For the uninitiated, place names on the Outer Banks seem a bit odd. Ancient fishing villages like Nag’s Head and Kitty Hawk and Ocracoke sound whimsical at the very least. Their history is every bit as colourful as their names. Ocracoke was home port to Blackbeard. Legendary Cape Hatteras has witnessed the death of countless ships and sailors on its treacherous shoals. Corolla is home to wild horses descended Spanish ships that foundered off the coast. The Outer Banks are so much more than just beach.
However, the beach is the primary reason anyone from the mainland sets foot on these narrow barrier islands. There are literally miles and miles of beach and the water is warm; the waves, respectable.
I’ve been going to the Outer Banks probably since I was an embryo. Some of the earliest photographs of Baby Banshee were taken on the beach at Kill Devil Hills where I sat baking in the summer sun in an ill-fitting red bathing suit and a small straw hat. My last visit, until a couple of weeks ago, was when I was fifteen.
A recent issue of National Geographic magazine re-awakened a strong tide of desire to see my Atlantic beaches again. I did some math; it had been thirty-five years since I’d been to my summer playground. Disgraceful!
So when my husband was cobbling together our summer road trip, I knew we had to pass through North Carolina to get from Atlanta to Washington DC. We would be so close – couldn’t we just veer eastward for a couple of days and sink our toes into some Atlantic sand? I pleaded (it was whining). I shed tears and lamented that my children had never dabbled their feet in the Atlantic Ocean – an oversight that rendered this East Coast girl a negligent parent.
Once my husband agreed to the detour, I regaled everyone with tales of my beachy summers – climbing the East Coast’s biggest sand dune, the Wright Brothers, how my mother used to be able to buy fish right off the piers, Mr. Midgett’s fruit and veggie truck, the cottage, the sea, the salt, the sand…
Upon our arrival at the Hilton Garden Inn at Kitty Hawk, fresh from our disastrous hotel experience in Virginia Beach, my children heard there was an indoor pool and hot tub. Seriously? My youngest rooted around for a charger for his DS.
I stood on the balcony of our room and looked out at the ocean. And burst into tears. Why didn’t anyone get it? Mind you, we’d only just arrived but still…
Gently, patiently, my husband tried to explain that to the kids it was just a beach, an ocean. Nothing more, nothing less. It was a hotel with Wi-fi and room service. I grumbled but knew he was right. It was impossible for my children (or my husband) to appreciate the meaning a place called Kitty Hawk held for me. I came to realize that my memories were largely unshareable.
In spite of threatening skies, I ran down to the beach. I sat down and let waves break right at my feet. Surf rushed around me. Soon my skin and hair were caked with salt and my bathing suit was filled with sand. I was three years old again and happier than I’d been in a long time.
My daughter appeared at my side, gazing apprehensively at the crashing waves. Here was my opportunity. I stood up and waded out into the surf and she followed. Soon we were being knocked around by the surf. We were soaking wet and holding our suits on for dear life. We shrieked with laughter and ran in and out of the water trying to escape what we used to call “the washing machine.” The boy child was more reticent but soon he was in there too.
That night, already enamoured by the place, my husband bought an embarrassing amount of beach paraphernalia – shovels, buckets, diggers, skim boards, frisbees…as if the kids were five years old. Nonetheless, everything (except maybe the skim boards) were put to good use. We all found our inner five-year old again on that beach.
That is the beauty of the Outer Banks beaches – they are tailor-made for family fun. There are no nightclubs – the closest you’ll get is some dude with an acoustic guitar playing on a restaurant’s rooftop deck. There are no casinos and no tacky boardwalk. There are restaurants that cater to families, eclectic clothing shops, motels run by the same family for generations, and an assortment of “beachy” tourist stores. The most radical thing you’ll see are the mini-putt golf places built to look like pirate ships.
Mostly there are cottages – my husband and I walked down the beach for hours just looking at them. They literally come in all shapes and sizes. Some have rooftop decks that you wouldn’t dare have one cocktail on because getting down would be so dicey. These cottages are awash in sand, damp bathing suits and towels, and tuckered out kids.
Family vacationing is the essence of the Outer Banks. Although there are way more cottages there than when I was a kid, the place has not lost its family feel. Just avoid the “highway” where all the fast food restaurants are (although if you ever go – you must go to Capt. Frank’s – it’s on the highway around mile post 4 or 5. Best cheese steak I’ve had in a while. It’s a no-frills kind of place but it puts anything like McDonald’s or BK to shame – as it should. Don’t let the girl behind the counter scare you. She’s just busy as all hell.
Another good place is right by the Hilton – Rundown Cafe. We ate at The Black Pelican on our last night but I seriously can’t remember what I ate. It wasn’t bad – just not memorable.
Seriously, you could spend all summer sampling the restaurants there. Some good, some tired and some have literally been there since I was a child (Port O’Call Restaurant). We wanted to try Awful Arthur’s. Or, Tortuga’s Lie. Or, (ahem) Dirty Dick’s Crabhouse (the T-shirts are hilarious). We just didn’t have enough time. We did find time for the most amazing (and not at all healthful) breakfast pit stop: Duck Donuts. Made fresh while you wait, they come to you warm. They are melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
Before I knew it, it was time to leave. Someone I know cried all the way across the causeway back onto the mainland. Memories flooded my brain like a storm tide. My mom cooking bluefish in a pound of butter. My dad flying down at weekends and skimming the surf in his Beechcraft Bonanza (giving my mother a fright). Leaving the cottage after breakfast and being dragged reluctantly off the beach for dinner. Paddling out beyond the breakers and floating on a raft for hours (pre-Jaws). Falling asleep in a giant Adirondack chair on a deck overlooking the ocean, my long hair sticky and hopelessly tangled with salt.
I hope my children think well of this place I hold so dear; however, I don’t hold out too much hope. When asked if they wanted to try to rent a cottage there next summer, both declared it the most boring place on earth. What is wrong with these people?
I will make the 13 hour drive – alone if I have to. And, I’m taking the puppy. You people are on your own.
[Note: we don’t have a puppy. But, if we did…]
Next stop: Washington DC – home town!