A string of barrier islands, North Carolina’s Outer Banks stretch more than 120 miles south from Virginia’s southern border, hugging the Atlantic coast. Only three miles across at its widest point, the island chain was the first national seashore in the country and sees an annual influx of beach-seeking seasonal tourists—especially to centrally located hubs Duck and Nags Head. But when the tourists vacate their beachfront rentals, a tight-knit community of year-round residents remain, working in the commercial fishing industries and coastal cafes and kitchens that dot the distinctive towns of the Outer Banks.
Spending any length of time in the Outer Banks requires a stop at Duck Donuts. Design your own sweet treats from selections of glazes, toppings, and drizzles, or choose from one of the suggested combinations. (Feeling overwhelmed? Maple glaze, bacon, raspberry drizzle. You can thank us later.) Catch sunset views over the Currituck Sound from the pier next to AQUA Restaurant in Duck before settling in to an order of Bangin’ Shrimp. (The restaurant also houses a spa upstairs—find their sugar scrubs in the bathrooms.) Catch another sunset at nearby Kimball’s Kitchen at Sanderling Resort, where a wall of windows provides every seat a view of the sound.
For a more casual evening, walk across the street to the Lifesaving Station, Sanderling’s other dining concept, housed in a renovated Coast Guard station—note the vintage diving helmet mounted on the bar. Swing by Coastal Provisions Oyster Bar & Wine Café in Southern Shores for a quick lunch, but save time to browse the market stocked with cured meats, artisanal cheeses, and an impressive wine selection. Kitty Hawk’s Trio Wine, Beer, Cheese also boasts an extensive marketplace, plus charcuterie and self-serve wine taps perfect for getting a taste of the good stuff without a spending splurge. Waveriders Coffee and Deli is the Nags Head go-to for panini-pressed bagel sandwiches. Anchoring an unassuming strip mall is Blue Moon Beach Grill, which serves up coastal comfort food. Pair fried shrimp tossed in buffalo sauce with a North Carolina craft beer. Or, get hyperlocal with your suds with a flight from Lost Colony Brewery in Manteo.
Enjoying the outdoors is essential to the Outer Banks experience, be it lounging on the beach or state park-hopping. Hang gliding lessons at Jockey Ridge State Park let you soak up panoramic views of the ocean, sound, and sand dunes in between. If you prefer both feet on the ground, climb the dunes for another stunning vista. Take in local history at Roanoke Island, the site of the Lost Colony, and the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills to see the site of the first successful flight. (Kitty Hawk gets the notoriety because that’s where the Wright Brothers’ victorious post-flight telegram was sent from.)
Most visitors rent a house near the ocean, but if a hotel is more your style, book a room at Sanderling Resort in Duck, one of the few resorts in the Outer Banks, featuring a spa, beachfront access, and fire pits for s’more-roasting.
We sat down with Scott Smith of Outer Banks Distilling in Manteo, North Carolina, to discuss the sense of community and history that influence the distillery’s spirits.