The first stop of our trek across North Carolina was the Outer Banks, namely Nags Head, NC. The Outer Banks consists of roughly 200 miles of barrier islands and sand dunes that stretch from the Northern Beaches (at the North end, natch) down through to the Cape Hatteras lighthouse at the tip of Hatteras Island.
We absolutely loved it.
It was hard to start our trip there because it was so hard to leave!
Where we stayed in Nags Head NC:
We spent four days and three nights at the Comfort Inn South Oceanfront. Located directly on the beach, the location can’t be beat and the rooms are decently sized–our family of four was perfectly comfortable. I was pretty surprised at how clean and well-maintained the hotel is. A beach vacation of this nature can really take its toll on a property and the rooms. Despite our best efforts, we were often sandy and damp as we trekked back for hot showers and to get ready for dinner or for bed. The public areas and rooms (well, our room anyway) are holding their own against the sand and seawater.
The beds were very comfortable and we all slept well. We really enjoyed the spectacular ocean views and it is definitely worth the splurge for the balcony-side rooms. I would have loved to keep the door open all night to enjoy the sounds of the ocean, but I was too afraid of A) critters flying in the open door and B) possibly sleepwalking children.
I was a little surprised the hotel didn’t have a stash of beach chairs and/or sand toys to borrow, but we brought beach towels and had no issue getting set up in the sand. The hotel’s pool is one of the few in the area where you can enjoy the beach views from the pool deck. It’s a little small but the pool is clean and well maintained, and the kids really enjoyed it. One nice touch I thought is that the pool is accessible for those with disabilities, and the property has a few accessible rooms. The Comfort Inn South Oceanfront is also pet-friendly.
The majority of visitors to Nags Head seem to rent vacation homes or condos, but there is a small smattering of beach motels. It sticks out of the landscape a bit, but the Comfort Inn South Oceanfront offers great value for families and the location truly can’t be beat. You can easily walk to a 7-11 and many wonderful little restaurants as well.
Where we ate in Nags Head NC:
Breakfast at the Comfort Inn South Oceanfront…
A hot breakfast buffet is included in your stay at the Comfort Inn South Oceanfront, and for families this value can’t be beat. I may or may not have eaten my weight in biscuits and gravy, but every morning we were greeted with sausage links and scrambled eggs, yogurt, a variety of breads and muffins, make-your-own waffles, cereal, and a small selection of fresh fruit.
It was more than enough for our family to start our day. Other than the hard-boiled eggs, they couldn’t confirm that any of the products were gluten-free, but my gluten-free husband was able to eat the scrambled eggs and sausage with no issues.
Sam & Omie’s – Nags Head, NC
For our first night’s dinner, I was jonesing for some seafood. And although driving around the Outer Banks is super easy and finding parking isn’t an issue, I wanted to walk. I asked at the front desk where we could eat that was walkable, and I was delighted with all the options. And Sam & Omie’s was highly recommended. Now we know why!
I had probably the best crab cakes I’ve ever had, and my daughter enjoyed her cheeseburger. Gluten-free husband went for the blackened tuna steak over caesar salad (no croutons) and Bub went hardcore with his broiled shrimp and scallop platter. The food was absolutely delicious and dinner was very affordable. Pinot Grigio by the glass is only $5!
On weekends it’s busy, and it can be a bit of a wait for a table. We opted to sit at the bar and a great dinner with no wait.
Dune Burger – Nags Head, NC
We were incredibly tempted just to eat at Sam & Omie’s again, but we were sandy and a little damp and just a tad *hangry* so we checked out Dune Burger, which is just across the street from the Comfort Inn, behind the 7-11. There was a bit of a line, and the food was a bit of a wait, but it was worth it.
The food was yummy–classic burger joint fare. Gluten-free husband took his chances with french fries, and Carolina BBQ pork in a cup instead of on a bun. He was fine but in future we’d order two. And, we discovered the magic that is cheese fries. I’m not entirely I’m sure I’m better for this knowledge, but we sure enjoyed them! Dune Burger is very inexpensive, too. Dinner for all four of us was around $25. Such a great local treasure that’s been around for decades.
Fat Boyz – Nags Head, NC
Just a tad past Sam & Omie’s (again, we were tempted to go back!) is Fat Boyz, another burger and ice cream joint that’s a bit bigger and “fancier” than Dune Burger. Food was a bit pricier here than at Dune Burger as well, but we all enjoyed it.
What really sets Fat Boyz apart from anything else nearby is their ice cream, and custom sundaes. I had the Peanut Butter Jammer (I think it was called that?) and it featured peanut butter cups, vanilla ice cream, and (I think) chocolate syrup. It actually got the better of me and my daughter had to finish it! So good though.
Try to get to Fat Boyz early. We arrived around six and managed to snag a table for our dinner, but by the time we were on to the ice cream it was super busy and the line was quite long.
What we did in Nags Head NC and the Outer Banks:
Wright Brothers National Memorial
One of our absolute must-visits was the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Mr. HBWT is an absolute aviation nut, so our first stop after a great first night’s sleep was the birthplace of flight at Kitty Hawk.
The museum itself is pretty low key, with a replica of the famous plane that first flew. I’ll be honest, the kids found it a little dull–especially since they just wanted to return to the beach. But the gift shop sold these inexpensive ($5) propeller-type things that you can launch in the wind, and then they were off launching their own fliers. The grounds are expansive, and I felt ok just letting them roam a little, but getting to the monument is a bit of a hike.
