The Outer Banks are located at the northeast tip of North Carolina, right at the Virginia border. They are a chain of barrier islands stretching over 200 km from the secluded beaches and mansions of Carova, to the equally off-the-beaten-path Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands.

There are four lighthouses scattered throughout the Outer Banks - Currituck Light, the Bodie Island lighthouse, Cape Hatteras lighthouse, and Ocracoke lighthouse - as this has historically been a popular region for shipwrecks and similar activities. For this reason, the region has been known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic." It is also home to Kitty Hawk (a bastardisation of Kittyhuk), where the Wright Brothers made their first, rather brief, flight. Further to the south, near the present-day town of Manteo, is the site of one of the longer-lived mysteries of the colonial period: the lost colony of Roanoke Island.

The place names themselves are an interesting bit of history. Nags Head, for example, comes from the use of the Outer Banks as a pirate outpost. Pirates would hang a lantern around the necks of horses (nags) to simulate the appearance of a lighthouse, so that ships' navigators would see it and run aground. Legend has it that another similarly picturesque place name, Kill Devil Hills, is derived from the local rum made there in the early colonial times. It was rumoured to be so strong that it would "kill the Devil."

These days, the Outer Banks is one of the nicer tourist destinations on the eastern seaboard. Unlike some of the other popular destinations on the southern Atlantic coast, such as Myrtle Beach, which has all the charm of a parking garage and all the taste of a Pauly Shore movie, the Outer Banks is a chain of small towns growing more and more sparsely populated as one moves southward.

You won't find a Planet Hollywood or a Hard Rock Café there. In fact, one of the more endearing features of the Outer Banks is the general dearth of chain stores and restaurants. While there is a K-Mart, a Seamark, as well as two Food Lions, most of the businesses there are small and locally owned.

Even more endearing is the fact that the Outer Banks is over 200 km of beach. Since the islands are such narrow strips of land, you are essentially always around 5 minutes away from a public beach access. Many of the beaches in the northern towns of Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Nags Head can be highly crowded during the summer, but about 30 minutes south of the main spots is Coquina Beach, part of the Hatteras National Seashore. Its slightly remote location ensures that it is rarely as packed as the northern beaches. In addition, the sand is gloriously fine, and there is plenty of pelican activity for those who enjoy watching birds with large, pouching beaks.

During the summer, the hotels are often booked solid; however, there is no shortage of houses for rent (if you book sufficiently in advance). Some of the better areas for rentals include Old Nags Head Cove, with its network of canals, which allow you to take a kayak out on the Sound from your own backyard, Duck, a slightly upscale area in the north with a wide variety of good restaurants and shopping, and Nags Head proper.

There are two main roads in the Outer Banks, known commonly as the Bypass (North Croatan Highway) and the Beach Road (Virginia Dare Trail). These roads have mileposts along them, which serve as the most common way of indicating the location of something (e.g. "MP 14 Kill Devil Hills). Just about every restaurant, store, or other place to go is located on these roads.

This might seem convenient; however, it isn't. Finding a decent place to eat in the Outer Banks is a hit and miss affair. Guidebooks, such as the Insider's Guide to the Outer Banks, are of at best very limited utility. For one thing, these books constantly overvalue the expensive places, particularly those owned by "pillars of the community." Often, the only useful indicator of the quality of a restaurant's food in these books is the emphasis of the write-up. For example, if the guidebook goes on for three paragraphs about the restaurant's architectural and ownership history ("The building was once used as a station by the U.S. Life Saving Service...."), stick to beverages. Often, it is utterly impossible to fathom why a particular restaurant was included or excluded from the book. For example, Nags Head's New York Pizza Pub, which has won several awards, including "best pizza," inexplicably disappeared from the Insider's Guide.

This can lead to a great deal of frustration. It also puts a lot of pressure on diners. There is a desire, rooted in cognitive dissonance, to sincerely believe that the choice one has made is the best one, resulting in awkward restaurant moments such as this:
A: (tentatively) So, this place turned out to be pretty good after all.
B: (
stiff upper lip) Yeah.
C: Sure.
The party continues chewing, uneasily. A minute passes.
B: This steak is tough.
C: These mashed potatoes are runny.
A: Now that you mention it, this pasta is know...this place kinda sucks.
General agreement around the table.
Here are some general guidelines to avoid this unfortunate turn of events.
1.Stick with mid-range restaurants. In my experience, the expensive places on the Outer Banks generally aren't worth the gamble. The best places I've found there are relatively inexpensive.
2.Throw out your guidebook, or at least tear out the restaurants section. Apart from the utterly useless and irredeemable restaurants section, the Insider's Guide has had some good ideas. The boat rides it recommends, for example, have all been worthwhile, as have the recommended beaches. It's only once they get into the area of food that they start having trouble.
3. Ask locals for recommendations. This method has not failed me yet. The guidebooks most likely include the places that have difficulty getting local business and are dependent on tourists for revenue. People who live there will know where to go.

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