Thursday, August 18, 2022

Sun, sand and history: The Outer Banks, North Carolina July 31-Aug 7, 2022

The circumstances surrounding our trip to the Outer Banks are rather roundabout.  Last October and November I was at least knee deep in planning a four city trip to central Europe, but near and about Christmastime 2021, the area pretty much shut down entirely.  Considering my penchant for planning, and the very real need to avoid potential COVID related cancellation expenses, we decided as a family we needed an alternate plan. We decided to go to Pennsylvania to see Craig's mom whom we hadn't seen in several years.  But to where after?  I remembered many years ago a girlfriend of mine telling me if she could choose any place in the United States to go on vacation, it would be the Outer Banks in North Carolina, so the research began.  We invited my sister in law and her family and sent them some pictures and they were literally in by the end of the night.  Off to the Carolina coast we go!

The Outer Banks is a 175 mile long thin stretch of land ranging from near the Virginia border (though you can't drive to its northmost point from VA) to the mostly uninhabited Cape Lookout National Seashore.  The land is separated from the North Carolina Mainland by a series of shallow sounds.  On a map, the area is so thin as to be barely visible.  At most given points, the distance from sound to shore is just a short walk.  

The Outer Banks are a short 2 hour drive from Norfolk International Airport.  From inland you cross the Albemarle Sound on the Wright Memorial Bridge which takes you directly to Kitty Hawk.  From here you can drive highway 12 north to the communities of Duck and Corolla, or proceed south to the more densely populated areas of Kill Devil Hills, Nag's Head and Roanoke Island, or much farther south to the remote areas of Rodanthe, Avon, and Ocracoke.  As first timers, we were advised to stay in a more bustling area, so we chose an apartment at a beachfront property in Kill Devil Hills, the Outer Banks Beach Club Resort.


Though the main attraction in this area is the wide sandy beaches and the beautiful blue water, there is a lot of history in this area which is not to be missed.

A lovely area is the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk.  Included in the $10 admission fee (though we were fortunate to come on a free day) are the visitor center, which chronicles with photographs and correspondence the endeavors of Orville and Wilbur Wright in their pursuit of powered flight and an outdoor area, which consists of recreations of the hangars and barracks inhabited by the Wright Brothers, four stone markers measuring the four flights that took place on December 17, 1903, and the memorial itself, completed in 1932, which is a short climb up a now stabilized sand dune.

The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is at the northern tip of Roanoke Island, a 25 min drive south and then west from Kitty Hawk.  The site is mostly dedicated to the story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke which goes as follows.  In the year 1587, about 100 men, women and children made the nine week voyage over the Atlantic to establish a colony under the crown of Elizabeth I. The conditions, which included drought and strained relations with the natives, were not favorable to the colonists and eventually forced the return to their governor, John White, to England to organize the delivery of provisions to the perishing community in Roanoke.  Mr. White was delayed in his return as the queen's ships were all tied up in the war with Spain.  When he finally returned to the colony 3 years later, all trace of the community and its inhabitants had mysteriously vanished.  There are all sorts of theories as to what happened to the colonists, none of them conclusive.  The visitor center on the site describes how it all went down.  Admission is free.

Our crew goofing off onstage!
Also on the site is the Waterside Theatre, home to "The Lost Colony," a musical production which has been reenacting the plight of the Roanoke colonists for 85 seasons, since 1937.  The show starts at 8:30 pm Monday through Saturday and is considered a "must do" while visiting the Outer Banks.  The outdoor ampitheater is warm and comfortable despite the late hour.  Beer, wine, soda, and snacks are available.  Casual dress.  Tickets starts at about $25 or so.  The show is a bit campy and borders on being a bit Oklahoma-esque, but it made for a fun and lively conversation on the way home.  I say 'yes.' Go see it.

