Posted by Stephanie Weyant
This month’s escape, in many ways, is a trip of firsts: the first trip with my beau and his children; the first trip with he and his friends; and the first trip to the Outer Banks along the Atlantic Ocean in North Carolina.
For anyone else, it might be intimidating.
But I was excited. I had listened to the laugh-out-loud stories, heard about unforgettable memories, and was captivated by the pictures. And I wanted to be a part of it. Our hosts – Tommy’s best friend since college and his lovely wife – could not have been more gracious. Their families could not have been more welcoming and inclusive, and I had an absolute ball getting to know all of them. We were surrounded by nature’s beauty and phenomena while staying in an expansive house, but it was the people who made this vacation unique and memorable.
Typically when I go somewhere, there’s a lot of planning involved. I do research and highlight “must dos” before the trip starts. After all, that’s half the fun of it: knowing what you’re looking forward to, and knowing a bit about it. But this trip was different. On this vacation, I’m taking a back seat – except when driving. I don’t quite know what to expect, but I trust it will be fun. It’s always fun.
In this edition, keep an eye out for a couple of recipes…one new and one old…that have quickly become traditions in our house. When you’re in a giant beach house for a week with a massive kitchen and no restaurants for miles, cooking becomes part of the vacation fun. Cheers!
My white-knuckled hands grip the steering wheel; my leg muscles lock, bracing for impact. On an uneven beach, I’m in the driver’s seat of my dear boyfriend’s Chevy Suburban and I fear I’m about to destroy it. It’s unavoidable: as I yell out, “I’m sorry!” – the vehicle takes air and flies over a ledge that I didn’t see coming until it was too late. Ba-BOOM! …Is the only way to describe the sound and feeling as we hit the ground that was about three feet lower than the ground we were just on. We’re still moving, thank God. “It’s okay,” he reassures me. But my leg muscles don’t believe him: they’re petrified and full of goosebumps. We arrive, amazingly, in one piece at the driveway a few minutes later. “I’m so sorry! By the time I saw it, I thought if I swerved, I’d flip the car!” He laughs and tells me again, “It’s okay. It happens.”
It’s anything but a lazy day at the beach.
Contrary to this moment, much of the week has been a hazy dream. Here I am, sharing a giant house with friends of friends who have made this an annual tradition for over a decade – and I’ve been wrapped into the fold. It’s a week of sleeping in, waking up to eggs and bacon – whoever was up would start cooking for everyone, strolling along our personal boardwalk from the deck to the beach, happy hours, and even a couple of naps. Miles from anywhere, it’s a casual throwback to the simpler days of summer.
It begins with a 4×4 ride in at sunset – on the unpaved beach, with windows open listening to Bob Marley as waves crash beside us onto the sand. As we approach the beach house, a band of wild horses pass us quietly, roaming along the dunes. It’s an unusual paradox of the Wild West and a breezy shore, two very different worlds that I’ve never seen combined.
We’ve been driving for 12 hours – through thunderstorms, an eerily close lightning strike, and even a wrong turn that led us through a tiny little town called Magnolia, Delaware where they have a penchant for yard sales. Population? Around 228. A brief stop at Dairy Queen – some things you just never outgrow – and a casual wander through Grandy Greenhouse and Farm Market let us make the final stretch just in time. If it had been any later, the darkness would have made finding the house all but impossible.
For Tommy and his children, it’s a reunion; for me, an introduction to 16 new faces. Given the long drives and late arrivals, the first night is quiet. Everyone retires early, except the teenagers whose new downstairs playground consists of a pool table, foosball, air hockey, movie theatre, swimming pool, hot tub, and stereo system. But it’s in the morning that the blending of families and space truly begins for the rest of us.
I wake up and immediately get dressed: wandering into the kitchen in my pajamas in front of people I don’t really know is new and too odd. I think the last time I was in that situation was in college. But as I sit on the beach, that feeling subsides, as I’m welcomed into the circle to chat with everyone.
That afternoon, I see the rhythm of the guests unfold. Each family takes a turn buying groceries for the house, cooking the daily dinner, and cleaning up the kitchen. All of the food from the first run is there for everyone, though it takes me a day to adjust and not feel like I’m eating someone else’s cereal. Tom reminds me that we’ll make our grocery run in a few days, and that it balances out. Such a funny thing though, this communal living. Growing up as an independent only child, this is a foreign concept to me, but one in which I’m falling into easily and thoroughly enjoy.
Our days are filled with leisurely cooking, drinking, and lying on the beach – mixing it up with the occasional swim in the ocean and kayaking along the waves. Happy hour is daily, just before sunset: chips, M&Ms, and margaritas in hand. Most everyone congregates in the beach chairs; kids join and sit on the coolers. People come and go; conversations span from college life to the meaning of life, and everything in between. There are no rules.
