Travel

Why the Outer Banks Are an American Paradise

Published On 06/16/2016 Published On 06/16/2016

The Outer Banks, or OBX to those in the know, are a thin ribbon of sand islands, dramatically bowing into the Atlantic and then doubling back to North Carolina's mainland, stretching roughly a hundred miles from the North Carolina-Virginia border down to Cape Hatteras southwestward to Ocracoke Island. The Outer Banks are remote and can take an eternity to drive to, but your patience is rewarded with a series of quirky beach villages, the finest sand and sun the United States has to offer, and some of the freshest fish you could ever hope to eat. Here's why they're one of America's finest gems:

Flickr/Counselman Collection

The water is warm and the weather is just fine

Those old Gulf Stream currents come up from the tip of Florida and cozy back up to land right off of Cape Hatteras, which not only keeps the water warm, it keeps temperatures cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, meaning that you'll be comfortable outside almost all year. Every so often, Mother Nature gets wild with hurricanes and nor'easters that do a number on the dunes, but most of the time the breezes are welcoming.

OBX has the freshest seafood you can find

Rich nutrients in the Gulf Stream currents bring an abundance of good-eating fish -- tuna, sword, mahi-mahi, and more. Hardworking fishermen land the catch from the ocean stream, while watermen work the sounds to bring up oysters, shrimp, and crabs, and it all lands on the docks here. A hefty portion is then trucked north, south, and west, but the best of the catch is traded locally, both wholesale to OBX restaurants and retailed at mom & pop operations to the public. Austin Fish Company in Nags Head is a favorite of locals and savvy visitors, and in Wanchese -- the epicenter of the seafood industry -- O'Neal's Sea Harvest is located right on the docks and offers some of the freshest catch in the world, both in a restaurant and at retail. And if you're looking for oysters, Kitty Hawk’s new-ish I Got Your Crabs was opened in 2012 by a third-generation Currituck waterman and has a growing legion of fans.

Flickr/Sarah

Or hook a catch yourself

Bring your own rig and fish right from the bank. For a small fee, a day-pass at any of the several fishing piers can put your bait on the sweet spot. The recently rebuilt Jennette's Pier in Nags Head is a magnet for fishermen and sightseers, but to land the really big ones, charter a boat and captain and avail your bait to the beasts of the Stream. Hook up with Pirate's Cove Marina on the Manteo-Nags Head Causeway, Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, or Teach's Lair Marina in Hatteras Village to put you on the big ones.

Get lost in a deep American history

Outer Banks history goes back to the earliest colonies, to pirates of old, to the invention of powered flight. At Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island, check out the spot where English colonists, under impresario Sir Walter Raleigh, first attempted to get a foothold in the New World. The colony didn't work out too well, but is depicted during the summer months in a historical musical, The Lost Colony at Waterside Theatre, which was doing Hamilton before Hamilton was doing Hamilton.

Dive with pirates -- or at least drink to them

Ravaging storms and pillaging by pirates helped earn the Outer Banks the nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic. If you are into scuba or are fairly adept at snorkeling, many sunken hulks can be explored close to shore. If you prefer staying on land, learn about the ships lost and the brave coastwatchers -- the forerunners of the US Coast Guard -- at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras Village. But perhaps the best way to appreciate pirates is to raise a pint to them way down at the end of tiny Ocracoke Island, where America's most notorious pirate Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, lost his head after a battle with British Navy troops in 1718. Legend has it that Blackbeard, whose body was thrown overboard, still haunts the waters around Ocracoke. So grab a pint and a spot on the deck at Howard’s Pub and raise one to the skipper.

Wright Brothers National Memorial | Flickr/Leon Reed

Take flight with the Wright brothers

The Wright Brothers National Memorial, a 60ft-tall granite monument atop Kill Devil Hills salutes the Wrights' 1903 flight into the history books. You can walk the paths of their first short flights, and check out a full-scale replica of the original Flyer in the visitor center. A stroll to the top of the hill via circular trails offers sweeping views. Inscribed around the base of the structure is the phrase, "In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright conceived by genius achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith." The word "genius" has its own spot at the north-facing corner. Go ahead, take a selfie under it, we all do.

