Pros: Beautiful empty beaches, quaint villages, incredible sunsets!
Cons: Expensive; two bridges on and off the islands - traffic can be bad at times.
If you are looking for a unique and beautiful vacation with your family that takes you back to a different, slower lifestyle, then try the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We (my husband, myself, and another family) have been traveling to the Outer Banks from Pennsylvania for the last six years. Yes,it is an 8-1/2 hour drive, but boy is it worth it! We've stayed in the southern end before, but have been going to the northern beaches, specifically Corolla for the last few years.
Each area offers something a little different, it just depends on how isolated you want to be from the hustle and bustle of other visitors. Some of the areas in the southern end between Nags Head and Hatteras are really isolated (a trip to the grocery store is at least 20 minutes away), and there are also isolated areas to the North that you can only access by four-wheel drive, and the road is actually the beach. I am going to focus this review on the area in the northern beaches called Corolla (pronounced ka-RAH-la by the natives) which is north of the villages of Duck and Sanderling. It is about a 20-30 minute drive (in light traffic) from the bridge at Kill Devil Hills.
Corolla and its surrounding villages south to Kill Devil Hills were only developed starting in the 1970's. Since then, luxury vacation homes have been built that stretch from Southern Shores up almost to the Virginia border. Many of these vacation homes are available for rental by the week or month. There are various real estate offices throughout these villages from which to rent these homes. We have mostly stayed in smaller homes, but this year we are expanding our group and renting one of the colossal eight bedroom homes near the oceanfront. Many of these homes come with a swimming pool, or access to a community swimming pool, and some have hot tubs as well. By contacting the real estate offices (via phone or internet), you can receive their catalog of offerings and look through them at your own pace. Keep in mind that it is important to thoroughly research your home and ask questions if you do not find all the information that you are looking for. It is also helpful to actually talk to an agent and ask them about how well the house is maintained as there can be some unpleasant surprises otherwise (like air-conditioning not working in the middle of August, or the phone not working in the unit for half of your stay). Most homes will contain the basics - toaster, coffee pot, microwave, basic cooking and eating implements, but you will need to bring cleaning supplies and all your food staples with you.
Some homes come with linens and/or towels provided, but not all do, so be sure to check on this. Also, if you are not familiar with the real estate company, make sure you ask a lot of questions before you book. If you are not getting that warm fuzzy feeling of trust with the agent you are speaking with, by all means follow your instincts! We found out the hard way, with one real estate company that didn't seem all that concerned that we had air-conditioning problems and no phone service at our home. And they remained unconcerned all week about the lack of phone service, which did not please us, as we had given our families this number for emergencies.
Once you get to your rental unit you have some choices to make - do you unpack, and unwind since you brought the bare necessities with you or stopped after you crossed the bridge to pick up the essentials. Or do you venture out with everyone else to the one grocery store in the area; Food Lion and fight the rest of the tourists for groceries. Be prepared to stand in line for at least twenty to thirty minutes... I am not kidding. Things get pretty picked over quickly as hundreds of families try to stock up for the week. We plan our meals ahead of time, so staples are brought with us, and only perishables (milk, eggs, etc. are bought right away). Beer and wine are also available at the grocery store, but liquor must be purchase at an ABC package store. I could go on about this, but it really helps to plan ahead.
Although it is remote, most of your basic amenities are available. There are little villages of shops in Corolla that offer everything from beach items to decorative accessories to clothing, to hardware stores and banks with ATM machines. There is a movie theater, miniature golf, go-cart racing, and more nature oriented adventure tours. There is a variety of restaurants in the area - most are upscale, but casual. And food ranges from pizza and sandwiches to steak and seafood, and gourmet dining. If you seek the gourmet end, make sure to make reservations early in the week, as they fill up quick - most restaurants are smaller.
As to recommendations for dining - we like Nicoletta's for Italian fare, Groupers (which happily accommodates families with children), Elizabeth's (in Duck)for an unbelievable selection of wine and fine dining, Miriams and Bacchus Wine & Cheese for great deli sandwiches and wine tasting nights. These are only a few, and there are plenty to choose from.
If you are looking for rest and relaxation, this is the place. Most of the beaches are wide an uncrowded, unless you stay in the Ocean Sands development. Here the houses are crowded in one on top of the other, because they are smaller homes as well (sections H thru Q are the most densely built areas). And the hike to the beach from some of these homes will take you ten minutes or more - again, ask lots of questions! This year we are staying a little more north in the Whalehead area, so we will see how this areas beaches compare. Keep in mind also, that not all homes have ocean views. Some have neither ocean nor sound views. You will find that no matter where you stay, the outer bank's magic will find you. It may take a little bit of time to unwind from the stress of previous weeks, but soon you are relaxed, and don't have a care in the world. Make sure you bring the sunscreen and bug repellent, and enjoy this little slice of heaven.