A vacation at the Outer Banks, that 120-mile sliver of sand that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina, may best be described by what it is not. “It’s not boardwalks. It’s not neon-type entertainment,” said Tim Cafferty, owner of Outer Banks Blue Realty Services in Kitty Hawk.
Instead it is a string of family-friendly beach towns stretched along Highway 12, which runs from the Virginia border to the island of Ocracoke. The Outer Banks calls more to those who enjoy the convenience of a house-dune-ocean commute. It’s popular with families who return each summer to tumble out onto the beach in the mornings to swim, collect seashells, and build sandcastles until dinnertime.
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“They are enjoying the water – it’s got to be the main attraction,” said Marc Mitchum, owner of OBX Crabbing and Shrimping Charters in Wanchese. Mitchum spends half his year working as a commercial fisherman and tourist season taking families out on four-hour boat trips. Before booking, the parents worry their children won’t be entertained by pulling up shrimp nets and crab pots for that long. “They think the kids will get bored,” Mitchum said, “but it never happens.” In July and August, Mitchum’s fully booked, starting at 6 a.m. with three trips a day.
That’s not to say the Outer Banks doesn’t have outlet malls and cinemas. (OK, one movie theater.) The northern Outer Banks, home to towns like Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, and Duck, has that familiar beachy strip with pancake diners and donut shops. (Don't miss made-to-order specialties at Duck Donuts.)
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But there’s also history. Visitors flock to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, which marks the location of that historic 59-second flight. Tourists can replicate it in a reproduction glider at Kitty Hawk Kites.
There’s wild horses. Spanish mustangs, believed to have survived 16th-century shipwrecks, populate this coast. Free-roaming herds can be spotted on the northern end of the Outer Banks in Corolla and the 4x4-only accessible neighborhood of Carova.
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The farther south you travel along State 12, the more mom-and-pop stores and quiet beaches you'll see. Known for its unspoiled shores, Oracoke ranked fourth on Dr. Beach’s Annual Top 10 Beaches in America list last year. Chip Stevens, owner of Blackbeard’s Lodge on Ocracoke, explains the island's unique appeal for families: “What visitors really enjoy is renting some bikes for the kids and just letting them run free. There are very few places in the world where you can do that now on vacation.”