For a Beach Vacation With Smaller Crowds Visit the Outer Banks, NC

Have you visited the beaches on North Carolina’s Outer Banks? Many of the Upstate’s favorite beaches are just a few hours away on the South Carolina coast, but many of those beaches have large hotels and a big entertainment scene making those beaches more crowded. The Outer Banks of North Carolina have a very different feel with mainly vacation rental homes for lodging plus long skinny islands with huge lengths of beautiful beaches. Here are some of our favorite things to do and places to eat in the Outer Banks.

Where to Stay in the Outer Banks, NC

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Rental houses

Most of the lodging in the Outer Banks are rental houses. You’ll find many options on VRBO and AirBnb. In season the majority of houses rent weekly, most Saturday to Saturday. However, there are houses that only have a few day minimum stay. You’ll just have to dig a little bit more to find them. Over the years we’ve also had luck asking owners if they’d rent partial weeks when their listings said they would not. My experience has been that if your trip is within a couple weeks and they have the ability, many owners will make an exception. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

One of the things to keep in mind is that most houses have a cleaning fee and some type of service fee. Those fees don’t change if you’re staying for a week or 3 days. That can make your partial week per night price on the higher end.

Locations

My favorite part of the Outer Banks is the Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk section. Duck, NC is also popular, as is Corolla. If you’re staying in Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills or Kitty Hawk and want to walk to the beach, I recommend staying on the ocean side of N Croatan Highway.

There are basically two main roads on the skinny island, N Croatan Highway and Virgina Dare Trail. N Croatan Highway has many lanes, most of the businesses on the island and all the traffic. Virginia Dare Trail is the beach road with a low speed limit and it is very easy to cross. While there are cross walks across N Croatan Highway, I would not recommend trying to cross it with children, especially.

That said, rentals are cheaper across the N Croatan Highway, on the side of the island facing the sound and parking is available at many public beach access sites along the beach road. In other words, you could rent a house farther from the ocean and then drive a few minutes to the beach.

Places to Eat in the Outer Banks

Kill Devil’s Custard and Beach Fries

1002 South Croatan Highway, Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948

I’ve never had better fries, burgers, and frozen custard than KDC. Last summer we drove over 2 hours one way from my friend’s house in Yorktown, VA just to get some KDC. This year we may have gone 4 out of the 5 days we were in town.

This order at the window restaurant has only outdoor seating. There are only about 8 tables, two under an overhang, 3 with umbrellas and a few more in the grass, very spread out. It’s very popular but many people take their food to go. We always manage to get a table and it never feels very crowded. If you’re not in the mood for burgers, they also have a chicken sandwich, BBQ sandwich, plus kid favorites like a hot dog, corn dog, chicken nuggets and grilled cheese.

PRO-TIP: Order yourself your burger and fries first and grab their rewards punch card. Get it punched again when you order your custard after your meal. I guarantee you’ll be back and you just might earn yourself a free menu item.

John’s Drive-In

3716 N Virginia Dare Trail, Kitty Hawk, NC 27949

This restaurant isn’t much bigger than a shed and is usually surrounded by a slew of double parked cars. But, in that tiny building is the best fried fish I’ve ever had, plus hush puppies and fabulous milkshakes. They do have some non-seafood options as well, but, if you like fish this is as fresh as it gets and you don’t want to miss it.

Parking at this little spot is tricky due to its popularity and tiny lot. There’s a bit of room along the shoulder of the beach road for parking, but usually, we just drive by a few times and grab a spot as someone is leaving the parking lot. Sounds frustrating, but it’s worth it, I promise.

3711 S Croatan Hwy, Nags Head, NC 27959

Order a seafood steamer bucket to go from this seafood restaurant and take it back to your rental house for a great meal. They say the bucket feeds 4, but for us, it’s enough for 3 adult seafood eaters, 2 kids who ate a lot of seafood, and 3 other kids who ate a bit. We had lobster, crab legs, clams, crayfish, shrimp, potatoes, and corn in our bucket. Plus, it comes with cocktail sauce, a stick of butter and lemon.

