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The Northern OBX in 45 Hours
I used to think that sporting an “OBX” bumper sticker on your SUV was akin to holding your nose up in the air and complaining about the plebeian stench in the street. It's redundant but you do it because you have it. And what is it? Upper-middle class cred—the kind that smells of Arnold Palmers and newly mowed grass at the country club. That bumper sticker means you belong to that exclusive group who can afford to rent a premium vacation home at $20,000 a week come summertime. But my recent 45 hour tour of the northern Outer Banks of North Carolina showed me a sandy land that's far more down to earth. Needless to say, I'm an OBX convert.
Northern OBX is historically rich, playfully wild, and tantalizingly singular. And you don't have to be wealthy to enjoy the area's wealth of Southern hospitality and natural delights. The magic of the Outer Banks is that it's just developed enough to accommodate 5 million visitors every year, but undeveloped enough to make those 5 million all feel like they're in pristine terrain.
Given my (unfair) perception of the Outer Banks (and my limited post-college budget), I never had a true desire to visit. I grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., where “summering” in the Outer Banks practically comes with the benefits package of any high-power government consulting job. Since my family did not fit the Washington stereotype, we always chose to vacation elsewhere, if only to avoid familiar faces from the PTA. For as long as I can remember, I also wrongly assumed that the Outer Banks were just a more expensive version of Virginia Beach. Well, I've been to Hampton Roads, I shrugged. Why visit the same exact thing if it's farther away and more expensive and full of my least favorite high school classmates?
But one afternoon I opened an email that changed my entire relationship with the Outer Banks. The message came from one of my former editors. She had just returned from a media trip to the southern Outer Banks. The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau was in the middle of organizing another one to the northern Outer Banks. Would I want to go and wine and dine on the Bureau's dime? Oh, yeah, and make a little video, too. Before I even had a chance to respond, a rep from the Bureau emailed me and said that my colleague had recommended me for the trip. Did I want to go?
“No, thanks, I'm not interested in a free vacation,” said no one ever.
Of course I wanted to go! That being said, if someone had offered me a free meal at the diner down the street and a stay at the flea motel, no strings attached (except maybe that I had to write something or make a video), I would've said yes. Because, whatever, I do that, anyway. Had I done my research, I might've been more excited about the actual Outer Banks part. Regardless, a few email exchanges later, I was set. Then a couple of weeks after that, the big day arrived. Beach time, baby.
Here's my account of my whirlwind itinerary—and all the eating involved!
8:00 a.m. I roll out of bed, freshen up, and throw my junk into the car, where I programmed my GPS. My first shock is that the Outer Banks were not easy to get to. It's not called the Inner Banks, after all. I knew this intellectually, but not emotionally. I double-check the directions. Though I had calculated the hours/mileage in advance, this is the first time I've read the step-by-step directions. Gee, some of these roads sound...small. Thank goodness for caffeine and audio books! (McD's sweet tea and The Teaching Company's “The Story of Human Language,” respectively.)
10:30 a.m. I'm pulled over for speeding in rural Virginia. I charm my way out of a ticket. And by this I mean play young and scared—not that it's totally an act. I've never been pulled over for speeding before. Plus, a pee is definitely in order. “But, officer, I'm going to North Carolina for work! I don't want to be late.” Plus I have to use the toilet. SO. BADLY. Though it's the first thing on my mind, there's no way in baby Jesus' name that I'm going to say that. That only works for pregnant women. I try to convey a decade's worth of repent in a single facial expression.“OK, just promise me it won't happen again.”/ “I'm sorry. I promise!” Then I gun it to the nearest gas station and do what I have to do.
1:20 p.m. No longer freaking out over matters of the bowel, I pull into the lot of Sugar Creek Seafood Restaurant. (Okay, so I might've popped into a thrift shop or two first in search of trashy novels and obscure original art, but that's as much as I'll admit to my guilty pleasures.) Since I'm a few minutes early, I relax and then hop out to take photos of the clammy landscape: muted condos in the background, geese swimming in the foreground. It's an unusually cold day and yet it's not unpleasant. The feel of the boardwalk beneath my moccasins reminds me of how far I've traveled in the past few hours.
