Travel

Why the Outer Banks Are an American Paradise

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:

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.

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
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.

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.

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.