Escape to the Outer Banks

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton is an iconic North Carolina landmark. Climb to the top for sweeping ocean views.

Story highlights

  • North Carolina's Outer Banks make for a fun family trip
  • Dolphin tours and pirate history appeal to visitors of all ages
  • Visit Wright Brothers National Memorial for aviation history

Cruising along the Roanoke Sound, 20 bottlenose dolphins crisscrossed the currents as my family and I toured the Outer Banks of North Carolina in a slow-and-easy, 55-foot pontoon.

On a warm summer evening, we joined Captain Johnny's Outer Banks Dolphin Tours in Manteo, North Carolina, which is across the bridge on Roanoke Island.

There are three simple words that tourists are encouraged to shout once someone spots dolphins: "There they are!" (Even the most cautious adult sightseers can't resist yelling when they see a dolphin skimming the surf.)

Life's a beach at Cape Hatteras

Captain Johnny's guarantees dolphin sightings on each cruise, and the popular boat tour enterprise doesn't disappoint. Halfway through our two-hour cruise, I stopped counting after spotting about 30 playful dolphins surrounding our boat.

"This is a very active group of dolphins today," our guide told us. "We don't know how many dolphins we'll see each day -- but we do know we'll find them."

The dolphin watch cruise -- a must-do activity for families -- leaves from a bayside dock in Manteo, a quaint waterfront town on the eastern side of Roanoke Island where in the late 1800s every store lining the waterfront had a door to come ashore by boat.

Roanoke Island is part of a string of barrier islands that stretches 200 miles along the North Carolina coast.

Driving to the Outer Banks is a great road trip for families; it's a destination that has something for everyone: inexpensive seaside restaurants serving fresh seafood and burgers, boutique shops and outlet stores, mini-golf, boardwalks, fishing, boat tours, ice cream and fudge shops, jet-ski rentals, hang gliding and a range of hotels, bed and breakfasts and oceanfront rental homes and condos.

There are three popular islands in the Outer Banks -- Bodie, Roanoke and Hatteras, each with its distinct charm and history but all with some common features: sandy beaches and spectacular ocean views.

Bodie Island includes the communities of Duck, Nags Head, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills. Visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, where the first flight took off on December 17, 1903.

Stop in Nags Head, home to the largest sand dune on the East Coast, Jockey's Ridge, and check out dozens of gorgeous high-end homes. Also visit Jennette's Pier for lunch or dinner, fishing and great ocean scenery. The 1,000-foot pier is the oldest pier in the Outer Banks and a great hangout for children.

Check out Duck, which boasts seven miles of pristine beaches, bike paths and jet skiing. Be sure to walk through town and pick up a pint of homemade ice cream.

On Hatteras Island, visit the Hatteras Island Visitor Center and Museum of the Sea at the historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Double Keepers' Quarters. Also tour the lighthouse. The first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was lit in 1803, according to the National Park Service. At nearly 200 feet tall, the current structure is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. Take time to climb the lighthouse. It's a fun experience for the entire family.

For maritime buffs, also stop by the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras Village. Exhibits include evidence of numerous shipwrecks around the Outer Banks, the result of treacherous seas.

If you're a pirate enthusiast, then Ocracoke Island, south of Hatteras, is the place for you. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the Outer Banks was a secret base for pirates. They hijacked Spanish and British ships carrying gold and silver and stashed the booty in the crevices of the Outer Banks.

The most famous pirate of the Outer Banks was Edward Teach, also known as "Blackbeard," who frequented Ocracoke. Blackbeard's ship, Queen Anne's Revenge, wrecked off the coast of the Outer Banks in 1718.

For an evening of entertainment and history, plan to see the theatrical stage production "The Lost Colony," the dramatic story of 113 colonists who mysteriously disappeared on Roanoke Island in 1590. The musical is performed in an amphitheater in Manteo, on Roanoke Island, on a stage that is three times the size of most Broadway productions.

English families first settled in the Outer Banks in 1587, and many descendants of the early British pioneers still live on Roanoke Island today.

Don't miss the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, which features the largest collection of sharks in the state as well as an outstanding interactive exhibit for kids called Operation: Sea Turtle Rescue. The 68,000-square-foot aquarium features the Outer Banks' vast aquatic life, including horseshoe crabs, rays and alligators.

One of the most popular exhibits in the aquarium is the "touch room," where children can touch rays, horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs and other creatures in a safe and controlled environment.

A real treat for aquarium visitors is the high-velocity Hurricane Simulator that generates wind speeds of 78 mph -- the equivalent of a Category 1 hurricane. Adults and children stand in line for this exhibit. Don't miss it. It will blow you away.

Where to stay

We stayed overnight in Manteo -- our base in the Outer Banks -- and drove to other places such as Nags Head, Duck, Kitty Hawk, Southern Shores, Kill Devil Hills and Pea Island, the site of the first all-black U.S. Coast Guard life-saving station in the late 1800s.

For couples, the Roanoke Bungalow is a charming bed and breakfast on a quiet street in Manteo. This family-owned home, originally built in the 1930s, has been renovated and transformed into a delightful and relaxing B&B. And Cheryl Wiggins prepares an outstanding continental breakfast each morning.

Also try the Tranquil House Inn in the heart of town. Our second-floor room overlooked the bay and marina. The wine and cheese reception every evening is a nice touch, and a tasty breakfast is included each morning. Rooms are spacious, and the hotel is within walking distance of most local activities.

Where to eat

For a great meal and a wonderful atmosphere, try 1587, the Tranquil House Inn's restaurant. It's a bit pricey but well worth it. If the mahi-mahi is on the menu, order it. Ask for a table overlooking the marina.

For excellent traditional Latin food try La Cabana. It's inexpensive, great food and large potions. Try the empanadas, chicken stew and seafood dishes.

Travel tip

If you decide on Captain Johnny's Outer Banks Dolphin Tours, consider the 6 p.m. excursion: The dolphin tour also becomes a fantastic sunset cruise.