Just steps away from the Visitor Center are the Elizabethan Gardens.  These are lovely and worth the price of $12 per person.  The ten acre garden recreates the fanciful and elaborate gardens that were designed to entertain Queen Elizabeth I during her reign.  There is a gazebo, a butterfly house, a large lawn area, fountains, and antique statuary.  There is an audio tour included which leaves you fiddling with your phone quite a bit.  Better to just stroll and take in the gardens.  The gardens opened in 1960 and are a project of the Garden Club of North Carolina.  They are located right next to the Fort Raleigh site, but are a separate private entity.  Here are a few pictures...

The Elizabeth II at night
The Roanoke Island Festival Park is walking distance from the downtown area of Manteo, the "big city" on Roanoke Island.   The Settlement site is a living history museum depicting how the colonists of 1585 would have worked and played.  Also on the site is the Elizabeth II, a recreation of a typical English merchant vessel that made the trip with the colonists.  It's open Tuesday through Saturday 9 to 5 and costs $11 for adults and $8 for kids 3-17.  Admission includes the whole site. 


Beach life in the Outer Banks is DA BOMB.  People come here every summer to enjoy sun and sand with their families, and frankly, you could come to the Outer Banks and do nothing but sit on the beach. The sun is intense however and a beach umbrella is pretty much a must.  Our beachfront apartment at the Outer Banks Beach Club Resort partnered with a business that would set up your rented chairs and green and white parasols daily for a fee of $150 for a week.  We thought that was pretty steep so we skipped it, though we did squat under the umbrellas of beach goers who had abandoned their rentals for the day.

A beach front house, hotel or condo is ideal, as there is nothing better than being two minutes from the fridge or the bathroom, but there is plenty of free public access parking all along the shoreline that does not seem to fill up until midday or so should you need to come from farther away.

The water temperature is cool but is clear and swimmable, unlike the arctic foam we are accustomed to on the west coast.  On two consecutive days while we were there, a bloom of brown jellyfish lined the shore from north to south, making the beach on those days unswimmable.  On more usual days, one does have to use caution, as the brown jellies can give you a nasty zap, which is more annoying than painful, though I wouldn't recommend it.  The water is also inhabited by clear moon jellies which do not sting and are fun to collect.

Good morning, Outer Banks!


While visiting the Outer Banks it would be unfortunate to not take advantage of some of the other attractions in the area.

About 20 minutes north of Kill Devil Hills in Powell's Point right on Highway 158 is the H2OBX water park.  This place is great for beating the heat!  The park has everything you would expect: a wave pool, a lazy river, family slides, body slides, tube slides, of course a huge kiddie area, and lots and lots and lots of stairs.  The park often runs specials on tickets.  I think we got a 4 pack for about $130.  A worthwhile add on, though somewhat of a splurge for us, was a cabana with our own server for $250.  It was great to have the reserved shade, the patio furniture, a mini fridge full of water and our own server.  We never had to get up and stand in scorching hot lines burning our feet whenever we wanted to eat.  We just hit a buzzer and ordered!  We put over 14000 steps on our feet on this day--got there at opening and shut the place down.  Man, were we wiped out!  H2OBX is open daily, varying hours but we went from 10-6 which are typical hours.

A wild Spanish Mustang

Another not to be missed activity is some type of tour to see the wild horses of Corolla. The horses are a group of feral Spanish mustangs that have inhabited the Outer Banks for 500 years, making them in fact the earliest "settlers" of the area.  It has been thought that the horses were left by a Spanish explorer.  They are now protected.  It is illegal to feed them or even to approach.  There are about 100 horses in number now.  They hang out on the beaches and dunes north of Corolla, where there are no paved roads (however many large houses).  You don't NEED a horse tour to see the horses but you do need a permit to drive on the beach, and then ya better not get stuck.  Better to pay the tour guide than the tow truck!  

