10 Must-Do Activities on your Outer Banks Vacation

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Most people who have visited the Outer Banks have their favorite spot.  My town of choice is Avon, located on Hatteras Island (about 45 minutes south of Kitty Hawk).  If you typically stay in the northern towns (Duck, Corolla, Nags Head, etc.) then you might find a great day trip below.  For those who stay on Hatteras Island like us, here are my top 10 must-do activities each time I visit.  Can’t wait to read your favorite OBX activities in the comments!

Sorry friends, but this post is a bit heavy on the photos.  Consider it the equivalent of me holding you hostage after dinner and showing you all our vacation slides before you can leave.  Bwahahahahaha!

1.  Break all dietary rules and eat an Apple Ugly:  A local fisherman let us in on this secret, and our lives and waistlines haven’t been the same since.  Orange Blossom Bakery in Buxton serves these special treats that are hard to describe– like huge fried fritters that melt in your mouth.  I first tried the baked version and didn’t understand what the big deal was.  Then my husband went back and they were out of fresh ones, only day-old Uglies in sight.  When I tried those I started to understand the appeal.  The following day (are you keeping track?  this is THREE DAYS IN A ROW that we ate them) my cousins dropped off a fresh from the fryer Apple Ugly and oh-my-word, YUM.  The bakery often has lines out the door and is only open until 11 AM, therefore Apple Uglies can be elusive– aim to try them early in the week so you don’t end up out of {Apple Ugly} luck.

cupcakes from Bee’s birthday party in OBX, more about them here

2.  Take the {free} ferry to Ocracoke.  The ferry ride from Hatteras to the island of Ocracoke is free, but shhhhh, don’t tell anyone this– we’d totally pay if we had to.  What a treat for the kids.  Lines can get long during peak times, but if you view it as a journey and not a destination it’s pretty darn fun.  Drive onto the ferry, enjoy the 40 minute ride waving at other boats and watching pelicans dive for food.  Once you reach land it’s a straight shot to the village.  You can see the “wild” ponies along the way (they are penned in a fenced area on the right few miles down, so if you like horses it’s worth viewing but otherwise there’s just horses in a corral).  The beaches of Ocracoke are very open and uncrowded with lots of shells.  As for the village, well, here’s the truth from a mom’s point of view:  there aren’t good sidewalks, it always seems blazing hot, and the shops are fairly spaced out if you are trying to keep everyone together.  I enjoy shopping there but my husband hates it.  Soothe the irritated ones with some ice cream from the Slushy Stand and you’ll all feel better (helpful hint– we didn’t like the slushies very much.  Ice cream tasted fabulous, though!)  Head back for the 40 minute ride home and it’s a day trip to remember.


first ferry ride
yes, that’s a real duck… looking for the beach, perhaps?

3.  The beach.  I know, this falls under the category of “duh”, but I had to mention it.  With two little kids my beach time is limited to a few hours in the morning or a quick visit after dinner, but the beach will always be my home.  I prefer the oceanside beaches as opposed to soundside.  We usually go on the northern end of Avon, and if there’s 50 yards between you and the family next to you it’s a crowded day.

Helpful hint: rent a heavy-duty umbrella at Ocean Atlantic Rentals if you don’t have one of your own.  After the initial sticker shock, we agreed it’s well worth it since we camp out in the shade and the kids remain comfortable and out of the harsh sunlight.  I’d recommend getting the extra base for $10/week because the winds can blow pretty strong and that will help anchor it so you don’t spend the day running down the beach to catch your runaway ‘brella.  Search for shells in the surf, look for dolphins and rays jumping from the waves, walk to the pier, play with your boogie board, or just lay and soak in the salty air.  Soothes the soul, I tell you.



4.   Grab a post-beach smoothie at Uglie Mugs Coffee Shop (Avon):  Or a raspberry mocha.  Or any other coffee or tea concoction your heart desires.  Service can take awhile here, but coffee and smoothies are my favorite treats so it’s {usually} worth the wait.  By the way, my favorite smoothie flavor is the Hatteras High– tastes like a pina colada!

5.  Also filed under “duh” is visit the Hatteras lighthouse.  Here’s what you need to know: it costs money to climb it, and the climb is pretty hot, but the views are great.  I’ve only climbed it once which was enough for me (I’m terrified of heights), but I visit it at least once each vacation since it’s such a symbol of the Outer Banks.  There’s a visitor’s center there, free park programs, a little museum in the white house in front of the lighthouse, and access to the beach.  Makes for a fun hour or two of exploring!



6. A Secret Garden Wrap at Spa Koru (Avon): There’s a reason to take advantage of free stuff like the beach and ranger programs– save your money for the big stuff, like a spa treatment as Spa Koru!  The 80 minute Secret Garden wrap is luxurious– after being brushed and scrubbed and buffed and lotioned, you are wrapped up in warm towels like a burrito to lay in comfy decadence as your feet, neck, shoulders, scalp and face are massaged.  BLISS.

