Saturday, April 15, 2017

Assateague Island National Seashore

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We left the Outer Banks to make our way to Assateague Island National Seashore (AINS), famous for its beaches and wild ponies. It's a barrier island much like the OBX and I thought that we'd be able to drive the length of it but that turned out not to be the case. So it's a good thing that I really studied and double-checked our route, because, if we had followed our GPS, we'd have never gotten to our campground. Ever.

Turns out there is a part of the island you can reach via Chincoteague Island to the south but, to get to the campgrounds in a big rig, you have to go north, to Berlin.

There are two campgrounds that are part of the AINS, one is oceanside and one is bayside. On the oceanside, you are among the dunes and shore vegetation. Also, horse poop. Here you are separated from the ocean by a protective sand dune which varies in height and protection. So you are subjected to the wind and waves and blowing sand if you happen to be there on a stormy-ish day.

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You can see just how close these tents are to the beach at the Oceanside Campground. No protective dune.

On the bayside, you are a bit more protected from the wild ocean and it’s less sand than grasses and vegetation. But, like the oceanside campgrounds, there is lots of pony poop. So if beaches are your jam then you would love oceanside, but if you prefer more inland conditions, bayside is for you.

We stayed in Loop A in the Bayside Campground. We chose this because it was the only thing available by the time we finally went online to make reservations. Leading up to Easter weekend AND spring break, we were only able to reserve three nights. When we arrived we did a minimal set up and stayed busy the whole time.

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Scoopy’s spot in A loop, on the bayside.

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The view out our front window at Assateague.

Frankly, there is not a lot to do in the park, other than utilize the beach, walk a few trails and go to the Visitors Center, which we really enjoyed. You can't drive very far, so once you're in the park, that's about it.

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A diehard couple braves the strong winds to get their beach time!

Yes, there are wild horses and they were fun to see. But honestly, you go there wanting to see six or eight of them galloping in slo-mo through the waves, long manes flying in the wind, Chariots of Fire playing in the background. But what you get is the horse from your hometown parade, walking in the road, making a big mess and generally just looking around chewing and chomping. It's neat the first, and maybe the second time you see them, after that it's like, whatever.

I probably sound terribly jaded, but hey, it wasn't long ago that I was awoken by a herd of bison right outside my bedroom window and got startled by a bull moose running by as I'm sitting on my sofa. So, yeah, I wasn't all that impressed by the ponies. Steven, on the other hand, was a little more enamored with them and enjoyed the hunt, photographically speaking.

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Lovely morning on the beach during one of Steven’s early morning jaunts.

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The calm before the storm…early morning and a few days before Easter weekend.

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Lot’s of warnings to stay off the dunes…

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This pony was kicking up some sand for his Kodak Moment!

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One of our first pony sightings! We were so excited.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy my time here, I really did. We made our way to Ocean City and strolled the amazing boardwalk. The first thing we did was find Thrasher’s French Fries. That was lunch. Then we walked. I'd say probably half or more of the shops were not open but we also didn't have to deal with crowds so we were fine with that. Before we left, we got dessert at Kohr Bros. frozen custard.

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This is perhaps the largest and longest boardwalk we’ve ever been on. Can’t imagine what it’s like in August!

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Lots to see along the beach and boardwalk in Ocean City!

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We had high expectations about the fries from Thrasher’s and they didn’t disappoint!

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An old time photo of Old Time Photos!

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Oh yeah, and we had to have dessert after all of those fries!

I absolutely loved the little town of Berlin. It was so tidy and had flowers everywhere and a cute main street with fun little shops and restaurants. Steven liked it, too, although he got a whiff of a "Stepford" vibe.

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Main Street in Berlin. We were both taken with this little quaint town albeit a little Stepfordy.

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I love that on the East Coast the churches serve crab cakes for dinner.

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Fun old radios in one of the window displays on Main Street.

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We had a great burger lunch at Blacksmith Restaurant and Bar and were tempted by the local candy store.

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Spring is here and the blooms all along Main Street, Berlin were gorgeous.

There is also a state park literally right next to the AINS but it wasn't yet open for the season. The ranger we spoke with said the weather isn't usually so warm and sunny this time of year. Too bad the state park didn't open because they have a ton of campsites they could have filled over the next few days.

NEXT UP:  Making our way to Bill and Kelly!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

OBX

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There are two ways to reach the Outer Banks from Morehead City in a big motorhome. The inland route is a four-hour, 214 mile journey to Avon, where we were going to be staying. The other option, the one we took, is a 104-miles, 9-hour trip that includes two ferry rides. Yep, we could have gotten there in half the time driving twice the mileage, but where's the fun in that??

We left Morehead City around 8:00 a.m. to make the one-hour drive to Cedar Island, where we would board the ferry for a 10:30 departure. We figured we’d have plenty of time to make breakfast while we sat in line if we got there a little early. We had previously made reservations to make sure there was plenty of room for Scoopy and Toadie and we did keep them hooked up for the ride.

