In the international world, when one thinks of “nice beaches,” the southeastern United States isn’t exactly first on the list. While the minds of travelers tend to be drawn towards dreams of exotic fruits and palm trees, Bogue Banks’ soft white sand beaches and rustic local charm make for a unique beach destination.
Bogue Banks Island is located in southeastern portion of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It includes the “cities” of Morehead City, Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle, the latter of which boasts a booming population of 3,500. The area was first developed as a vacation spot in the 1950’s and has since become one of the state’s top coastal destinations.
Though the island does have a few of what one would generously refer to as “resorts,” most visitors rent private homes on or near the beach. In recent years the modest beach shacks which formerly lined the oceanfront have given way to the development of luxury homes, but the island is about 700 meters wide at its widest point, so second or third row homes are only a few minutes’ walk from the water. Charming old places boasting decades of salt erosion on the paint and decks with a great view of the ocean are still abundant, inexpensive and authentic.
The beaches themselves, all public, are stunning stretches of white sand and sea grass, giving way to crystal blue water and an endless horizon. During the summer, Emerald Isle’s population of 3,500 reaches about 50,000 at its peak. And while that’s still not “crowded” by most any standards, locals know that the best time to visit is in late September and early October, when it’s not too hot and the water is still plenty warm enough for swimming.
Bogue Banks is a seafood-lovers paradise. The area is famed for its shrimp, flounder and mullet. Virtually every restaurant serves seafood “Calabash Style,” which essentially translates to “deep-fried and served in absurd portions.” Often in buffet form, these deep-fried treats are served alongside french fries and hushpuppies, which are deep-fried balls of corn flour spiced with black pepper and onion powder. The south has never been famous for its health food.
Nearby Morehead City, which lies just across the inlet on North Carolina’s mainland, is home to a bit of local restaurant lore. Two restaurants in downtown Morehead City near the water have been in competition with each other since 1938. Captain Bill’s Waterfront Restaurant and Sanitary Fish Market are both institutions in the area. Captain Bill’s can claim to be the oldest restaurant in Carteret County, but a t-shirt from Sanitary Fish Market is quite possibly the ultimate Bogue Banks souvenir. “Sanitary,” as it is referred to by folks who live close enough to have a nickname for it, has only recently started serving alcohol.
People (fiercely) claim loyalty to one or the other, but in truth they both serve Calabash Style seafood and not much else other than a whole lot of charm. In their heyday both restaurants, which seat around 500 each, would be packed to the gills and waits of up to an hour were expected. Today’s dining enthusiasts might turn their noses up at the relatively unsophisticated cuisine, but they both still serve as a kind of living museum to the local culture and history of the area.
While the summer draws big crowds from all over the state and country, things return to normal shortly after. For Bogue Banks, “normal” is about as busy as a Buddhist in a hot tub. “Island time” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot when describing the local culture; an attitude that you’re at the beach so you probably “ain’t” got much to do or anywhere to be. As a result, time spent on the island is completely relative, and it’s probably worth packing up the watch and throwing on some flip-flops; as the Romans do.