A Guide to Navigating the Outer Banks with Kids

Outer banks

One of my more memorable vacations growing up was vacationing on the Outer Banks. The car ride from Kentucky was a long one for a kid, but I truly believe that some of the best memories are from family road trips. Especially with parents like mine; my dad tends to really get slap happy the longer he’s stuck in the car. You never know what can happen or what you can see while traveling along highways and byways. I once asked my mom why she liked this particular destination so much. “It was amazingly beautiful”, was her reply. As an adult, and a mom, I can totally relate to my mom’s appreciation for the beauty of the area. Though made up of islands off the coast of North Carolina, The Outer Banks has packed a lot of vacation into this little slice of heaven. There is something for everyone and nothing beats watching your children ‘living their best life’ while exploring the beaches. 

The Outer Banks can be daunting, however, since there are quite a few little towns to choose from, each with its own charms. We decided to break it down by town, in hopes that you can decide on the spot that will be best for your family’s needs!

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Northern Beaches in the Outer Banks:

The Northern Beaches of the Outer Banks may have some names you recognize, namely Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills. Kitty Hawk is best known as the town where the Wright Brothers performed their aviation testing and propelled themselves into history. Kill Devil Hills is where the Wright Brothers successfully took flight and is home to a National Memorial dedicated in their honor. This area is a great place to station yourself during your vacation given its central location and access to the other barrier islands. The Northern Beaches offer a wide variety of activities, as well as abundant lodging and dining options. Below is our break down of the Northern Beaches:

Hotels

There is no lack of places to stay in the Northern Beaches. While there are plenty of vacation home and condo rentals in the area, we’ve decided to focus on local hotels and resorts that will give you a place to rest, as well as other amenities to keep your family comfortable.

Shutters on the Banks (Kill Devil Hills)

Sanderling Resort (Duck)

Sea Horse Inn and Cottages (Nag’s Head)

Best Western Ocean Hills Suites ( Kill Devils Hill)

Ramada Plaza ( Kill Devils Hill)

Hilton Garden Inn ( Kitty Hawk)

TownePlace Suites by Marriott (Kill Devil Hills)

Holiday Inn Express ( Kitty Hawk)

Restaurants

While in the Northern Beaches, you certainly won’t be hungry. There are so many choices for every type of cuisine, we couldn’t possibly list them all! However, we are going to highlight some of our favorite stops, just to give you a taste of what’s available.

Let’s start with dessert (hey, it is vacation!). Ice cream on vacations is a must for us, so while you are in Duck be sure to head to The Sweet Duck! They have gelato and crepes just to name a few of their treats! Another great option for cooling down after a day at the beach is Big Buck’s Homemade Ice Cream and Espresso. It’s also great for when you need that extra little boost to get the day into gear.

Pizza is always a crowd favorite in my family and Pizzazz Pizza delivers. They have several locations in the Outer Banks that serve up their pies. One of those locations is in Duck! Another option for pizza on the island is the Duck Pizza Company or Cosmo’s Pizzeria.

If Mexican food is what your crew is craving, then the Coastal Cantina is the spot to grab a margarita and a fantastically fresh fish taco! Or hit up Plaza Azteca for some sizzling fajitas and a cold cerveza. 

For a fine dining experience on the water, Aqua Restaurant should be on your list. With an exceptional menu of both surf and turf, this is definitely one to check out if you get a chance at a vacation date.

If a good burger is what you are in the mood for, then swing into John’s Drive In for a burger, fries and a hand-dipped milkshake.

If breakfast is what you are in search of you can’t go wrong with Stack’em High Pancakes. They have been in business for over 30 years so you know they are doing something right! For something a little more ‘on the go’, Duck Donuts has several locations around OBX, so grab a dozen on your way to the beach!

Things to do:

When you and your family are ready to get out and stretch your legs a bit, head to Duck Cycle and rent bikes to explore the island. In addition to bike rentals, you can also rent kayaks and paddle boards.

If riding a horse on a beach is on your bucket list, head over to Kitty Hawk Kites and book a trip.  If hang gliding is more your speed, you can do that as well!

If there is a rainy day during your stay, head over to Children @ Play. My kids are fascinated with playing doctor, so the ‘hospital’ where they can do a check up on their teddy bears is perfect for them!

The Wright Brothers National Memorial is right in Kitty Hawk and should definitely be a part of your itinerary. With a reproduction aircraft and plenty of hands-on activities, this is sure to be a hit with the kids (big and small). 

If you are looking for something a little more physical, head to the Nature Conservancy at Nags Head Woods. The walking trails will take you through land rife with various species of vegetation, birds and fish. 

For a true island vacation experience, don’t miss out on visiting the Bodie Island Lighthouse. Climb to the top of this megawatt attraction and get some amazing views of the surrounding area and the Atlantic Ocean!

Roanoke Island and Dare Mainland: 

If you are wanting to stay in this area of the Outer Banks (the towns of Mateo and Wanchese), then renting a condo or house is the main option for this area. If you haven’t given Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO.com) a try, we recommend it! We have rented condos via this site before and have had great luck! There are also a couple of B&B’s nearby as well, but those probably aren’t going to be a great option for families.

Restaurants

Poor Richard’s Sandwich Shop is a great idea for a quick lunch stop; they have everything from burgers and fries to cold sandwiches. This would be a great place to pick up a picnic lunch for the beach.

Big Buck’s Homemade Ice Cream is the perfect place to satisfy your sweet tooth. They have 3 locations in the Outer Banks and, in addition to ice cream, they have an espresso bar!

Ortega’z Southewestern Grill is located in Mateo and they serve up Southwestern fare with a kick. They have been featured on Food Network’s ‘Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives’, so you know they are something special!

Blue Water Grill and Raw Bar is a finer dining establishment on the marina. It has great views of the Bodie Lighthouse and Marina. They offer a kids menu and dessert menu, as well as entertainment at the adjacent Mimi’s Tiki Hut. 

For a touch of nostalgia and a great talking point for the kids, check out Big Al’s Soda Fountain and Grill. Belly up to the bar and grab a burger and milkshake. With actual soda jerks behind the counter and a jukebox blasting the tunes, everyone will have a ball!

Things to do: 

Roanoke Island Festival Park has so much to see and do you will want to plan on spending a good amount of time! With hands-on exhibits like the American Indian Town, the Settlement site, and the Adventure Museum there is something for everyone. You can’t make a trip to the park without checking out the replica ship, either!

A visit to the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is sure to be one of the highlights of your trip. There is all kinds of marine life to observe and lots of interactive displays to help you explore the life under (and over) the sea.

If you have always wanted to take a fishing charter, then Country Girl Fishing Charters is the company to do it with.  The boat has room enough to take 6 passengers out!

Pirate Adventures of the Outer Banks is a fantastic way to spend the afternoon out on the water! Your kids will get to help solve a pirate mystery. It’s so much fun to see little imaginations come to life!

Take a walk through the Elizabethan Gardens if you have time. Located in the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, the Gardens have various walks laid out over acres and acres of plant and wildlife that will introduce you to all kinds of new species. There are also fountains and buildings dotted all  throughout the Gardens.

Hatteras Island :

If you want to take “getting away from it all” to the next level, then Hatteras Island is a perfect choice. Hatteras Island stretches nearly half the distance of the entire Outer Banks. There is surprisingly a lot to do on Hatteras Island with the kids, all of which will be the ultimate in nature. There are many small towns on Hatteras Island that offer dining and shopping.

Hotels:

If you are going with friends or a large family there are plenty of house rentals available on the island.  If a condo is more your style, then you might want to check out Villas of Hatteras Landing. Their suites are conveniently located with just a short walk to shops and the beach.

Restaurants: 

There are some fabulous restaurants on Hatteras Island and I love that you won’t find many chains.   For seafood you will want to check out Atlantic Coast Café in Wave, Open Water Grill in Avon, Harbor House Seafood Market in Hatteras.  We could do an entirely separate blog just on seafood restaurants in Outer Banks, it’s really hard to go wrong. There are also plenty of quick snack shacks and delicatessens around if you want to grab a quick meal to take with you to the beach.  If you do find a place to eat, we always recommend you check yelp.com for customer reviews.

Things to do: 

Hatteras Landing Marina is a great place to stay or just spend the day.  There are some great local shops, food, ice cream, bike rentals, outdoor movies, a rock wall.

For a fun bit of history make sure to visit the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.  The Queen Anne’s Revenge artifacts are really fascinating. This museum is free, but please make a donation.  While the museum is nice, be advised that it really isn’t worth a long drive in our opinion.

Miss Hatteras Captain Clam’s Children’s Pirate Cruise is so much fun for younger kids.  The staff will dress your kids up in costumes and take them out to sea in search of a treasure to steal!  There is also a water-cannon fight between a rival ship!

Horseback riding on the beach, need I say more?  We recommend you reserve this activity the week before you go as it can fill up fast in peak seasons.  They do allow children to ride. This activity makes for wonderful vacation photos!

Rodanthe is home to the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, the first such station established along the North Carolina coast, in the service of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, which eventually became today’s modern Coast Guard. The U.S. Coast Guard was essentially founded in this tiny village.   There is a lot of interesting history in the Outer Banks!

Ocracoke Island:

Ocracoke Island is a charming community and only spans about 16 miles. The hub of the island is Ocracoke Village. Ocracoke Village is on the National Register of Historic Places and in the village, you will see a lot of people milling around, shopping, and riding bikes.

Hotels:

The best accommodations for families are probably to rent a cottage but there are a few hotels on the island. For on the water lodging we recommend the Captains Landing or the Anchorage Inn & Marina.

Restaurants:

There aren’t a whole lot of dining choices on this tiny island, but the ones there are first rate.  Check out the Back Porch Restaurant and Howard’s Pub Restaurant.  We also recommend Dajio which is a farm to table dining experience.  After dinner walk on over to The Slushy Stand for a cool treat!

Things to do: 

If you like deep sea fishing, then Ocracoke Island is the place for you.  There are many options for boat fishing for you and your age-appropriate children.  Pop in the Teach’s Hole Blackbeard Exhibit and learn all about pirate Black Beard whose ship sank in the waters near Beaufort, SC, and browse among the pirate inspired gift shop.

Visit the Ocracoke Lighthouse, which by the way is still active.  The landscape surrounding the lighthouse is beautiful and not commercialized so it’s a great place to snap some family photos.

The Outer Banks, or OBX for those in the know, has so much to do and see. However, there is not so much going on that you end up feeling like you didn’t even have a vacation. This is truly one of those destinations where rest and relaxation are the name of the game. You will have an amazing time on the Islands of the Outer Banks.

Have you visited the Outer Banks before? Which area do you and your family prefer?

A Comprehensive Guide to the Outer Banks

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