The Outer Banks usually means scrambling to book that "perfect" beach house, be it a two-bedroom cottage or a 10-bedroom monster, for a precious week off in the summer. But now I have another reason to go: It's the ideal place for a quiet midweek escape.
My husband and I high-tailed it out of town in early November, right after his busy time covering the elections for the newspaper and right before I had a huge magazine event. We had a window of four days, so we didn't want to waste time in airports, missing connections. An easy car trip of three hours was the solution, and the game plan was simple: reading, sleeping and eating. If we got tired of gluttony, we'd consider a little walking along the water, be it sound side or ocean side.
Get thee to the Sanderling Resort and Spa (800-701-4111 or thesanderling.com), which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. I hadn't been back since a weekend visit in 1992, and my, how she has grown. In addition to the Main Inn, the North Inn and the South Inn, guest cottages have been added. Across the street, on the Currituck Sound, is the 6,000-square-foot Sanderling Spa. My husband and I stayed in the North Inn, where a soaring two-story family room in the middle of the inn, with its fireplace, sink-into couches and cozy tables, was a great spot for reading, all wrapped up in our Sanderling robes. One morning, I shared the space with a pair of girlfriends from Chester who were also ducking their daily obligations midweek. Other than the four of us, the inn was blissfully quiet, after having hosted a posh, tented wedding the weekend before.
We made one small side trip to nearby Roanoke Island and the town of Manteo, where we grabbed lunch at Darrell's Seafood Restaurant (252-473-5366 or darrellsseafood.com), a staple on the island for 50 years, with nary a tourist in a booth. Lunch specials ranging from $7 to $13 with two sides caught my eye, and I zeroed in on grilled marinated tuna. Andrew went with the Hatteras-style chowder and hushpuppies. After strolling the streets of Manteo and driving back to Duck, we were too tired to head back out for dinner, so we indulged in room service from the Sanderling's Lifesaving Station Restaurant. A terrific Thai coconut soup and spinach salad with lemon dressing was the perfect finish to the day. We took most of our meals at the 1899 Lifesaving Station. Breakfast was usually house-made granola and fresh muffins, and lunches included fish and hand-cut chips with plenty of malt vinegar. Finally, if you're craving sweets or slabs of meat, a trip to Tommy's Gourmet Market (252-261-8990, tommysmarket.com) is in order. Bumbleberry pie is a house specialty.
The town of Duck is stuffed with little shops on both sides of Duck Road. One discovery was Lady Victorian (252-261-1654) in Wee Winks Square. Don't let the name stop you from going inside this 4,000-square-foot women's clothing boutique. With contemporary lines from France and Canada not found in Richmond, the store is far from staid. I left with a great oversized knit top by Lundstrom; a hand-knit, coffee-colored shrug and scarf; and a beautiful black wool-and-velvet, above-the-knee skirt that was perfect for the holidays. In Manteo, I fell hard for Nest (252-473-5141). With designer bags from France and luscious cashmere sweaters and scarves, it was luxury overload. I managed to snap myself to attention long enough to buy silk-screened note cards in a nifty wooden box for my sister-in-law for Christmas. I also swooned over the hand-woven rugs at the nonprofit Endless Possibilities (252-475-1575 or ragweavers.com) and the variety of work for sale at the Dare County Arts Council Galleries (252-473-5558 or darearts.org), especially the work of printmaker Michael Lay.
Our trip corresponded with the 14th Annual Wings Over Water Waterfowl Festival (wingsoverwater.org). We met some folks from New Jersey who came down just for this six-day festival, which celebrates Dare County's wildlife. Events included visits to North Pond on Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on Hatteras Island, a hot spot for fall birding; venturing into Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge at night in search of wildlife; and soaking in the sound's natural beauty during a sunrise or sunset kayak tour. (Much of this can be enjoyed whenever you visit, but if you'd like to attend the festival yourself, it runs from Nov. 8 to 13 in 2011.)
Another great spot for communing with nature is the 3,400-acre Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary. Adjacent to the Sanderling, it's got a three-mile trail that's ideal for bird watching.
Southern Shores is home to some architecturally significant cottages with flat tops. Architect, artist and visionary developer Frank Stick blended elements of Frank Lloyd Wright's designs with Key West cottage style. A 1953 home he designed at 13 Skyline Road is now the office of the Outer Banks Community Foundation (252-261-8839 or obcf.org). Stick was instrumental in the founding of the first national seashore at Cape Hatteras, the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.