We loved the Outer Banks. Everyone on our trip said they would come back.
We stayed in Corolla (which is pronounced "Co-ral-ah" (like Holla) by everyone but us midwest peeps). It's the farthest north of the Outer Banks. We made a huge judgement error on time and got in too late and therefore sat in 4 hours of backed-up traffic. We will probably book a Sunday-Sunday house next time, as Saturday is the peak check-in day. We'd probably go a little earlier in the summer too.
Corolla itself was great. Not super commercialized. There are two grocery stores and a few shopping areas, plus a lighthouse with a museum and gift shop. Traffic was pretty light. We drove down to Roanoke Island one day, so we went through most of the rest of the area. Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, and Nags Head are a lot more populated and commercialized.
Our house was just shy of a half-mile to the beach. But if we wanted to be at the beach more than an hour, we schlepped chairs, food, drinks, towels, life jackets, etc. By the end of the week, it swelled to boogie boards, sand toys, and a separate cooler for the kids so they didn't get sand in the adult cooler. Plus the beaches are duned in, so you were taking a boardwalk and stairs once you actually got to the access point. We ended up driving the stuff to the beach with a few people in the car, unloading, and the driver walking back. Next time, we'll a) get a house closer to the beach and b) a bike if we're more than about 2 houses in from the beach access point.
The house we rented was awesome. It was 3 floors with 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms. There were decks on the 2nd and 3rd level. The second level deck had a hot tub that we used once because it was too hot. The pool was great for the kids to swim in once we came back from the beach for the day.
We loved the beach. The first few days the water was pretty calm. We saw a lot of dolphins. The last few days it got increasingly choppy and brought in these tiny jellyfish. They didn't have tentacles, so they weren't dangerous. They looked like tiny breast implants. My friend's girls did find one jellyfish that had tentacles. They picked it up in their bucket. We found some cool shells and sea glass.
Like I mentioned before, we went down to Roanoke Island. We went to the aquarium for the afternoon since it rained. The aquarium wasn't expensive, but a little lame. The big salt water tank with sharks was cool and they have a sea turtle rehab. There was one sea turtle hamming it up and playing hide and seek with us. There's a shopping and dining area on the water down the way from the aquarium that was nice. We went to the Bodie Island Lighthouse. It was closed, so we could only walk the grounds. I want to go back the next time and go up in it.
The best thing about the vacation was that everyone got along and also, no one was afraid to do stuff on their own. There was very little drama.
All in all, we were thrilled that it all worked out for our vacation. We were all disappointed that we had to scuttle Hilton Head and deciding on OBX was a bit of an impulse. It turned out to be a great alternative.