Resort Review: The Sanderling, Outer Banks, North Carolina

Outer Banks Family Vacation
Outer Banks Family VacationRobert Stephens

FAMILY-FRIENDLY ESCAPE: The Wild Outer Banks

LOCATION:

Duck, North Carolina

RESORT:

NIGHTLY RATE:

$129 to $1,500

This can’t be legal. We’re bouncing over sand dunes in a Jeep 4x4 along the far north end of the Outer Banks. Launching over blind ramps. Skidding into turns. Coastering over sand moguls is not what worries me, though. It’s the barely-audible voice coming from the back seat.

“Daddy, are you going to close my door?” It’s my 4-year-old daughter, Robyn, sitting next to her two sisters on one side and a gaping hole in the truck on the other. I want to close her door. My wife’s too. But there are no doors. There’s no roof either. We’re held in only by seatbelts that occasionally come unbuckled on dune landings.

“Those things get loose sometimes,” our guide and driver of the Jeep in front of us, Allen Scarborough, told me earlier. I trust Allen. He’s a sheriff’s deputy full time, an envelope pusher on the side. We follow him past a Chevy Malibu stuck in the sand like a chocolate chip in a tub of cookie dough. After a long series of soft hills, Allen stops and points. The girls stand on their seats. There, 50 feet away, are two Spanish mustangs and a one-week-old colt. Untamed, but harmless. This entire section of the Outer Banks is theirs, as is an unthinkable diet of sea grass and ocean water. “They’ve adapted to the environment. They don’t need veterinarians,” Allen says. The sand cleans the horses’ teeth and hooves. The salt water provides electrolytes for their internal systems. “If we tried to improve their health, we’d probably kill ’em.”

The deputy sits back down in his Jeep and eases around the horses, with us creeping behind. Behind me Robyn has fallen asleep, six inches from where the door isn’t. When we wake up the next morning at the Sanderling Resort, the sound of the Atlantic wafts through our open French doors. There are blueberry and strawberry smoothies for breakfast. The resort’s private beach wants us. But risk-taking is contagious on the Outer Banks. This is the place where the Wright Brothers tried to fly using mama’s bedsheets and their own guts. So by lunchtime, we aren’t riding bikes or swimming in our own piece of ocean. We’ve taxied by foot to the top of another dune.

“People try things here that they normally wouldn’t do at home,” says hang-gliding teacher Donnie LeVasseur. I listen and watch as he straps my 9-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, to a 28-foot-wide kite. She’s about to jump off the mountain.

The dad glands are wrestling inside me: One says to stop this madness; the other says to let her go. Then I remember why the Wrights chose the Outer Banks for what everyone in 1903 thought was certain disaster: steady 20 mph winds and soft landings.

“Have fun,” I say, trying to sound calm. She walks across the sand … then jogs … and leaves Earth. OK, she’s nine feet off the ground, and two guys are running alongside and holding tethers to keep her from winding up on the next island over: Bermuda, 675 miles out. But considering she’s 4 feet 8 inches, she might as well be dangling from a Cessna. “I did it!” she shouts after landing. My fists punch the air. Then, in mid-celebration, I look up the hill and am re-terrified. Noelle, 8, is waiting for flight clearance.

This article first appeared in Twenty of the World's Greatest Escapes, in the January/February 2012 issues of ISLANDS.