As regular travelers to Cape Cod, we didn’t know what to expect at the Outer Banks. We found far better shelling, less crowded beaches and mini golf courses, and larger rental houses set on stilts. We enjoyed the slower pace of life on the Outer Banks.
Our trip to Duck, North Carolina, began inauspiciously with an anticipated five hour drive turning into ten hours due to bad traffic throughout Virginia and immediately before the Outer Banks. If we visit again, we’ll leave on Friday rather than early Saturday morning. The way back was a slightly better seven and a half hours. We did enjoy a welcome break at Powell’s Roadside Market on Highway 168, 21368 Caratoke Highway, with its flavored ciders, vegetables, fruit, and free samples. Since there’s only one road and most rentals start and end Saturdays or Sundays, traffic is terrible over the weekend. Once you arrive, stay close to home and avoid going south on Saturdays and Sundays.
A good first stop is the Outer Banks/ Aycock Brown Welcome Center, 5230 N. Croatan Hwy, Kitty Hawk, phone 252-261-1053. Here, you can pick up brochures, guides, and coupon books to the area. Keep your coupon books handy at all times for discounts at many area attractions.
Duck has no public access to its beaches. Only those staying in the town can enjoy them. Duck is known for its gourmet restaurants (featured on the Travel Channel and Food Network), beaches, and quaint shops. The center of Duck has a park often used for concerts and special events. For a schedule visit www.townofduck.com. The park features a hiking trail, playground, and a boardwalk, where you can crab or fish (you must have a license to fish anywhere on the Outer Banks). Flat biking trails, perfect for beginner riders, surround the town. The Duck ocean-side beach had cold water and large wavesâ€”fun for sand play but impossible for swimming and the kids were spooked by all the dead jellyfish (don’t worry, according to a nature center sign even the live jellyfish are harmless).
Duck has about four expensive gourmet restaurants where you can easily dine for over $100 per person. We decided to eat at the cheaper of the two restaurants at the Sanderling Resort. The Lifesaving Station Restaurant is probably the most affordable of Duck’s fine dining establishments. It is in a restored 1899 lifesaving station and most entrees are around $25. All items on the pedestrian kids menu were $6. Our youngest child craved duck and our older one wanted seafood so we asked the chef what he could do. Not only did he offer generous kids portions of adult entrees at half price but he also gave us free fruit salads for the kids. The restaurant provided coloring sheets and crayons too. The food was sophisticated and unusual. For reservations, call 1-800-701-4111 ext. 127.
Sooey’s, a chain located in Duck, Corolla, Frisco, and Nags Head is a family â€”friendly restaurant, which specializes in North Carolina barbeque. Kids meals ($5.99) are served in a frisbee and feature popcorn shrimp and ribs in addition to the usual fare. Food is good but artery clogging.
Two good places for snacks are Duck Donuts and Hawaiian Island in the Osprey Landing Mall, downtown Duck. At Duck Donuts, you can choose your flavors and watch as your donuts are made to order (donuts $1.15 each). Hawaiian Island Snow-Balls & Ice Cream features over 65 flavors of shave ice ($2.50 each), as well as ice cream, milkshakes, fudge, coffee, and some interesting ice cream cones embedded with candies.
The only grocery stores in Duck are Wee Winks Market (more like a convenience store) and Tommy’s Gourmet Market and Wine Emporium (pricey but fun). For more variety, try Harris Teeter or Food Lion in nearby Corolla.
If you want to go against traffic, check out the town of Corolla. The Currituck Heritage Park is home to the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education and the Whalehead Club, a 1920s mansion. The nature center has an exhibition on life by the sound with an 8,000 gallon freshwater aquarium and over 250 decoys. A 20-minute award-winning video “Currituck: Life by Water’s Rhythm”shows every half hour. A thunderstorm prevented us from exploring the wildlife trails. There are a number of programs each week, most requiring reservations. A few drop-in fish programs are held each day. Free admission. Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Sundays. 252-453-0221.
The audio tour for the Whalehead Club is $7 for ages 9 and up; 8 and under are free but also get audio guides. Skip the kid’s scavenger hunt for $5. It is only for the grounds, which they’d enjoy anyway and we heard it was very difficult even for 12 year-olds. My kids were the first ever to try out the new indoor scavenger hunt (free). It kept them completely amused while we explored the Art Nouveau residence with Tiffany light fixtures. Monday-Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 252.453.9040. Outside in the park, families can fish or catch crabs.