A few tips–though the breezes kept us comfortable, the sun was quite hot here. Be prepared with hats for the kids and extra sunscreen and water. And little planes 🙂
Oh, and two other things: The Wright Brothers National Memorial is very affordable to visit, just $4 per adult and kids under 15 are free. Also, GPS will send you somewhere completely different that is about 40 miles away. Don’t ask me how I know this.
Kitty Hawk Kites
So where better than the birthplace of flight to actually fly for the first time? Imagine my surprise when I learned that kids as young as four (they just need to be able to listen to simple instruction) can hang glide with Kitty Hawk Kites in the incredible Jockey’s Ridge State Park.
Visiting the park is an experience in itself–truly I can say I’ve not seen a landscape like that before. It is so cool. Kick off your shoes and explore barefoot, but maybe have some socks handy if the sun is strong because that sand can really heat up!
For the lesson, set aside at least half a day. The session itself is around three hours but you need to get there early and you’ll likely linger a bit when you’re done. It starts with a training video that *mostly* kept the kids’ attention, but the little model they used to demonstrate how you need to lean went over well. Then you are off to get fitted for harnesses and helmets.
Kids’ lessons run concurrently with adult beginner ones, and it was pretty cute to see the kids encouraging the grown ups. Basically the instructors lug the glider to the top of the dune, and figure out which way you need to go to catch the wind to glide down. The wind was quite strong on our day! Our instructors were Rich and Hunter, and they held onto our glider with a leash on both sides–you are essentially a giant kite!–and they run with you down the hill. They do this over and over again with every person in the class. Rich and Hunter are truly some of the fittest people I have ever met (along with kids’ snowboard instructors).
We had a chance to do five glides each in total. It felt great. Not sure I’m ready to go careening off a mountain or anything, but it was really fun and six-year-old Bub said it was his favourite thing.
The sand in Jockey’s Ridge State Park can get really hot, and the sun is very strong–especially in the summer months. Bring extra sunscreen, water, light snacks, and be prepared to go barefoot or get A LOT of sand in your shoes. In fact, be prepared to get a lot of sand in everything.
The price for the kids’ lessons are $109.00, and it’s $99 – $109 for adults, depending on your number of flights.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
We wanted to explore somewhere that was unique to the Outer Banks, and a while back the TV was stuck on a strange show about folks living in old lighthouses. Bub was riveted, so I swallowed my newly acquired and inexplicable fear of heights, and off we went to the historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse–the tallest brick lighthouse in North America.
Climbing the lighthouse comes with some pretty strict rules. From the National Park Service website:
- Children must be at least 42″ tall and capable of climbing all steps on their own.
- Children 11 years of age or younger must be accompanied by an adult who is 16 years of age or older.
- No person may be lifted or carried.
- Running, jumping, or stomping on stairs and landings is prohibited.
- Do not eat, drink, smoke or chew tobacco.
- No pets, other than service animals.
- Do not arrive in heels over 1 ½ inches high or with bare feet.
- Leave umbrellas in your car.
- Backpacks, tripods, coolers, beach bags, surfboards, fishing poles, and the like also need to be left in your car.
- Throwing of any object off the lighthouse is unsafe and may get you in big trouble! Either lighthouse may close at any time if weather conditions are unsafe.
I found the climb a little harrowing, but only because of my weird fear thing. Both of my kids did fine on the climbs up and down, but Bub was a little nervous on the way down because we were on the side that didn’t have a handrail. The views are great when you’ve reached the top, and there’s a ranger on the balcony who can answer questions and point out facts of interest. The views are pretty great.
Once you’ve made it back down, there is a small museum with some artifacts from former lighthouse keepers and mariners who saved those in trouble. Frankly I was surprised at how interesting my kids found those things.
Climbing Cape Hatteras’ 257 steps costs $8 for adults and $4 for senior citizens (62 or older), children (11 and under, and at least 42″ tall), and the disabled. Tickets are available on a first come, first served basis and can only be purchased in-person at the site the day of the climb.
The pier closest to the beach by the Comfort Inn South Oceanfront is called Jennette’s Pier. Opened in 1939, this historic pier was the first in the Outer Banks and to this day people flock to fish for red drum, bluefish, striped bass, flounder, and king mackerel. We found it handy to have access to super-clean rest rooms, as well as a teeny snack bar where I could grab a coffee and a hot dog for the kids.
It cost $2 to go out on the pier to watch people fish, but my guys were delighted with the aquarium inside. Jennette’s Pier is run by the North Carolina Aquarium Society, and next time we’ll definitely check out their larger aquarium on Roanoke Island.
The “S” Word:
In the four days we were in the Outer Banks, there were three shark attacks. Obviously this is awful and terrifying, and certainly made us take pause before swimming in the ocean.
But we swam in the ocean. And we had a blast. We recognize that the likelihood of a shark attack is roughly the same percentage as winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning. But that doesn’t mean we just jumped into the sea willy-nilly.
The tourist board for the Outer Banks has a beach safety page that points out all possible hazards and how to play safely in the ocean.
At no time did we ever feel unsafe in the Outer Banks. Not in the water, not while out and about. In a nutshell, we absolutely loved it and can’t wait to one day return.
We visited North Carolina with the assistance of Visit North Carolina, but all opinions are my own.