This is an update to a post I did a few years ago, which focused solely on Duck. Now, while my family has stayed in Duck every time we've gone to the Outer Banks, this year we ventured further afield and went to Corolla, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills, so I've included my recommendations for restaurants and shopping (when applicable) there as well. I hope you find this entry helpful if you're planning a trip to the Banks (which you should totally do).
You can fly into the Outer Banks--the Richmond, VA airport is fairly close--but I recommend driving, because, if you're spending a week at the beach, you're going to need a lot of stuff. For me, it's a drive that can be done in one very long day, but both times I've gone, the drive has been split into two days on the way there, and done in one on the way back.
The house we stayed in was a Sun Realty NC rental. They have a HUGE variety of properties to fit every budget, are pet-friendly, and are fantastic to work with. (They also support the CF Foundation!) They have everything from tiny beach bungalows to multi-story houses with pool tables and in-ground pools.
The food in the Outer Banks (Hereafter OBX) is fantastic, especially the seafood. Here are some of the places we've enjoyed eating:
The Blue Point for a nice lunch or dinner. Located in the Waterfront Shops, you have a lovely view of the sound. 1240 Duck Road.
Duck Pizza Company: It's a Sunday evening tradition--don't go grocery shopping, get Duck pizza. They deliver, or you can eat at their shop in the Scarborough Lane shops. 1171 Duck Road.
Duck Donuts: Incredibly delicious. Yes, they have locations around the U.S. now, but eating Duck Donuts in the OBX is something special. 1190 Duck Road (locations throughout the OBX, check their website for locations and hours--the one in Corolla is only open until 3 pm!)
Sooey's BBQ and Rib Shack: Get some Carolina cue in the Scarborough Faire shops (right next to the Scarborough Lane shops). 1177 Duck Road.
Duck Deli: A large menu, indoor/outdoor setting, and a casual vibe. They also offer take out and live music and entertainment on some evenings. 1223 Duck Road.
Roadside Bar and Grill: My favorite new place--the shrimp and grits were absolutely perfect. There were so many delicious sounding things on the menu that I could've eaten here every day of our vacation and had something new each time! 1193 Duck Road
Big Al's: We ate here on our way to see The Lost Colony (More on that below) when we visited in 2010. Fantastically fun retro diner. 716 S. Highway 64.
La Dolce Vita: An Italian restaurant that has upscale/casual vibes. If you can be both at one time, this place is. Beautiful decor and fixtures but still a place you can visit in your shorts. :) The food was delicious! There are familiar classics, like spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parmesan, but also dishes like chicken saltimboca, which aren't seen as often--and is delicious. Located in the TimBuck II Shopping Village, 798 C Sunset Boulevard.
In Kill Devil Hills...
Jolly Roger: OK, this place looks sort of weird from the outside, but inside, it's a great Italian restaurant, but with plenty of other dishes, like their fantastic crab cakes, to whet your appetite. And characters from The Little Mermaid are painted on the walls! 1836 North Virginia Dale Trail.
Food Lion in Corolla is your big box grocery store; there's also a Harris Teeter. In Duck, you have two smaller choices: Tommy's, which is a gourmet market and sells a ton of fresh seafood, general household goods, as well as other gourmet eats, is in the waterfront shoppes. Your other option is Wee Winks, which is less pricey and But Tommy's is our general pick for groceries.
That's right guys--book stores. Two fantastic independent bookstores!!!! Both have really friendly staffs and are heaven for book browsers.
Duck's Cottage: My true love. I go there almost every day when I'm in Duck. Not only books--coffee and pastries, too, that you can eat in the shop or on the adorable porch outside. Treats and water for pups, too! Small, but an incredibly diverse collection, and they'll order books for you. 1240 Duck Road. (In the Waterfront Shops)
Island Bookstore: Scarborough Faire shops. Packed to the rafters with all sorts of books, including ones that are crazy hard to find. A great place to dig around and browse. The Corolla location is a bit bigger and the selection is just as good. (1130 Corolla Village Road--it's sort of hard to find, but worth it!)
Duck is known as a shopper's paradise, and there's a lot of great places to check out. The Scarborough Lane and Scarborough Faire shops are a good place to go when it's raining since they're more covered; the Waterfront Shops overlook the sound. The Fudgery at the Scarborough Lane shops is to die for, and the Christmas Mouse shop there is really cute. I love just about every shop in the Waterfront Shops. There's also a Life is Good store!
The Beaches are divine. If you rent from Sun, you'll have private access routes to the beaches. You can also rent beach items--chairs, noodles, floats, even bikes--from various companies around town. The beaches all have lifeguards and boards noting the weather conditions, water temperature, and other things. Be aware of riptides and how to get out of them before you go, though--every house that Sun rents has information sheets about these in the main room.
The Lost Colony is one of America's first outdoor drama performances, and it's one of the good ones. The performance features really cool sets and music, and is located in an outdoor amphitheater that overlooks the water. Wear bug spray and bring a jacket, because it gets chilly! But it's a great performance that details what might have happened to the "lost colony" of Roanoke. 1409 National Park Drive, Manteo, NC.
If you want to see where the Wright Brothers took their first flight, head to the Wright Brothers National Memorial. (Even though the first flight was in Kitty Hawk, the museum is located in Kill Devil Hills. Go figure.)
The OBX is a great place to learn to surf, SUP (Stand up Paddleboard), body surf, kayak--all sorts of things are available. There's fishing off the research pier, kite flying, and a lot more.
Everything in Duck is off the main road--route 12, or the "Duck Road." It's easy to get around via car or even bike--and to get to the other towns, you either go north or south. Corolla, the city north of Duck, is pretty remote, and in Carova, you need 4x4, or you aren't going anywhere.
Saturdays are crazy, because that's the biggest day for people leaving and arriving in the Outer Banks. Be prepared for slow traffic on the bridges and once you're on the island. It gradually clears up as you get closer to Duck. To avoid the traffic when you're heading home, leave really early in the morning. We found that if we're across the bridge by 11, we can avoid the traffic, and we usually get Sunday-Sunday rentals--the traffic isn't quite as bad then as it is on Saturday. Also be sure to study the hurricane information sheets in your hotel/rental, as well as the rip tide info.
Your rental company will tell you what you need to bring in terms of cooking/household gear. If you're like me and you like to cook, you might want to bring a decent knife and cutting board, since those can be hard to find in rental houses.