Get wet with water sports for every level of adventure

The surfing is great here, and even if you don't hang 10 yourself, surfing is a blast to watch. Skimboarding is harder than it looks, but with surf shops all over the place, you can link up with a decent board and give it a try. The quieter water of our sounds and the near-constant winds bring kite boarders from all over, and for gentler souls, the mellow adventures of stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) and kayaking are plentiful.

Flickr/Mm..Bacon!

And did we mention the eating and drinking?

The Outer Banks offer a multitude for having a freshly caught meal and a cold beer while the waves crash before you, the breeze blows, and your worries melt away. Here's a town-by-town guide to the best bars and restaurants on the Outer Banks.

Corolla
Grab a cup of coffee and a hot, customized donut at Duck Donuts near the Currituck Club. After you've shredded the waves, hook up with a brew or two at North Banks Restaurant & Raw Bar or settle into a table at Mike Dianna’s Grill Room, both in the Timbuck II shopping center.

Duck
Duck is a fairly upscale, pedestrian-friendly wide spot in the road. Take in the afternoon concert at the quaint town park then stroll across Hwy 12 to the comfy and rustic Roadside Bar & Grill for killer shrimp and grits. The extensive cocktail menu caters to every taste and there's often live music. Dress up a little and enjoy the ultimate in Southern cuisine and hospitality at The Blue Point, just up the road in the Waterfront Shops. The place opened in 1989 and set the bar for great food, spirits, and service in the area. Before dinner, enjoy a drink at its YardBar and soak in the sunset over Currituck Sound.

Kitty Hawk/Kill Devil Hill/Nags Head
The cluster of towns to the south, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hill, and Nags Head are the population center of the Outer Banks and offer the greatest diversity of dining options. For breakfast, families flock to Stack'em High, the original pancake house on the Outer Banks, with locations in Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills.

In Nags Head, at least one morning has to start at Biscuits N' Porn. Officially Stop Quik, this gas station/convenience store/breakfast and lunch counter churns out stuffed, calorie-laden biscuits that will show that hangover who's boss. Step in line with the anglers and tradesmen and grab a hefty cheese biscuit and ask for egg, cheese, and either ham, sausage, or chicken and a side of gravy. The "porn" part comes from the magazine rack, right up front for the world to see.

If fish tacos and pad Thai ring your bell, let Mama Kwan's Tiki Bar & Grill in Kill Devil Hill set the plate. A good starter is the Thai Money Bags. Trust us.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a better wine and beer selection than at Trio in Kitty Hawk. If an English pub, an Italian bistro, and a cheese and wine shop had a baby, this would be it. With 24 bottles available in self-service tasting machines, and 24 beers on tap, lunch here can go on into the night. If you are there on the right night, you can catch our favorite man with a horn, Dr. John Sanchez and his group, Chez Says. They'll conjure the ghost of Miles Davis right at the top of the stairs. 

In Nags Head, there are two piers where you can eat and drink out on the water. At the Nags Head Pier, Captain Andy's Oceanfront Bar & Grill is a major stress-relief system. Knock one back with the sea breeze in your face and the ocean crashing just below. Further south, you can likewise get a similar prescription filled at Fish Heads Bar and Grill on the Outer Banks Pier.

SmacNally's Raw Bar and Grill

Hatteras Island
In Rodanthe, Lisa's Pizzeria is a longtime favorite for dining in or getting takeout, with an extensive menu. Twenty-one miles down Hwy 12 in Avon a stop in at Bros Sandwich Shack is a must. Beef here is ground in-house. Ask for a slice of ghost pepper cheese on that burger. Also in Avon, Ketch 55 is a cut above, with interesting combinations like the tune poke with bacon. There's a good range of beers on tap including several local brews.

At the tip end is the Hatteras Village itself, where the Harrison family brings in a local catch and prepares it for you at the Harbor House Seafood Market. Hatteras Harbor Deli at the Hatteras Harbor Marina doles out a hearty breakfast and lunch and gets high marks for both its grilled shrimp burger and The Captain sandwich, grilled, sliced ribeye steak on a kaiser bun with horseradish.

Ocracoke Island
From Hatteras, an hour-long ferry takes you to Ocracoke Island, and 13 miles of open sea and soundscapes. Being here is the definition of getting away from it all. At the tip end is Ocracoke village, a place so remote, some of the locals speak a dialect, the Ocracoke Brogue, that calls back to the earliest coastal settlers.

