You’ve seen the stickers. White ovals, with the trio of letters “OBX,” an American riff on European nationality decals, they’re a sign of allegiance to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I always found them annoying: How could some mid-Atlantic beach really be that wonderful? And why would you want to brag about your vacation on the back of your car?
Turning onto the beach road in Kill Devil Hills, with the dunes to my left, houses on stilts looking out over the water and kids slowly pedaling cruiser bikes, the reason became apparent. The Outer Banks are so wonderful, you can’t help but evangelize on their behalf. Here are six reasons why.
The history: This is where aviation got its start, when Orville and Wilbur Wright finally got their Flyer into the air for a series of short trips on December 17, 1903. The site, commonly called Kitty Hawk but now in the incorporated city of Kill Devil Hills, is a protected national memorial, administered by the National Park Service. For just $4 a person, you can run along the actual path of the first powered flights in human history. Wilbur’s longest ride lasted 59 seconds; it took me 48 seconds to run the 852 feet.
The beach: It’s not the widest beach I’ve ever seen, but the Outer Banks offers miles of uninterrupted strands along the Atlantic. Because the barrier islands here are so narrow, you’re never more than a few minutes from the water. Don’t leave your rental house or hotel without a swimsuit.
The lighthouses: For a place known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic for all its shipwrecks, there are plenty of lighthouses to see. The most famous is on Cape Hatteras, a black-and-white tower that tops 200 feet. It’s open for climbs in season, as are others like the Currituck Beach and Ocracoke lighthouses.
The activities: One reason the Wright Brothers chose the Outer Banks for their experiments in flight is the area’s consistent ocean breezes. Those same winds make for excellent kite surfing, parasailing and even hang gliding. Kitty Hawk Kites is the leader in teaching visitors to hang glide in a single day at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, where sand dunes provide soft landings for students.
The people: I was fortunate enough to stay with the parents of a friend of a friend, a family that’s lived in Kill Devil Hills for 31 years. In a house built on stilts, and listing slightly from hurricane damage, my hosts shared stories of the place and its cast of characters-over beers pulled from an ice-filled cooler on their screened-in porch. For dinner, soft-shell crabs were fried in a pot of hot oil and served along side the best fried green tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. When I said I couldn’t thank them enough for the hospitality, they asked why I couldn’t just stay another night.
The ring toss: My hosts introduced me to ring toss. It’s not the carnival game but a test of dexterity that involves swinging a small metal loop tied to a string across the lawn to a hook mounted on a tree. It’s by turns infuriating and magical and maddeningly addictive. I’d seen it once before, in Maine, but not with the ubiquity it has in the Outer Banks. A trip here without it wouldn’t be complete.