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Travel: A kinder gentler beach

Our basecamp on Oak Island

The whole North Carolina June vacation started at the University City Arts League auction. Someone had donated a week at a nice beach house for bidding. My arm kept popping up to raise my bid until I exhausted my competition. Yesss.

We did not know what I had bid on or where it was, really. After a bit of research into Oak Island, which is in the Cape Fear area north of Myrtle Beach, we decided to drive (a big thank you here to Michael Connelly’s The Fifth Witness, on audio, which engrossed us down and back).

On the way south, we rediscovered that sad American landscape of fast food and cheap motels. In Emporia, VA, a town of 600 that appears to exist only as a stopping point for I-95 drivers, we tried and then untried a Days Inn. We took a room, took a sniff of cats, and took a hike–straight over to the brand new Sleep Inn. “No smoking no pets,” we breathed. The patient desk clerk, swamped by ringing phones and a line of travellers, finally came up for air to put us on to Wilson’sBBQ and Grill, where the bar was full-up with locals drinking and talking. Women’s softball played on the tv and pig jokes decorated the wall. The only woman at the bar announced she wasn’t a regular and was there this day because she had her reasons! Broken heart? Last dime? We’ll never know.

Wilson’s BBQ is away from the Emporia, VA, strip of motels and fast food establishments

On entering Wilson’s, the first words we heard were, What kind of beer do you want? We hadn’t even sat down yet. The chatty regulars and the tender barbecue–pulled pork and brisket–and our dynamo waitress turned dinner into a small-town experience worth having. Vegetables? Standard (but excellent) barbecue fare–beans, sweet potato fries, and coleslaw–was tempered by a fresh salad garnished with cheese and freshly cooked bacon.

Brown pelican natures pics
When they float in the ocean, you can tell the brown pelicans are enormous birds. Photo by Alan D. Wilson, via

The next day, Google was both our enemy and our friend–we got lost, thanks to Google’s insane directions–the kind that tell you every temporary confluence of routes and sorta-not-quite off-ramps–when all you need to know is which route you are following. TMI. We stopped at a corner store on an otherwise deserted road. Oak Island? So many islands, not sure how to get to that one. The island real estate company also hadn’t a clue. Then I remembered the GPS on the cell phone. As it’s last heroic act before the cell phone croaked and went to cell-phone heaven, it took us where we were going. We still are unsure where we were at that dark moment.

604px Piranga olivacea1

The small-town quality of this barrier island–no honky-tonk attractions, no movie theater, less development than NJ, and no bookstore that I could find–had other charms. Compared to NJ, the waves are a little gentler. the water a little warmer. Brown pelicans skim the waves, never quite touching, and fly overhead in formation. I was struck speechless by a couple of scarlet tanagers on our deck. Beachfront meant barefoot, house to sand. I knew I had found Grover’s Corners when the local druggist took a prescription for me late in the day and offered to wait for me past closing time. That’s Thomas Drugs, in case you are looking to take a time machine back to a gentler era.

Worms & Coffee, on the road from Oak Island to Calabash, where there’s good eatin’

The seafood we ate down there was fabulous. Our bests: The Seafood Hut in Calabash, a mainland town chock-a-block with restaurants; and Turtle Island on Oak Island, a bar and seafood restaurant that serves as a local hangout, with Wednesday night boiled shrimp worth writing home about. Both were reasonably priced.

IOn Roanoke Island on the way home. This ship interprets one of the seven English merchant vessels from the Roanoke Voyage of 1585. The original had 50 men on board!!!

We slept through the storm that killed power other places. The bad heat finally came to Oak Island a day later than on the mainland, so we beat a swift retreat, turned on our book on tape, and reversed our direction. We skipped up the coast, from causeway to causeway (they terrify me–oh, why did I think a trip up the coast was a good idea?), and didn’t meet up to I-95 until Wilmington, DE. Next day we finished our audio book as we drove the Schuylkill to the supermarket. Too much plot at the end to be believable; but the legal machinations and pacing were worth the ride. The shore still being the shore, next year, it’s back to New Jersey and music on the road.