For me, nothing produces authentic relaxation like a fresh salty breeze whipping off the Atlantic Ocean over the quiet shores of the Outer Banks — my family's summer-vacation destination since I was 9. Although certain sections have grown more commercial, both Duck and Corolla, N.C. (three hours from Richmond) have maintained their small-town charm. Historically, these cities were a destination for waterfowl hunting and fishing, and Duck was dubbed in honor of the sport. Today, Corolla is a haven for wild mustangs, which visitors can spot on two-hour Land Cruiser tours given by Corolla Outback Adventures (252-453-4484 or corollaoutback.com). I have never jumped into a beach cruiser, but as a child, my hand was nuzzled by a mustang through the open window of my family's wood-grain-paneled '95 Ford station wagon, after the horses halted traffic on the main highway.
Lodging decisions in Duck or Corolla mean choosing between two heavens — on the Currituck Sound, with crimson sunset views, or beachfront, with quick access to the shore. My family, friends and I always rent a cheerful house two blocks from the beach (we work through Twiddy; 866-457-1190 or twiddy.com), but we head to the sound in the evenings to catch the last of the day's rays. For a weekend visit, there are a few waterfront options. The Inn at Corolla Light (800-215-0772 or corolla-inn.com) offers suites on property along the sound (a few rooms are pet-friendly, and there's also pool access). The only hotel chain in the Duck and Corolla area, the Hampton Inn & Suites (252-453-6565 or hamptoninn.com) offers oceanfront lodging, private beach access and a complimentary hot breakfast.
My dining mainstay is Fishbones Sunset Grille & Raw Bar (252-261-3901 or fishbonessunsetgrille.com), serving up local seafood with a Caribbean flair, complete with palm trees and a Tiki bar. Our new discovery this summer was The Duck Deli (252-261-3354), a reasonably priced, family-friendly spot with North Carolina-style barbecue and extremely fast service.
For breakfast, grab a Cinnamon Burst bagel with homemade apple-cinnamon-raisin cream cheese at Corolla's Lighthouse Bagels & Deli (252-453-9998 or lighthousebagels.com). For a healthier start, go for a fresh-fruit smoothie. Or for a sit-down breakfast, head across the shopping center to a brand-new spot, The Good Egg (252-453-4663). Try the eggs Benedict or a Mexican omelet, both served with crispy hash browns — but bring cash because they don't take credit cards.
A 45-minute audio tour of The Whalehead Club (tours are $7; 252-453-9040 or whaleheadclub.org) is a must. Completed in 1925, this 21,000-square-foot Art Nouveau home was built as a winter haven for waterfowl hunting by the wealthy Edward Collings Knight Jr.
After your tour, head across Currituck Heritage Park to the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education (252-453-0221 or ncwildlife.org). In addition to an 8,000-gallon aquarium, the center also features hands-on educational programs for kids and adults.
And of course, The Currituck Beach Lighthouse (252-453-8152 or currituck
beachlight.com) stands just a short walk away, offering a 214-step climb to the top, where you can enjoy a panoramic view from 162 feet above ground. (Bring a sweatshirt — it's always windy up there!)
The 1921 Powder Ridge Hunt Club building today houses Duck's Cottage Coffee and Books (252-261-5510), a great spot for grabbing a summer page-turner and also the only coffee shop open year-round in Duck.
A few miles north, Historic Corolla Village hosts a woodsy shopping retreat including Old Corolla Trading Co. (252-453-9942), which offers everything from sea-glass bracelets to retro frames crafted from salvaged wood by local artist Dan Powell. Across the lane is The Island Bookstore (252-453-2292 or islandbooksobx.com), a two-story gem with plenty of local books. Proceeds from the gift shop at the nearby Corolla Wild Horse Museum (252-453-8002 or corollawildhorses.com) go toward caring for the area's wild horses.
Whether you carry stress in your neck or just need a quiet getaway, The Sanderling Spa (252-261-7744 or thesanderling.com/spa) provides a soothing afternoon. (The attached hotel is a good oceanfront lodging option, too.) This year, my friend Sophie and I enjoyed the Shore Soother, an extremities massage focusing on releasing stress by deeply massaging the neck and shoulders, followed by a spritz-of-lavender facial mist and a foot and calf massage.