1:30 p.m. I enter the restaurant and head directly toward my party. After a series of friendly introductions, we get serious about reading the menu. I settle on the crab bisque, broiled scallops with fries and cole slaw, and the requisite sweet tea. We split an appetizer of Buffalo shrimp. I skip the Ranch dressing, scoring about two tailed morsels before my bisque arrives. The bisque is a creamy treat with generous chunks of meat. After such a grand beginning, I hardly have room for my entree, but I gulp down my scallops nonetheless. Perfection. Then I take a bite of slaw and eat one or two fries. I should've known that this meal was only the start to my culinary festivities.
3:00 p.m. While digesting, my party and I get a riveting talk from a Park Ranger at the Wright Brothers National Monument. This is a hallowed ground of ingenuity and invention. Not that fire ants care. I watch out for the little jerks whenever I kneel on the ground to take photographs. My favorite part is the bronze sculpture interpreting the first flight atop Kill Devil Hill. Kudos to artist John T. Daniels!
4:00 p.m. It's not a beach trip unless you get sand in your shoes., so my party and I head to Jockey's Ridge State Park, where the dunes put you right in Beetlejuice's world. While the dunes are not crowded, it's not deserted, either. It's appropriately occupied and utilized. Folks fly kites like it's going out of style and I pour sand out of my moccasins every couple of minutes. The view's gorgeous. The sight of a nearly buried castle from a now defunct miniature golf course? Hilarious. No, it's not a true medieval relic. But that's about the only thing that could make the vista more splendid.
5:30 p.m. After my group and I swing by the drugstore to pick up last minute snacks and toiletries, we're ready to kick back. So it's off to 601 Four Seasons Retreat in Duck. Insert a moment of breathlessness. The beach house accommodations are fit for royalty. Sure, nothing's gilded, but the living room's ceilings are literally two stories high; I have a waterfront view from my bedroom window and my own bathroom; there are TWO kitchens; and twenty-five or thirty people could easily sleep comfortably in this place. It's like the dorm of even the richest kids' dreams.
6:30 p.m. What makes a beautiful home even better? A beautiful meal. Cue Red Sky Cafe “Chefs on Call.” They catered our dinner, which was loaded with non-fussy nibbles: seafood, seafood, and more seafood, but also slices of steak, duck, and three dessert options, two of which boasted fresh fruit. Oh, and how can I forget the fanciest mac 'n' cheese known to mankind? Gouda is good. Intelligent conversation and lots of laughs made everything taste even better. I retired to my room to take a long shower and catch up on some freelance writing and theatre work. Then I slept on the most amazing mattress.
8:30 a.m. Skipping all that jazz about me prepping for my day, I'm having breakfast at Coastal Cravings. In fact, I wrote about it on Richmond.com, so rather than repeating myself, I'll have you read about it here.
10:30 a.m. Horses, horses, horses! This is the highlight of the trip, the perfect OBX adventure. Spotting a Spanish Colonial Mustang is like shaking hands with a Founding Father. You can't get any closer to history. I squeal the first time I saw one of the 'horsies' mainly because the little girl inside of me can't help but think, “Aw! Look! A pretty pony!” My group goes with Corolla Outback Adventures. We hop into a Jeep and then hit the sand, on the prowl for horses, no matter what they're doing—eating, pooping, posing. I like their stocky builds, shaggy manes, and furry coats. I only dislike that we cannot get too close to them, but I understand they deserve their personal space.
1:00 p.m. Lunch at Red Sky Cafe. Remember that Richmond.com article I mentioned? Ditto. So read about this great joint here.
2:00 p.m. After two great meals and all that pony-spotting, we've got to unwind. The Duck Boardwalk welcomes us to stroll its wooden planks and admire wildlife like turtles, fish, and, of course, ducks.
3:30 p.m. It seems we have one more outdoor activity in store before our next enormous feeding—and it's a pontoon boat ride! We snack and drink and feel the sun on our skin.
7:00 p.m. The best way to end a fine trip is with a fine meal. And so I wrapped up my OBX trip with dinner at Blue Point. More on that here.
9:00 a.m. I packed up, hissed at my early morning reflection in the mirror, brushed my teeth, grabbed from Duck Donuts from a box on the kitchen counter, and got the heck out of there. I was going to be in a play in Arlington, Virginia that evening and had not a minute to spare. Learning your lines while you're driving is never a relaxing experience. But that's okay because I just had one big, fat spoonful of relaxation—and it was delicious.
Thank you, OBX!