7. Shopping.  I’m surprised {in a really happy way} how many businesses have stayed open despite the poor economy!  It’s a thrill to shop at the same favorite store I first set foot in over ten years ago.  Here’s a few of the places I enjoy visiting every year:

Fisherman’s Daughter (located in North Avon): a little bit of everything from clothes to accessories to ornaments home decor and more.  I always snag something, like this peacock ring for $5 or a cute dress for the summer.

Pea Island Gallery (located in Salvo): a hundred or so artisans under one roof, with items for as low as $3 (cards) on upward.  Nicely curated, and jam packed with great stuff.

handmade ceramic flowers on wire stems from Pea Island Gallery

Surfside Casuals or T-Shirt Whirl (various locations):  Find a shirt in the size, color, style you want and they’ll apply a decal of your choice for free.  The decal choices are on the walls all around the store which means you may need to wade through dozens of cats and crazy looking pirates until you find that perfect one, but there are some cute styles to be found.  Plus, the staff at the Avon location (next to Food Lion) is super nice.

Scotch Bonnet Fudge (located south of Buxton): it’s a bright yellow building, can’t miss it.  About 30 fudge flavors.  Need I say more?  Okay, they also have the typical touristy crap stuff {which I love} and a room of shells if you collect them or use them in art.  But the fudge is what I dream about all winter long. 

Island Spice and Wine (Avon): great selection of housewares.  Oh, and spice and wine.  😉 

Kinnakeet Clay Studio and Showroom (Avon, next to Dairy Queen): Maybe it’s because there’s lots of small handcrafted pottery here (my weakness), but I love browsing the various drawer pulls, bowls, ornaments, pendants, and vases that abound.

8.  Eat at Dolphin Den.  I’m not quite sure why I love this place so much, except that the first time I visited Avon I ate there three times and now I associate it with the Outer Banks!  The food is good, the tea is sweet, and the key lime pie is made with a little coconut in the crust and is pretty darn delicious.  We eat here at least once to get my southern food favorites all in one swoop– she-crab soup and fried pickles, anyone?  We also have never had a bad meal at Mack Daddy’s.  The menu is upscale, inventive, and downright “yum”.

9. Enjoy a free program from the National Park Service.  They offer programs several times a day.  Many of them are casual talks about topics such as pirates and birding, but one year we enjoyed a fabulous session sponsored by the Hatteras Anglers Club.  We learned how to catch bait (ever heard of sand fleas? they aren’t what I expected), how to fish from shore, and the names of what we caught.  Everyone was so friendly and they provided everything but the bait (you can bring your own or use the “sand fleas”).  Did I mention it was free?

Edited to add: I checked online for more information on the “Take Me Fishing” program and noticed it was suspended.  There’s been quite a rift between the NPS and locals/fisherman about beach access, and was not surprised to see they stopped this program until the NPS opens the beaches back up to off-road vehicles.  I’m going out on a limb here to put in my two cents– I truly hope they start this program back up, what better way to educate visitors about angling, the industry, and the need for open beaches?  I understand the tension between the two camps, but I think everyone benefits from this informative program.  Plus I really want to go again!  ‘Nuff said.

10. Kayak the canals.  I’m spoiled because my relatives have a home in Avon and own kayaks that we can use when we visit, so in my opinion a week in OBX is simply not complete unless we’ve kayaked around the canals a few times.  If you haven’t done this before there are lessons and tours, and if you are already comfortable in a kayak then the rental places will deliver them right to your house (assuming you have a good dock for launching them).  Solitary trips with some binoculars and a cold drink fill me with more happiness than can be described.  As did this, my daughter’s first kayak ride:

If you love water but the ocean and sound front houses are too expensive, canal front can be a cost-effective choice for those of us who love the call of the sea– but would like to spend our money on Secret Garden Wraps. 😉  Other water sports such a windsurfing and kite boarding abound.  My family wanted to try windsurfing and since they stayed on the canal they found a company that would give a group rate and come right to their dock.  Private lessons from your front door– can’t beat that!

private windsurfing lessons from your dock can’t be beat

You can call this one an unofficial #11: Get groceries at The Village Grocer.  Avoid the “lions” at the big chain store and enjoy the peace and quiet of this specialty food shop.  The prices are probably higher but it’s worth it to find really fresh produce, meats, deli, ready-made sandwiches, and Noodle’s favorite food– YoBaby yogurt.  Plus wine and beer, of course.  Love North Carolina’s alcohol policies!  And I love that a place like the Village Grocer exists in this area.

How do you know the photo session is over?  When *someone* starts throwing sand…
There you have it, my top ten eleven must-do activities in the Outer Banks (specifically Hatteras Island).  What did I miss?  What’s your favorite treats, secret spots, and activities?  If you typically visit the northern beaches I’d love to hear about that, too.  Eventually we’ll get outside our comfort zone and stay there as well!
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