The Crystal Coast of North Carolina is one of those rare vacation finds: a spot relatively undiscovered but full of a variety of activities.
The big draw on the southern Outer Banks is, of course, the expansive beach. It would be easy to spend a week playing on the beach, kayaking or even taking a chartered boat ride to the Cape Look Lighthouse.
When you need a break from the sun, history buffs can tour Fort Macon and watch a Civil War re-enactment during summer months, while fish lovers can head to the terrific North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. There's also the charming town of Beaufort (pronounced Bow-fort) to explore. And don't pass up the chance to take the kids to Amos Mosquito's in Atlantic Beach. Known as "Skeeter's" by the locals, its kids' menu includes slime pie (cheese pizza) and snake skins (buttered noodles).
But the highlight of my trip was spying the wild horses of Shackleford Banks. These horses have ruled the land since they were first brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus (or swam ashore from Spanish ships that wrecked along the treacherous coast 400 years ago, depending on who you ask).
There are plenty of hotel options in and around the Outer Banks, but it's never fun cramming a couple of kids, two adults and an entire family's gear into a standard hotel room. Opt instead for one of the rental homes that line the Crystal Coast. We stayed in a luxurious seven-bedroom, five-bath house with a pool called Seaside Seaculsion rented by Bluewater Rentals. It rents by the week for as much as $8,795 at the height of summer, but is plenty big enough to accommodate three families.
Getting to the southern Outer Banks can be a challenge. It requires flying into New Bern, N.C. (there's no direct flight, so add a layover, which is never fun when traveling with kids) and renting a car for the one-hour drive to the Outer Banks. Driving can be a money-saving alternative. It's a doable 17-hour drive from Chicago.