If you're up early, Ocracoke Coffee Company is the place to be for coffee and fresh-baked pastries. Or for a heartier start to the day, make your way in for breakfast at Pony Island Restaurant.

Stroll around town and have a look at Ocracoke Light, constructed in 1823, it's the oldest operating light station in North Carolina. Walk or bike over to Silver Lake Harbor and slide into a chair at SmacNally's Waterfront Bar & Grill smack dab in the Anchorage Marina. Fresh local seafood rocks, but like most places, there are non-seafood dishes to choose from. After beaching it or boating it, head to the Back Porch Restaurant and Wine Bar on the Back Rd for a cocktail and an upscale dinner. Start it off with an order of the crab beignets. From the ferry docks, you can book passage by ferry to either Swan Quarter or Cedar Island to strike back to the mainland and that bothersome reality.

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Jim Trotman is a photographer and writer in Nags Head, NC. If he had stuck with geology like he was supposed to, he’d be retired by now pulling down a nice Big Oil pension and just doing this stuff for fun. You can check out his dining reports at OuterBanksVoice.com.

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1. Austin Fish Co. 3711 Croatan Hwy, Dare County, NC 27959

Owned and operated by the Austin family for decades, the Austin Fish Company is a local’s spot, offering fresh fish right next to the ocean. Inside the market, Austin’s offers a wide range of ultra-fresh seafood and shellfish, along with house-made rubs and spices. Outside, a lunch counter serves seaside classics like crab legs, lobster rolls, and steamers to hungry locals and vacationers. It’s a no-frills kind of place, but the food is delicious, the portions generous, and the view is hard to beat.

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2. O'Neal's Sea Harvest 622 Harbor Road, Wanchese, NC

Located in the epicenter of the seafood industry, Wanchese, NC, O'Neal's Sea Harvest serves up some of the freshest seafood in the world to seafarers, tourists, and locals. Sitting right on the water, O'Neal's offers stunning views along with their seafood, which the family-owned business catches, cleans, and cooks themselves. Their quick-serve restaurant is only open for lunch six days a week, but people come from all over North Carolina to try the signature fried soft crab BLT out on their sunny patio.

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3. I Got Your Crabs 3809 N Croatan Hwy, Kitty Hawk, NC 27949

This playfully-named seafood joint in Kitty Hawk was opened in 2012 by a third-generation Currituck waterman -- so you know it's good. A focus on local blue crabs is complemented by a diverse menu that features house-made crab bisque, fresh oysters, seafood tacos, and a la carte items (like catfish, fried shrimp, and clam strips) for a build-your-own platter. Local, OBX beers are also available.

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4. Howard's Pub & Raw Bar 1175 Irvin Garrish Hwy., Ocracoke, NC 27960

This lively, seasonable pub in Ocracoke caters to all with its extensive, coastal-inspired menu that features steamed shellfish, seafood sandwiches, burgers, pizzas, and fried baskets. Howard's 200 bottled imports, 24 drafts, and wine and cocktail options, keep guests hydrated, while the breezy rooftop deck and screened patio keep summer alive.

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5. Duck Donuts 1710 Kenilworth Ave, # 220, Charlotte, NC 28203

With locations all over the Northeast, Duck Donuts serves up hot, fresh, creative pastries. The fried dough selections might look to be on the petite side, but topping choices like shredded coconut and chopped peanuts and bacon, as well as "coating" options like peanut butter and strawberry icing, will make your single treat a carbo load to last the whole day. Pair the maple frosting and bacon topping, and you've tasted heaven.

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6. North Banks Restaurant & Raw Bar 794 Sunset Blvd, Corolla, NC 27927

This locals' seafood restaurant serves up the full range of classic raw fare, including Main lobster, Littleneck clams, oysters, and steamed shrimp. All dressings and sauces are housemade, and entrees can be paired with a brew or your favorite libation from the full-service bar. With a casual, no-frills space decked out with TVs for your sports-viewing pleasure, the restaurant-bar is ideal for a post-surf beer session.

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7. Mike Dianna's Grill Room 777 Sunset Blvd, Corolla, NC 27927

This popular Corolla spot, found in the Timbuck II shopping center, supplies an eclectic brunch and lunch menu highlighting surf 'n' turf options. Highlights include "Mike’s Famous Crab Cake Sandwich" (served with fresh corn salsa) and house-smoked, North Carolina pulled pork. Large groups can be accommodated with the spacious patio, which features regular live music and a full bar.

