If you were to look at the photographs from any given year of our vacations at the Outer Banks, you would find some version of this photo:
Every year we rent chairs and umbrella from a local company. Every year, the chairs and umbrella look the same. I find comfort in this sameness, this constant in our trips. It is as dependable as the fact that, at some point in the trip, the skies will darken and the wind will churn up the surf, a signal of the rain to come, one child will get a sand rash from hurling their small bodies at the waves, the other will likely sunburn a body part that we swear we slathered with lotion, and that we will eat meals at the same much-loved restaurants, if they were lucky enough to survive another year.
I have this theory: vacation and travel are not the same thing, nor are they mutually exclusive. Travel is exploration and discovery. A vacation is a trip you take for the purpose of fun and relaxation. When you travel, you go off the beaten path, you explore, you immerse yourself in the culture, whereas a vacation is for entertainment, recreation and relaxation (however you find it).
If your trip involves waiting in line for an amusement park ride, involves anything with a trademarked character or you find an umbrella in your drink, it’s likely a vacation. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I highly recommend it, in fact.
Our annual trip to the Outer Banks is strictly recreational. There is very little exploration involved in our stays and I’m fine with that. We have established a comfortable routine, and we like it just fine, thank you very much.
We start the day with a coffee and a book on the deck. And, if someone was willing to get up early, a donut. One special treat at the beach is Duck Donuts, made to order. You can’t go wrong with a “bucket” of 18 to share with everyone at the house. I highly recommend the maple bacon, by the way.
This year, the hubs saved a paper travel cup from the first donut run, and after completing his initial trek to the beach to transport the aforementioned chairs and umbrella, he would sit in solitude and finish his cup of coffee. Soon after, we don our swimwear, slather ourselves in SPF 50, and set off for the beach.
We body surf, boogie board, and jump waves.
Lots of waves.
At some point, if you’ve thrown yourself through enough churned up water the morning after a storm has blown through, you will discover you are wearing a really attractive sand/salt/seaweed mustache and the start of a soul patch.
It’s not as disturbing on him as it is on me.
This will continue until tummies start rumbling. After an outdoor shower to rinse off sand, we’ll make sandwiches, eat fresh peaches and cool off in the air-conditioning. When the food feels properly digested, we head back, where some will resume wave jumping with zest, while Miss M will dig a hole or build a sand castle, either to be carefully adorned with sea shells collected with equal care. This year the kids were big enough that they could go in the surf with dad while I kept one eye on the kids, the other watching for sharks, and my nose in a book. It is a move that requires dexterity. Don’t try it if you’re not a mother.
Salty water and ocean breezes are a wonder for powering up a fierce appetite, however, and we will soon start to think about food. I’m going to let you in on a few of our favorites in the North OBX:
A long-standing favorite is Tortuga’s Lie in Nags Head. It is here some years ago that we convinced my nephew that the fish bites (that day: tuna) were chicken nuggets so he would try them. Twelve years later, we tried the same tack on our own kids. (It still works.) The catch of the day is always recommended – so is patience, as this quirky little restaurant is always busy – but worth it.
Another long-standing tradition has been date night. There are always a set of grandparents present at one point or another during the trip, and we make the most of the situation by taking ourselves out, childless, to The Blue Point in Duck. (While we have seen well-behaved children there, we haven’t bothered to ask there is a children’s menu because this is our child-free night, thank you very much.) They have a covered patio as well as a lawn scattered with Adirondack chairs and side tables from where you can sit with a cocktail and enjoy the sun setting over the Sound while you wait for your table.
Appetizer portions are generous, and the she-crab soup is a must have – but very rich, so we order the soup and one of their gorgeous salads and share them – not out of an exhibition of self-control, but so we can be sure to have room for dessert. I’m at the beach, so I always, always order fish or shellfish – anything they do with crab is lovely. I have no photos to represent because we dug in so quickly. (This is why I would fail as a food blogger.) We split a peach-blueberry cobbler that was topped with heavenly homemade lemon buttermilk ice cream. We did show some self-control and refrained from licking the bowl, but it was a struggle.
The Blue Point only opens up reservations 30 days in advance of your planned date, so be sure to mark your calendar so you don’t miss those first few days of open reservations. They do book up fast but it’s worth the extra effort.
If you think we don’t do a lot of cooking, you’d be right. Quite possibly my favorite at-home meal is steamed shrimp and North Carolina BBQ. There are a few places in Duck: we like Sooey’s BBQ, and you can pick up some at Duck Deli as well.
Before we head back to the beach in the afternoon we might call in an order for a couple of pounds of steamed shrimp. Kissed with bay seasoning before it is steamed, it is a messy, delicious bowl of yum. Be sure to have plenty of napkins on hand, as this is serious peel-and-eat business here.
Get in my belly!
We order the shrimp from Dockside in Duck, and pick up a container of their cocktail sauce and one of their delicious key lime pies while we’re there. It’s a great place to find freshly caught fish for grilling; they have a fun selection of seafood seasonings and marinades to try, too.
But, not to get too stuck in our ways, this year we decided to check out Kill Devils in Kill Devil Hills (obviously) and if you are in the area you should RUN there because the burgers are insane, marinated in some devilish concoction that makes you crave more forthwith. The Boy and Hubs tried the Carolina burger, which is topped with chili and coleslaw. I was skeptical of the combination but was quickly proved wrong. The freshly hand-cut fries were equally yummy. We won’t talk about the frozen custard that they make HOURLY lest I want some, and I can’t have any. Sniff
I have no photos because we were too busy devouring those burgers like prisoners at the end of a week-long hunger strike.
And that’s enough about food. I need to go for a walk to burn off the calories that attached to my tummy just thinking about all of it.
If we haven’t dallied too long at dinner, we try to top off the day with an early evening walk on the beach. This year instead of collecting yet more shells, Miss M grabbed a bucket and collected trash on our walks. The sun is setting, the little crabs are dashing frantically on the beach, and everyone agrees that it was a pretty wonderful day, sand rashes and sunburned ears forgiven.
Now, I’m pretty sure that somewhere in your beach rental agreement there is a clause requiring you to play miniature golf while at the beach. There are no shortage of “putt putt” golf places, so pick your fun. We had a pretty intense round this year, and Mimi didn’t win for a change, and the Boy got mad that he wasn’t winning.
One of the best aspects of our week at the beach is that time seems to slow to a loggerhead turtle crawl. This isn’t a vacation where the week disappears in a flash – at least, not until late Saturday afternoon, when I’m powering through packing up all the things and preparing for a fast early morning departure the next day.
On that final Sunday morning, with refrigerator emptied, car packed and doors locked, we take one last walk to the beach, recalling the closing lines in Pam Munoz Ryan’s picture book “Hello Ocean/Hola Mar“ which we read to the kids when they were small:
“…it’s time to go.
But I’ll be back to see your show,
hear the stories you have to spin, taste your flavors once again,
take deep sniffs of bring air, and feel the treasures you have to share.
Goodbye Ocean, my old best friend.”
We’ll definitely be back to see you again.