The first thing I learned about the Outer Banks is that you don't drive there at night. You especially don't drive there at night during a torrential downpour. The reasons should have been obvious: N.C. 64, for the last hundred miles or so until you hit Manteo, is a desolate two-lane road in the middle of nowhere—no lights, no shoulder, just two lanes and a prayer that you make it to civilization safely.
We—me, my wife, Adri, and our two dogs, Belle and Sebastian—were driving from Durham to Duck, where we would encamp for the night in the top floor of a bucolic beach house three hundred feet from the ocean. We'd chosen Duck as our landing spot because of our dogs; specifically, it's the only town in the Outer Banks that allows your pups to run the beach leash-less year-round, and our dogs, born and raised on Florida beaches, very much like to run leash-less in the sand and surf.
The storm put us several hours behind schedule—for a good two hours, I was driving maybe 25 mph, trying not to die—and it was nearly midnight before we found our rental, a nice, comfortable place I'd nabbed on Airbnb, where we could slip in and out without having to bother (or even see) the homeowner, who lived below our guest space. It was affordable ($164 for a Friday night) because it was out of season. Try to rent a place like it between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and you'll pay upward of $250–300 a night. We had much more space than we needed—a giant living room with a pullout sofa and two bedrooms, one of which had a bunk bed and a twin, perfect for the kids we don't have—enough to bring a crew with us if we chose. We promptly crashed.
Come morning, we hit the beach. But first, we went in search of nourishment: Duck Donuts, of course, because when in Rome, but also a little breakfast joint we'd spotted down the road near Kitty Hawk called Stack 'Em High Pancakes. The former—a nascent chain that has spread throughout the state, including to Durham—makes donuts to order, meaning you decide what you want, the order goes in, you walk to the other side of the wooden, inlet-fronting pavilion, watch your donuts being made, then get your piping-hot box. They were delicious.
The same cannot be said for Stack 'Em High, where we stood in line for twenty minutes waiting to order and, twenty minutes after that, left behind barely touched plates of omelets and pancakes.
The second thing I learned about the Outer Banks is that Duck doesn't really want you on its beaches.
Or at least, the town doesn't make it easy for tourists. There's plenty of beach access, but there's nowhere to legally park—unless, of course, you're renting a house. So I frantically texted our host, asking if we could leave our car at his place even though we were supposed to be out by mid-morning. He graciously agreed.
The next three or four hours—I dozed off and lost track of time—saw us lounging on the beach, which we had almost to ourselves, while our dogs first frolicked and then collapsed in an exhausted heap beside us. It was, in a word, resplendent: clear water, clear skies, a breeze whipping off the ocean, the sandy dunes and the beachfront homes overlooking them behind us.
That afternoon, we slowly made our way down mostly two-lane Highway 12 for about seventy miles toward Buxton, near Hatteras on the southern end of OBX, where we would stay the night. It took a couple of hours to get near where we were going; the highway does not lend itself to speed.
- Photo courtesy of the N.C. Division of Tourism, Film, and Sports Development
- The Outer Banks
But the views, especially as you inch toward Hatteras, are spectacular: a calm sound to your right, guarded by shrubs that lead to narrow pockets of sand. On a windy day, you'll see parasailers and kite-surfers. On the other side, sometimes shielded from view by massive dunes that reach into the sky, is the ocean, breakers white-capping a few yards off-shore (much to the chagrin of surfers).
We stopped for lunch about twenty minutes' shy of Buxton, mainly to kill time before our check-in with our second Airbnb host but also to get a beer, because by this point I'd spent eighteen hours of my weekend vacation sober as a preacher, and that needed rectification.
Problem: with the mid-afternoon sun beating down above us, it was no longer cool enough to safely leave our dogs in the car while we ate. Which meant we had to find a dog-friendly spot, and that proved difficult.
One after another, the restaurants we passed informed us that, while they have outdoor seating, they nonetheless did not allow dogs. Finally, we happened upon a little storefront called Burger Burger, which had a small deck out front and enthusiastically welcomed our canines.
It hit all the right spots: the service was friendly, my local-fish sandwich was scrumptious, my wife's burger satisfied her picky taste buds, the dogs got lots of French fry scraps, and there was an ample selection of Carolina beer. (I got a Hoppyum.)
