Family Vacations to the Outer Banks, North Carolina

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina
Cape Hatteras National Seashore (Weststock)

Duck and the Outer Banks Highlights

  • Catch Atlantic surf, build sandcastles, and stroll miles of dune-bordered beaches.
  • Find out about the first flight at the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
  • Try your own wings by hang-gliding at Jockey's Ridge State Park.
  • Discover underwater wonders at the North Carolina Aquarium.
  • Relive colonial history at Roanoke Island Festival Park.
  • Relive the mystery of settlers who vanished with the musical "The Lost Colony"

North Carolina's Outer Banks, a strip of narrow barrier islands off the state's coast, stretch for 125 miles from Corolla to Ocracoke. To the east, the Atlantic waves break against the shore; to the west, the sound's waters flow into calm coves and salt marshes. The Duck- to-Nags Head corridor in the northern region makes a good base for families, with wide, dune-bordered beaches, historical sights, gardens, an aquarium, and many other summer-perfect attractions.

Not far from where the Wright Brothers first took flight, learn to hang-glide. In Nags Head, Jockey's Ridge State Park, an oasis of sand amid the region's development, sports the East Coast's tallest natural sand dune, a huge ridge rising 80 to 100 feet high. Strap on a glider and sprint downhill accompanied by your trotting guide until, hopefully, you catch some air for an exhilarating ten-second flight.

At the Wright Brothers National Memorial, a granite boulder marks the site of the historic 1903 flight that lasted 12 seconds but changed the world. The visitor center houses a replica of the Wrights' heavier-than-air powered machine, a spruce-and-oak-frame flyer covered with cotton muslin. During ranger-led summer programs, families can test the winds by flying homemade kites and paper airplanes.

The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island explores the state's marine habitats from its coastal freshwater wetlands to its open ocean. Watch groupers, sea turtles, and schools of sharks swarm around a scale model of the USS Monitor in the 285,000-gallon Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Gradeschoolers find it easy to learn about the first English settlement in the New World at Roanoke Island Festival Park. Onboard the Elizabeth II, a replica of the vessel that brought the settlers in 1585, chat with the cabin boy or the captain, or walk through the small re-created village and question the blacksmith and the indentured servant about survival in the wilderness. At the Roanoke Adventure Museum, kids dress up in 16th-century garb, examine a long hut made of saplings and learn about Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, who plundered ships along the Carolina and Virginia coasts.

Also on Roanoke Island, the Elizabethan Gardens, planted as a living memorial to the English colonists, are edged with boxwood, adorned with fountains, and blooming with roses, lilies, camellia trees, and crape myrtles. From the thatched-roof gazebo with its view of Roanoke Sound, it's easy to imagine the lure of the New World.

Less rose-tinted but with the same spectacle, "The Lost Colony" is an outdoor drama retelling the history of Roanoke Island's 1585 settlement whose inhabitants disappeared without a trace around 1587. Playing since 1937, the musical mixes pageantry, pratfalls, foppish courtiers, and benevolent Native Americans and battles. The tale's fun as long as you douse yourself with bug spray first.

Further south, Cape Hatteras National Seashore offers miles of undeveloped beaches, as well as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, a 208-foot lighthouse built in 1870 to warn ships off the boat-wrecking shoals.

Tip: Avoid driving on Saturday. It's the day most weekly rentals turn over and the traffic is bumper to bumper, especially along Route 12.'s resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 17 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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