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Weekending With The Kids: the sanderling, duck, north carolina
The Outer Banks is a 200-mile-long stretch of narrow barrier islands that hug the coast of North Carolina. Pristine beaches make this a popular tourist destination in the summer but with all that action come long lines at restaurants and traffic jams on the area’s two-lane roads. Low season makes for a quieter visit and temperatures can be surprisingly mild.
Longing for beach time, we make our way to The Sanderling over Thanksgiving weekend. A sprawling yet casual resort, the property is nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound in the tiny town of Duck, at the northern end of the Outer Banks. The Sanderling boasts a spa, tennis, two restaurants, three bars and a daily list of things to do. Our first order of business is checking out our room, an oceanfront king with sleeper sofa and balcony. Shades of cream and celadon make for a soothing retreat while a collection of conch shells lord over the bed and reinforce a sense of place. Plentiful lamps cast a warm glow. Outside, soft wood planks support our deck and two companion benches that look onto protective sand dunes and the lapping waves beyond.
Fen and I plop onto the bed and geek out on dueling laptops while our son, Steven, sprawls on the chocolate-brown sofa and devours book three of the “Percy Jackson” series. We repair to The Sanderling’s Great Room in the late afternoon for tea and cookies and play eeny-meeny-miney-moe with plump couches and sink-into-me wing chairs. Again, the palette calls to the sea and we alternately choose ocean view seating or, as sunset approaches, a view toward Currituck Sound. Countless buttery cookies melt in our mouths while our tea becomes an afterthought.
As if we weren’t relaxed enough, we make our way to one of several hot tubs snug between the various buildings and quickly warm up on this cool November evening. After toweling off, we bundle up and head straight for the beach. It’s low tide and the lights on our property, as well as nearby houses, shine a path on the soft sand. Echoes of shorebirds dance among the waves as we give thanks for this magical place.
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The lighthouses that dot North Carolina’s coast are legendary, and for good reason: the many shipwrecks that have occurred here over the years have led to the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” and these lights were often the only friend a sailor had. A dozen lighthouses still stand on the Outer Banks, among them the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in the hamlet of Corolla. Over a million bricks were used in building the 158-foot-tall structure, first illuminated in 1885. It still shines nightly, though we pay a visit during the day to climb its 214 smooth iron steps. From the top, we spy a bright blue sea as foil to whitewashed homes and businesses. The Bodie Island Lighthouse, Currituck’s (striped) twin, is due south and set to reopen in 2012.
Making the beaches of Corolla even more hospitable are nearly 150 sweet-natured wild horses, believed to be descendants of Spanish mustangs brought to these shores in the 1500s. We join Bob’s Corolla Wild Horse Tours in order to get a better view, and our two-hour open-air ride on a beach that’s an erstwhile highway does not disappoint (“The water’s edge and dune line are considered a highway,” reads an official blue sign). Our tour guide, Davis, is filled with the kind of stories that only a local could possess and he drives like a local, too, zigging and zagging across windswept dunes and prompting Steven to cackle with glee. Although dolphins are known to frequent these waters, we don’t spot any but do see at least half a dozen horses grazing gently on sea oats as they eye their visitors. The beach-side mansions populating a once-barren landscape mean these horses may not stick around for long despite the efforts of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. In a word (or two), tour now.
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Orville and Wilbur Wright were part-time residents of the Outer Banks who sought this windswept landscape for their flying machines after hearing that the sand was soft (the better for landing), the slopes free of trees and shrubs (the better for gliding) and that wind velocity was, on average, 10-20 m.p.h. (the better for flying). We learn this and much more at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, a seaside outpost south of Duck. A Visitors Center in the main building is filled with informational displays on the Wright brothers’ journey and I’m startled by the fact that these two bicycle mechanics spent a mere thousand dollars on their years-long quest. The Wrights’ first powered flight took place on December 17, 1903 and large granite boulders mark the spot where four successful flights took place. Surprisingly, Steven decides to run the three-football-field length of flight #4 and I happily sprint along. After an informative ranger talk and show-and-tell with a full-sized replica of the 1903 flying machine, we climb nearby Big Kill Devil Hill and enjoy a panoramic view. I hold my boy close and hope his future holds the sense of adventure Orville and Wilbur possessed.
