Interested in a little dining al fresco? The Outer Banks has plenty of places to spread out a blanket, uncork a bottle of wine, and feast in front of an evening sunset. Because of the sheer number and variety of tucked away natural landscapes to pop open a picnic basket, fans of outdoor dining will find no shortage of options.
Picnics on the Outer Banks can be as simple or fancy as you'd like, from informal beach barbecues to wining and dining with the backdrop of the Pamlico, Albemarle or Currituck Sounds. On your next vacation, reserve a little time for romance, for family get-togethers, or just a sit-down snack along a long nature trail, and enjoy Outer Banks dining the way it was intended - deep in the great outdoors.
Outer Banks Picnic Locations
Any stretch of sand, soundfront, or grassy nook in a maritime forest can serve as an ideal locale for an Outer Banks picnic, and vacationers will find plenty of places to relax over an outdoor meal.
Outer Banks Ocean Picnics
On the oceanfront, it's not unusual to spot dozens of coolers accompanying the congregated beach chairs, well-stocked with sandwiches, salads and ice cold beer. On the beach, especially in the hot summer months, a cooler is a necessity and will be far more practical than the ordinary picnic basket.
Most all convenience and grocery stores offer bags of ice on the Outer Banks to keep your cooler contents cold, and some enterprising convenience stores, like the Brew Thru chain in the central Outer Banks or the Breeze-Thru in Avon in Hatteras Island, offer "drive-thru" service. This allows hungry and thirsty beach goers to drive through the "store," a wide, well-stocked archway similar in appearance to a car wash, and pick up their much needed snacks and drinks without even getting out of the car.
As for beach grilling, most beaches on the Outer Banks allow small bonfires for campfire-style hot dogs, provided they are located below the high tide line and are extinguished after the grilling is done. A small camper's grill, found at any large retailer or camping goods store, can also work wonders when it comes to small batches of hot dogs or hamburgers.
The trick to beach grilling is to keep the grub away from the sand, and many beach barbecue specialists find that having a stand of some kind that elevates the foot above the ground, like a wooden plank or make-shift table, can be instrumental in ensuring your burgers are sand-free.
Another option for larger feasts is to head to a 4WD accessible beach. The northern beaches of Carova are accessible only by a 4WD vehicle, and several towns in the central Outer Banks, like Nags Head, allow off-season beach driving in the winter months. Hatteras Island has miles of beaches you can drive on, identifiable by well-marked beach access ramps all along NC Highway 12, provided that you first obtain a beach driving permit from the National Park Service (NPS.) These can be purchased at various NPS Park Stations throughout the national seashore, including the station adjacent to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, for a weekly or annual fee.
The benefit of driving on the beach for a cook-out or outdoor picnic is that all your gear can easily ride along with you in the truck, and then be pulled out when it's time to cook. This is why on a number of 4WD accessible beaches, beach bums downwind may smell the passing aroma of freshly grilled steaks, seafood, burgers, and more. (Tip: For a true Outer Banks beach feast, pick up some oysters or clams and throw them on the grill, close to the coals or wood chips. Fresh shellfish are a quick, easy meal for grilling and beach aficionados alike.)
Outer Banks Sound Picnics
The sounds along the Outer Banks, including the Currituck, Albemarle, Pamlico, and Roanoke Sounds, can offer a more intimate picnic locale, with plenty of secluded beaches to go around. For a charming picnic experience, head out to the water just before sunset, and enjoy toasting the end of a gorgeous Outer Banks day as the sun dips into the water.
For public access points, head to the Historic Corolla Park in Corolla, which not only features a soundfront beach, but acres of pristine and well-manicured park grounds, ideal for picnic baskets. Visitors will find several towering live oaks and a handful of small ponds throughout the park, adding to the enchantment.
Downtown Manteo not only has a surprisingly busy harbor front overlooking the sound, but plenty of locations along the harborside docks to set up a meal. From the small red-roofed Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse to the busy downtown boardwalk with views overlooking the historic recreation the Elizabeth I, there are literally miles for picnic lovers to explore. Virtually every stretch of the Manteo Waterfront along the downtown area features picnic tables, benches and / or park grills, and for outdoor dining enthusiasts who would rather have someone else do all the cooking, the heart of downtown has a number of restaurants with "backdoor" outside seating overlooking the water.
For true soundfront seclusion, head to Hatteras Island. Picnic lovers may want to steer clear of the crowded and popular water sports sound beaches, like Canadian Hole or Kite Point, and instead stick to the small sandy sound access points located along NC Highway 12. The sound beaches along Irene's Inlet, the small new inlet that was formed during Hurricane Irene, are ideal for outdoor picnics, as are the deserted beaches found on the soundside in between Avon and Buxton. Look for unmarked sandy paths that veer west to find these secretive locales, as they are virtually hidden from NC Highway 12, and canopied with yaupon, live oaks, cedars, and other lush local plant life.
If your dream vacation entails a week of outdoor dining, there's arguably no better vacation rental community than Hatteras Colony in Avon Village. Here, vacationers will find a collection of small vacation homes that border a series of saltwater canals, eventually leading to the Pamlico Sound, Many of these properties are bulk headed with well-tended lawns and park grills in the backyard, so nightly outdoor cooking, as well as ample elbow room to spread out on the grass, is a breeze.
Although it should be noted that most rental homes on the Outer Banks honor the area's love of outdoor dining by offering grills as an amenity, either charcoal or wood, and located in the backyard, poolside, or on a concrete parking area. Check with your vacation rental company before booking to ensure your outdoor grilling needs will be aptly met, and never grill out on a wooden deck - this increases the chances of an accidental fire greatly.
