Friday, August 24, 2007

The Outer Banks, North Carolina

We just got back from our wonderful vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina (referred to OBX for Outer BanX). The Outer Banks are a thin strip of islands that line the eastern side of North Carolina in the Atlantic much like Galveston, TX on the Gulf of Mexico. We vacationed there three years ago and enjoyed it so much that we vowed this would become a semi regular thing.

The Outer Banks are a different type of beach vacation. There are no flashy resorts, no trendy shops, no boardwalks, and especially no crowds. If you're looking for a good place to party, this isn't it. You go to the Outer Banks if you're looking for some quality family time and some good old peace and quite. There are a few places that are quite popular like Nags Head and Kitty Hawk (home of the Wright brothers' first flight) but we avoid those places and stay in the little town of Avon. Avon is small in that it stretches just a couple of miles along the Outer Banks' only highway but is just big enough to have a grocery store, a peer, a small movie theater, and a few shops.

We stayed an entire week, with two days spent pretty much just traveling there and back. I had a near catastrophe with my car two days before we were to leave. I drove up to Mom and Dad's house to change my car oil in preparation for the long drive ahead of us. I somehow managed to strip the oil pan drain plug bolt so that it would no longer completely screw in. I was dripping a drop of oil about every 10 seconds. I couldn't believe it. Out of all the times to screw up an oil job I had to do it right before we were supposed to leave for vacation. There was no way we could drive it to North Carolina like that. The only option was to replace the entire oil pan. The next day (the last day before vacation) Dad and I worked on replacing the oil pan for about 4 hours - till 1am (my parents were hosting a wedding reception at the house so we couldn't get started until pretty late.) There were so many rusty old bolts to unscrew we thought we might not be able to do it. Looking back it was a miracle we were able to get the new part and replace it in that time frame. The car has driven fine since.

And its a good thing the car drove fine, because we spent hours sitting in traffic the next day. The commute to OBX should normally take between seven and eight hours from Maryland. It took us eleven... and my car has a manual transmission. I think I'd rather cut my leg off than work the clutch in stop and go traffic like that. What's worse is that we knew and planned to take some back roads that would redirect us around the heavily traveled roads, but at the last minutes we decided to take the main way so that the OBX first timers could see some of the touristy towns along the way. The commute back a week later wasn't great either - taking nine hours with more stop and go traffic. Tiffany did spot a scrapbook store in Kill Devil Hills (it's a town) on the way home and picked up some great stuff to put together another awesome vacation scrapbook.

The following is my digital scrapbook of our vacation.

The Beach House

The beach houses on the Outer Banks don't look all that special from the outside. The exteriors don't hold up well to the harsh environment that the ocean brings; the salty air and strong winds batter the wood siding making it look much older than it really is. Once you get past the exterior and step inside the house though, they can be amazing.

Our house this year was absurd. It had 5 different floors! It's absolutely mind boggling how much space they can create when the footprint of the house is so small. In all we had twenty people staying in the house and everybody fit comfortably. There are 8 or 9 bedrooms I believe, each with their own bath. Most of the interior had recently been refinished with new granite, carpet, and furniture. There are stairs galore, inside the house of course but outside as well (there are decks on each level). I believe there were flat screen TVs with cable and a DVD player in every room. A pool table, Playstation 2, and mini kitchen in the downstairs 'hangout' area. The outside bottom floor deck was perfect for a beach house. It had an outdoor shower you could use to wash the salt and sand off your body, hoses and other water spouts for spraying off your gear and cleaning around the deck, a grill, as well as a massive hot tub with lights and jets galore.

Each family had the responsibility of preparing dinner for the rest of the crew one night of the week. Mom and Dad pulled through big one night of the week and ordered pizza and crabs. These aren't the big old Alaskan king crab legs that you dip in butter, eat one and you're full. These are the Maryland style blue crabs that have so much seasoning on them that your lips and fingers start to burn, that make you crack shells for an hour to get a stomach full, that cause such a mess that you have to cover your table with newspaper...these are the best crabs ever. I'm in absolute heaven with a pile of crabs in front of me. I'll sit there and pick apart the crabs, digging out the smallest pockets of meat for hours. Dad managed to snag a half bushel worth of them for only $60 from a small local seafood shop. The whole gang fed themselves and there were even some left over. Mike and I begrudgingly took the bullet and finished off the few crabs remaining ;-).

