I live here in the Outer Banks and I actually live in Corolla, NC. The strip of islands starts with Carova which is four-wheel drive beach access only. There are no roads leading into it for the ultimate escape if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle. Carova is also home to the wild horses that roam the beaches. (Even if you aren't staying in Carova you should drive to Corolla and stop at a jeep tours place and have them take you out to see the horses.) The more northern you stay the wider and whiter the beaches.
Next to Carova is Corolla. Corolla still has a feeling of seclusion and has the wide and white beaches. The communities next to the four-wheel drive (Villages of Ocean Hill, Corolla Village, ect) have the most seclusion. Corolla Light Resort is also in Corolla. Corolla Light was named 2007 Resort Community of the Year and has an 8 lane indoor pool, indoor tennis courts, indoor fitness center, outdoor basketball and tennis courts, an oceanfront and a soundside pool, and tons more! In the middle of Corolla is TimBuck II shopping center which has everything including Gabriella's Italian restaurant, Mike & Diannas Grill Room seafood, ect, Route 12 steakhouse, Breakfast and Burgers, Giant Slice pizza, ice cream, surf shops, bumper cars, miniature golf, and go karts. There is a Harris Teeter grocery store, Food Lion grocery store, Burger King, and Dairy Queen in Corolla. Southern Corolla (Pine Island) the island is really narrow making most houses oceanfront and have a view of the Currituck Sound. This area is purely residential.
After Corolla comes Duck. Duck is a quaint little village with bike paths and walking paths along road side and a speed limit of 25. (In Duck, 25 mph means 25 mph as there are police everywhere.) There is a community playground and lots of small local restaurants. You will want to go to Baldies Burgers for lunch one day and Sunset Grille for a casual dinner or upstairs for karaoke and bar. For an elegant dinner in Duck you can go to Meridian 42 or Blue Point. The Four Seasons is my favorite community to rent a house in within Duck because of its indoor pool, fitness center, game room, and oceanfront outdoor pool. My favorite hotel/resort is on the edge of Corolla/Duck - The Sanderling Resort. The Sanderling is simply luxurious and includes a private beach and indoor pool access. The Sanderling Spa is right across the road if you would like a manicure/pedicure, massage, ect.
Past Duck is Southern Shores. Southern Shores is where the Walmart, McDonalds, dry cleaners, hairdressers, tanning salons, ect begin. In Southern Shores is the interchange to US158 where you can go toward the Wright Memorial Bridge (US158 N) to leave the Outer Banks. You can also turn onto US158 S or stay on Route 12 and go further into Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head area in which all of the tourist attractions and chain restaurants are located. The roadside is packed with miniature golf courses and fast food restaurants. The beaches have many public accesses so the beaches, as narrow as they are further south, are packed. As you get further South into Nags Head area it starts to clear up as you see the Jockeys Ridge state park and the Wright Brothers museum and monument. These are places that are a must-see while in the OBX. Also, the Black Pelican restaurant is the old Western Union where the Wright Brothers sent their first in flight telegram.
After Nags Head is Whalebone where my personal favorite restaurant is - Tale of the Whale. This is a great restaurant with amazing food and views on the waterfront. At Whalebone there is the other bridge off the islands - the Washington-Baum bridge.
If you head further south than that you will encounter Rodanthe (site for movie/book “Nights in Rodanthe”), Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Hatteras, and Ocracoke. The rentals and land are cheaper in these areas because the beaches are much more narrow and the streets are continually under water everytime it rains. Hatteras is great for those that love to surf or those on a very limited budget.
Ok so now where would be my favorite place to vacation in the OBX? Personally Carova with the very secluded wide white beaches and wild horses roaming. I live in the next best place (minus the four wheel drive vehicles only) – Corolla. Now, knowing the facts you can decide for yourself where you want to rent. :)