Ocracoke outdoor lovers can either head to a local park, like Springer's Point or the soundside nature trail four miles north of the village, or head to the harbor. Park in the large public parking area by the ferry docks, and head towards the big boats and ferry operated concession stands to find a series of small sandy walking paths that lead directly to the sound. An adjacent grassy area offers a handful of picnic tables away from the waterfront, but romantics will want to spread a blanker on the sound beach. In this spot, depending on ferry traffic, a soundfront rendezvous will be serene and virtually deserted.
Ocracoke is also home to a large number of restaurants that offer outdoor dining, including Jolly Rodger and SmackNallys. Both of these establishments are located right on the harbor front, and offer nothing but outdoor waterfront seating, along with the fresh catch of the day.
Other Outer Banks Picnic Locations
For a truly remote picnic location, where picnickers can all but guarantee privacy and nothing but the local wildlife as uninvited guests, head to the woods. The Outer Banks offers an array of maritime forests, with large swaths of national park or state / federal reserves in Corolla and Carova, Kitty Hawk, Pea Island, Buxton and Frisco, and even a small woodsy park, Springer's Point, in 4-square mile Ocracoke.
Accessing these remote nature trails may require a little legwork, but the reward is a picnic area overlooking historic sand dunes, saltwater marshes filled with migratory birds, and dense woods with twisting, ancient live oaks.
Picnickers won't have to hike the full length of the local nature trails to enjoy the benefits of the secluded settings. Simply walk a little ways in, and look for a clearing and a secluded spot to dine. Many local parks and nature trails also offer picnic areas or benches close to the trail's entrance. The .75 mile nature trail directly across from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, for example, has a half dozen picnic tables hugging the border of Buxton Woods. Here, picnickers can dine in relative privacy, and watch the small white-tailed deer skirt across the grounds of the lighthouse on their way to the woods.
What to Pack
Depending on where your picnic leads you, outdoor lovers may want to have a few extra items tucked away in their picnic basket to enjoy a moveable feast. First and foremost is bug spray, especially during the summer months, and especially in woodsy or marshy areas that are low in population. Ocean picnickers and visitors directly on the sound may not have to worry about mosquitos as much as picnickers deep in the woods or in a grassy, foliage-filled area.
For evening picnics, especially those close to the water, a light jacket or sweater may come in handy, as it's not unusual for local temperatures to drop 5-10 degrees as night falls, and the wind off the water can make air temperatures even cooler.
Finally, feel free to pack along all the napkins, cups, and plastic silverware you'd like, but be sure and bring a couple small trash bags along too. Littering on the Outer Banks is illegal, with hefty federal fines in the National Seashore areas, and visitors are encouraged to respect the local environment and leave nothing behind but footsteps.
Picnic Grub: Seafood Markets, Delis, and Catering to Go
When it comes to any Outer Banks picnic, the most important aspect is, of course, the food, and picnickers will find plenty of options in this arena as well.
For beach seafood grills or soundfront clam bakes, the Outer Banks offers a number of local seafood markets that can cater to any fishy palette. Patrons often have the option of having local fish, crabs, shellfish and shrimp cooked beforehand making picnic set-up a breeze, or they can order their main courses raw and fire up a grill at their destination.
Most seafood markets sell their wares by the pound, and the stock is dependent on what's in season. That said, some local staples, like blue crabs, shrimp, scallops, clams or oysters, are generally found throughout the year, making the quintessential Outer Banks feast available for everyone.
Visitors will also be delighted to find a large number of delis and restaurants that offer catering, or to-go platters, for delectable picnics without any work. Meals-to-go can be as upscale or accessible as a visitors would like, with a large variety of to-go options available. Local barbecue joints, like Pigman's Barbecue in the central Outer Banks area, can offer patrons full southern style meals that are portable and easy to enjoy at a beach family gathering. Upscale delicatessens, like the Good Life Gourmet, (also in Kill Devil Hills), can offer full platters of meats, seafood, and cheeses as well as creative and healthy side dishes the whole family can chow down on.
Once the grub has been accounted for, it's on to the beverages, and while vacationers can make easy beer runs to their local drive-thru convenience stores, for a more diverse selection, the Outer Banks also offers a handful of specialty beer and wine shops as well. Swing by Trio, (which honors beer, wine and cheese) in Kill Devil Hills, or Island Spice and Wine in Avon Village for a vintage bottle or two, ideal for a romantic picnic.
For simpler affairs, a number of local grocery stores also have sprawling delis, including the Harris Teeter located in Kill Devil Hills and Corolla, making packing a picnic lunch an easy endeavor. Simply swing by, pick out a few ready-made sandwiches and a homemade potato or pasta salad, and head to the beach or the sound with grub in tow. Swinging by the local grocery store, or whipping up a few outdoor dishes at your vacation rental home, is also the most economical way to approach a picnic on the Outer Banks.
Regardless of how you choose to dine, it's best to do a little research before your outdoor dining adventure, as larger orders for parties of 6 or more may need to be placed in advance. A little menu-skimming and online browsing can be helpful as well, as every unique little shop, deli or restaurant on the Outer Banks has their own unique selection for small picnics or larger, catered meals.
A gourmet picnic overlooking a blazing waterfront sunset, or a beach get-together with casual food and friends, is all well within reach on the Outer Banks. The natural environment, offering unending water views on both sides of the islands, encourages visitors to spend as much time as possible outdoors, including and especially during mealtimes.
Taking an al fresco adventure off the beaten path on your next vacation is easy. Simply pack up the cooler and the portable grill for a fun and full day on the beach, or stock your picnic basket with an assortment of goodies and a fine bottle of wine for a romantic soundfront evening your partner will always remember. The Outer Banks is all about enjoying your own style with a natural and coastal backdrop, so all a vacationer has to do is pick a meal, pack a basket, and pig out.