Planning a long July weekend in Duck, North Carolina, I was glad to come across Our Kids’ very helpful review of an earlier trip to the northern Outer Banks. In this review, I give some updates on that report, with more details about the Sanderling Resort, where we stayed, and other family activities in the area.
I had read in the review to avoid traveling to the Outer Banks on Saturdays, which is when most beach rentals turn over. But my schedule dictated that our check-in day had to be a Saturday. And yes, we did encounter standstill traffic right before the Wright Memorial Bridge.
Not fun when you are traveling with three little kids, as we were, who had already been in the car about five hours at that point. The moral: Pick another day to arrive in the Outer Banks, if you can. If not, plan to arrive really early or really late on Saturday, avoiding the bulk of traffic.
A local later gave me a tip: Locals know some back roads that bypass some traffic. If you see a North Carolina license plate veering off the main road, you might try following it and see where it leads. GPS can always redirect you if it doesn’t work out.
On the way to the Sanderling Resort, we stopped at Duck Donuts for half a dozen made-to-order donuts. They fry and flavor-dunk the donuts so quickly and efficiently that we almost missed seeing them made at all. We also made a stop at Wings, a double-height store for any type of beach gear you could want.
Checking in to the Sanderling is a bit like stepping into a J. Crew ad. The vibe at this low-rise beach-house of a resort is polished but casually chic – and I was worried because I was there with three little kids, who are not at the casually chic stage yet.
But during our stay we saw several other families who were there with little kids. My children quickly made friends with them during pool time.
And actually, having a pool available is one of my new “must-haves” for any beach trip with little kids. The beach remains the primary focus, of course, with waves to splash in and shells to collect and sand castles to build. But a pool lets little kids practice their swimming skills in a wave-free enclosed space.
The family pool at the Sanderling is small and manageable, I could keep an eye on them from my beach chair. It has zero entry at one end for toddlers. I also appreciated the poolside basket of complimentary swim diapers in different sizes.
The beach at Duck is open to the public but beach access is only through private property so the beach doesn’t get that crowded. Sanderling offers “beach butlers” who help you set up lounge chairs and umbrellas. I felt a bit embarrassed calling on their services but it was definitely helpful when I usually am loaded down with so much beach gear.
Another cool feature of Sanderling is their storyteller, who spins tales of pirates and local lore around a fire pit on scheduled evenings. I took my 7- and 3.5-year-olds to this and they stayed quiet during the storytelling but I could tell the younger one was zoning out. Best for ages 5 and up.
Our one “fancy” dinner of the long weekend was at the Sanderling’s newly restored Life Saving Station restaurant. I was worried initially here as well, but once again it turned out to be very family-friendly. In fact, the only other diners at our early reservation time were families too. The kids’ menu was pretty standard. My salad appetizer and grouper entree were both plate-lickin’ good. For dessert we ordered tableside s’mores, a pecan brownie sundae, and a peach cobbler; the s’mores were fun but the portion for one seemed stingy.
Another night we ate at Pizzazz Pizza in Corolla, a takeout spot with patio tables outside, then had ice cream at the Fudgery a few doors down.
I originally thought we’d make a trip to the historic Bodie Island Lighthouse, which is newly open to the public for climbing for the first time. But looking more closely at the map, I saw that the lighthouse wasn’t all that close to Duck. I guess I was still suffering from post-traffic stress syndrome. We decided to keep our exploring close to Duck.
My two older kids did climb the 214 steps to the top of Currituck Beach Lighthouse, a photogenic tower in unpainted red brick. (I stayed below with the baby and bought postcards and a Christmas ornament at the gift shop.)
We also went on a wild horse tour with Corolla Outback Adventures. Our guide was Jay Bender, who is also the company’s manager. He and his ten-year-old daughter, who came along to help guide, were fountains of local information. I sat in the 4WD cab with my baby in her car seat, while my older kids sat seatbelted in the covered truck bed on well-padded seats. We headed onto the 4×4 beach area of Corolla. My kids loved the bumpy ride and spotting a group of wild mustangs by the water.
Jay also took us up behind the dunes to a wild horse reserve where the company has private access. We saw two male horses having a confrontation – one kicked the other before trotting away. We also saw an egret hitching a ride on a horse’s back, and another horse scratching his back on the grass. It made all the difference to have expert guides like the Benders to help us know what we were looking at in regards to equine behavior as well as the landscape. (Tours cost $50 adult, $25 kids.)
We were all sad to leave the Outer Banks. It may have been a slog to get there but the classic beach experience you have once you arrive more than makes up for it.
Photos by Amy Alipio.