Tuesday, September 2, 2014

An unforgettable vacation on the Crystal Coast

Tomorrow, my kids return to school. But they had quite the education last week—not to mention the time of their lives—when we traveled to The Crystal Coast, North Carolina’s Southern Outer Banks. I think the learning they glean through visiting new places is every bit as important as the kind they get in school. The trip was also a spectacular back-to-nature experience for us all.

We rented an oceanfront house from Emerald Island Realty. The isle is named after the area’s lush greenery, a gorgeous complement to the scintillating blue of the ocean. Ocean Watch West is a nicely kept five-bedroom duplex, with a jacuzzi in the master bedroom that both kids took over and occasionally let us use. Max especially enjoyed sitting on the deck in a rocking chair and looking out at the water. The house is literally steps from the beach; we just cruised down a short wooden walkway and stairs and…sand! We didn’t even need sandals.

Typically, there were barely any other people nearby on the beach, one reason the kids started referring to it as “our beach.” Crystal Coast’s beaches are spectacular, with sparkling, clear blue water and clean, fine sand. Every single photo I took looked like a picture postcard. The islands, 85 miles of coastline, are one of the only remaining natural barrier island systems in the world.

The kids’ favorite activity: anything involving water and sand. Sabrina practiced gymnastics and tried to skimboard. Max conducted floating experiments with a boogie board. They dug endless sand castles, cruised at dawn and dusk for shells and jumped over and into countless waves.

As hard as it was to tear ourselves away from the beach, there’s a whole lot to explore on the Crystal Coast. You can fish, go on dives (the Crystal Coast has more than 2000 sunken ships), canoeing, kayaking and sailing. Because Max is in the midst of a firefighter obsession we also dropped by some local fire stations, where he made some new friends. 

One day we headed to the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, a place filled with thousands of aquatic wonders including a rare white sea turtle named Nimbus, river otters, seahorses (my fave), moon jellies (Sabrina’s fave), assorted snakes (nobody’s fave) and a 306,000 gallon tank with sand tiger sharks and gigantic green moray eels. There’s a hands-on area for touching stingrays, horseshoe crabs and starfish, plus talks throughout the day by staffers. Visitors can gaze through a telescope on viewing platforms to check out egrets and herons on the marsh. A treat: the Dinosaur Adventure exhibit, open till November 1, with large-scale replications of 11 creatures (Max’s fave). He insisted on including them in family photos.

Another activity that delighted both kids and adults: a double decker bus tour through charming Beaufort, North Carolina’s third oldest town (recently named America’s Coolest Small Town by Budget Travel). Originally a fishing village that dates back to the late 1600s, it’s filled with beautiful old buildings. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many houses with historical plaques in one place, 150 of them restored to their original glory. 

We spotted a couple of wild ponies across the harbor on the reserve named after environmentalist Rachel Carson, and spent a couple of hours at the Beaufort North Carolina Maritime Museum. In 1718, Blackbeard’s flagship , the Queen Anne’s Revenge, ran aground in the local inlet. It lay buried until the shipwreck was discovered in 1996, and the museum holds its treasures and artifacts. We also learned about the fishing industry, various boats and the U.S. Life Saving Service (today’s Coast Guard), and gawked at a gigantic sperm whale skeleton hanging in the exhibit hall. The kids enjoyed the scavenger hunt, where they had to find various items around the museum.

My kids haven’t yet started studying the Civil War in school, but they got an indoctrination at Fort Macon State Park, home to a Civil War fort. Built to defend the harbor against sea attacks, it was seized by Confederates in 1861, and stayed active through the Second World War. Visitors can fish, hike, swim on the shore and picnic. We wandered throughout the fort’s vaulted rooms, with replicas of a mess hall, a storage room and a keg powder room (the most important room in the fort; soldiers were not allowed to walk with shoes on, for fear of setting off a spark). There are also displays of soldiers’ quarters and life during the different eras in which the fort was occupied. We loved cruising the ramparts, which had glorious views of the Bogue Sound, Shackleford Banks and the ocean.