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On the way to the ferry!

Let me tell you, it was a tight squeeze! Once parked to the attendant's satisfaction, we were unable to open Scoopy's door and were stuck inside. We expressed our dissatisfaction at the situation and he did allow us to maneuver slightly so that we could eek ourselves out, but I think it may be time to lay off the shrimp and grits, if you know what I mean. 

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A tight fit on the ferry, both for Scoopy and me!

The weather was beautiful when we started the 2-1/4 hour journey so we stayed out on the deck for a while. The back deck looked directly onto Scoopy's roof and that led to a few solar convos with folks who were curious about the panels.

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Scoopy’s solar panels got a lot of attention from ferry passengers!

By the time we reached Ocracoke Island, the southern tip of the 200-miles stretch known as the Outer Banks, or OBX, the weather had turned cloudy. These are barrier islands off the coast of the state of North Carolina, separating the Atlantic Ocean from the mainland and because there are miles and miles of beachfront, they are a popular vacation destination. Lucky for us, we got there before all the tourists, so we encountered little traffic as we drove the few miles through town to the other side of the island where we would catch yet another ferry to Hatteras Island.

The ferry from Ocracoke to Hatteras is free and priority is given to commercial vehicles. We were a few back in line and as soon as we reached the front, they shut it down. Drat! We waited an hour for the next ferry to arrive only to be denied boarding yet again in favor of a gigantic Bud Light 18-wheeler. Double drat! We waited another hour and finally got to board, and that's why our travel day was nine hours long. 

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Going…going…finally loaded after a two-hour wait. Next stop – Hatteras!

Once on Hatteras, we made the 20-mile drive to the Sands of Time campground in Avon. We were arriving on the OBX about 10 days before the state and national campgrounds opened, so we were happy to find this little gem that is a Passport America park. Full hookups, $25 per night plus electric which meant I could catch up on laundry! 

I don't know how other rigs work but I can't run my onboard washer unless the grey tank is open and that means (usually) a sewer connection. There are explicit warnings that doing so creates some kind of spatial anomaly vacuum in the plumbing array and Scoopy will implode or something if I run the machine. That said, I've done it a couple of times accidently, like when Steven tells me he opened the grey tank but he actually didn't. And obviously, we didn't blow up, but still, maybe we just got lucky.

So for the first two days it was chores but mostly rest and laying about because the weather was horrible. We had an absolute deluge for the first 18 hours and the wind, oh my goodness, the wind! For two days it blew 25-35 mph, so not at all beach weather! Steven did go out to photograph one of the lighthouses and to visit the Rodanthe pier and the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station but he very nearly got blown away.

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Rodanthe Pier is steadily eroding, the wild Atlantic reclaiming it piece by piece.

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The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station in Rodanthe was a great place to learn about local history.

But after the storm came beautiful sunny days. We took the opportunity to have breakfast with a couple we met on the ferry. Bill & Cindy are retired teachers from Michigan and when they found out we were visiting there this summer, well, we all had a lot to talk about! We look forward to meeting up with them again when we arrive for our month-long stay at Wild Cherry in Lake Leelanau. (Can you believe we forgot to get a selfie?)

We also visited several of the beach towns along the main strip (the only strip, really...) from Hatteras to Kitty Hawk, where we visited the Wright Brothers National Memorial and Kill Devil Hill, the place from which they launched their airplane over and over. Unfortunately the museum was closed for renovations but we still enjoyed being there.

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The sculptures were great. Only peeve was that there were kids climbing all over them…

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The Wright Brothers Memorial was just stunning!

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I finally found a shrimp with it’s head still on.

We walked some beaches but I have to say they are not as nice as Florida beaches. For me, the big draw here were the houses. Holy cow, the houses were amazing! Those along the beach are three-story McMansions that are built on stilts, so that they really look four stories tall. This affords them a view over the protective sand dunes, but also allows water to flow under the home in the event of a major storm. I don't know how often that happens but it would freak me out a little. I loved walking and looking at all the "gawkitechture".

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A fine example of “Gawkitechture.”

As luck would have it, there was a seafood shop just around the corner from our campground, and when we went in, we learned a great deal about North Carolina shrimp. Apparently we are way too early in the season for fresh shrimp and the kind we wanted (big fatties!) won't be seen until August. But they did have an unusually long season last year that lasted well into December so that's what we got. Five pounds of big fatties, beheaded but not peeled or deveined. That is a job my friend Kelly has volunteered to do and I'm going to watch her from across the room with a refreshing beverage in my hand. Cheers!

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Five pounds of big fatties!!

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Remember the movie “The Fly”, this is the sequel, called “The Shrimp!”