A short walk away is the charming Corolla Historic Village. The centerpiece of the Village is the 1875 Currituck Beach Lighthouse. Visitors can climb up the 214 steps for $7; free for 7 and under. Summer hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; Thursdays 9 a.m.-8 p.m. 252.453.8152. There are a number of fans inside so it doesn’t get too hot. My six year-old climbed it without a problem and enjoyed the view. The historic village has a few nice stores, a barbeque place, and Lovie’s Kitchen Table, a gourmet store with wine, sandwiches, salads, excellent baked goods and unique gourmet products.
A one-room 1900 schoolhouse houses the tiny Wild Horses Museum & Store. The museum tells the history of the Spanish Mustangs, which may have been in Corolla for 400 years. It also has a large selection of equine souvenirs. Throughout the summer, kids can paint wooden horses from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays ($4 for an ornament, $15 medium, $35 for large) or pet a Spanish Mustang on Wednesdays from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Free admission. Open 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. daily; 252.453.8002.
If you want to see the live mustangs, you can rent a jeep or take a tour. We took Bob’s Wild Horse Tours, which is the only vendor that donates some of its proceeds to the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. The two hour tour is $49 for adults; 12 and under $29; 3 and under $15. It was lots of fun to drive along the beach in the open truck with an awning and we saw many horses, including a colt. Hang on to your hats; it’s a bumpy ride. 252.453.8602.
Timbuck II, also in Corolla, is a large mall with various stores, putt putt golf, go-karts, bumper cars, a playground, and an arcade.
For a historical day trip, go to Roanoke Festival Park and follow it up with the show “The Lost Colony.” Roanoke Festival Park is like a smaller version of Historic St. Mary’s and even more hands-on. It celebrates the first English settlement in the New World. Stop first at the Visitor Center to buy your tickets. Climb aboard the Elizabeth II ship, a replica of one of the seven ships that took colonists to Roanoke in 1585. Kids can steer the boat or lie down in an officer’s berth. The re-created settlement appears as it would have looked two weeks after the colonists’ arrival. A blacksmith made my daughter a homemade nail as a souvenir. You can also try your hand at using a lathe or pull knife. Costumed interpreters do a great job of getting the kids involved. At the Choanoke Village, you can weave a mat or fishing weir, carve out a canoe, learn how pottery was made, discover ways in which the colonists and Native Americans communicated, or listen to recorded stories in the long house.
A 45-minute docudrama film “The Legend of Two Path”is shown every hour on the hour from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the comfortable, air-conditioned auditorium. It recounts the tale of Skyco, a fictional character, who becomes friends with two historic Native Americans â€” Manteo, who becomes an ally of the British colonists, and Wanchese, who grows to despise the British. The film drags some and could be skipped.
The Roanoke Adventure Museum tells the story of Roanoke Island from its original inhabitants to the present. Kids can try on Tudor costumes, learn early navigational techniques, dress up as pirates, and climb in and out of boats. A paneled exhibition explores the biography of Queen Elizabeth I and her legacy.
A museum shop in the complex has related souvenirs and books. Next to the shop is a fossil digging area. Ask for a bag and a sheet with a key to the fossils at the Visitor Center. The complex also contains the Outer Banks History Center and an Art Gallery with changing exhibitions. There are no restaurants on the grounds but there are vending machines. Bring a picnic lunch and sit at one of the many picnic tables or drive across the bridge to downtown Manteo, which has plenty of restaurants. Allow a half day for the entire park. Admission is $8/adults; $5/children 6 to 18 and under 5 are free.
Our Kids Tip: Your kids may enjoy their visit more if they’re acquainted with the story of the Lost Colony. Recommended books are: Roanoke: The Lost Colonyâ€”An Unsolved Mystery from History by E.Y. Stemple, Jane Yolen, Roger Roth (picture book) and Lost Colony of Roanoke by Jean Fritz (chapter book)
The Elizabethan Gardens, next door to the Waterside Theatre (site of “The Lost Colony”play) was created by the Garden Club of North Carolina as a memorial to the English colonists. Get a free kids scavenger hunt in the gift shop. The serene garden features an herb garden, woodland garden, and fragrance garden. There’s a life-size statue of Queen Elizabeth and a life-size statue of Virginia Dare, the first English child in the New World as she would have appeared as an adult. The centerpiece of the garden is the sunken garden, which features an Italian Renaissance sculpture of a woman, surrounded by Roman gods and goddesses. Highlights for kids are the labyrinth and the nearby fossil dig, where kids can search for sharks teeth, dolphin teeth, and coral. My kids had much more success with this pit than the one at Roanoke Festival Park. The Museum Shop has a nice selection of gifts and books. There are a few vending machines but no restaurants. Admission is $8/adults; $5/children 6 to 17 and under 5 free.
