The remote islands off the coast of North Carolina offer a peaceful, uncrowded spring getaway, with plenty of outdoor adventure. Here’s how to build a perfect long weekend trip.
Driving distance: 5 hours
STAY HERE: Sanderling Resort is a four-diamond beachfront hotel located on the upscale island of Duck. With oceanfront guest rooms, suites overlooking the Currituck Sound, and three-bedroom vacation rental homes, your family can find luxurious accommodations for a fraction of what it costs during the summer season. While the beach might be chilly, and the pool isn’t open yet, there are still fun activities like bocce, cornhole, and board games in the lounge. The Lifesaving Station is a first-rate restaurant. The wood-shingled structure was built in 1899 and was formerly, yes, a lifesaving station charged with rescuing shipwrecked sea vessels. (More than 6,000 ships have sunk here in the past 200 years.) Sanderling is also a quick drive to the towns of Corolla and Duck, where you’ll find options from sushi to tacos. Schedule a spa treatment while the rest of the family roasts s’mores by the bonfire or hikes the sand dunes. From $200 per night, 1461 Duck Rd., Duck
MORNING: You’ll feel a sense of exhilaration as you cross the Wright Memorial Bridge to the barrier islands of the Outer Banks. The views of the Currituck Sound are just a hint of the beauty to come. Before you check into your hotel or vacation rental, veer south to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, a national park in Kitty Hawk where brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright built their motor-operated airplane and were the first to achieve flight, in December 1903. Tour the visitor center to see a reproduction of their flier and workshop, and then walk to the First Flight Boulder, where they landed on that landmark occasion. It feels pretty far, after all.
AFTERNOON: Dine in the Rundown Café, a restaurant serving Caribbean and Pacific Rim cuisine with views of the ocean. The fried shrimp sits atop a bed of crispy fries, and the spicy seafood chowder and pho will warm on a chilly day. Head over to Kitty Hawk’s 700-foot-long Avalon Fishing Pier to watch local fisherfolks cast their rods and reels out into the surf. The pier stretches into the Atlantic Ocean into 12 to 15 feet of water. Wait awhile and you’re bound to see some croakers, flounder, or pompano wriggling on the wire.
EVENING: The locals know that searching for ghost crabs is an enchanting pastime. While you’re never sure you’ll see one, take a flashlight out to the beach and start the hunt. (But never harm or touch them.) These sweet, tiny crabs are similar to the fiddler crab but only come out at night. You’ll want a hearty dinner after your busy day, so book a table at the family-owned Blue Moon Beach Grill, serving culinary-driven Southern comfort food like shrimp and grits, mahi mahi fish and chips, and a solid kids’ menu.
MORNING: Pop into Front Porch Café in Manteo, located on Roanoke Island. The cinnamon rolls and muffins here pair perfectly with the frothy cappuccinos. Here in the historic town of Manteo, you’ll learn about the Outer Banks’ fascinating history and visit several must-see attractions. Begin at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site to find out how the first English settlers struggled to survive in this wild terrain and how later the island became a refuge for escaped slaves as the Freedmen’s Colony of Roanoke. From there, walk to Roanoke Island Festival Park for a hands-on history lesson with interactive exhibits, and board the Elizabeth II, a 16th-century sailing ship piloted by Sir Walter Raleigh. Festival Park delves into the lives and culture of the Algonquin tribe and the relationship between the Native Americans and the English settlers.
AFTERNOON: Try local barbecue at Carolina Bar-B-Que Company. Douse the ’cue with the local sauce, made with vinegar and mustard, or choose a clam or chicken basket—it all tastes so good. Next, visit the North Carolina Aquariums, with tanks stocked with native wildlife found around the Outer Banks. The most popular exhibits are the river otters, sea turtles, and the interactive stingray experience.
EVENING: There’s nothing like watching the sunset from the magnificent dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Get there before the sunset, but bring flashlights to ascend the hilly sand dunes after taking in the panoramic views of the sound and the sea. You’ll long remember this otherworldly experience. After the hike, stop by Ladles for some hearty soup and sandwiches. By now, everyone should be ready to crash.
MORNING: In terms of unique vacation destinations, the Outer Banks Wild Horse Tour or Back Country Safari Tour may be the highlights. Climb into the open-air Jeeps to explore the pristine Corolla beaches in search of Spanish mustangs who’ve lived here untethered for centuries. While you can access these beaches with your own 4×4 off-road vehicle, finding the horses is best accomplished with an expert guide.
AFTERNOON: Snag a table at Corolla Pizza, a favorite among locals. You can’t visit the Outer Banks without seeing a real lighthouse, so before heading home, make tracks to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, which was constructed in 1875 and can be seen from 7 nautical miles away. You can pay $10 to climb the circular stairs to the top, but it’s free to visit Historic Corolla Park with two museums: Whalehead and the Center for Wildlife Education. It’s time to go, but you’ll likely carry some of that silky white sand back in your shoes.