There are many outfits to choose from but we went with Wild Horse Adventure Tours.  The thing that set this outfit apart is the vehicle used for the tour, an 13 passenger Hummer.  This vehicle is unique for several reasons, likely the most important being that you are in the same vehicle as the tour guide.  Most other outfits we saw were towing their passengers in a 5th wheel.  Talk about a bumpy ride.  Some seating was arranged in rows with what looked like an easy up over the passengers.  Others had a "hayride" type arrangement, where the passengers actually face each other and were seated on benches-what a mess!  Anyway, go with the Hummer.  We were arranged in three rows of four bucket seats with seat belts in ascending height front to back for optimum viewing.  

The horses are just horses.  They roam in the dunes between the houses and eat.  It's not like there are tons of them running majestically down the beach in the crashing waves, but it's neat, and I'd do it once.  I actually enjoyed looking at the houses in this remote area as much as viewing the horses, remembering that anyone living or renting for that matter out here has to drive miles on the sand to get to a grocery store!

The tours run just about every hour when it's busy and last two hours.

Setting sail on the Downeast Rover

Ok I seem to be writing quite a bit so I will chop it down a bit here and mention a few more worthwhile stops more briefly.  The North Carolina Aquarium is also on Roanoke Island. It is a worthwhile stop if for no other reason than it is air conditioned. It's $12.95 for adults and is open every day from 9 to 5.  Reservations are required but on a Wednesday at 1:30pm we were able to walk up and enter right away.  There are some interesting exhibits including those about the marine life in the local sounds and one about shipwrecks and how the Outer Banks got its moniker, "The Graveyard of the Atlantic."
  A 2 hour sunset cruise on the Downeast Rover out of Manteo Harbor is a good time-6:15pm to about 8:30pm.  The crew is lively and full of info.  You are allowed to bring drinks and snacks aboard (and we did!).  A little less exciting when you here the sound is only 4-6 feet deep.  I thought the per person price of $60 was high considering they give you nothing to eat or drink.


Well, so does everyone else on the Outer Banks.  One night we waited 75 minutes.  Getting your name in at 5 pm to eat at 7 is not unheard of. Most places do not take reservations.  Many are closed one of more nights per week (usually midweek).  We also waited about 30 minutes in a sandwich line.  It's all good.  Just plan.

Anyway, here are a few places I would recommend:

Mama Kwans BBQ and Tiki Bar, 1701 S. Croatan Highway, Kill Devil Hills:  A wide variety of tropical drinks and food in a diner setting. Okay to sit at tiki bar without eating.  Here is where we waited 75 minutes after they quoted us 1.75 hours.  Closed Wednesday.

Poor Richards Sandwich Shop, 305 Queen Elizabeth Avenue, Manteo:  Wide variety of hot and cold sandwiches on the Manteo Harbor.  Long line almost constantly.  Take out or dine in.  Inside or outdoor seating.  Closed Sunday.

Pigmans BBQ, 1606 S. Croatan Hwy, Kill Devil Hills.  Good selection of beer and BBQ dishes, including tuna.  First come first served seating.  Open everyday!  What?

Swells A'Brewin Beer Company, 1802 S. Virginia Dare Trail. Kill Devil Hills.  Brand spankin' new microbrewery with limited snacks available. Dog and child friendly.  Great upstairs deck.  Also open daily.

The rooftop deck at Swells A'Brewin
(before it rained!)

Grits Grill and Bakery, 5000 S. Croatan Hwy Nag's Head Original breakfast items.  Serving breakfast and lunch.  This is one place we did not have to wait. Open daily 6am to 2 pm.

Duck Donuts, Multiple locations.  Too bad we discovered this on the last day.  Vanilla cake donuts custom made to your order.  Maple bacon, peanut butter and chocolate, etc.  Oh soooo good!

Seriously, do not miss Duck Donuts!

Thank you for reading this post!  Where have you been this summer?  Here are a few more pictures from the Outer Banks!

A Happy Hour stroll on the beach!

Manteo Harbor

Downtown Manteo First Friday night

Inside the Currituck Lighthouse

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