The Outer Banks run for 100 miles along the coast of North Carolina. It’s a series of barrier islands, most about one mile wide, connected by bridges and ferries making it easy to travel around. Much of the land is preserved for recreational access to wildlife and nature with multiple national parks, national wildlife refuges, and state parks.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore is the largest stretch of undeveloped beaches on the East Coast running for 70 miles. The southern islands are home to herds of feral horses, sometimes referred to as “banker ponies.” It is believed that these horses are descended from Spanish mustangs washed ashore centuries ago in shipwrecks.
1. The Wright Brothers National Memorial
Wilbur and Orville Wright made their dream of flight come true here. Start at the Visitor Center museum where there are exhibits and information. Then head out to the memorial where the brothers made their first flight in the Wright Flyer. It only lasted 12 seconds, but those seconds changed travel forever.
There are many sculptures on the sand here. You can also take a ranger tour of the many outbuildings on the site.
You will notice the wind is always blowing, and that is the main reason the Wright brothers chose this location to conduct their tests.
2. The Lost Colony
Ever wonder what happened to the settlers of England’s first permanent North American colony at Roanoke Island? The Lost Colony tells the story.
Costumes, set, and acting are impeccable. The Lost Colony is the longest running outdoor drama in the U.S, and it’s performed at the only outdoor theater to receive a Tony award.
For an even better experience, take the backstage tour before the play begins. You are greeted at the gate by two “settlers” who take you behind the curtain where you see scenery prepared and costumes created.
3. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
A visit to Fort Raleigh is another way to learn about the lost colonists. It’s just next door to the Waterside Theater where The Lost Colony play preforms.
The museum has a ranger and many exhibits. One exhibit offers the pros and cons of each possible reason the colonists left. Potential natural causes include a hurricane, starvation, or disease. Or, they could have been attacked by natives or Spaniards.
Outside there is a reconstruction of earthworks created by the earlier exploratory expedition.
You can then take the Thomas Hariot Nature Trail out to Albemarle Sound where these first colonists most likely first landed.
4. Elizabethan Gardens
The gardens and sculptures here create a delightful escape back to the 16th century. The flowers range from huge to tiny and are very colorful. The sculptures are distributed throughout the grounds, and include the largest statue of Queen Elizabeth I in the country.
5. Roanoke Island Festival Park
Just across the river you will find Roanoke Island Festival Park. It’s a living history lesson that gives you a simulated experience of being in the Lost Colony. The main attraction here is the Elizabeth II, a recreation of one of seven English ships that brought the colonists here in 1585. There are costumed interpreters in the village for a more realistic feel.
Get up close with sea life of the Atlantic. When you enter you are part of a reality video that combines your image with alligators, turtles, and sharks that appear to swim around your feet on a floor painted to look like water.
There are seven sections to the aquarium:
- Seven Rivers introduces you to the animals that inhabit the Albemarle Sound. There are alligators and other wildlife. The snakes here range from the non-poisonous corn snake to several types of rattlesnake.
- Wild Wetlands is where you find Molly, Finn, and Banks, three of the cutest river otters you will ever see.
- Sea Treasures displays the sunken ships that sit at the bottom of the ocean waiting to be discovered. It is very realistic with cannons, ships wheels, treasure chests, and kegs that were once filled with rum before sinking to the bottom of Davy Jones’ Locker. They barrels have now become part of a reef that provides a home for many sea creatures from fish to small barnacles.
- Delicate Drifters is home to jellyfish. Watching them slowly drift around the tank is hypnotic.
- Sea Senses is kid heaven. You get to pet stingrays as they swim past.
- Ironclad Sanctuary tells the story of the USS Monitor, a Civil War ship that sank in stormy seas off the coast of Cape Hatteras on December 31, 1862.
- Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center has an interactive, 3,000 square foot Sea Turtle Rescue exhibit. But it’s also a real rescue center where staff and volunteers treat sick and injured sea turtles. There are eight tanks, an examination room, and food prep areas. There are windows where you can watch the turtles and learn about their recovery. Once they are rehabilitated, they are released back into the wild.
Additionally, Soundside Pier is located behind the aquarium, and there you can walk out over Albemarle Sound.
7. Kill Devil Rum
Rum has a long tradition in the Outer Banks. Think “Yo Ho Ho and…” Although there was always rum to be had, Kill Devil Rum in Manteo is the first distillery to make it legally. They offer a free tour of the distillery.
8. Outer Banks Crabbing and Shrimping Charter Adventure
Captain Marc Mitchum is a real Outer Banks crabber and shrimper. He’ll take you out on his boat, the Jodie Kae, and teach you about his job. You’ll probably see dolphins, osprey, and pelicans as you seek out the delicious crustaceans.
