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Looking for a family travel destination that will get your crew outdoors and feed your kids’ curiosity? North Carolina’s Outer Banks is rich in beauty, wildlife and history. If anyone in your group has even a passing interest in airplanes, for example, Kitty Hawk is a must-see. This region is also home to wild horses and bottlenose dolphins, as well as miles and miles of beaches.
How to Get to the Outer Banks
The narrow series of peninsulas and barrier islands known as the Outer Banks (OBX) stretch for about 200 miles of North Carolina coastline, from Sandbridge, Virginia, in the north to the three capes of Hatteras, Lookout and Fear in the south. It’s a popular driving destination for travelers from eastern states, such as Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and New York, as well as from within North Carolina. Drivers coming from the north typically arrive via US Route 158 (or US 168 Business, which avoids toll roads), while drivers from the West or South follow US 64. The OBX website gives detailed driving directions, including a couple of leisurely scenic routes.
Ferry boats also link Outer Banks communities to each other and to the mainland; some lines transport vehicles while others are for passengers only. The North Carolina Department of Transportation lists terminal locations, schedules and ticket prices.
Air travelers can fly into Virginia’s Norfolk International Airport (ORF, 82 miles north) from gateways all over the East and Midwest via American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Allegiant, United, Southwest and Delta. Note that some flights to Norfolk from western states are only offered seasonally. If no convenient or affordable flights are running from your departure point to ORF, you can also fly to Raleigh-Durham International Airport (192 miles west).
Those flying in from the east coast and nearby states may do well with using miles via domestic short-haul mileage awards.
What to Do on the Coast
On a springtime visit to the Outer Banks, travelers will see the natural wonders of this region come to life, with trees leafing out and flowers blooming. Depending on exactly when you visit, temperatures might not be what everyone would consider beachy until the true summer months hit. Still, you’ll want to explore the beautiful coast. In the summer, things heat up and families flock to the shore.
The northern Atlantic side includes Corolla/Carova, where you’ll find miles of relatively quiet, unspoiled beaches and nearby attractions, such as the Currituck Lighthouse ($10 for ages 8+, free for 7 and under) and the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education (free). This is also the area to see the Corolla wild mustangs. Many visitors spot the horses without the benefit of a tour, but for more information and a guaranteed viewing, book a two-hour 4WD vehicle tour in advance through providers such as Wild Horse Adventure Tours ($44 for adults, $42 for those over 60 and $29 for 12 and under).
In the central OBX, Kitty Hawk has long narrow strands and impressive waves. You’ll also want to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial ($10 for adults, free for those under 15). Stand on the site where brothers Orville and Wilbur launched the first successful airplane flight in 1903, and check out exhibits that bring their inventions to life.
Kill Devil Hills offers wide beaches with lifeguards, big waves, public parking and the Avalon Pier for fishing. Nearby Nags Head is one of the oldest communities on the Outer Banks, so the town has a charming historic feel. Nags Head beaches are lifeguarded, and nearby are the Nags Head Fishing Pier and Jennette’s Pier. The latter, run by the NC Aquarium, is home to aquarium-style exhibits and a research center as well as services for anglers (fishing: $14 for adults, $7 for children; walk on $2 for adults, $1 for children; rod rental for $10, pin rig rental for $8; multi-day passes available).
The NC Aquarium itself (Roanoke Island, $12.95 for adults, $11.95 for 62+ and military, $10.95 for children 2–13, free under 2) showcases the largest group of sharks in the state. The aquarium also organizes tours and activities for children, plus “swimming with sharks” events for certified scuba divers 15 and up ($175 for aquarium members, $195 for nonmembers).
Also in Nags Head, Jockey’s Ridge State Park boasts the tallest sand dunes on the East Coast. Hang-gliding is popular here, with Kitty Hawk Kites offering adults and children the chance to “learn to fly” where human flight was born. Lessons range from $99 for a three-hour session to $429 for a lesson followed by a towed mile-high flight with an instructor. Visitors also come to the dunes to play, go sandboarding and fly kites, and it’s a popular place to watch the sunset. Admission is free, but some activities are regulated; sandboarding requires a free permit, for example. See the park website for rules.
