As travel opened back up, Kill Devil Hills was an easy choice for the memories it holds for us. We used to live here on the Outer Banks. On this trip, we got to check out a hotel that’s a reminder of another time.
Many baby boomers remember their family vacations included staying at a motel or motor lodge. These popular ’50s and ’60s accommodations sprang up as interstate highways grew, making distant trips driveable. At these roadside spots, parking was easy, rates were good for a family, rooms were nothing fancy but clean, and the pools delighted the kids.
See Sea: Yesteryear beachside motel reimagined
In recent years, such roadside motels are getting a new life including some on the Outer Banks of North Carolina (OBX). We found that to be the case during our recent stay in Kill Devil Hills. A prime location to jump into the Atlantic and lounge the hours away on miles of beaches, it is best known as the spot where the Wright Brothers took to the air.
We shared our three-night getaway with another couple, all of us long-time friends since we worked here in the hospitality industry in the 1980s. This was finally a chance to reminisce in person and cautiously approach this new world of travel, thanks to a two-bedroom suite at the 23-unit See Sea Motel, where retro décor puts the fun in funky.
Traditionally, these u-shaped, single-floored properties sported those ever-welcoming swimming pools (a respite from saltwater). Four-door Chevys, V-8 Fords and “woodie” station wagons were staples parked at each unit’s door. Check-in involved dads unpacking fishing rods and coolers, moms organizing supplies for the stay, while kids begged, “When can we go to the beach?”
Similar scenes happen still, though SUVs have replaced gas guzzlers, and here at the See Sea, fully-renovated interiors feature a modern beachy vibe with bold colors like teal Keurig and matching toaster oven appliances.
Tucked away from crowds
We chose See Sea Motel in Kills Devil Hills for the nostalgia and also as a tucked-away spot for the vaccinated four of us just dipping first toes into post-pandemic travel.
Our two-bedroom unit, just steps across the road from the Atlantic Ocean, fit the bill. Our Shoot-the-Curl suite (cutely named for its bright, mod, surfer-wave artwork over the couch) had two queen beds and one bath. One-bedroom units feature king or queen beds and are tightly arranged.
See Sea Motel, built in 1963, got its new life in the summer of 2018. According to property’s website, rooms were taken down to the studs, so everything’s new, from flooring to walls, furnishings to fixtures.
Conveniently, all rooms feature a mini-fridge, microwave, coffee maker, and convection toaster oven. Two-bedroom units have a full fridge and stove plus a larger dining table. Each bedroom has a TV as does the living area, though we were too busy enjoying perfect OBX weather to bother with screen time.
Exploring Kill Devil Hills
While we opted for eating-in this go-round, the location is walkable to popular Kill Devil Hills dining spots like Food Dudes for local seafood and Bonzer Shack with a tiki hut vibe (our fish-taco go-to). For breakfast, it’s a short drive to Stack ’Em High or Bob’s Grill. The property also has three grills available in a green space area.
This trip offered a memory-lane moment when we climbed to the top of the Wright Brothers National Memorial and thanked the brothers for making possible all those plane trips we’ve taken since their Dec. 17, 1903 historic flight.
What greeted us was a remodeled visitor center with updated interactive exhibits. This was our first time exploring the 2003 centennial memorial sculpture featuring both a full-scale bronze flyer and sculptures of those who witnessed the first flight.
We discovered a first for any U.S. national park: an electric, self-driving transit shuttle. CASSI, which stands for the Connected Autonomous Shuttle Supporting Innovation, completes a one-mile fixed route from the visitor’s center to the backside of the Kill Devil Hill that is topped by the 60-foot granite monument to flight.
We also took a shaded walk in the Nature Conservancy at Nags Head Woods Preserve, a maritime forest. Close by is Jockey’s Ridge State Park, the tallest active, sand dune system in the eastern United States. Hang gliding, sand skiing, and kite flying are popular here.
Outdoor drama, aquarium, lighthouses
Another favorite summer season activity is “The Lost Colony” outdoor drama, first performed in 1937, on nearby Roanoke Island. It recounts with action and music the story of the arrival and then later disappearance of the first English settlers in the New World. Part of the story is the birth of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in a New World English colony.
Also on Roanoke Island are the Elizabethan Gardens and Festival Park with its Elizabeth II ship, representing an English merchant vessel from the 1585 Roanoke Voyage era. Roanoke Island is also home to the NC Aquarium, one of four in the state that collectively just earned the No. 4 spot on the Top 10 U.S. Aquariums list in a USA Today reader poll.
With five lighthouses and seemingly endless options for outdoor enthusiasts, the Outer Banks makes playing in the outside easy. And, of course, there’s always the pool — cannonball, anyone?
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- Affordability, ocean access, and super convenient location are top of the list, along with the property’s fresh remodel.
- Two-bedroom units, three of the 23 total units, work well for close friends or small families. One two-bedroom unit connects to an adjacent one-bedroom unit.
- Rooms are at ground level (except one) with free, dedicated, front-door parking, but it’s quite tight.
- Those still adjusting to getting back out there will welcome the small number of guests.
- The property is smoke-free, and select rooms closest to green space behind the motel allow pets.
- See Sea Motel is located on what locals call the beach road, NC Highway 12. It runs parallel to the busier “bypass” road, US 158. There is some street noise.
- Guests have to cross the beach road to reach the ocean. It’s a very short distance via a marked crosswalk.
- There is generally no attendant on-site at See Sea. To pose a question, guests leave a voice mail, though the staff does man phones during normal business hours in high season.
- The pool is open from mid-May through mid-October.
- Rooms are small, and storage space, particularly in the bathroom, is at a premium. Bedrooms lack dressers and closets. Plan accordingly.
- Sister property Tar Heel Motel, with 33 rooms, shares the same general layout and décor. It’s seven miles down the road in Nags Head near popular Jennette’s fishing pier. The walk to the beach is a bit farther than at See Sea.
- Both properties are rapidly booking up for summer visitors – great news for an area so dependent on the hospitality industry.
Like most hotels and motels, See Sea has enhanced its cleaning and sanitizing efforts and has discontinued in-room housekeeping for multiple-night stays unless requested. The property is small so you likely would see a housekeeper if towels need to be replenished; otherwise, you can call.
Units feature keyless entry via a pin-code from the management the evening before check-in (or upon check-in if money is due).
For up-to-date information, see the Dare County COVID-19 website.
Disclosure: The authors’ trip was sponsored by the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau but any opinions expressed in this post on their own.
IF YOU GO
For more information about Kill Devil Hills and the surrounding area, check out The Outer Banks tourism website.
Read the authors’ previous articles on GettingOnTravel about two other retro accommodations in North Carolina:
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