Samara was a crab monster, chowing down the meat much faster than I could give it to her. Logan was his typical self and didn't want to try any. I forced him to take a bite just to see if he liked it, but of course he said he didn't and that was the last bite he took. His cousins Jason and Bradley had a fun time hammering away at the shells with the crab mallets (boys will be boys.) It was an awesome feast.Logan's cousin Jason celebrated his his 6th birthday while we were at the beach. He was really worried about getting 6 birthday spankings from nineteen different people, so we had to convince him that we wouldn't do it. His party was a bit chaotic with so many kids around. They all had a good time unwrapping presents (the little stinker Samara tried to unwrap them all first.), playing with his new toys, and whacking each other over the head with birthday balloons.

My sister in law, Sonya, got it into her head somehow that she wanted to dye her hair. She's naturally a red head but wanted to dye it dark. She was nervous about doing it but felt empowered with all the girl power in the house. The ladies chit chatted about doing it for a little while then they decided to actually go for it. For support Tiffany decided that she would do it with her so they both headed to the store and bought (temporary) hair dye. They came back and had a hair dyeing party blah...blah...blah. It was a lot of talk and fuss for something that will wash out in a few days. (j/k Sonya, I love ya!)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Beach Boys

As always we had a ton of fun on the beach. Its basically right outside our back door. Scamper your way through the hot sand, over two small sand dunes, and you're there. Samara loved playing in the sand and succeeded in covering every inch of her body in it. We could've built a sand castle with the sand she accumulated in her diaper alone. She was of course pretty intimidated by the crashing waves at first, but eventually didn't mind it too much when a large wave would wash some water around her.

For the first half of the week Logan was just like one of those Sandpiper birds that would run down to the water to dig through the sand when a wave receded, and then would run as fast as they can back up the beach when a new wave came crashing down (just like this). He probably ran to the water and back like this hundreds of times. He enjoyed running around by himself up and down the beach, getting lost in his own little world. Towards the end of the week I took him out on the boogie board to float on the waves before they broke. He absolutely loved it! It was like a mini roller coaster ride to him. Once, a larger than normal wave came crashing down on us. I tried as hard as I could to keep upright while holding onto the boogie board but the wave completely knocked me over, grinding me into the sand below. Worried of course that Logan had also been knocked off the board and was now doing underwater somersaults, I scrambled to my feet only to find him happy floating on the board still riding the wave up the beach. It scared me pretty good, he thought it was fun. He also surprised me by wanting to swim in the ocean. He was basically just floating with his life jacket on, but he didn't want me to touch him at all. He wanted to be swimming out in the waves all by himself. I think seeing his older cousins, Jason and Bradley, swimming around helps him get the courage to do things he normally wouldn't do by himself.

He was so excited after the first time I took him out on the boogie board that he ran back to the house, took off his wet swim shorts, and ran buck naked to Tiffany who was sitting in the living room talking with the rest of the relatives. He began to spill out how Daddy took him on the boogie board, on the big waves, in the ocean, and how it was so exciting... all the while completely oblivious to the fact that he was standing in the nude in front of everyone.

I spent by far most of my time on the beach boogie boarding. The surf this year wasn't very good for it though. For some reason the waves were breaking right as they hit the shore. The very first wave I rode picked me up pretty high on the top of the curl and then just slammed me into the sand. The sand was also made up of mostly large pieces of sea shells for some reason which really roughed up your skin. Later in the week a little wind storm came through and brought up some of the fine grain sand (as well as bigger waves), but for the most part it really hurt getting thrown off the boogie board - and Tara has the bruise to prove it.

Rory and I tried shore fishing as well. We haven't ever caught anything great at the Outer Banks doing that, and it was the same this time around. Just little mullet fish and some sort of sea trout. A guy just a little ways down the beach caught a little shark. That'd would've been a little more exciting to catch.

Dad rented a couple of sea kayaks for three days. The first day on the beach we watched two guys struggle to get on a kayak while the waves were breaking on them. We had a good laugh watching them fall off over and over again. For the next three days though, I'm sure we were the laughing stock for other beach goers. The kayaks are fun out on the open water, but getting them out there and bringing them back in is an adventure. Many of us were tossed off the kayaks trying to do so. I had plans on taking a kayak out several hundred yards with my fishing gear strapped to it to try and catch some bigger fish but I definitely lack the experience and skill to both row and fish at the same time. Not to mention what I'd do if something huge bit my line and started dragging me around.

