When I was in college, every year after classes ended thousands of students spent a week along the shores of the Outer Banks in North Carolina, renting houses and enjoying a week of relaxing fun under the sun. I remember those weeks fondly and because of that, have had a love affair with the Outer Banks for many years. I hadn’t been back since those light-hearted university days though; maybe part of me didn’t want to see whether or not my glasses were rose-colored. But then last summer I had the chance to go back and to reacquaint myself with this popular beach destination, to see if what I discovered as a young adult held up to the likes and dislikes of my older self. What I discovered along the way was a community that still looked very much the same, and most of the reasons why I fell in love with the Outer Banks 20 years ago are all still there in abundance. Of everything I enjoy about the Outer Banks, these are a few reasons why I think it’s a special place, one that everyone should try to visit.
The Outer Banks is a beach community, a classic example of one at that. Made up of a series of barrier islands, they’re larger than people originally think and driving from tip to tip would take hours. Each island and community has its own vibe, its own feel and while as a young adult I liked to be in the middle of the action in Kitty Hawk or Kill Devil Hills, this time was different and my secluded luxury beach hideaway at The Sanderling Resort was exactly the kind of getaway I needed. Located in the upscale community of Duck, The Sanderling Resort blends in perfectly with its natural surroundings. Sprawling across 13 acres, the resort features a variety of spacious rooms and suites, all designed in what can only be called refined beach luxury. Although this is truly a great luxury resort, it’s not at all pretentious and a stay here feels like visiting the beach house of an old friend. There’s also plenty to do and see while you visit, including the beach that is impossible to ignore. Not only is there access to both the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound, but the resort also features two dune-side pools, fire pits and an award-winning spa. It’s about much more than just a nice room at the Sanderling, it’s about finding special moments to relax, connect with friends and family and create memories that will last for a lifetime.
In North Carolina, good food is serious business and this is definitely true in the Outer Banks. While you’ll find you traditional beach shacks, there are also a number of other options from the simple to extremely high end. The Sanderling actually had the best meal I enjoyed during my time in the Outer Banks, their in-house restaurants are known locally as among the best around. Located inside a heritage building, the Lifesaving Station Restaurant celebrates classic southern coastal cuisine for three meals a day. Known for having the best breakfast on the Outer Banks, it was the dinner that truly impressed me. Goat cheese hushpuppies and a perfectly executed buttermilk fried chicken is a meal I will be thinking about for a very long time. I have a sweet tooth though, so for me the real star is always found with well-done pastries, and since the famous Duck Donut shop got its start here along the Outer Banks, I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to try them out at the source. For many families, a stop at Duck Donuts signals the start of a great vacation and so it’s an emotional connection that Duck has made with many of its customers. But for me, it was all about the taste of those delicious sweet pastries. Duck offers guests the opportunity to create their own donuts, choosing from a variety of glazes and toppings. Each donut is then handmade to these specifications, which guarantees that everyone also receives donuts that are fresh and warm and that positively melt in your mouth.
The Outer Banks though is about more than just a pretty face. These islands have played an important role in American history, and you can still see a lot of that today. I’m originally from southwestern Virginia, Roanoke to be exact, which shares the same name with the famous lost colony that was once settled here. The Lost Colony of Roanoke was a 16th-century British attempt to secure a permanent settlement, which of course failed. The intriguing part is that no one knows why it failed. The colony simply disappeared, with no trace of the people themselves and no clues to their whereabouts. We still don’t know definitively what happened to them, although most suspect they went to live with local Native Americans.
For many people, the most impressive Outer Banks sights though are its lighthouses. For centuries, lighthouses have dotted the shores of the Outer Banks, playing an important navigational role in an area known for many shipwrecks. There are several you can still visit today, although the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras may be the most famous. Built in 1870, it’s the tallest brick beacon in the country and its iconic black and white stripes are a landmark known to folks from around the world. These, and other lighthouses, are fun to visit and also offer some amazing views of the surrounding area.
Beach communities are active places, and while you can find just about anything you want to do along the Outer Banks, it’s one that combined my love of history and adventure that meant the most to me. Rather than just admire the massive sand dunes along the beach, my day spent retracing the steps of the Wright Brothers by hang-gliding off the impressive sand dunes was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Now a National Monument, you can visit the very site where the Wright Brothers experimented with their lighter-than-air machines, but it’s just down the road at Jockey’s Ridge State Park where the real fun happens. There you can join experts as they take guests up the highest sand dunes along the East Coast and teach guests how to fly on their own. It’s a lot more fun than I ever thought it would be, flying even for a few seconds, feeling that same sense of elation that Wilbur and Orville must have. First-time dune hang gliders get five chances to take off and fly and I used every one of mine to their fullest, going higher and further with each attempt. Watching my fellow gliders take off on their own flights I was impressed with how professional the folks at Kitty Hawk Kites were. Most of the instructors are younger, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love what they do and take the time to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves. It was a fantastic afternoon hang gliding and was easily one of the highlights of my trip around North Carolina.