), or shopping, prepare to be surrounded by beauty and professional level service.
The Sanderling Resort’s orange highlights inside of the chic and contemporary hotel compliment the 120-rooms and cool company logo perfectly. Those views…oh my….be still my beating heart! The Sanderling Resort is between the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound.
Explore a Martian House
This flying saucer house is one of the few left in America. Matti Suuronen designed portable and prefabricated, the super cheesy silver Futuro home in the ’60s. It can be spotted on NC’s scenic highway 16. Stop and take a peek inside and enjoy the over-the-top outdoor decorations. A Martian might be waiting in the wings for you. Be sure to leave a tip to help support the owner’s endeavors. Shouldn’t a visit to the Outer Banks include something that totally screams “tourist trap”? Your kids will love it!
Get Exercise at Jockey’s Ridge State Park
One look at Jockey’s Ridge State Park will have you thinking you are in the midst of a desert. Huge mounds of sand make for an invigorating hike to climb to the top and over the hump to see the incredible views. My friends and I climbed to the top of the hill, flip-flops in hand, and after a few resting breaks made it to the top. Wow! That is all I can say other than have your camera ready.
Approximately 420 acres make up Jockey’s Ridge State Park, the tallest and largest natural dune system in the Eastern United States. Hang gliding and kite flying are available at the top.
Fly a Kitty Hawk Kite
Kites are a big draw and one of the best things to do in the Outer Banks. The winds are favorable for this beach activity that is reminiscent of classic New England beach vacations. I loved seeing the bright designs and vibrant colors floating through the skies, not to mention the adorable children (and adults for that matter) tending to them.
Flying a kite is a super fun activity in the Outer Banks, and Kity Hawk Kites, located in several places throughout the OBX, is the most recognized name for them. Kitty Hawk Kites is also an option of where you go to learn and hang-glide, jet-ski, or any other outdoor adventures in the Outer Banks.
See “The Lost Colony” (Manteo)
This rich musical drama, featuring 12 actors and musicians, is in its 80th year this season. The age-old story depicts how the Roanoke Colony vanished from Roanoke Island in 1587. It is America’s longest-running mystery and commemorates the original colonists in a famous 1500-seat outdoor amphitheater. The beautiful and creative props, sets, and costumes are all made on site.
Each summer, a new group of youngsters spends their time here entertaining guests and singing songs prepared by Pulitzer prize winner, Paul Green. The Lost Colony musical has won Tony Awards for excellence in theater. The 74 performances take place from May through late August.
Did you know that Andy Griffith got his start right here on this stage?
Wander Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was established as a nesting and resting habitat for the migratory bird, waterfowl, and other wildlife in 1937 by an Act of Congress & Presidential Executive Order. From ocean to the sound, the distance stretches 12-miles along NC Highway 12 and contains around 6000-acres of salt marshes, barrier dunes, ponds, tidal creeks, and bays. The island is a birder’s paradise where 365 species can be found. Bald eagles often stop by, and loggerhead sea turtles lay their eggs here.
Pea Island contains both a visitor center with inspiring exhibits and a gift shop. Inside, a picture window offers telescopes for up close and personal bird watching, including raptors, shorebirds, wading birds, and waterfowl. We saw gorgeous wildlife and scored amazing pictures at Pea Island.
Pro Tip: Wear plenty of bug spray. This city girl had a hard time without any.
Learn about Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station (Rodanthe)
For its time, the Chicamacomico Life Saving Station (used before today’s Coast Guard) was one of the most complete stations for saving those in danger from the sea in the nation. From 1874 to 1954, the station practiced daily drills to ensure the best life-saving efforts they could. A total of 29 stations were built 6 to 7 miles apart along the Carolina shoreline.
The facility was built in 1874 (rebuilt in 1911 due to a fire), Chicamacomico is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of only two original United States Life Saving Stations in the country that are open to the public. It is now a historic site and museum since being decommissioned in 1954.
During its time, the Chicamacomico Life Saving Station saved 178,741 lives in danger from the sea.
Stroll Around Historic Manteo
The boardwalk at Manteo has the most picturesque setting in the Outer Banks. I noticed a faint smell of jasmine in the air. Manteo is located in Dare County on Roanoke Island. It runs by Shallowbag Bay (no beaches here) and is a great place to stroll around and enjoy the views.
Attractions along Manteo’s water-front include kayaking, paddleboarding, and taking a pirate boat tour. It has world-class restaurants in town, featuring comfort food, American eats, international delights, and of course, fresh seafood. There are boutique shops and art galleries for browsing with impressive ladies apparel, jewelry, and crafts. I found the shopkeepers to be very hospitable and the quality of products offered superior.
Be sure to drop by Outer Banks Distilling for a sample of Kill Devil Rum (the Pecan flavored was my fave) or pick up a bottle for cocktails by the pool.
Check Out the Duck Boardwalk
The Duck Town Park features 11 acres of dog-friendly, natural beauty. In that park, Duck’s water-front Boardwalk is around one mile long on the banks of the Currituck Sound. My travel writer friends and I loved the peaceful setting and brush with nature. While you are there, be sure to have some famous Duck Donuts or shop in the retail stores.
See the Wright Brothers Memorial
This National Memorial commemorates Wilbur and Orville Wright’s phenomenal accomplishment from 1903. It was there that the brothers’ Wright Flyer skimmed over the sand, from a track built above the sand, for 12-seconds before returning to the ground. This was the first recorded flight in history.
The Wright Brothers Memorial is a sophisticated attraction with detailed signage that allows for a remarkable self-guided tour. Take time to watch the movies and read the plaques, which do a great job depicting this incredible feat. I almost felt like I was there on the Flight Line, watching them soar into the wind. The Wright Brothers Memorial has a noteworthy gift shop and staff that is eager to help in any way.
Don’t miss your selfie in front of the December 17, 1903 Sculpture.
Where We Stayed the Outer Banks
Vacation rentals are more prevalent in the OBX than anywhere I have been in the United States. Huge houses provide the perfect family setting for a spacious and comfortable vacation. Dani’s Place (Seaside Vacations), in Nags Head, was our home during our travels to the Outer Banks.
The three-story house featured seven tastefully decorated bedrooms, six and a half bathrooms, an enormous kitchen & dining room, a large living room, and wrap porch, and best of all, an arcade. Anyone up for Ms. Pac-Man or Galaga? Each bedroom had its own private bath. Outside, a private deck with a swimming pool and a ginormous hot tub invited us to soak our cares away at the end of the day.
Dani’s Place had plenty of parking, keyless entry, and allowed for maximum privacy. We also had a semi-oceanview.
Fun in the Outer Banks Never Stops
The six towns and 12 coastal villages of the Outer Banks (a tad bit down from Chesapeake, Virginia, and ends parallel to Greenville, North Carolina) will suck you in and make you fall in love as fast as a Nicholas Sparks novel. It is no wonder that so many of his best-selling books were set in this glorious spot.
Whether you appreciate the preservation of wildlife or crave the recreation that comes in all shapes and sizes here, there is something for everyone in the Outer Banks. Typical beach activity family favorites, including putt-putt, saltwater taffy, outlet shopping, and seashell hunting, are all represented. Bonus, the Outer Banks won’t break the bank.
Read about where to eat in the Outer Banks here.
OBX Fun Facts
Pirate Edward Teach (better known as Blackbeard) was killed on November 22, 1718, during a battle with Virginia troops in Ocracoke.
The term “Murphy to Manteo,” a phrase I heard more than once in the Outer Banks, describes Route 64, which runs east to west through North Carolina.
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