They also have a full take-out menu with steamed and fried seafood and sides.

PRO-TIP: If you have people in your group who are not seafood eaters, do this on the last night of your trip when there are leftovers for those that don’t like the seafood.

Duck Donuts

Multiple locations in OBX.

Duck Donuts was born in the Outer Banks and I think those warm custom-made donuts taste extra delicious for a beach day breakfast.

Black Pelican

3848 Virginia Dare Trail North, Kitty Hawk, NC 27949 (Mile Post 4 on the beach road.)

This sit-down seafood restaurant is on the more expensive side. But, it makes a great date night away if you have someone to watch the kids on vacation. There’s a lot more on the menu than seafood, and the ocean views are fabulous. But, the best part of this place is that it’s located in Lifesaving Station #6. This is the station where Orville and Wilbur Wright sent the telegraph informing the world of their first successful flights in Kitty Hawk. The inside of the restaurant has a lot of Wright Brothers and maritime history pertinent to the area.

Things to Do in the Outerbanks

The beach in the Outer Banks is the main attraction, but there are also tons of family-friendly things to do. You’ll find a few of the typical mini-golf, go-karts and water park attractions, but there are definitely some unique to OBX things to do that you don’t want to miss!

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

300 W Carolista Dr, Nags Head, NC 27959

This state park is free to enter and it is fabulous. You’ll get a chance to see what the island was like when it was sparsely populated, before grass and was planted and buildings established. Climb huge sand dunes for a view of both the sound and the ocean and while you’re on those sand dunes, break out the kites. There’s no better kite flying anywhere than on the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge, in my opinion. Many folks also bring boogie boards and slide down the sand dunes like sleds.

PRO-tip: Sand dunes are HOT. Go in the morning before it gets too hot, or visit at sunset. The dunes are much more crowded at sunset but the views are amazing. The sand dunes are huge so spreading out even when the parking lot is totally full is not a problem at all. There are also multiple ways to walk out to the sand dunes, which cuts down on the back and forth people traffic.

1000 N Croatan Highway, Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948

The first successful airplane flight happened in the Outer Banks off a sand dune in Kitty Hawk. Grass has since been planted on the hill to help with erosion and a monument placed at the top. Learn about the first flights in the onsite museum and do not miss the ranger talking about the Wright Flyer. Then walk the distance of the first flights and peek into the recreated workshop and living space of the Wright Brothers.

Kids 15 and under are free, adults $10.

North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island

374 Airport Rd, Manteo, NC 27954

There is a Sea Turtle Rescue Hospital at this aquarium on Roanoke Island! You’ll get to see rescued turtles and hear from the staff about their care. Then kids can run through their own sea turtle rescue simulation in a hands-on exhibit beside the rescue hospital. The sea turtles are, in my opinion, the best part of the aquarium, but there are lots of fish and other sea creatures to examine. We always enjoy their deep-sea talks, too.

Don’t overlook their educational programming. My family did their stand-up paddleboarding experience, as well as their behind-the-scenes tour. Both were excellent, and I cannot say enough positive things about their fabulous staff. It was really a top-notch experience all the way around!

The aquarium is reciprocal with a Greenville Zoo Membership. Just check before you go because those reciprocity rules can change pretty quickly.

Jennette’s Pier

7223 S Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head, NC 27959

You can fish from this pier, and they do have fishing equipment available for rent. But, my crew just enjoys walking out on the pier. We watch the fisherman and see what wildlife we ​​can spot in the water. This year we saw a lot of jellyfish from the pier and watched a fisherman catch a stingray, which he then threw back. The fee to walkout is just $2 for adults and $1 for kids. There are also some large aquarium tanks inside the building that you can see with your admission.

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