A half-hour later, we found our home for the night, a log cabin set against a woodsy backdrop about a half-mile from the ocean, down a long, winding dirt road. The house was beautiful but also a little eerie. (For a room downstairs we paid a little over $200.) Here we wouldn't have the whole space to ourselves but would instead share with the homeowner, a Texan named Dan who had coasters portraying Johnny Cash's and Jim Morrison's mug shots but also had salsa constantly playing in the background.
We set out for the beach, which was within eyeshot of the famed lighthouse. Per the local rules, the dogs were leashed. We went on a forty-five-minute walk through the deep sand, sinking to our ankles with each step. Then we stopped, lay fully clothed on our backs, and closed our eyes, letting the breeze and the sun and the salty waves from the incoming tide tickling our feet wash away the week's stress.
Appropriately sunburned and requisitely exhausted, we drove back to our cabin in the (sorta) woods, grabbing a twelve-pack of the only craft beer the nearby convenience store offered. We sat outside on Dan's screened-in, second-story deck, sipped our beer, and listened to the world around us. (There was a noise that sounded a whole lot like some creatures getting it on, though we never pinpointed what creatures they were or what exactly they were doing.)
Here again we rammed into what proved to be the vexing question of our trip: Where could we take the dogs for dinner? Dan recommended a sports bar nearby called the Lighthouse Bar, which had a small deck out front. We sipped our beers but decided that, given the dark clouds gathering overhead, it might not be in our best interest to stick around for food. We instead grabbed a pizza to-go at a place called Angelo's, and went back to our abode, and called it a night. (The pie was ... fine.)
On Sunday morning, we drove to the southern tip of Hatteras, where you can catch a ferry that takes you to the wild horses of Ocracoke. We did not do that. Instead, we parked and walked to a gorgeous deserted beach that curves from ocean to sound, the shore break rolling in, backed by a stiff easterly wind, barely a soul in sight. We let the dogs run loose again—we weren't supposed to; this was a leashes-only beach—but only for a second, until we heard the rumble of a four-wheel-drive truck heading around the corner. It was not, it turns out, any sort of beach patrol, but rather a beach that is open to trucks. Trucks and dogs don't mix, and, in any event, the heady wind was too sharp in the coolness of the young morning, so we were off, back up Highway 12.
As we made our way north, we came upon probably the weekend's best discovery, a narrow-looking structure with a steep set of stairs leading to the front door: "Scratchmade Snackery," the sign said. There we found a cornucopia of carb-heavy delights—golden brown, perfectly baked loaves of various breads, scones, cinnamon buns, cupcakes, muffins, a wonderful key lime concoction. Best of all, because it was Sunday morning, our entire haul was half off. We grabbed two loaves—one cheese-infused, the other infused with basically everything—and a bunch of other stuff for the road.
An hour later, thoroughly stuffed, we arrived back at Kitty Hawk, where—thanks to it being a windy Sunday in April rather that a hot Saturday in July—we easily scored parking about a hundred feet from the beach. Here again, we could let the dogs loose, but only because we were out of season: Kitty Hawk enforces a daytime leash law from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend.
Kitty Hawk's beach is narrow, maybe fifteen yards from the high-water line to the four-foot dunes that separate the public space from the rental beach houses behind them. (Sebastian, our little King Charles spaniel, tried and hilariously failed to scale one of these things.) They were also deserted, not another human being in eyeshot in either direction. Were the ferociously sharp early-afternoon wind not whipping sand into our faces and knocking over our beach chairs, we might have claimed this little slice of Eden for our own. Instead, after about twenty minutes, we'd had enough.
We made one last pit stop: Outer Banks Brewing Station, where I had a wonderful crab bisque and a high-ABV doppelbock followed by a forgettable session pale ale. The dogs were confined to the car, windows cracked. (This is something we don't usually do, but we parked under a shady tree and it was only sixty degrees.) This is unfortunate, as the brewpub has an amazing outdoor space that would be ideal for canine companionship. But alas, they don't allow it. The manager couldn't offer much more of an explanation than "the owner said so."
And so we piled back in the car and headed home. This time, the four-hour drive, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, along the same vacant two-lane roads that had terrified me less than forty-eight hours earlier, with windows down and radio up, was anything but harrowing. Actually, it was almost sublime.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Beach Dogs"