One British family discovers serenity, amenities and uncrowded beaches in The Outer Banks of North Carolina. It is a family vacation destination that has been added to our author’s “return to” list.

This past July my husband and I took a deep breath and traveled back to the United States on vacation (or “holiday” as they say here in the U.K.) for the first time in three years.  We were apprehensive about traveling transatlantically for the first time with both of our children, especially as the youngest (my daughter) was a very active almost-2-year-old. My 4-year-old son wasn’t such a worry as I knew he would be glued to the back-of-seat video screen for much of the seven-hour journey, and would probably sleep a bit as well (although it was a daytime flight).

We were headed to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a family reunion of sorts (with both my sisters, their families and my parents).

Our family had “done” Cape Cod a few years ago for a similar reunion and although we enjoyed ourselves, we found it lacking in some areas (rental cottages too small and cramped, no air conditioning, beaches crowded and not so nice). Having heard from friends that the Outer Banks scored highly in all these areas, we booked a multi-family rental house through Carolina Designs, one of many rental agencies on the Outer Banks chain of islands. They were very helpful and pointed us in the direction of an equipment-rental agency as well, from whom we rented cribs, booster seats, beach chairs, umbrellas, towels, etc.

Once there, we discovered that although the Outer Banks are a bit more difficult to get to than Cape Cod, it was definitely worth the extra effort. The beaches were big, clean, uncrowded, had nice sand, and the huge rental houses (which make up virtually all of the homes on the island) are mostly all brand new, air-conditioned and nicely furnished, as well as equipped with everything you might need or want—swimming pools, separate shallow  kiddie pool, barbecue, large TVs, outdoor hot tub. There was even a basement playroom stocked with a pool table, toys, games, DVDs and videos, books, and a PlayStation, so with one teenager, four young boys and a toddler (who was happy to follow the rest of them everywhere) we didn’t need to worry about amusing the children. Best of all, the houses are designed for multiple families and although it was high season, the one-week rental price was quite reasonable when divided among four families.

The nicest parts of the area for families, from what I saw, are those housing developments toward the north end, in the towns of Duck and Corolla (we were in a development called Duck Landing). A word of warning about the traffic, however—there is only one main road that runs the length of this part of the Banks, and most of it is just one lane in each direction. If you drive at peak times, be prepared for a creeping, interminable SUV-and-minivan traffic jam.

There are the usual beach town amusements in the Outer Banks, such as miniature golf, go-kart racing and shopping. but we also found other things to do there that the children found more interesting. We visited Currituck Lighthouse, built in the 1880s, which we climbed—it has gorgeous views from the top. A short drive to the south is the Wright Brothers National Memorial and Visitor Center at Kitty Hawk, the “birthplace of flight,”  where Wilbur and Orville made the first powered airplane flight back in 1903. It has reproductions of the first planes they built and flew, as well as a small museum of the history of flight.

Another fun outing was to Nags Head Woods, one of the best examples left of a naturally occurring mid-Atlantic maritime forest – pines shoot up from the unlikely sandy ground. Though on the buggy side, this network of trails curving around swamps and dunes was just the thing for a lively group of little boys. We spotted frogs, lots of dragonflies and even (gulp) a gigantic, fast-moving snake. This outing, like most on the Outer Banks, ended with a stop for ice cream.

We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves on our holiday, and the only slightly negative thing I can say about our Outer Banks experience is that there are a lot of mediocre “family” restaurants on the island, which is probably true of any beach/family holiday destination. We got around this problem by ordering a catered meal one evening to be delivered to our house from Groovin’ Gourmets.  The food was great, not terribly expensive, and we saved ourselves the hassle of a long, crowded wait for a table with cranky kids, as well as the stress of trying to get five small children to behave in a restaurant. We adults were thus able to enjoy ourselves, didn’t have to cook (always a plus in my book), or worry about drinking and driving.

One last point regarding the weather: If I had to do it all again (and we hope to), I would perhaps not visit the Outer Banks in July or August, when the heat and humidity are quite intense. May, June or September might be better (and cheaper) bets. However, keep in mind that this part of the world is in hurricane country from August onward – we opted to purchase hurricane insurance, just in case.