Summers at the Beach

By Ray McAllister | June 16th, 2014

Memories that we won't forget

We used to visit the beach at my grandparents’ place in summers. Other times, too. But I remember the summers. This was Brigantine, N.J., a little island just north of Atlantic City, and the time was well before gambling arrived in 1978 and brought people with money. Brigantine was just a little beach town, no different than a thousand others.

Except, of course, that it was ours.

When they built it about 1950 or so, my grandparents’ home had been the fifth from the ocean. I think that’s right. Over the years, a series of storms had eliminated the two closest to the water. I do remember that. That destruction both increased the value of the remaining real estate … and imperiled it. The town built sand dunes, though, and the house was not further threatened. (They couldn’t have waited until the house was oceanfront?)

The little island town was known, if at all, for the Brigantine Inn, its biggest structure, and something called the Brigantine Lighthouse, which, oddly, was not its tallest, having been built in the 1920s by a real estate develop.

Years later, the so-called Brigantine Castle was put up, a heavily advertised monstrosity of a “haunted house” built on an old fishing pier. It drew a million people a year, a fair number of whom urinated on neighbors’ lawns. Thankfully, storms and crowd restrictions shut it down.

I remember Brigantine for the sand and the waves and my grand-parents’ tile floor and the breezeway between their home and garage – and the time I tried an experiment. I tossed a wonderful and colorful molded bucket and shovel I’d just been given into the surf to watch the tide return them.

It didn’t.

I saw Pacific beaches over the years and, while they were more striking, more majestic, they didn’t seem as inviting. Then in the 1970s, I visited a girlfriend’s vacationing family in Nags Head, a North Carolina beach town I’d never heard of. It was on the Outer Banks, another place I had never heard of. But it was captivating. This was the Outer Banks of four decades ago, mind you, so it was an isolated storm-battered spit of sand, less developed than today. What a place it was – and is.

In the 1980s, my wife, Vicki, and I began packing our infant daughter, Lindsay, and in later years, our son, Ryan, into the car and heading down to the Outer Banks. We went past Nags Head that first year, down Hatteras Island, figuring we’d stay somewhere near the famous lighthouse. We drove and drove, through village after village, past great expanses of undeveloped sand and dune in the dark, until finally we arrived in Hatteras Village. We stayed overnight – and awoke to find the lighthouse was a good 15 miles behind us. (Shouldn’t Hatteras Light be in Hatteras? … Just saying’) We had driven through three villages, in fact that were closer.

But we loved the warm waters, the big beaches and the slow-ever-so-slow pace of the Outer Banks, and came back to Hatteras four straight years. We mad the trips in September, when crowds and prices were down.

Once the children reached school age, we saw the beach less often. There were occasional trips to Virginia Beach, but mostly the vists came while visiting my parents, who lived near various beaches in South Carolina, northern Florida and, by the mid-1990s, North Carolina. They had moved to Wilmington, so we often took the kids – by now we had three, including Jamie – to nearby Wrightsville Beach. In fact, years later, when Lindsay, her husband, Micah, and infant daughter Riley visited my parents, they planned to stay at Wrightsville Beach. My parents instead suggested Topsail Island, being cheaper and less crowded. They went there, loved it and demanded our whole family go the next summer.

We did and, likewise, fell in love with it. We haven’t stopped going. That Topsail trip led to my writing a newspaper column, which got ridiculous levels of response, and then a book on Topsail Island. That in turn led to books on Wrightsville Beach, Hatteras Island and now Ocracoke.

What I find throughout all the little beach towns of North Carolina – and, I have no doubt that I would find it in every little beach town everywhere – is unconditional love. There is, to be sure, con- cern among beachgoers that change is coming, that too many people (We all want to be the very last newcomer allowed on “our beach … EVER) have found “our little paradise.”

But there is a reason that everyone from Jimmy Buffett to Corona beer embraces the lifestyles. They know what we feel. Beaches and beach towns are not only the stuff of our vacations but of our very souls.

And they are the stuff of families, of generations, of photo albums and smart phone movies. If you love the beach, you may well have memories of going with your parents and grandparents – and now your children and grandchildren.

Inside these pages you’ll find what has become our annual Outer Banks edition. It is dedicated to you, fellow beach lovers. We hope you enjoy all of it … no matter where your beach is.

And may you always have sand in your shoes.

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