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Summer Sanctuary | North Carolina's Outer Banks

On a trip to North Carolina's tranquil Outer Banks, a writer spots ospreys and possums, finds tasty barbecue and has exquisite meals at a posh resort.

Flying south from Norfolk, Virginia, and heading for North Carolina's Outer Banks in an alarmingly tiny plane, I finally spot a narrow spit of land far below us. On one side of it is a long stretch of beach whipped by whitecaps; on the other, a calm, glittering estuary. Buffeted by the Outer Banks' trademark winds, the plane descends with a bump and rolls down an airstrip lined by gnarled live oak trees.

My first thought: Where's the masseuse? The flight was only 20 minutes long, but I'm ready for some serious pampering. Dazed by a procession of 12-hour workdays and longing for a shot of my native culture, I've escaped from New York City to come south again—this time, to a resort that caters to free-spending sybarites with a love for the outdoors. For weeks, I've sustained myself with thoughts of The Sanderling's haute-rustic pleasures: massages and nature trails, kayaking and martinis. And with fantasies of food created by an inventive young chef who went to my alma mater, the University of Georgia, then worked his way to the French Laundry, where he trained with Thomas Keller before taking the helm at The Sanderling's Left Bank restaurant last year.

Walking off the plane with my brother Brian, who's joined me for the weekend, I spy the long white limo that The Sanderling often sends to ferry guests to the hotel from the local airstrip (or from the airport in Norfolk, 75 miles away, when Sea Air shuttles are grounded by moody weather). Brian, who lives in Atlanta but owns land in North Carolina's Beaufort County, where our Scottish ancestors settled, snorts happily when we climb inside.

I know what he's thinking: This is hardly the North Carolina we knew as children. On summer visits to distant cousins, we feasted on cornmeal-crusted catfish and fried hush puppies. Instead of limos, we rode in trucks lined with hay that flew into our faces when we picked up speed; throwing our arms around our uncles' rangy dogs, we screamed joyfully into the wind.

As our limo approaches The Sanderling, we pass streets lined with mansions and perfectly landscaped lawns. When the driver turns into the resort's parking lot, we see a fleet of SUVs and a Bentley. Although we're hardly far from civilization, there's a sense of calm all around. The Sanderling's buildings, shingled in silver-gray cedar, have a genteel, shabby-chic look and verandas furnished with ample rocking chairs. Opening the door to our suite in the South Inn, we find a roomy, light-filled space done in café-au-lait tones. There's a huge Jacuzzi in the bathroom, and our veranda has a view of the tall dunes that lead to The Sanderling's private beach.

I note that the hush is unbroken by the sound of small fry. Although children are not forbidden, guests traveling with their families are encouraged to stay in one of The Sanderling's large villas. Brilliant! Though I'd tried to sound indignant when I told my own seven-year-old I was going to a place only for grownups ("Can you believe it? No kids under 13 in the fancy restaurant!"), I'm not sure I succeeded.

After unpacking, we take a walk along the ocean. The beach is almost deserted. Crisscrossed by bird tracks, the tawny sand is strewn with black shells that look like bits of sculpture. A brown sea horse, still alive, has washed up with the tide. As we stroll, my mind drifts to dinner, which I'm hoping will be an antidote to life as an urban parent, eating scrambled-egg dinners after hectic workdays.

The Left Bank, The Sanderling's flagship restaurant, is a serene, elegant space with high ceilings and stunning views of Currituck Sound. The windows are so enormous, we feel as though we're dining outside. Our dinner gets off to a luscious start: Chef George Robinson sends out an amuse bouche of pink, juicy cured duck ham topped with a warm onion marmalade, which wine director Lynnette Sumner pairs with a Ziegler Mauler Gewürztraminer from Alsace. In each course, we're plied with food that's as blessedly complex. Robinson plays the lushness of monkfish against earthy black trumpet mushrooms and porcini froth, with a buttery endive tarte Tatin on the side. Cardamom jus and slices of ruby-red grapefruit offset the sweetness of caramelized scallops. Like Keller, Robinson—who is blond, 31 and a surfer—knows how to combine ingredients in a sensual, subtle and exquisitely balanced way.

I'm ready for something a little more strenuous the next morning. There's a selection of excellent mountain bikes just outside our door; riding past 10-bedroom vacation homes, I see rabbits loping across the highway and swerve to avoid a few possums. If I rode south on Highway 12 for 13 miles, I'd end up near the towering dunes of Kitty Hawk. Instead, I head north a quarter mile to the Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary, where I see red-headed woodpeckers and red-eyed vireos as I hike on the nature trail.

Not that I can name such birds when I see them. All the more reason to appreciate Joe O'Grady, who leads kayak "eco tours" for the resort. After a novice-friendly lesson, Brian and I paddle with Joe into the estuary behind the Left Bank. As I squint into the distance, Joe points to a glorious white bird, which he says is an osprey; clamped in its beak is a bloody fish flapping wildly. "Shhh," Joe says, urging us to drift. "We don't want him to lose his meal."

At lunchtime, we drive five miles south to the tiny, manicured town of Duck, where we're lured by smoke wafting from the back of a wood-frame building, a barbecue joint called Duck Deli. Raised on pork slow-cooked over pits and ripped smoking from the bone at our cousin's restaurant in Georgia (Bonner's Triple B, near Madison), we're the worst kind of barbecue snobs. But we grab seats at one of the communal tables and share some crisp slaw and pulled pork (slathered, North Carolina­style, with vinegary sauce), which we decide is more than respectable.

Sunday starts with a terrific breakfast at the Lifesaving Station, The Sanderling's smaller restaurant: Malted waffles with pecans, and fruit with lemon­poppy seed yogurt are a perfect prelude to an afternoon at the spa, where I opt for an extravaganza called the ScenTao massage. During the 90-minute treatment, I find myself lying on a massage table with hot, flat rocks tucked underneath my spine and shoulders. Basted with aromatic oils, I try not to laugh as the massage therapist glides a warm, smooth rock over my limbs. The touch feels so absurdly wonderful that I have to fight giddiness.

At sunset, Brian and I take a final expedition, to the town of Corolla, 15 miles north of Duck. We stop to check out the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, a redbrick beauty built in 1875 to guide ships through the tricky depths near the Outer Banks (a stretch once known as the graveyard of the Atlantic). In the daytime, visitors can climb the stairs to an observation deck with a dramatic view of the water. Next door is the Whalehead Club, an Art Nouveau mansion built in 1925, which was used as a hunting lodge by a Philadelphia industrialist, and then as a summer school for boys, before it reopened in 1999 as a museum. The original dining room has been almost completely restored, and some of the house's original furnishings remain—including 18 rare Tiffany water-lily lampshades. But the real attraction is the Whalehead Club's plush lawn, which leads to the bay; it makes me want to kick off my sandals.

As we walk across the grass in front of the graceful yellow building, a gray fox darts into the darkening trees. On a glassy pond in front of the house, two wild ducks launch themselves into the water, sailing into a widening V. Seconds behind them I see a nutria, a cute animal that looks like a beaver, floating on his back. Feeling like an interloper, I watch as he glides lazily away, luxuriating in the cool, the calm, the stillness of his private retreat.

Michelle Green has written for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Published August 2004
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