NEXT UP:  Assateague Island National Seashore

Friday, April 7, 2017

Morehead City, Atlantic Beach & Beaufort, NC

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We had planned our route out of Charleston so that we would cross the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge and head north on state highway 17 along the coast. The bridge is a cable bridge stretching over the Cooper River and it is quite spectacular. Unfortunately, we were departing Charleston on the same day as the annual Cooper River Bridge Run for which the bridge is shut down so that 40,000 plus runners can cross it in a 5k and 10k event. Drat!

Luckily we learned about the run a day before our departure so we rerouted and found another way out of town. We got on the desired highway and took off north with our final destination undecided. We thought we might stop in Myrtle Beach if it appealed to us, but when we got there we rolled in one side and right out the other. It didn't appeal to us in the slightest. Granted, the beaches are fantastic, but the rest of the place seemed to us to be really touristy with lots of manufactured (and expensive) "fun". Not our thing, or at least, mostly not our thing, so we kept going. Having basically left Charleston unexplored, we weren't ready to dive into another tourist-heavy experience.

We made our way to the Morehead City-Beaufort Elks Lodge. I know it must sound like I am on the Elks payroll as much as I talk about them, but the fact is, our experience has been so overwhelmingly positive, it's hard not to share. As we do everywhere we travel, we checked out the parking lot on Google Earth and knew it was plenty big enough for big rigs. When we arrived the place looked deserted, but well-kept, so we figured it was just a day with no lodge activity. We pulled up next to the water spigot on the side of the building to take on water, and then walked around to see where to park based on notes in the Elks guidebook.

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Filling up our water tank at the Elks Lodge in Morehead City.

As we walked we were met by a lodge member who had arrived to play pool with a friend. He invited us in and the two of them gave us a ton of information about the area. They told us where we could park and plug in, and when we offered to pay they asked that we simply sign the guestbook. We ended up staying four days with 30 amp, access to water and Wifi. From the side windows we had a lake view. And other than Bingo night, we saw no one at the lodge. It was awesome.

One of the first things we do when we arrive in a new place is to get the lay of the land. We noticed right away that Morehead City was nothing like Myrtle Beach. Although there were plenty of sugar-sand beaches and quaint little towns nearby that no doubt get fairly crowded in high season, for us the area was so much more enjoyable without all the waterparks, theme parks and the like. Our entertainment consisted of taking walks on Atlantic Beach and on the waterfront path in the cute little town of Beaufort.

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Beautiful light at Old Burying Ground in Beaufort.

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Preserved and restored buildings at the Beaufort Historic Site.

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Cute bike license plates seen at the Beaufort waterfront.

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Colorful houses along the shore of Atlantic Beach.

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Friends Market in Morehead. Meatloaf, coconut pie, egg casserole . . . we did some damage to our wallet in this place.

The highlight of our stay was visiting Fort Macon State Park. We've seen several forts as we traveled through Florida and beyond, but this one is our favorite so far. Fort Macon itself is a restored Civil War-era fort, and the park also includes a museum-quality coastal education center. The displays were fantastic and the views from the fort went on forever. We really enjoyed our time here.

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Lots to do and see at the well-preserved Fort Macon in Atlantic Beach.

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Staged rooms to show what it was like back in the 1800s.

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The displays inside the fort were dense with information. And air conditioned!!!

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Just a fantastic day at Fort Macon, one of the best of its kind.

For my birthday last year we met friends Laurie and Odel in Napa for a double celebration since Odel and I have birthdays one day apart. We ate at The Pear Southern Bistro and there I had the finest Shrimp & Grits I have ever eaten. Wild Gulf shrimp wrapped in applewood smoked bacon over creamy cheddar cheese grits and red-eye gravy. I have dreams about how delicious that dish was and vowed when we came to the south, the land of Shrimp & Grits, I would eat my fill and try to top the dish in Napa. I have not yet found a better version, but it is not for a lack of trying on my part! In Morehead City, however, the shrimp & grits served for breakfast at the The Banks Grill came very, very close. Still, I figured I'd just have to make my own and having procured the stone-ground grits in Charleston, I went on the hunt for fresh Atlantic shrimp. Fail.

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The Banks Grill in Morehead City had delicious breakfast. Highly recommended!

I like good shrimp, but not so much that I am willing to spend time beheading, peeling and deveining. Ew, no. Gross. So my plan was to buy several pounds that had already been processed and just toss them into my freezer. Unfortunately, there were none to be had in any of the markets and seafood stores we visited. In fact, we learned, it's still too cold for shrimping, so we'd probably have to wait a couple of weeks. Ugh.

As we move north I am keeping my eyes peeled for shrimp. In the meantime, I am studying the lovely cookbook that Steven bought for me (IPad version) by Nathalie Dupree called, what else, Shrimp & Grits!! Nathalie Dupree was one of my favorite PBS chefs and over the years I've had a few of her cookbooks. When she would cook on her show she would wear a huge diamond solitaire and I always thought if I had a diamond like hers I'd be a much better cook. Well, I eventually got the diamond as an anniversary gift and guess what? It didn't do a damn thing to improve my cooking.

NEXT UP: The Outer Banks!