"Let us not be ashamed to speak what we shame not to think."
-Michel de Montaigne

Sunday, September 19, 2010

La Literati Travels: Ocean Isle Beach, NC

I'm an expert in beach-bummery. If they conferred degrees in sun worship and wave riding, I'd have a PhD as distinguishable as my tan lines.

I've been to beaches all over the world. I've been to iconic Waikiki; sat against leaning palms pushing up from black sand on the Big Island. I've lounged on sugar white sand stretches in Jamaica and Mexico's Mayan Riviera. I've exhausted the spring break options on the Florida Panhandle (aka the Redneck Riviera). I've been to your standard skeezy beach complete with boardwalk and burnouts; I've watched the Pacific smash up on the cold and rocky coast off of California's Hwy 1.

And yet, of all the places I've kicked my flip flops, this little eight mile stretch called Ocean Isle, one hour north of tourist strangled Myrtle Beach, is my absolute favorite.

Top Reasons why OIB is OMG, y'all:

1) It's truly a family beach: If you're looking for coeds with poor judgment and the combination of white t-shirts + water + tequila, you WON'T find it here. You are more likely to find an arcade or ice cream parlor than a bar (there is a strange abundance of homemade ice cream parlors here; think of a ratio of 1 creamery to every 50 people). However, there is a large and well-stocked ABC Store immediately on the left after crossing the bridge to the island--so don't despair if, like me, you still like to toss back a frosty beverage after the kiddies are on the snooze.

2) It's relatively unknown: Let me preface by saying, that in the high season of travel (late May through August) the island is swarming with teenagers on rented bikes and families trolling around on golf carts. But because of it's relatively difficult-to-reach-quality, it still remains a largely underexposed jewel in the Grand Strand area of tourist destinations (ASIDE: our GPS was on the verge of a nervous break down trying to negotiate the backwoods of South Carolina before we finally reached OIB, just beyond the border). If you want to experience the best of OIB travel, go during the off-peak season in September when the weather in North Carolina is gorgeous and the beaches empty.

3) It manages to remain tourist-friendly without being tourist-tacky: Sure there are the obligatory beach souvenir, putt-putt, and pizza joints, but they manage to blend into the scenery, not overwhelm it with a cartoon grotesqueness or suburban banality. They've managed to balance tourist ADHD without the strip-mall experience. There are no major national chain restaurants or stores on the actual island; the closest fast food joint is one Subway over the bridge, and a few selections in the next town 8 miles over, Shallotte. Some people may take that as a negative, but my personal philosophy is: why vacation if all you do is carry the same generic experiences into a new backdrop? Spice it up. Go local.

4) It captures the memory with its distinct look: Have you ever watched the movie The Truman Show? Something about the island's aesthetic reminds me a lot of that movie set: it feels and looks intentional, together, charming without being contrived or bland. The West and East sides of the island have distinctly different looks and feels (the West being more populated by locals and thus more "cottagey" and relaxed, and the East dominated by large multi-family beach house rentals, a resort, and upscale oceanfront stunners. Incidentally, my family and I are "East-eggers." OIB manages to marry the beauty of its dunes and Atlantic views with equally pleasing and unobtrusive edifices.

5) OIB maintains a genuine spirit of relaxation: Even though this place is so stunning, and clearly the inhabitants have SERIOUS cash, it does not have the sort of high-life pretentiousness that comes with a Palm Beach or Martha's Vineyard crowd. The standard uniform here is whatever you choose to wear, no Polo ponies or Coach bags, or Chanel sunglasses required. Take it from a Hawaiian, this place is refreshingly laid-back for the East coast, which tends to take itself WAY too seriously.

My family has vacationed here every year for the last 3, and it's a tradition that we plan on continuing. If you're looking for an alternative to exhausted beach destinations on the East coast, give OIB a try. You'll find Spanish moss, swaying sea oats, translucent crabs, pink sunsets, obliging locals--and me, sketching in the sand, digging up mussels, or diving into 5-8 foot swells like a teenager (but only in the off-season, I don't do crowds).

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