Evening entertainment varies by night; suggestions reflect everyone’s strengths and experience. One night it’s beer pong, courtesy of the college crew, and another night is a new release movie, thanks to our host’s tech-savvy brother. There’s even an elaborate (legal?) fireworks show to celebrate the week, compliments of Tommy’s buddy – a fireworks aficionado. Our differences in backgrounds, age, and connections of 22 people don’t clash, but gel nicely, and enhance the entire vacation.
One night in particular early on the trip, we hear of a spectacular meteor shower occurring right above us. That night, unfortunately, the weather won’t cooperate, and I’m suddenly reliving my quest to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. All of us cross our fingers hoping the heavy clouds will break up. They don’t. By one o’clock in the morning, everyone is asleep. Except the night owls, Tommy and me. But after an evening of pure darkness, Mother Nature rewards our patience: as our anticipation builds, she calmly, slowly blows her clouds away. The curtain is coming up on a universal stage, and the stars shine before us. From the deck outside, we look up and spot the Big Dipper, then Cassiopeia, and then the North Star.
Suddenly, beautifully, an entire heavenly world begins to twinkle. At two o’clock in the morning, we tiptoe down the boardwalk, grab two beach chairs from the gazebo, and unfold them right on the beach. We settle in to enjoy the show, with the roaring ocean waves playing as our soundtrack. With no lights for miles and just a sliver of a moon, we see star after star after star – shooting, falling, and burning out brightly with one final hurrah. Wishes are made. Kisses are stolen. It’s simply amazing. And humbling. There’s nothing quite like looking at a million stars thousands of light years away to feel so infinitesimal, here for a blink of a moment. Even better sharing it with someone you love.
Midweek, Tommy and I head out to take our turn to shop for groceries and plan our meals. It’s nice to mix it up and leave the house, and just enjoy each other’s company uninterrupted: a vacation within a vacation. We stop at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and shopping square, and tour the grounds. It’s a lovely little pocket of 100 years ago, with old whitewashed houses squaring off a small courtyard. The charming road surrounding us is made of pebbles, and deeply rooted trees bow gently over us. Looking up at the lighthouse, I admire its unique exterior: red bricks all the way up, unpainted. Admittedly, as much as I love climbing to the top of old, tall structures (no, seriously), the wait was an unexpected two hours (we’re miles from anywhere…where are these people coming from?!), and we still had groceries to get, followed by a long drive back before sunset. This was an experience we would have to skip. But in wandering the grounds, we find a gift shop in one of the old houses – complete with a porch and rocking chairs, and little lights flickering in the windows. Tommy finds a souvenir that I love, an ornament of the lighthouse to be remembered every Christmas. Knick-knacks collect dust, but this can serve a purpose every year. It’s perfect.
Across the way about 1,000 yards off is a series of white tents with jazz music emanating in every direction. It’s a weekly wine festival – a tasting of local vineyards for $20 a person. As we arrive, it’s wrapping up; get there early to savor the flavors. Adjacent to this bit of fun and across a little inlet bridge, the Whalehead Club stands boldly against the landscape: a 1920s home-turned-museum and reception venue that offers tours daily every half hour. Wander all through the house and get a taste of history in this isolated-by-choice part of the country. It’s unexpected.
Feeling the pull to get back, we get in the car and ride to the grocery store. Shopping for 22 is no quick or easy task! But two cartfuls later, we are off again. And I’m driving. Cue the scary moment on the beach when the car takes air: as if we need to concoct our own adventure…
For dinner, we’re inspired by his daughter’s discovery of Doritos tacos, and make it a Mexican night, complete with fajitas, chips and salsa, and regular crunchy and soft-shell tacos. It’s a hit! The Doritos tacos are an addiction; consider yourself warned. Take taco-seasoned, cooked ground hamburger, shredded cheddar cheese, chopped lettuce, tomato, and sour cream – and drop it all into a personal-sized bag of crunched and broken up Doritos. Mix it up with a fork and consume…and just try not to love it. You can’t. It’s a bag of awesomeness.
After dinner, the room scatters once more: some head downstairs to the theatre to watch a movie; some to the basement for a game of pool. Some just stay upstairs with a few drinks and a good conversation. You can do anything or nothing: the only rule here is to just have fun.
Day five and the worker bees need to log on and check e-mail. It’s a vacation for many, but BlackBerry jobs don’t go away. A half a dozen guests sit around the table with their laptops open, myself included. A bit of commotion makes me look up and realize they’re pointing out to the ocean. What do they see? As I walk to the window and look closer, I suddenly spot three dolphins frolicking in the water, swimming across the sea. I have never seen free dolphins before! It’s just another delightful surprise on this easy breezy vacation.