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8. Roadside Raw Bar and Grill 1193 Duck Rd, Duck, NC 27949

The big draw of this Outer Banks eatery is its backyard addition, the Backside Bar. Equipped with a separate bar, yard games, and a projection screen, this backyard hangout is the perfect place to sit outside and watch the sunset with one of the Roadside's signature cocktails. A hefty cocktail list leans heavily towards island drinks, with updated versions of Gin Rickeys, Mint Juleps, and Rum Punches anchoring the menu. The food is appropriately pared down so as not to compete with the cocktails, but the small menu isn't short on quality. Steakhouse staples get updated for the beach with local ingredients and fresh sides.

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9. The Blue Point Bar & Grill 1240 Duck Rd, Kitty Hawk, NC 27949

First opened in 1989, Blue Point is a local beachside eatery, breathing some serious life into the sleepy little town of Duck. The space itself is expansive and airy, opening up onto a full-service patio, complete with water-facing adirondack chairs. The oceanic local favorite is built of wood beams and heavy tables, all of which are surrounded by walls dressed in slate and punctuated by floor to ceiling windows. The lengthy oyster bar serves as the dining room's center point, and each table setting includes one of the restaurant's signature deep blue wine glasses. The place is known for its seafood dishes like the "she-crab soup" and the pistachio-encrusted, seared scallops, but beyond fish, the menu items range from grilled Angus beef tenderloin to braised North Carolina pheasant with house-made gnocchi. It is a mistake, however, to travel to Blue Point, without ordering at least one tray of the joint's famous right-out-of-the-ocean oysters.

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10. Stack'em High Pancakes 3801 North Croatan Hwy., Kitty Hawk, NC 27949

For breakfast, locals flock to Stack ‘Em High, the original pancake house on the outer banks, with locations in Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills. The space is family-friendly, and casual, with classic eats like sausage and cheese omelettes, chicken fried steak, and, of course, pancakes, that'll give neighborhood residents and travelers alike a taste of the best of southern fare.

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11. Biscuits N' Porn 2112 S Croatan Hwy, Nags Head, NC 27959

This local favorite bakery with a sense of humor delivers with its perfectly toasted biscuits and breakfast sandwiches. Get there early (sometimes they run out by 10am) and load up on savory sandwiches-- we like the biscuits and gravy, the pork loin sandwich, and of course you can't go wrong with bacon, egg and cheese.

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12. Mama Kwan Tiki Bar and Grill 1701 S Croatan Hwy, Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948

If fish tacos and pad thai ring your bell, let Mama Kwan’s Tiki Bar and Grill in Kill Devil Hill set the plate. It might not be on an island, but with colorful murals and renowned mahi mahis projecting festive, tiki vibes, you may as well be. A good starter is the Thai Money Bags. Trust us.

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13. TRiO 3708 N Croatan Hwy Unit 1, Kitty Hawk, NC 27949

If an English pub and an Italian Bistro and a cheese and wine shop had a baby, this would be it. With 24 bottles available in self-service tasting machines, and 24 beers on tap, lunch here can go on into night. This Kitty Hawk restaurant/wine, cheese, and beer retail shop also slings a menu that featuring charcuterie, panini, sophisticated tapas, and decadent desserts, like the dark chocolate goat cheese cheesecake

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14. Captain Andy's Oceanfront Bar and Grill 3335 S Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head, NC 27959

Boasting gorgeous views of the Atlantic, Captain Andy's -- the patio extension of Pier House Restaurant -- is just one of two piers where you can eat and drink out on the water. Guests can enjoy fresh seafood and beachy cocktails in Tiki-themed digs. This open air, casual spot supplies daily (unfussy soups, salads, and sandwiches) along with refreshing, frozen drinks.

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15. Fish Heads Bar & Grill 8901 S Old Oregon Inlet Rd, Nags Head, NC 27959

With the sea breeze in your face and the ocean crashing just below, Fish Heads Bar & Grill is the perfect spot for any occasion. This waterfront, Nags Head staple supplies locals with the necessities of summer nightlife: seafood, draft beer, and regular live music. And in addition to cheap drinks during the daily happy hour, there's also discounted shrimp.

