Six ways to enjoy this popular, year-round vacation destination

Ancient ship logs suggest it was 16th century Spanish explorers who first set foot on the Outer Banks, a 200-mile-long string of slender barrier islands along North Carolina’s Atlantic coast. Troubles with hostile natives soon caused the Spaniards to retreat south to Florida leaving the area open for British colonization. Over the years the Banks recorded a colourful past punctuated by pirate tales, a slew of shipwrecks off its shores, the building of lighthouses and the most significant event of all—the Wright brothers’ first airplane flight near Kitty Hawk in December 1903.

Today, this elongated stretch of sandbars referred to by locals as OBX is a popular, year-round vacation destination defined by fabulous beaches, windswept dunes, charming towns, thousands of oceanfront accommodations and a remarkable host of entertainment options.

Although summer is Banks high season, fall and winter offer fewer tourists, lower prices and almost all hotels, resorts and attractions remain open for business. During a trip there in early October, primarily to the northern counties of Currituck and Dare, I was smitten with several engaging attractions. Although not limited to six, here is a half dozen Outer Banks highlights.

Wild Things

The ultimate thrill for me was a Wild Mustang tour. Who knew the Outer Banks was home to a herd of more than 100 wild horses? Sometimes called “banker” ponies, these untamed mustangs are said to be descendents of those left behind by the Spanish in the 1500s. Having survived and thrived for nearly 500 years near the OBX town of Corolla, they roam free over dunes and beaches feeding on salt grass and other indigenous vegetation.

To see them in their natural habitat, including frolicking in Atlantic surf, is a magical experience. Not interfered with in any way, they regard vehicles and man as part of their natural environment. Open-air tours are conducted in jeeps, safari-style trucks and other off-road vehicles. Visitors can do a tour on their own, however, there’s a local guy who makes a good living towing tourist’s cars out of soft OBX sand. In 2010 the North Carolina government designated the Colonial Spanish Mustang as the official state horse.

Taking Flight

Not surprisingly, North Carolina license plates bear the words, First in Flight, proudly identifying the state as the place where famous brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, logged a defining moment in history when they were first to fly a heavier than air vehicle. Today, located near the oceanfront town of Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers National Memorial is a commemorative park honouring the brothers world-changing contribution.

An on-site museum contains a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer together with a collection of artifacts that bring to life the process that led the brothers to achieving their dream of man in flight. Likewise, park historians deliver regular commentaries on the history of the brothers and their world-renowned accomplishments.

Fairways and Greens

At the northern end of the Banks, Currituck County has led the way in Outer Banks golf course development. With six excellent clubs offering entirely different layouts, locals are quick to emphasize that for northerners heading south, OBX golf is a lot closer than Myrtle Beach or Florida.
“We have great courses that cost less to play than those further south and our clubs here are open year-round,” says Bryan Sullivan, director of golf for Currituck County’s Kilmarlic Golf Club. Several of the courses feature oceanside holes, sand dunes and, surprisingly, some have significant elevation changes not expected in a barrier island terrain.

In addition to Kilmarlic, other courses exceedingly worthy of play are the Carolina Club, Nags Head, The Pointe Golf Club and The Currituck Golf Club.

Foodie Heaven

Quite simply, Outer Banks dining is out of this world for two main reasons: Carolina BBQ and fresh seafood. I rarely rate a destination on the basis of its cuisine but in the case of the OBX it would be folly not to talk about it. First, there are more than 150 restaurants–mainly locally owned and operated–that range from casual waterside eateries, to family restaurants and up-market establishments. Seemingly, every 100 yards or so there’s an eatery of one sort or other. While there’s a wide range of fresh-caught fish, crab, shrimp and oysters prepared in a variety of mouthwatering ways, I’d have to say the big winner is BBQ: pulled pork, beef and chicken, together with succulent ribs and even BBQ fish. Moreover, if you elect to stay in a self catering cottage there are establishments such as Chefs on Call and Currituck BBQ that will cook you up an entire feast and deliver it to your abode.

In addition, there are also a few micro-breweries such as the questionably named Weeping Radish and the Outer Banks Brewing Station. Unexpectedly, there are also four wineries on the mainland section of Currituck County where vintners are turning the classic grape varieties of California and Europe into wines that are receiving rave reviews.

Fish Tales

I confess I have little interest in fishing; however, it’s a huge attraction in the Outer Banks and definitely falls within the “highlight” category. The claim that it’s one of the best fishing venues on the Atlantic coast is backed up by recorded catches that have won many state and world records – hence its nickname “Gamefish Junction.” Anglers come from far and wide to fish for giant blue marlin, mackerel, Wahoo, tuna, sailfish and others.

The reason fishing is so good off the Banks is because its string of islands are located at the confluence of two big ocean currents (Labrador and Gulfstream) that sweep an abundance of fish species toward the OBX. Charter companies are widely available for offshore angling, however, surf fishing is also popular and bait and tackle can be rented at numerous locations.

Scuba Diving

They don’t call the waters off the Outer Banks “the Graveyard of the Atlantic” for no reason. Well over 1,000 ships have sunk there since the early 1500s due to bouts of severe weather, strong currents, hidden shoals and navigational challenges – especially in the early days.

The remains of these maritime casualties lie like ghosts on the ocean floor making them perfect for wreck diving and making the Banks a world-class dive destination. Most of the offshore wrecks lie in 70 to 100 feet of water and there are several OBX charter companies equipped to lead divers to some of the most significant wrecks.

TRAVEL PLANNER

To obtain a free Outer Banks Visitor’s Guide go online at www.OuterBanks.org or call 877-OBX-4fun (877-629-4386).

To learn more about Currituck County, go online at www.VisitCurrituck.com or call 877-287-7488.

For information golf information go online at www.PlayOBXGolf.com or call 800-916-6244.