End your day with the spectacular “The Lost Colony” play, written by Pulitzer prize-winner Paul Green, at the Waterside Theatre. Children are free on Mondays and Fridays with a paying adult and half price on Saturdays with a paying adult but other discount coupons cannot be applied. The show tells the story of the Lost Colony from Tudor England to Roanoke Island with cameo appearances by Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, Wanchese, and Manteo. The show begins at 8 p.m. nightly and ends at 10:30 p.m. with a 20 minute intermission.
My six-year old was at the edge of her seat the entire time and was bubbling with questions about the story during the drive home. It lived up to my well-read ten year-old daughter’s expectations. The show was full of pomp and splendor, had great costumes and sets, surprisingly good acting, major sound glitches, and a cast of about a hundred. Younger children may be scared by the fireworks and gun shots. Recommended for ages six and up. Programs are $10. Ice cream, candy, drinks, and Pizza Hut slices are available at concession stands. The Lost Colony only runs during the summer. Kids shows also run concurrently at the Theatre over the summer. Other shows run the rest of the year. Call 252.473.3414 for tickets and information.
The show has a partnership with a number of area restaurants; ask at the box office. Participating restaurants offer 20% off your entire check with your ticket stub or ticket confirmation number. We ate at Big Al’s Diner and Soda Fountain. The restaurant is very kid friendly. There’s a gift shop, game room, coloring sheets, crayons, and tons of Coca-Cola memorabilia. Unfortunately, the food was mediocre at best and they couldn’t even make a decent milkshake. Still, with children, it’s probably a good choice.
A number of tour boats depart from the Manteo waterfront. We went on Captain Johnny’s Dolphin Watch, which goes out a number of times a day for two-hour tours. The boat had a shaded area, restroom, and crackers, Snickers bars, and drinks for sale for $1 to $2. We saw tons of dolphins. Kids two and under are $1; kids $16; adults $26. The Manteo waterfront has a number of restaurants, shops, and a small playground with a fossil pit.
The North Carolina Aquarium is an especially kid-friendly aquariumâ€”hands-on activities abound. There’s a fossil pit outside the aquarium. At the entrance, kids could have their photo taken inside a shark jaw or make a shark puppet from a paper bag. The first section has snakes, frogs, and turtles found in coastal freshwater. The kids were delighted by the antics of the river otter. Next door is an alligator pond. The temporary shark section is very interactive. There’s a photo opportunity in a shark cage, a computer program, and a shark puzzle, as well as well as live sharks. Our kids spent a full half hour at the touch tanksâ€”one with shells, sea urchins, and sea stars, and the other with sting rays. Near the large shark tank, kids could get shark tattoos or learn about sharks and get a shark’s tooth. The kids loved the seahorse tanks in Marine Communities. Outside the Gift Shop are souvenir penny machines. The gift shop has stuffed animals, books, and puzzles. Admission is $8/adults; $7/seniors; $6/children 3 to 12 and under 2 free. Note: If you have a FONZ membership, admission is free for a family of four.
Our second best meal of the trip was at Basnight’s Lone Cedar CafÃ© at the Nags Head-Manteo Causeway. This cavernous restaurant serves fresh local foods prepared simply. They’ll cook a fish you’ve caught and serve it with four sides for $16.99. My kids had the most expensive item on the kids menu, lightly fried shrimp, French fries, and applesauce for $9.99. They also got a coloring sheet with crayons. Outside our window, we could see the intercoastal waterway and watch the antics of resident osprey Ricky and Lucy on their nest. Afterwards, we explored the lovely herb garden and searched for bunnies. Note: The restaurant doesn’t take reservations and fills up quickly.