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16. Lisa's Pizzeria 24158 NC Hwy 12, Rodanthe, NC 27968

This long-time, Outer Banks favorite is perfect for dining or getting takeout. In addition to hand-tossed pizza topped with homemade sauce and cheese -- and speciality pies, like the popular Garden Pesto, Hippie (hummus based), and barbecue -- Lisa's also whips up great Italian fare. Manicotti, calzones, parmesan subs, and spaghetti are also on the menu if you're not in the mood for pizza.

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17. Bros Sandwich Shack 41934 NC Highway 12, Avon, NC 27915

This casual sandwich "shack" in Avon complements the ocean-air breeze with unfussy, OBX and Tennessee-inspired sandwiches. Owned and operated by two brothers, this spot escalates lunch with popular items like the "Cowboy Bro" burger (topped with Sriracha BBQ, pulled pork waffle fries, and the "Surfs Up Tuna Po'boy." Beef here is ground in-house. and be sure to ask for a slice of Ghost Pepper cheese on, well, anything.

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18. Ketch 55 40396 NC-12, Avon, NC 27915

Under the expertise of the Irish-trained Chef Seth Foutz, Ketch 55 uses fresh bounty from the land and sea to create inventive dishes like "Tar Tar Du" (fresh chopped tuna, raw shaved filet, cashews, and wasabi soy green tobiko) and shrimp and grits with Andouille sausage. Ketch 55 also has an impressive drink menu that includes red and white wines, microbrews, house cocktails, and beers on tap.

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19. Harbor House Seafood Market 58129 NC-12, Hatteras, NC 27943

This family-owned spot on the marina is one of Hatteras Village's premier markets for bringing in the local catch. Caught daily, both raw and cooked seafood is supplied here, such as grouper, mahi-mahi, tile, and tuna. The market doles out house-made shrimp and crab enchiladas, crab cakes, fish tacos, wraps, tuna salad, seafood sandwiches and soups.

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20. Hatteras Harbor Deli 58058 Hwy 12, Hatteras, NC 27943

Located at Hatteras Harbor Marina, this local mainstay opens and closes early, and serves breakfast and lunch. Although there are not many seafood options here, the menu is nonetheless perfect for a casual bite. Highlights include toasted, open-faced bagel melts, breakfast wraps, and classic and signature sandwiches. We recommend the triple-stacked Gaffer, made with your choice of three meats, two cheeses, and lettuce, tomato, and bacon.

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21. Ocracoke Coffee Co. 226 Back Rd., Ocracoke, NC 27960

Stopping by this cozy, country coffee shop is sure to become your new morning ritual. Roasting up strong brews and doling savory pastries (cinnamon buns!), baked fresh in house, the vibe is welcoming and low-key. Grab a seat on the porch with a fresh, fruit smoothie and morning glory muffin if you're looking for a healthy boost to your day.

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22. Pony Island Restaurant 51 Ocean Rd, Ocracoke, NC 27960

Mornings at this Outer Banks local favorite can't be beat. Located in the Pony Island motel, the eponymous, country kitchen style diner serves breakfast and brunch the Southern way-- a.k.a piled high with cheesy grits, hush puppies, and biscuits galore. Regional dishes like the crab and swiss cheese omelette and blackened blue fish are must-trys when in town.

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23. SMacNally's Bar & Grill 180 Irvin Garrish Hwy, Ocracoke, NC 27960

Smack dab in Anchorage Marina, SmacNally’s Waterfront Bar & Grill is a harborside American eatery serving up oversize burgers, fresh seafood, and raw bar options. Spend a lazy afternoon watching the boats go by and kicking back with fried seafood platters and beer (what could be better?). The super oversized shrimp po'boy, piled high on a fresh toasted bun with lettuce and tomato, is a steal for $14.

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24. Back Porch Restaurant and Wine Bar 110 Back Rd, Ocracoke, NC , Ocracoke, NC 27960

This upscale cafe and restaurant serves surf and turf cuisine in a charming, beachside locale. With options like sashimi tuna poke, crab cake beignets, and bacon wrapped scallops on the menu, not to mention an extensive wine list offered by the glass/bottle, the Back Porch is a solid choice when you're looking for a more elegant meal than what's available your typical seafood shack.

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