Since there was only so much land-lubbering the kids could take, we hit Cape Lookout National Seashore one morning. We checked out the Discovery Room at Harkers Island Visitors Center, listening to the songs and calls of seashore birds and finding out how wildlife living on the barrier islands survive. Kids ages 5 to 13 can get info on Junior Ranger activities here, earning a badge by completing an activity booklet. Then we took the Island Express Ferry Service on a three mile ride to South Core Banks, home to a lighthouse. En route we passed Shackleford Banks and spotted several of 110 wild horses, the oldest documented horse population in America. Sabrina and I climbed the 207 steps to the top of the lighthouse, built in 1856, and celebrated our endurance with incredible views. We also hit the Keeper’s Quarters Museum, learning about the folks who watched over the lighthouse over the years.

All that exploring and fresh sea air sure work up your appetite, an excellent excuse to dive into the area’s family-friendly eateries. Naturally, fresh seafood abounds. Over at Amos Mosquito’s Restaurant & Bar in Atlantic Beach, the eclectic menu was so tempting the kids didn’t even bother looking at the kiddie offerings. We shared scrumptious Fried Dill Pickles, Fried Green Tomatoes, Sesame Seared Tuna, a Grilled Steak Salad and a Mixed Seafood Grill with shrimp, scallops and soft shell crabs. Desserts were spectacular: Vanilla Creme Brulee, Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream Pie and tableside S’mores (the appropriate dessert for a wannabe firefighter). I asked our server about the restaurant’s curious name. It comes from a childhood joke that owner Hallock Cooper Howard used to get wrong. It goes: Knock knock. Who’s there? Amos. Amos who? Now, the correct answer is “A mosquito” but Hallock always used to say “Amos Mosquito” and that’s the name her mom suggested for the restaurant.

We continued our culinary adventures at Circa 81 in Morehead City, introducing the kids to the joys of tapas (small plates/appetizers), although the serving sizes were generous. We started with yummy She Crab Soup and Clam Chowder, plus addictive Loaded Potato Soup, along with Sesame Tuna Salad, Spinach Salad and the Ashe County Cheese Platter. Emboldened, the kids went on to try Sweet Potato Quesadilla, Savory Stuffed Brie, Medjool Dates (stuffed with almond, goat cheese and sunchoke and wrapped in bacon) and duck breast. Next time I try to get the kids to eat something new I’ve made, I’m going to serve it on tiny dishes and call it tapas. Too bad I won’t be able to recreate the Circa 81 desserts: Decadent key lime pie, chocolate chip cheesecake and chocolate creme brulĂ©e.

The nice part about having a vacation house with a kitchen: You can totally ignore it and go out for lunch! The Village Market in Emerald Isle was a gourmet treat. The Chunky Chicken Salad sandwich (with red grapes, celery and pecans and lettuce on a croissant) was one super-tasty sandwich. Sabrina had an Asian Chicken Salad (grilled chicken, mandarin oranges, almonds, tomato and rice noodles on lettuce with sesame ginger dressing), breaking out from her usual chicken tenders. Dave loved the Greek Salad, with yellowfin tuna on top. And Max discovered he had a thing for Shrimp Corn Chowder. 

None of us had ever been to a food truck (a major trend) before the trip and The Dank Burrito Food Truck was a yummy, fun first. You find out where the truck is going to be by checking the Facebook page. It’s one super-cool ride; owner Clarke Merrell told us he painted it with a graphic designer. Max asked to sit in the driver’s seat, and pretended to drive the truck. Then he hovered by the ordering window, eagerly awaiting his side of guac. The mahi mahi burrito, carne asada burrito and jerk chicken burrito were fresh, super-tasty and generally outstanding.

Best place to be on a hot afternoon, besides the beach: fro-yo at Twisted Spoon in Morehead City. Sometimes, frozen yogurts have a chemical aftertaste but the kind here was fresh and delicious. Kid fave: Cake Batter. Plus all of the toppings! Parent fave: a TV area where kids can hang out, so you can have a few minutes of peace to lick your spoons clean.

No matter where we ventured, after we returned to the house we’d head out to the beach again, our home away from home. If it was dark, we’d sit on the deck and listen to the sound of the crashing waves. I can’t recall the last time the kids were that enchanted by something that didn’t involve a TV or iPad screen. It was yet another good lesson: Doing nothing but savoring the sea is entertainment enough.

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