Farther south in Nags Head is Sugar Shack Seafood, not to be confused with the fancier Sugar Creek Restaurant next door. A bright blue exterior and lemony yellow interior are unassuming yet it’s real-deal seafood at unbeatable prices that confirms the Sugar as a true seafood shack. Plump sea scallops and fresh flounder are napped in a peppery batter then fried and the result is coastal living. Homemade chips are equally appealing and it’s all I can do to keep Steven from stealing everything off my plate.
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The Lifesaving Station Restaurant is the more casual table at The Sanderling and a haven for those in search of expertly-prepared food. Originally one of a number of lifesaving stations that served to rescue shipwrecked sailors up and down the coast, the restaurant is imbued with a nautical hue. Oars, buoys and lanterns play against glossy oak walls and a cathedral ceiling. The menu features local, sustainable dishes that reflect the bounty of the region.
Our growing ten-year-old son has left children’s menus behind and delights in ordering off the regular menu at fine restaurants. On this night, he chooses braised beef short ribs with creamy Anson Mills polenta and baby root vegetables. It’s right up his alley and while he loves the dish, he falls in love with my grilled Jamesville (North Carolina) pork chops smothered in heirloom apple sauce and served alongside Hoppin’ John, a southern rice-and-beans dish that’s speckled with black-eyed peas. I opt to substitute collard greens for the suggested Brussels sprouts and my syrupy-sweet greens are the hit of the table. On our second night at the restaurant, Steven orders the pork chops for himself and still manages to fall in love with my seared sea scallops, every shimmery orb resting atop a sweet corn succotash that straddles a cauliflower puree.
“I think I’ve had scallops twice today,” says Steven as he breaks into a broad grin. “That’s a pretty good day.”
Our night gets even better post-meal as we head for the beach. The darkened sky is illuminated by more stars than we’ve ever seen and we spot the Milky Way, a pipe dream in our urban existence. We leave our shoes on a nearby dune and wiggle our toes in the sand, thankful once again to be at the sea.
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I wake my men ten minutes before sunrise on our last day at The Sanderling.
“Come on!” I implore. “We need to get up now or we’ll miss the sunrise!”
Father and son mumble. Finally, Steven sits up.
“Mom, I have a haiku for you,” he begins. “Mommy wants to walk/along the beach for fun times/Steve Labalme does not.”
“Okay, here’s my version,” says Fen. “Mommy wants to walk/along the beach for fun times/Daddy wants to sleep.”
“Oh yeah?” I chime in. “Well, how about this? Mommy wants to walk/along the beach for fun times/Dad listens to Mom.”
We proceed to take an hour-long walk on the beach, lining our pockets with seashells that will find a place of honor back home. A stellar room-service breakfast awaits on our return and we enjoy it on our balcony as we take in sun, sand, sea.
“See, that early wake-up call wasn’t so bad after all, was it?” I ask my men. Thankfully, they nod in agreement.
The Sanderling, 1461 Duck Road, Duck, NC (252) 261-4111; thesanderling.com Doubles from $129 and oceanfront king from $375 during low season. The Lifesaving Station Restaurant is the resort’s casual table while The Left Bank is suggested for diners over the age of fourteen. Spa treatments incorporate ingredients indigenous to the Outer Banks. The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is off Highway 12 in Corolla and visitors may climb to the top for a nominal fee; currituckbeachlight.com Bob’s Corolla Wild Horse Tours offers guided two-hour tours in open-air vehicles; corollawildhorsetours.com The Wright Brothers National Memorial is operated by the National Park Service and open daily except for Christmas Day; nps.gov/wrbr Sugar Shack Seafood is open for eat-in and take-out seven days a week; sugarcreekseafood.com
Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA . When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and ten-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.