And cue the wild horses wandering by the window…
That afternoon, the sky mysteriously casts a shadow upon half of the beach. No Photoshopping here. Explainable by cloud coverage I’m sure, it’s more fun to think we’re an episode of the X-Files or Under the Dome. Whatever the reason, it’s the universe giving us Jazz Hands. We’re baffled.
On our last night, Tommy and I take over the kitchen once more to prepare Tommy’s famous* jambalaya. It’s one of his trademark recipes that I have not yet reveled in. The recipe for this cauldron of deliciousness is not as straight forward as the Doritos bags, but the recipe can be found here. Go there for the specifics; there’s a lot to getting this right and flavorful! The measurements there are just basic guidelines; feel free and be encouraged to add more or less of anything to suit your taste. Overall, you’ll need the following: a whole chicken, 1 pound each of sausage and shrimp, 2 cups of rice, red and green bell peppers, 2½ onions, 3 garlic cloves, 2 large peeled tomatoes, 1½ cups celery, hot sauce, vegetable oil, and lots of spices (like basil, thyme, oregano, salt, and allspice). The final product is hearty, mouth-watering comfort food with a kick. It’s worth the effort, trust me!
That final night, we toast the wind down of a fabulous week with a fantastic fireworks display, an unexpected treat given the amateurs we all are. Tommy and his boys orchestrate the lighting of the explosives…and I highly advise to anyone reading – not to do this – ever. Just saying. But they pull it off with ease, and give our hosts, fellow guests, his daughter, and me quite the show. Amidst the excitement, with a deep breath, I inhale the salty sea air and say good-bye to a weeklong chapter away. As red, white, and blue bursts over us; bright sparkles of purple cascade down to the sand; and a recurring Boom rocks the earth every moment right before the next burst of light, I realize that it’s a fitting way to cap off a vibrant and successful holiday.
Looking back over the last week, I feel a sense of passing another milestone; this integration further into my beau’s life and family has brought us all that much closer. I love how I’ve met more friends and made more memories. And what better backdrop than the Outer Banks. Dolphins, wild horses, meteor showers…it sounds like a science fiction romance novel. Except way better. There were a lot of unexpected surprises on this isolated piece of earth, and I was lucky enough to see them. For both the people and the landscape, I’d love to do it all over again. What will I see next year? Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to the reunion.
* As seen on Martha Stewart!
The majority of the rental homes along the beaches here are managed by a company called Twiddy (www.twiddy.com). If you have some flexibility, call one to three weeks before you want to go to increase your chances of snagging a deal for an unreserved beach house. Most people plan this kind of trip further in advance, so at this late stage, the staff at Twiddy may offer a discount, knowing they may be less likely to rent the home. If you need to plan, do your research to find the best home for your needs: they range in size and price from 3-bedroom, off-the-beach properties for $600 a week in the offseason to 23-bedroom, beachfront homes that can set you back $27,000 for a prime summer week!
When accessing these homes, you must be driving a 4×4 truck or SUV. Cars are not allowed on the beach, and for good reason: they simply get stuck. The sand is soft and tire tracks tread deep, so a car’s low undercarriage and suspension will not clear it. Right before you reach the beach, take some air out of the tires: air pressure of 25-35 is a good range to be, depending on where the pressure is to start. This helps with traction and absorbs the inevitable bumps better, too. Be wary of the puddles: remember, these puddles are Atlantic Ocean saltwater, and can do major long-term damage to your paint, body, and engine. If you find yourself on the same tire tracks of an oncoming car, try to go to the right if you can and indicate that by using your right turn signal. If you’re having trouble getting over, usually the oncoming car realizes this and will yield. Take some comfort knowing that the majority of drivers on the beach have been here before and know the etiquette. Try to maintain a speed of 20-30 mph: any slower and you may get stuck; any faster and you’re liable to lose control on the sand. Avoid driving the beach at night; it’s not lit and finding your home and turnoff from the road when it’s dark is incredibly difficult. Checking the mile marker and keeping track of your mileage once you hit the beach is a helpful gauge.
Whatever you do, be sure to remain absolutely alert: given that none of the beach is paved, there may be other vehicles on either side of you or directly in your path. When drivers park on the beach, they park in the middle. There will likely be people and pets walking across or nearby at any point. The puddles should be avoided. There are mini-dunes: hills that you should try to dodge lest you take air (knowing from experience…sorry, Tommy). And there are bands of wild horses roaming the beach as well. Given its isolation, all of these things will not occur at once nor should they be overwhelming. Anyone can do it – after all, I did it – but you just need to be aware.