One of my goals for the whole vacation was to avoid a sunburn. I think on every beach vacation previously, I've managed to botch the sun screen and I usually come away looking like a tomato. I liberal dose of SPF 50 and 30 took care of that. The weather was absolutely perfect, bright and sunny, for all but the last day, so it was quite a feat that no one got burned.

Previously at the Outer Banks we've gone to the sound side of the island where there are no waves and the water is completely docile. We skipped that this year since most everyone was having a blast on the ocean side. Samara probably would've enjoyed the calm water, but Logan is big enough now to really enjoy the waves and, truthfully, the sound side is a little boring to me (you cant boogie board there!)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Scuba Diving

This was the trip my whole vacation revolved around. I absolutely love scuba diving and diving to old shipwrecks. This time around was even better than last time because Mike and Rory recently received their scuba certifications and were able to join Dad and I. The new and improved boat took us from Teach's Lair Marina again out to the wreck of the F. W. Abrams.

The Abrams was a 485 feet long steam tanker built in the 1920s that sunk in 1942 during WWII. The ship was being escorted through the treacherous mine filled waters around Cape Hatteras by a Navy vessel when the Abrams lost sight of her escort. She mistakenly strayed into a mine and mistook the explosion for a German launched U-Boat torpedo. In all the confusion, the crew of the Abrams confused the returning escort vessel for a U-Boat and tried to evade another attack by unknowingly heading into the thickest part of the mine field. The Abrams struck two more Allied mines which ultimately sank the ship. All crew were able to escape and row the 10 miles back to shore.

The weather was perfect the day we went out. It was bright and sunny, hardly any wind, no currents to push us around in the water, and the visibility was good at around 60 feet. Looking down the anchor line from the surface to the bottom you could almost make out the wreck lying below. The water was wonderfully warm and a beautiful shade of blue. The anchor took us right down to the boilers and engine of the ship (which helped us a lot to find the anchor when our dives were finished.) Most of the wreck lay flattened on the ocean floor so we swam over it looking for cool seashells, fish, and sharks teeth (none of us found any.) There were plenty of bright little fish darting around, star fish, and sea urchins that I accidentally bumped into too hard - ouch! We saw a sting ray, an awesome looking fluorescent yellow sea slug, and a couple barracuda. Unfortunately the Sand Tiger Sharks were a no show this time, Mike was disappointed. We did spot several Lion Fish which are new to the eastern shore of the Atlantic having somehow come over here from the Indian-Pacific Oceans.

We had to wait two hours between dives so we took off our dive gear and jumped into the ocean to swim around and snorkel. It was quite liberating to get off the over 70 lbs of gear we were lugging around and splash into the middle of the warm blue Atlantic. In any other circumstance I think I'd be scared to death to go swimming around in the free ocean, but having just seen all the creatures under the surface, and most importantly having seen no sharks, all my fears vanished. We brushed up against some tiny jellyfish which gave us a tingle but that's it. Also spotted were plenty of flying fish 'flying' around. Its amazing to watch them take off and 'fly' over 100 yards.

A lot of the divers there were quite experienced and several of them were there to spear fish. On the second dive I saw a diver just after he had speared a huge Amberjack (I think). I couldn't believe the size of the fish. It's certainly an easy but expensive way to fish.

We were all pooped out on the return ride back to the marina. I was starting to get a little queezy with sea sickness so it was good to be heading back. Overall it was the highlight of my vacation. We definitely need to get together more often to do this.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

No trip to the Outer Banks is complete without a visit to the beautiful Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. It's the tallest lighthouse in the nation at 208 feet and in 2000 it was relocated nearly 3,000 feet in order to protect it from the eroding sea shore. The hike up the 268 narrow winding steps normally gets you breathing heavy, but Logan nearly ran up the entire thing. The hike is well worth it though, the view from on top is gourgeous (and windy!!)

The Ocracoke Pirates

While the guys were out scuba diving, the rest of the crew took the ferry to Ocracoke Island to do some plundering (OK, maybe just sightseeing and shopping.) Ocracoke Island is a short hop South of Hatteras Island and is where Blackbeard the pirate lived for a while. They visited the small Ocracoke Lighthouse and then made a stop at the fun shop 'Teach's Hole' (Blackbeard's real name is Edward Teach) where they filled up on pirate booty. The mom's secretly bought some loot to use later in a rather intricate treasure hunt. Following a treasure map, the kids started the hunt in the tower of the house and took turns finding clues on each of the lower floors. They had to complete fun tasks on each floor before they could move on to the next clue. Eventually, the map led them out to the beach where a buried treasure was marked with a pirate flag.