Sunday, May 03, 2009

Outer Banks Don't Fail

Outer Banks Don't Fail: From Ocean City, MD down to Florida, the Atlantic Seaboard is peppered with seaside resort towns. They range from the dingy (Ocean City), to the suburb-by-the-seas (Myrtle Beach), to the upper crust (Hilton Head). The Outer Banks is well over to the nicer side of the spectrum for the most part, but it's also unique in many ways.

OBX, which is the cool kid's shorthand for Outer Banks, consists of a thin strip of land off the mainland of North Carolina from the Virginia border south the Cape Hatteras and Okracoke Island. That is to say, it is really not one single community. There are two main bridges across the sound on to the banks and they bracket the central core of OBX. Between these bridges lie the cities of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head. Awesome names. These are pretty much suburban level small cities with strip mall lined main drags and smallish two or three bedroom bungalows closer to the water. Here you get the standard coastal public beach access points and parks and recreation and goods and services. Heading south you encounter Cape Haterras National Seashore which extends all the way down to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, both of which contains small communities, the latter being an especially picturesque village.

Every time I have been to OBX though, we have turned north. Pretty much the instant you get north of the central core, you realize you are in a controlled community. Gaudy signs and advertising disappear, and for miles and miles you encounter very little beyond enormous vacation rentals, all painted in muted hues and of similar construction and gathered into labyrinthine developed neighborhoods. As a general, but imperfect, rule, the further north you go the more new and luxurious things get. Eventually you hit the border with Virginia where the road ends and a seaside wildlife protected area begins. You can get in with a four wheel drive vehicle and some courage. There is said to be one of the last herds of wild horses roaming about in this area.

Ten or twelve bedroom homes are fairly common, most in the four to six range. Thousands upon thousands of them. The first time you see this you can't help but be stunned by the scope of the development. As I said, though, it is very controlled as to style and coloring. There are no sore thumbs. These are pricey rentals with fees designed to be shared by multiple families or large amalgamations of friends and colleagues, but off season they can be more reasonable. That explains why in all my half dozen or so visits, I've never been there in high summer.

Rental homes have the advantage over hotels in that, well, they are actual homes. Full kitchens, stocked with appliances, cookware and utensils, three or four rooms with TVs, comfortable furniture, decks, grills, hot tubs, pools, game rooms, bikes and toys, etc. Plus, you are generally within a couple of hundred yards of the Atlantic Ocean and a beautiful wide beach (although swimming can be cold and dicey). The key thing here is that you can hang out and relax and let the kids run wild, a much nicer set-up than a hotel room. And you probably will hang out more in the house, because the Outer Banks is not exactly a hot bed of wild activity. Rent bikes, walk on the beach, hit some of the little shops, miniature golf -- that's what you got. If you're feeling particularly active, you could rent a kayak or charter a fishing boat, but mostly you are just relaxing and enjoying the beach house.

And in that setting OBX is a terrific place. It is prototypical easy going beach culture. I remember the first time I ever visited being stunned by how folks could quite literally spend an entire day on the beach. I walked down to the water in the AM noticed families setting up chairs and such, then walked back down just before dark to find them still there. That would drive me crazy, but it gives you an idea of how you can take it slow. You don't have to worry about entertaining the kids, just leave them in game room or front of one of the four TVs. Get some bikes. Visit Heritage Park (see photo link below). It's kind of hard to describe other than to say it's just plain easy.

There is one major caveat, though: It's not all that easy to get to. The closest major airport is Norfolk, 2.5 hours north. In fact, considering that you'll probably end up with an indirect flight to Norfolk, you're better off with a direct flight (probably cheaper) into one of the DC airports and taking the five hour drive down. (This is especially true if you are flying on Mesa Airlines, the demon carrier of the skies. See next post.)

I would love to spend a full week down there in a big luxurious house up by the Corolla Light area, with a rented jeep to take me out into the dunes, my road bike to explore around through the toney neighborhoods, and my camera to catch the sunset. Apart from that, no agenda and nothing to prove.

I'm a big fan of the southeast seaboard -- OBX and Hilton Head in particular. It all seems very unpretentious to me, like it's not even trying to be a "destination," it just sort f happened that way. Nice.

Photos on SmugMug.