Although it’s about a seven-hour drive from Lake Norman to the Outer Banks, it’s well worth the trip. This 200-mile stretch of barrier islands along the North Carolina coast has everything from adrenaline-pumping water sports to beautiful nature preserves and pristine beaches perfect for lounging in the sun. And now is a great time to go as you can enjoy idyllic spring temperatures without the summer crowds. Here we map out a travel itinerary that includes some of the top not-to-be-missed destinations.
High-Flying FunYou’ll arrive at the Outer Banks via Highway 64, which intersects with Highway 12, the main route that connects most of the islands and beach communities. Head north and the first town you’ll come to is Nags Head, best known for Jockey’s Ridge State Park, which has one of the tallest natural sand dune systems in the country. Here you can go hiking and sand-boarding or rent a kayak and explore the calm waters of the Roanoke Sound. If you’re feeling adventurous, schedule a hang gliding lesson with Kitty Hawk Kites. From Nags Head it’s about a five-minute drive to Kill Devil Hills, where you can explore the Wright Brothers National Memorial and climb to the 60-foot tower where Wilbur and Orville first took flight in 1903. By now you’ve probably worked up a thirst, so grab a beer and some crab legs at the Outer Banks Brewing Station in Kill Devil Hills, the country’s first wind-powered brewery.
Northern ExposureAt the northern tip of the Outer Banks are the two resort towns of Duck and Corolla, both great destinations for watersports, shopping and fine dining. In Duck, the luxury 13-acre Sanderling Resort is unveiling a multimillion-dollar renovation in April, including two new swimming pools, an expanded lobby bar and deck and a revamped restaurant, which specializes in seafood and Lowcountry menu items. Accommodations include 88 spacious guests rooms, all with private balconies overlooking the ocean or the serene waters of Currituck Sound. Guests here can enjoy a luxurious spa, nearby golf course and tennis club, along with seven miles of pristine beaches. In Corolla, about 15 miles north of Duck, you can climb to the top of the northernmost lighthouse on the Outer Banks, rent a Jeep and go four-wheeling along the beach or visit the Corolla animal sanctuary where about 100 wild Spanish horses run free.
Catch A WaveJutting into the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Hatteras is the Outer Bank’s most southeasterly point. Thanks to its prominent location, steady winds, short continental shelf and shallow sandbars, some of the country’s best surfing and kiteboarding conditions are found here. For expert instruction, schedule a lesson with Real Watersports, which also has a 21,000-square-foot retail store and an expansive deck overlooking the water where you can grab a bite to eat and a cold beer at the deli-style restaurant. For accommodations, there’s Watermen’s Retreat, a three-story condo development with two- and three-bedroom units with full kitchens just steps away Pamlico Sound, an 80-mile stretch of gentle, waist-deep water ideal for kiteboarding. If surfing is more your thing, grab your board and walk across Highway 12 to the ocean.
Crystal CoastThe southern end of the Outer Banks is known as the Crystal Coast, and it includes the 56-mile Cape Lookout National Seashore, a state park and preserve with several pristine islands and beach communities. In the charming little town of Beaufort, which is based around a waterfront park with shops, pubs and restaurants, you can visit the North Carolina Maritime Museum, which has a full-scale exhibit of the pirate Blackbeard’s flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, which ran aground here in 1718. From Beaufort, take a ferry to Shackleford Banks, where feral horses run free, or to Cape Lookout National Seashore, a great destination for swimming and fishing or getting a bird’s-eye view of the beach from atop the iconic 163-foot Cape Lookout Lighthouse. At nearby Fort Macon State Park, located in Atlantic Beach on Bogue Banks, explore miles of pristine beaches and tour a restored Civil War fort.