The best part is that you can take your catch home to cook at your rental or take it to one of the restaurants to cook it for you.
9. Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station Museum
Remember this was known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” U.S. Lifesaving Stations were a precursor to the Coast Guard. Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station is one of the most complete left in the country. It was built in 1911 and has an actual lifesaving boat and some of the original equipment from the early 1900s. There is an actual station plus a lot of artifacts out back.
10. Visit a Lighthouse
There are five lighthouses in the Outer Banks, but I visited three. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the choice if you can only do one. Built in 1870, it is the tallest brick lighthouse in the world at 210 feet. It protected the coast of Cape Hatteras but had to be moved when the ocean almost engulfed it. You can climb to the top if your legs will make it. The museum tells its story.
Bodie Island Lighthouse is smaller but worth a visit. Roanoke Marshes lighthouse is a little one with an unusual shape. It’s located at the end of the pier on Manteo’s waterfront.
11. Eat Fresh Seafood
There are so many great choices in the Outer Banks. You can start your day with a crab eggs benedict at Sam & Omie’s Restaurant in Nags Head. It is a local favorite begun by fishermen in 1937.
Coastal Provisions Oyster Bar & Wine Bar Café in Southern Shores is the perfect place for lunch. Their specialty is oysters. My favorite is the oysters Rockefeller, and their special touch of bacon and blue cheese is heavenly. They offer over 20 varieties of oysters on the half shell. Also, if you are renting a house rather than staying at a hotel or motel, they have a market with everything you need to cook a seafood feast.
O’Neal’s Sea Harvest is another fresh from the water seafood spot at Wanchese Harbor. They have a soft shell crab processing operation in back. They buy crabs which are about to molt, called peelers, and keep them in water tanks until they turn soft shelled.
Trio is a unique marriage of beer, wine, and cheese in a combined retail shop, wine bar, tap house, and bistro. An interesting feature is the WineStation self-service tasting machines where you can sample up to 24 wines.
Diamond Shoals Restaurant is next door to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse; it is Hatteras Island’s only sushi bar. Their menu changes daily based on what local fishermen catch. There is also a fresh seafood market and a shop with all of the spices needed to cook your own seafood feast. They are also prepared to cook your catch however you like it.
Blue Water Grill and Raw Bar at Pirate’s Cove Marina in Manteo offers waterside dining. There have a large oyster bar.
Kimball’s Kitchen at Sanderling Resort is a great choice for upscale dining. It overlooks Currituck Sound.
12. Stay at a Unique Outer Banks Lodging
Many folks coming to visit choose a rental home on the water. The one I stayed at with our group was located directly on the ocean in South Nags Head, and it was the ultimate luxury living space with more amenities than I can count.
Every bedroom really was a master bedroom, complete with an ensuite bathroom. We had our choice of two hot tubs, a private pool, built in spa, and even a Tiki Bar up on the third floor. There was a rec room with a pool table and shuffleboard; a big laundry room with three sets of washers and dryers for keeping clothes fresh; a theater room with tiered seating for 12 and a wet bar; and two open kitchens that would be right at home on a cooking show.
Between seeing all the sights and dining on fresh seafood, we also got golf privileges and special rates at two local golf clubs. Village Realty has this and many more choices in vacation lodging.
Another good choice is to stay at a historic inn instead of a chain. First Colony Inn is located across from the ocean on Nags Head. The rooms and suites are named for the people who disappeared with the lost colony. They are furnished in an old English style but have all the modern amenities. Breakfast is included as is an evening social from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Both are in the John White room next to the office.
There are multiple campgrounds along Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Watch for wading birds and other wildlife. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge has an interesting museum and a nice hiking trail plus telescopes for bird watching. Bring insect repellant and wear sturdy shoes if you walk the trail over the marsh.
Visit the beach with your family for fresh air experiences such as camping under the stars or hiking and spotting some gorgeous birds and wildlife.
Watch offshore and you are pretty sure to see a dolphin. Wild birds abound. There are gulls, terns, geese, ducks, pelicans, cranes, plovers, great blue herons, tricolored herons, great egrets, little egrets, snowy egrets, and other shore birds.
You’ll find an amazing range of plants there ranging from beach grasses among the dunes to the varieties of palms like the Cabbage palmetto, dwarf palmetto, and wild scrub palms. On the central parts of the islands there are majestic Spanish moss-covered live oaks.
As of May 16, 2020 the Outer Banks are once again open to visitors.