The area where we stayed is known as the 4×4 area, but there are plenty of towns in the Outer Banks that have paved roads and driveways with easy access to the beaches, regardless of what vehicle you’re driving. Several towns from Corolla and Duck down to Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, and beyond offer accommodations to fit everyone’s circumstances and driving situation.
If you’re coming from the Northeast, a lesser-known tip is to avoid I-95. Though I’m not sure why, GPS systems typically send you down this route, which leads you through Washington, D.C. Going this way will add two hours to your trip, and the distance is longer by about 70 miles. Instead, take Route 13, which should show up as an alternative option on Google Maps. If you do a Google Maps search and your destination does not come up which happened to us, find the closest town, input that, and use a Twiddy map supplement to get you the rest of the way. Observing the mile markers on the beach helps, too.
Enjoy the ride. Take your time. It should all be part of the vacation. Crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel, a 20-mile ride across the bay in Virginia, is a mini-side trip in itself. Stop at the halfway point and visit the gift shop and restaurant, and admire the views off the pier. Drive down the Delmarva Peninsula, named for the three states it passes through: Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia; and savor the laid-back, rural vibe as you breathe in the fresh country air along the highway. At times, it will be slow paced; stoplights sprinkle the highways, and roadside fireworks tempt you from your route. Markets and fruit stands lure you with dozens of signs and the freshest peaches you ever could smell.
Bring supplies from home: it will be far cheaper than if you wait to hit the closest grocery store (which is still a good 30 minutes away from your destination!). Check your cabinets for spices and cooking oil. Stock up on food of course, but don’t forget toilet paper, paper towels, napkins, some Windex or all-purpose cleaner to keep tables clean, dishwasher detergent, and dish soap. Dishes, utensils, pots/pans, potholders, and bath towels should all be provided at the house.
Bring first-aid supplies with you as well. Band-aids, antiseptic, aloe, antihistamines, allergy medicine, and Advil are all good ideas. One day, one of the younger girls came out of the water having been bitten by sea lice, leaving the backs of her legs with huge uncomfortable welts, poor thing! Her mother gave her Benadryl and a Zyrtec right away and it was completely gone by sunset. Just having these things handy can make or break a trip when the ‘bad unexpected’ occurs. As always, don’t forget sunscreen and bug spray, too!
Bring entertainment: movies – we watched a few in the multi-level movie theatre room, games and cards for a rainy day – there were a few battles of poker and backgammon, kites, kayaks – I know, not everyone may have these; Kan Jam – pretty fun and fits in the car better than a kayak; and books and magazines to read. I brought my laptop to write and a camcorder to capture the fun…I recommend those as well. You’ve got a vehicle, so take advantage of it. This is a trip to just check out and chill out: whatever helps you do that, bring it!
Break up the monotony of being in a house for seven days, and head into town. Visit the Currituck Lighthouse (www.currituckbeachlight.com). If you can, try to get there early when they open at 10:00am to minimize your wait time. And when you get to the top, if there are other people waiting in line below, just be aware that they’re waiting specifically for you. I’m normally all about taking my time and enjoying the moment, but be courteous of others – breathe it all in, snap a few photos of the view, and head back down. It’s rude to stay up there for more than a few minutes and really is not necessary! If you have a chance, wander over to the Whalehead Club where daily museum tours are $10 for adults and $5 for children up to 18: the home offers a glimpse into the early days of Outer Banks visits for the wealthy, namely the Knight family who owned the property (www.visitwhalehead.com). Odds are, when you cross the little wooden bridge across the Currituck Sound, there will be a summer wine tasting: $20 per person gives you an afternoon of several different wines and local music.
If you get up really early, spend a day and head further south to Kitty Hawk. It’s near Kitty Hawk in the Kill Devil Hills area where the steady breezes drew the Wright brothers, and where the dream of mechanized flight was first realized. Stand where they took off, pay your respects to the Memorial, and visit the museum. There’s also the Fort Raleigh National Historical Site just a few miles further south, which is where you’ll find the first New World settlement established by England. These excursions are definitely on the list for our next trip!
Lastly, and most importantly, always be a good guest and housemate. If you’re going with several families, be aware of communal spaces. Clean up after yourself…no one else wants to. Take the initiative and run the dishwasher, and everyone will thank you when it’s dinnertime. Go the extra mile and everyone benefits; cut corners and no one does. This is the sort of trip that depends upon you and what you make of it. And course, you want to be invited back!
On that note, I’ll leave you with a peek at what I looked out at everyday: The Atlantic Ocean