Kill Devil Hills
Besides Roanoke, the other major historical site on the Outer Banks is the Wright Brothers Memorial, which commemorates the first successful power-driven flight in world history. Start at the Visitor Center to get a schedule of daily events. Ask for a Junior Flight Ranger program for kids with word searches and quizzes. Kids can get a Flight Rangers patch if they participate in two programs and answer all the questions in their program booklet. Almost every hour on the hour a ranger gives a talk about the Wright Brothers story in the Auditorium. There, you’ll see full-scale reproductions of their 1902 glider and the 1903 flying machine and a gallery of famous aviators. Another ranger will meet you outside to give you a tour of the Wright brothers camp, which had two buildingsâ€”their sleeping quarters and workshop and the hangar. A granite boulder marks the spot where the first plane left the ground of December 17, 1903. Smaller stone markers show the landings of the first four flights. Inside the Visitor Center, you’ll also find an exhibition about the Wright brothers, a reconstructed 1901 wind tunnel, and a bookstore with books, model airplanes, and paper airplane kits.
The Centennial Pavilion celebrates the first 100 years of flight. It has exhibits on the Wright brothers and the Outer Banks. Half hour video presentations are shown hourly in the auditorium. My kids participated in a “Fun in Flight”program. They constructed an airplane, which flew surprisingly well, from three strips of paper, a piece of tape, a straw, and a paperclip. Kids can also learn how to make a kite or a paper airplane. All kids programs are free and about a half hour long. The gift shop in this building mostly sells t-shirts.
We drove, but you can walk to the 61-foot Wright Brothers Monument, honoring Wilbur and Orville. The hill up is steep and hot. It marks the site of hundreds of their glider flights, which preceded their first powered flight. It has busts of both brothers. Behind it, is a stainless steel sculpture of the 1903 flying machine. Note: Stay on the trails and wear covered shoes; prickly pears abound. Allow a half day for your visit. Bring a picnic lunch and eat at one of the many picnic tables surrounding the monument. Water machines are at the Centennial Pavilion. Admission is $4/person; under 15 free.
We followed our visit by buying kites at Kitty Hawk Kites at the Kill Devil Hills branch. Jockey’s Ridge State Park is the most popular place in the Outer Banks for kite flying. It’s the tallest natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States and resembles the Sahara Desert. Keep hydrated! You enter the sand dune via a wildlife boardwalk. The lovely Visitor Center has an interesting exhibition on sand dunes, a small gift shop, restrooms, a first aid station, and drink machines outside. The park hosts a number of family programs such as crabbing, Blackbeard’s Treasure Hunt, and learning to track animals that sounded great. Free admission. Summer hours 8 a.m.-9 p.m.
The sound side beach near Jockeyâ€˜s Ridge State Park/Soundside Road is perfect for young children with its gentle waves, shallow water, and bathtub temperature.
The best mini golf course we found was Professor Hacker’s Lost Treasure Golf. To get to your first hole, you ride a mining train. The holes are tricky and fun. One mile north of Wright Brothers Museum. 1600 N. Croatan Hwy., Kill Devil Hills.
Goombays, featuring Caribbean-style food, had an interesting ceiling, which looked like the surface of the ocean with ducks, dolphins, a turtle, and a surf board. There is also a fish tank. The kids menu includes popcorn shrimp and alligator ($7.99). Kids’ drinks like the Shirley Shark are $2.99 and include a toy and one free refill. The kids menu has lots of games. The food, however, was only mediocre and the garlic bread was atrocious. 1608 North Virginia Dare Trail, Kill Devil Hills. 252.441.6001.
Kitty Hawk and Nags Head
Nags Head appears to be the center of most of the kid-friendly activities. It’s got a Raceways, Nags Head Bowling Center, and Gearworks, a laser tag and fun center with an indoor moon bounce that we saved for a rainy day that never came.
Stack ‘Em High Pancake House is an Outer Banks tradition. You go through a cafeteria line to order your pancakes but pancakes are brought to your table. The restaurant also serves eggs, waffles, and lunches. Two pancakes are $2.95 for kids; $4.50 for two pancakes and a side of bacon or sausage. Specialty pancakes included blueberry crunch and chunky monkey (bananas, chocolate chips, coconut, and pecans). Milepost 4.5, 3801 N. Croatan Highway, Kitty Hawk. Another location at Kill Devil Hills.
For a retro experience, try Sonic Drive-In, which as great milkshakes and roller skating waiters. 5205 South Croatan Highway, Nags Head.
In addition to the links listed above, here are a few more.