The South's Best Tiny Town 2018: Ocean Isle Beach

I lived in New England (an area I loved) for almost 20 years, but what surprised me more than anything was how much living there increased my appreciation for my native North Carolina and all the things I had overlooked before. Of course, I found the cold, rocky beaches of the Northeast beautiful and the summer light on Cape Cod stunning, but how had I taken for granted those wide sandy strands I had walked my whole childhood, shores and sunsets and community life I would put up against those anywhere?

I grew up in a small town that nearly doubled in size when I-95 was built. Because it was just a little over an hour inland, traveling to the coast was easy, though the journey then seemed so much longer. State 211 is a stretch of road through the Green Swamp that looks very much the same as it always has—miles of pines with the occasional deer stand or road cut through, barely a cell phone signal, no place really to stop.

Ocean Isle Beach, NC Dock

Robbie Caponetto

My earliest memories feature the drawbridges that came at the end of that drive and connected the mainland to the ocean. At Holden Beach, there was a little houselike structure where the bridgetender was, a space that fascinated me, much like a small window above a gas station—a curtain in the window, a mysterious room left to the imagination. I fantasized about how it would be a wonderfully relaxing job.

The experience of waiting for a drawbridge remains vivid: You could smell the ocean—sometimes even catch a glimpse of it. The anticipation was held in place and heightened by the long line of cars in the shimmering heat and the grinding machinery that swung around to allow boats to pass by on the waterway. It was a time when you had to take your own water, so going to the beach for a week with a family of four could weigh down the average 1960s station wagon in a minute. Kids hung out of windows, and luggage racks carried fishing rods and box fans and mesh lawn chairs.

Where did people go that week of summer vacation to escape the stress and strain of everyday life in a small Southern town? My family traveled down the road to the beach. We went to either Long Beach (now called Oak Island) or to Holden Beach with one night designated for the Myrtle Beach Pavilion, which was a short drive away—past Ocean Isle Beach, through Sunset Beach, over the Little River, and across the state line into South Carolina, where it seemed like you could do anything–buy fireworks or ride the Swamp Fox coaster. Otherwise, most activity took place at the local pier or miniature golf course (a squat cinder block building with a concretegirded course covered in indoor/outdoor carpet that was faded and mildewed). The sound of the ocean obscured much of the talk between holes. The wind was often blamed for missing a simple shot, and if the breeze died down, mosquitoes and no-see-ums got blamed instead. These were gathering spots.

Up and down the coast of Carolina, you can still hear news, entertainment, and calls of "anything biting?" as well as lunch counter orders for something deep-fried. You'll hear about shark sightings, riptide warnings, and reports of a storm that's coming or the one that almost hit, the hurricane names—Matthew, Hugo, Hazel—tossed about like that of a rude relative who leaves a whispered "good riddance" in his wake. There is talk of the summer rush and of the winter calm, days and nights propelled by high and low tides, and the time of sunset–when many make their way onto the pier or porch and stare westward to soak it in.

Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina
Robbie Caponetto

Most of the drawbridges (or swing bridges or pontoon bridges) in this part of the world have been replaced, providing convenient access for vacationers as well as easy storm evacuation. Bridges at Ocean Isle Beach and Holden Beach were replaced in the late 1980s, and Sunset Beach got a new one in 2010. Yet it seems that the calm and shift in time that waiting for the bridge once imposed lingers. And no, you don't need to bring your own water anymore. And yes, you are able to buy groceries (or at least bread, milk, beer, and sunscreen). You might even encounter a restaurant or two as well as some gift shops, but still there remains the promise of something different that lies just on the other side of the waterway, a timeless something that begs you to simply focus on that large, churning body of water that hugs the East Coast and the wide, white strand you had once taken for granted. You breathe a little differently and pay closer attention to the natural world—the sun and the moon.

The small-town soul remains intact, and I am always amazed—something I will never again take for granted.

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