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Duck NC

With miles of unspoiled beaches, Duck — a small town located in the northern part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks — is an annual destination for many.

photo: Town of Duck

Road Trip: Duck

Get inspired during a spring visit to the Outer Banks

by Anne Woodman


A lost colony, pirates, the first flight, lighthouses and an eerie moniker are all part of the history of the Outer Banks, a series of islands located off of North Carolina’s northern coast. In fact, its location as it stretches out into the Atlantic Ocean, as well as its wilderness, have made the islands ripe for firsts.


This historical place hosted the first settlements and Virginia Dare, the country’s first child born in the New World. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, settlers fought with both Native Americans and Blackbeard and his band of pirates. During the 1800s, many ships were tossed into the wild waters and lost forever, earning the area its nickname, “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”


The wild mustangs still populating the island of Corolla are said to be the descendants of those aboard Spanish shipwrecks. And by the early 1900s, Wilbur and Orville Wright sought out the wild, windy Kill Devil Hills for experimentation — and later, the first plane flight.


Romantic notions of seafaring men, buried treasure and wild horses still inhabit island lore, and visitors to the more than 130-mile stretch of islands still can enjoy plenty of relaxation, recreation, and inspiration while there.


Off the beaten path

And while the entire Outer Banks is worth visiting this time of year, there’s one place where the shopping is treasured, the art is carefree, and the people are welcoming.


Duck, an island town, continues to inspire residents and visitors alike. Located in the northern part of the Outer Banks, Duck offers views of the Atlantic on one side and the Currituck Sound on the other. Its seven miles of beaches stretch from Southern Shores in the south to the Dare-Currituck county line in the north.


Because Duck restricts beach access to residents and visitors staying on the island, uncrowded spots on the sand are easier to find here than along many other coastal beaches in the state.


“Duck is like a little family community where the sunsets are gorgeous every night and where everything is calm and peaceful,” says Katy Caroline, a local artist.


“The fact that the beaches have community access tends to limit the number of people on the beach,” adds Kathy McCullough-Testa, public relations and special events coordinator for the Town of Duck. “Another thing to consider is that when you drive north to get to Duck, it’s a two-lane road. Going south, it’s a four-lane road.”


In other words, it might take longer to get there, but you won’t want to leave.


There’s a seven-mile walking and bicycle path that runs the length of Duck, and a boardwalk is expected to be completed by late spring. Boat slips also will be part of the boardwalk’s finished construction, while a new amphitheater sets the stage for concerts on the green and an 11-acre town park boasts picnic shelters, canoe and kayak launches, and a playground. Each Columbus Day weekend, a lively jazz festival plays hosts to about 5,000 people.


And while visitors to the Outer Banks might not have stayed in Duck, many line the two-lane road to hit its shops each year. All shops in Duck are locally owned and offer everything from upscale women’s apparel and outdoor gear to art and collectibles.


“Painters are inspired by nature, and many of the artists displayed here in Duck are spread out among the Outer Banks,” says Caroline, who shows her work at ARTspace, a gallery in Duck.


Coastal cuisine

The Duck area also is a center for fresh, local, sustainable food. One hallmark of the town’s food success is its annual Taste of the Beach festival, which will be held March 17-20 and features food, wine, music, classes, tastings, and tapas. Local restaurant owners consider it the kickoff to high season.


Like many other owners and chefs in the area, Sam McGann has seen his restaurant, The Blue Point, evolve over the years.


“When we opened in 1989, we started with a comfortable, casual environment, with a checker-block floor, red bar stools, and an open kitchen,” he says. “All along, we’ve had quality food and service. But I think comfortable and casual have come full circle today. You can be serious about food without being stuffy.”


McGann puts his money where his mouth is. He gets his seafood locally and seasonally through Outer Banks Catch, he recycles whenever possible, and The Blue Point started its own garden this year.


“I think it’s about trust among the chef, restaurant and guest,” he says. “Diners are more educated today, and they recognize when the effort is made.”


Joshua Hollinger, executive chef of The Sanderling Resort & Spa in Duck, has a clear vision and basic culinary philosophy: sustainable, organic, artisanal and local (SOAL). He’s always thinking of ways to reduce the resort’s carbon footprint while keeping the highest quality of ingredients for patrons. This year, the Sanderling offers certified organic black angus beef from a local farm, beer from a brewery located across the Currituck Sound and local seafood, in addition to vegetables from its own burgeoning garden. Hollinger hopes to add beehives to the property later this year.


On the property, The Left Bank restaurant, with its high-end contemporary flair, and The Lifesaving Station Restaurant, a more casual option, have hosted events to acquaint curious guests with the foods they eat. For example, a series of events that Hollinger and German master butcher Frank Meusel have hosted called “Meet Your Meat” teaches visitors about prime and secondary cuts. Each event also includes a family-style meal.


“Duck has definitely inspired me,” Hollinger says. “I try to develop relationships with local farmers and fishermen, and I want guests to connect with their food too.”


High-class amenities

The Sanderling sits on 13 acres adjacent to the Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary and Center, while its Eco Center, a three-mile nature trail, weaves through the resort’s bird lovers sanctuary. During their stay, guests can enjoy golf, tennis, swimming, bird watching, guided kayak tours, sunset tours of the sound, freshwater fishing and wind sailing. They also can relax on the resort’s wide porches or take advantage of its 6,000-square-foot spa, which features nine treatment rooms, a private Vichy shower, and eucalyptus steam room.


Upon celebrating its 25th anniversary last year, The Sanderling did what it does best: it went above and beyond.


“We had a 10-day calendar of events with different specials available, invited some guests back for a visit and held a special dinner,” says Dick McAuliffe, the resort’s general manager.


The Sanderling continually finds ways to give guests a unique experience.


“Our biggest advantage is our location,” McAuliffe says. “With 88 guest rooms and five rental homes on unspoiled beaches, we have a location that can’t be replicated.”


But McAuliffe and his staff don’t rest on their laurels. They are aggressively pursuing the Green Seal certification, which requires high-level sustainability standards. Also, each guest staying at The Sanderling is asked to donate $1 per night to the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust. The resort has become one of the organization’s largest contributors to date.


The Sanderling’s two restaurants also host regular special events throughout the year. Last year’s “Duck in Duck” showcased a five-course menu of duck prepared various ways and served with wine from the Duck Horn Winery. And the “Meet Your Meat” educational sessions and other family-style events have helped put The Sanderling on the gastronomic map.


“We want to create nice memories for the people who stay with us,” McAuliffe says. 


Anne Woodman is a freelance writer based in Morrisville.


If you go

If you’re preparing a trip to Duck this year, first visit these sites: