Trip Dispatch: Golf takes flight in North Carolina's Outer Banks

POWELLS POINT, N.C. -- Probably the best word I heard to describe the Outer Banks of North Carolina is "authentic." You're not going to find McDonald's or Wendy's here. In fact, there's hardly a chain business in existence on the Outer Banks, and that includes the golf courses. Everything here is unique, including the history.

The OBX, as it's known, is the area where the Wright Brothers made their four historic flights. The beaches on the northern part of this barrier island that separates Currituck Sound from the Atlantic Ocean is as unspoiled as any in America. It's not easy to get to, but well worth it, not only for the golf but all the other experiences as well.

Those experiences for me started right away, soon after arrival at the Norfolk International Airport in Virginia about 90 minutes north (the closest airport to the OBX). Before an afternoon round at our first golf course, our small group stopped at The Currituck Barbecue Co., where we enjoyed genuine Carolina barbecue. That means pulled pork sandwiches covered with coleslaw and a vinegar sauce. It would be our first and final dining spot before returning home on this quick trip.

Golf along the OBX

Here's a view from the opposite side of the water of the green on the par-4 fifth hole at The Currituck Club.

The Currituck Club

Unlike Myrtle Beach a few hours south, the Outer Banks isn't a golf mecca. There aren't a hundred golf courses from which to choose, but if there doesn't need to be. In the OBX, there are about eight or so courses you can play, all unique and plenty enough to keep a group or even a couple busy for a week's vacation.

The courses are reasonably priced and easily packaged with a hotel, resort or even accommodations at one of the courses, which is what we had at our first stop at Kilmarlic Golf Club. Located on 650 wooded acres on Powells Point, the course was crafted by Tom Steele, whose list of designs begins and ends here. The course has a natural flow to it through wetlands and a forest of pines, oaks and dogwoods with a good variety of holes. It's just a little more than 6,500 yards, but has been good enough to play host to the North Carolina Open twice since it opened in 2002.

The cottage at Kilmarlic is also where we also spent our first two nights. The luxurious home has four large bedrooms, each with their own bathroom, a large kitchen and living area and even a pool table, right off the golf course. The best part, though, is that 18 more cottages are being built and will be completed this summer, not only providing great stay-and-play options for golfers, but for families, too, some of whom will undoubtedly come this summer to take advantage of a new water park that will open this year. The cottages would make a great base for a buddies trip, too, where you could not only play Kilmarlic but venture out to other courses as well, like our next stop, Nags Head Golf Club, which offers some of the best water views in the area.

Golf Digest called Nags Head Golf Links, designed by Bob Moore and opened in 1988, the longest 6,100 yards you'll ever play, and I found that hard to dispute. Unlike the other three courses we played on this trip, everything is not right in front of you. It was the most links-style of all the courses we played, had the tightest fairways and you definitely need to play this sand dunes-based course a couple of times to feel comfortable. Yet, Nagshead is OBX golf and has some of the most beautiful holes in the area. The ninth, a par-4 along the shoreline, stood out in that regard.

The third course on this quick trip might was my favorite – The Currituck Club, a more open design by Rees Jones. Measuring just under 6,900 yards, much of The Currituck Club runs along the Currituck Sound with a combination of wetlands and water hazards to navigate as well as some formidable bunkers. Ranked among the top 25 courses in North Carolina (and that's saying something considering the competition), this is a must-play when visiting the island.

And finally, we wound up our golf experiences with The Carolina Club, a local favorite that stretches to almost 7,000 yards and was designed by Russell Breeden and Bob Moore. Generous off the tee, there are a few large lakes and ponds to deal with, but if the wind is down, like it was for our group, you can score out there. Perhaps the unique hole was the par-5 ninth, which big hitters can try to reach in two, but you must thread your tee shot down the right side to avoid water left and trees right. If you lay up on your second shot, that's not easy either, but there are couple of choices – a narrow fairway to the right or a semi-island fairway to the left. Either way, the approach shot is to a semi-island green in front of the clubhouse.

The Carolina Club is actually the sister club of another favorite on The Pointe Golf Club, which was also designed by Breeden and is very player friendly.

And another course in the area worth checking out is Scotch Hall Preserve, a Arnold Palmer layout that opened in 2008. Located along the Inner Banks along the Albemarie Sound, Scotch Hall Preserve is one of the most scenic layouts in the state, with beautiful vegetation water views, and at 7,254 yards, a pretty stiff test of golf.

The OBX dining scene

Besides The Currituck Barbecue Company, there are plenty of other exceptional OBX dining experiences to enjoy.

Ours started with a delightful wine/cheese/craft beer establishment called The Trio, which started as a retail outlet for local delights and products around the world. Besides offering great food, the bistro and bar also offer a selection of 24 rotating beers on tap, not to mention an incredible variety of wines. In the retail section, I even found a German beer from a city where I once lived.

Energy for round @carolinaclub @duckdonuts #playobxgolf #obxnow #livingthegreen

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Another great spot was the Lost Colony Brewery and Cafe in Manteo, which offers award-winning craft beer in a charming atmosphere. The name stems from the historic Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, which was a late 16th-century attempt by Queen Elizabeth I to establish a permanent English settlement founded by Sir Walter Raleigh in Dare County. An annual outdoor play depicting that history has been running for 80 years, and it was served as early show biz experience for the late Andy Griffith's (who is buried in Manteo).

Perhaps the most historic restaurant we checked out was the Black Pelican, which actually served as a lifesaving station established in 1864. While the food was certainly great, the most significant part of this restaurant located on the beach is that this is where Orville Wright sent a telegram announcing that they had successfully achieved flight on Dec. 17, 1903.

And finally, our last dinner was at the Sanderling Resort, where we stayed the final night. The Sanderling, located in Duck, N.C., is the premier resort on the Outer Banks, with luxury rooms with ocean views, access to pristine beaches and a full-service spa as well as terrific dining. We took advantage of the last one at the historic Lifesaving Station No. 5 restaurant. Under the direction of chef John Botkin, this is a five-star restaurant experience, offering seasonal dishes that included an incredible roasted duck.

Speaking of duck, breakfast the next morning was at local favorite Duck Donuts on the boardwalk, where they specialize in a maple-bacon doughnut that substitutes well for pancakes.

So many activities on the OBX

As previously mentioned, this is where you'll find Kitty Hawk, where the first powered flight was successful, and there's a rather large memorial and museum and gift shop dedicated to that feat at the Wright Brothers National Memorial that lays out the four successful flights.

There are historic lighthouses, too, some of which you can climb, plenty of fishing and hunting opportunities and you can even drive on the beach with a permit or run with wild horses on the beaches via organized tours.

Also among our many activities was a visit to the two-year-old Outer Banks Distillery, which makes Kill Devil Rum (named in homage to the shipwrecks of yesteryear, which would wash up bottles of rum from the doomed vessels). Four partners own the distillery, which can hardly keep up with the demand. Pretty much all the local restaurants offer cocktails with the local spirits, but we got a sampling at the brewery. One in our party even bought a bottle of the coveted Kill Devil Gold, which is allotted only one time a year per customer. But that's plenty for outsiders who might take an annual golf trip to this authentic destination.

Mike Bailey is a former Golf Advisor senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. He has also been on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.

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Trip Dispatch: Golf takes flight in North Carolina's Outer Banks