To the south, the beaches on Ocracoke Island are broad and relatively calm, with sandbars to explore and a lifeguard on duty; facilities include ample parking, showers, bathrooms and changing rooms. Also on Ocracoke Island, Springer’s Point Nature Preserve offers 120 acres of forest, marshlands and coast to explore, including a half-mile nature trail.
Several Outer Banks beaches, including the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, allow 4WD vehicles on the beach, but a permit is required and rules apply. The National Park Service explains how to use what they call an off-road vehicle (ORV) safely and legally.
What to Do on the Water
Outer Banks Kayak Adventures (Nags Head) offers a range of kayak and stand-up paddleboard (SUP) excursions, including Nags Head morning and sunset tours, a nighttime bioluminescence tour, Kitty Hawk forests and marshes, Roanoke Island history, kids’ kayak trips and an Alligator River Wildlife Refuge tour. Prices range from $35 to $50 per adult and $25 to $35 per child in kayaks, while fees are higher for SUPs. Most excursions last 90 minutes or two hours. Note: There’s also lots to see and do on dry land inside the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, including spotting black bears, white-tailed deer and red wolves, and admission is free.
Kitty Hawk Kayak & Surf School (KHKSS) offers similarly priced kayak excursions as well as surf lessons for anyone aged 6 and up. Small-group classes include use of a board and wetsuit ($69 per person). KHKSS also gives private lessons ($125 individual, $109 each for two people, $99 for three or more) and rents out boards, wetsuits, kayaks and SUPS.
From mid-April through mid-September, Paradise Dolphin Cruises (Wanchese, Roanoke Island) is one of several companies offering dolphin-spotting tours. Passengers of the Kokomo view osprey and other local bird species as well as bottlenose dolphins. Choose a standard cruise ($20 for adults; $18 for seniors, military and police officers; $15 for children; free 2 and under) or a sunset cruise ($25 for adults, $15 for children). Reservations required.
Where to Stay in the Outer Banks
To book your lodging with points in OBX, try the Hilton Garden Inn Outer Banks/Kitty Hawk (27k–70k Hilton points per night), where you’ll find family-sized rooms with private balconies. The hotel also has a fishing pier, pool and fitness facilities. Hampton Inn Outer Banks (28k–80k points per night), on the beach in Corolla, offers two-queen bedrooms or suites with free Wi-Fi, breakfast, pool and a fitness room. If you need to rack up some Hilton points to cover these stays, here are some cards that make that easy.
Baymont by Wyndham in Kitty Hawk (15,000 points) has rooms with two full-sized beds, including breakfast, Wi-Fi and an outdoor pool. You can book the Baymont with 15,000 Wyndham points for now though that might change when Wyndham’s award chart changes April 3, 2019.
The Holiday Inn Express Nags Head Oceanfront (from 40,000 points) has two-queen bedrooms with complimentary buffet breakfast, free Wi-Fi and an indoor pool. If you have the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card you can enjoy your fourth award night free. That means the current bonus of up to 120k IHG points on the IHG Rewards Premier Card is enough for four award nights.
Marriott travelers should note that the brand-new and pet-friendly TownePlace Suites Outer Banks in Kill Devil Hills is scheduled to open May 2019: too late for this year’s spring break, but just in time for a summer trip. We don’t yet know what category Marriott has attached to this hotel.
Outer Banks also offers scores of non-chain accommodations, from hotels to bed-and-breakfasts to beach house rentals and condos. In fact, this may be exactly the type of spot where you look to rent a larger condo or house with some friends or family and skip the traditional hotel chain. This doesn’t always mean you can’t use points though as you can use your Choice points to book a vacation rental in the OBX.
A trip to the Outer Banks will feel like a world of its own: full of wildlife, memorable landscapes and ocean adventures. It’s the type of place families return to year after year. Have you visited OBX? What did your family enjoy the most?
Featured photo by Rob Huber/Getty Images
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