DUCK, N.C. -- To many who have made this a popular summer destination, the Outer Banks can be a charming and soothing escape from commercialism -- a family-style getaway on a 200-mile-long string of barrier islands that are bordered on one side by sounds and on the other by the Atlantic Ocean.
Multimillion dollar homes with 10 and 12 bedrooms populate the landscape on the northern end, bringing layers of families and friends together for vacations that consist mostly of cookouts, crabbing, biking, walks on the wide expanse of open beachfront and more deck time than a maritime captain. Listening to the waves crash in the early evening isn't something to do; it's darn-near the national pastime.
But, in the past 15 years, the Outer Banks has developed another attraction to go with wind-surfing on the sand dunes in Kill Devil Hills or jet-skiing on the sound in Corolla: Golf courses have sprouted on the island almost as rapidly as the four-story homes,
"It doesn't have the nightlife and distractions that Myrtle Beach has, but the golf is equal to or better than the experience you can have at bigger destinations," said Patrick Damer, general manager at the Rees Jones-designed Currituck Club, which opened in 1996.
To be sure, the number of courses does not begin to compare to the cornucopia of daily-fee layouts in Myrtle Beach, S.C, or the resort courses in the Hilton Head area.
But golf has become an attractive alternative along the Outer Banks, whether from the uniquely contoured Currituck Club that borders Currituck Sound in Corolla to the coastal feel of the Nags Head Golf Links in the southern end of the island.
Off the island, approximately 9 miles west on Route 158 in Powell's Point, is Kilmarlic Golf Club, a sprawling, forested layout spread over 605 acres that features wetlands, giant oaks, North Carolina pines and plenty of good golf.
Those are some of the big-boy courses that are available on a daily-fee basis for the vacationers who like a little challenge in their day. For the more recreationally inclined, there is Sea Scape Golf Links, an Art Wall-designed layout located fewer than two blocks from the ocean that is short on length (6,131 yards) but long on beachfront views and wind-swept sand dunes.
"It's good waves, good food and good golf," said Nags Head general manager Ben Bridgers.
Information on all the Outer Banks courses can be found at www.playobxgolf.com.
"I think that's the neat thing about the Outer Banks," Mr. Damer said. "There are not 100 courses here, or even 10 courses, but you get a lot of variety. Each course is different and gives you a little different look and feel."
The Currituck Club probably carries the most cache because it was designed by Mr. Jones, a renowned and decorated architect who has been dubbed "The Open Doctor" for his refurbishing and preparation of courses used for the U.S. Open. At 6,885 yards from the back tees, Currituck is a beastly challenge for low handicappers because the breezes from Currituck Sound and the low, seaside elevation combine to make the course play even longer than the listed yardage. Six holes play along the sound, including the final four.
But it is a delight for players of all levels because of the generous fairways, bent-grass greens, rolling dunes and enough species of wildlife to stock a nature preserve. The course also includes a number of rental homes and condos for vacationers, but they sit far enough back from the fairways and greens that "you don't feel like you're playing down a bowling-alley of homes," Mr. Damer said.
Nags Head Golf Links is the oldest of this group, opening in 1987, and has the raw, rugged feel of a seaside links course. Most tees and greens are separated by wind-swept sand dunes and native sea grasses, forcing players to create shots and pick clubs carefully.
What's more, the coastal breezes off Roanoke Sound make the links play much longer than the listed 6,126 yards.
But the beauty of the Nags Head links is just that -- the natural beauty. And course architect Bob Moore used it to his advantage, building several holes along Roanoke Sound -- none more dramatic and eye-appealing than the 583-yard, par-5 18th, easily the best finishing hole on the Outer Banks. It has a rolling, mostly flat fairway bordered on the left by shrubs and dunes, on the right by Roanoke Sound. Two short-needled pines sit just to the left of the green, providing a gateway to what is a breathtaking vista across the water. Even the bridge that crosses the sound to Manteo is visible from the fairway.
That hole, and the 221-yard, par-3 15th, play into the prevailing southwest wind, making them as difficult as they are scenic.
"In the late afternoon, there's nothing better than playing a few holes and seeing the sun set on the ninth and 18th holes," said Mr. Bridgers, who was formerly the club's head professional from 2007-10.
Kilmarlic opened in 2002 and was the second design project of Tom Steele, who weaved a 6,560-yard layout with massive bunkers around nearly 300 acres of wetlands. He made such natural use of the property to produce a pair of spectacular par 3s that sit side by side and share the same pond -- the 165-yard second and the 148-yard 11th.
There is also a series of risk-reward par 5s that aren't very long -- including the 514-yard 18th -- but require a pinch of local knowledge to correctly navigate the wetlands. That is especially true at the 495-yard 12th, a dogleg-right par 5 that requires a safecracker's touch to navigate all the hazards and avoid the marshland.
"We had a fairly flat piece of property with the marshland area that allowed us to give some different looks of green grass against the marsh," said director of golf Bryan Sullivan, who has been at Kilmarlic since its inception, or, as he said, "since they put the first shovel in the ground."
"We tried to incorporate as much of the natural areas as we could to give it that Outer Banks feel."
But here's the best part about Kilmarlic: The club started an amenity program called "The K Club" that allows homeowners along the Outer Banks to join for an annual fee. The membership allows any renter or guest from a participating home to play Kilmarlic for $69 -- or $30 cheaper than the daily in-season fee. Mr. Sullivan said more than 400 homeowners participate in the program.
But that isn't all.
Next year, the club plans to institute a travel program that will allow golfers to be picked up at their homes and transported to and from the course. That way, Mr. Sullivan said, vacationers with just one car don't have to worry about the golfer taking the vehicle for part of the day.
"We're going to do everything to make it as easy as possible to come here," Mr. Sullivan said.
It's already enjoyable to play golf at the Outer Banks. Now it's getting easier.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter: @gerrydulac.