Beach chic on the North Carolina coast
For a solid 10 minutes, my friend had been strutting back and forth, assessing a pair of gorgeous Loeffler Randall sandals on her feet. With tan straps piled on a towering 5-inch heel, the shoe would turn heads on the streets of any fashion-obsessed urban center. Same goes for the boutique I was standing in with four friends, all huge windows and minimalist white-on-white decor.
The thing is, we weren't anywhere remotely cosmopolitan. The chic boutique was just outside Wrightsville Beach, an easygoing North Carolina town better known for sand-filled vacations, bronzed wannabe surfers and Top-Siders than designer stilettos.
Yet the itinerary we packed into a recent weekend on a picturesque private island (more on that in a minute) and the surrounding Wilmington area had become unexpectedly urbane. Hour upon hour of great shopping flowed into massages and sparkling wine at a bohemian spa, which we chased with briny Kumamoto oysters at a boisterous French brasserie. On paper, at least, the trip looked an awful lot like my last stay in Manhattan.
This is so not the laid-back beach town I remember from years ago.
I had narrowly escaped the impending February snowpocalypse (thank you for being so pleasant about changing my ticket, US Airways) to arrive on Figure Eight Island, where a friend was graciously hosting us at her family's beach house on this serene, five-mile-long private spit of sand on North Carolina's southern coastline.
Free of condos, crowds or much else in the way of development, Figure Eight is flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side, verdant marshes on the other. To get to it, you must pass through a guard gate -- access is limited to homeowners, renters and their announced guests -- and over a small drawbridge that ushers you across the Intercoastal Waterway, past statuesque white herons hunting through gray marsh mud.
The wild ponies and occasional bootleggers of 100 years ago have been replaced by wealthy homeowners and a regular parade of VIPs: Al Gore, Kim Basinger and Richard Gere among them. Former senator John Edwards owns a house on the island.
But don't let the exclusive pedigree deter you. A four-bedroom oceanfront house starts at about $450 a night in the spring. Many cottages range from $3,000 to $5,000 a week in the peak summer season -- on a par with, if not a touch lower than, prices in some of the tonier parts of the Outer Banks.
For a solitude lover like me, there's plenty to while away the hours on Figure Eight: strolling the white sand beach, renting bikes to explore its winding paths, paddling through the marsh grass in a kayak and maybe even ogling the giant "cottages" (hey, there's John Edwards's house!).
But cabin fever set in quickly on that drizzly February weekend -- snow, I escaped; winter, not so much -- so we ventured back over the drawbridge and off the island to do some shopping. Our destination: Lumina Station, a collection of boutiques and restaurants about 10 miles toward Wrightsville Beach, with enough to keep a serious shopaholic busy for hours.
Which brings me back to those Loeffler Randall sandals. My friend had fallen in shoe love at Beanie and Cecil (where the owners know her by name), a boutique with a well-edited collection of up-to-the-minute designer duds. We ultimately convinced her that she could live without the shoes (oh, the heartbreak!) and moved on, with a few more reasonably priced items in our shopping bags.
As I stepped into Hewitt, a light and airy home furnishings shop next door, a tiny Yorkshire terrier skidded toward my feet, rubber ball gripped in its surprisingly strong jaws. I tossed the ball for the little guy and went about decorating my imaginary beach house with the intricately embroidered pillows and white upholstered furniture. But Hewitt's aesthetic would look just as at home in an urban loft as in a salty seaside cottage. If only I had driven the 6 1/2 hours from Washington instead of flying, I could've taken home the stunning glass coffee table I'd fallen for.
We browsed through the charming Paysage and Airlie Moon home stores and scored some affordable jewelry at the colorful Monkee's boutique. I reluctantly passed up an espresso at locally based Port City Java because next up, we had some unwinding to do.
Back down the road toward Figure Eight, we arrived at the very zen Porters Neck Yoga & Spa, where you can sweat through hot down dogs, get acupuncture or, like us, opt for a basic massage. My friend had arranged for a pre-rubdown bottle of sparkling wine -- more conducive to relaxing than espresso, for sure.
Muscles loosened, it was back over the drawbridge onto the island, where the weather had cleared. Because I hadn't been able to squeeze sneakers into my carry-on (shoes seemed to be calling the shots on this trip), my friends abandoned me for a brisk walk around the island. I hit the deck for some reading before we retraced our steps to Lumina Station for dinner reservations at Brasserie du Soleil.
A pitch-perfect Parisian repro with its weathered zinc bar and dark wood paneling, the restaurant was jammed with locals. At our paper-covered table, we slurped back a few dozen Kumamoto oysters perched on icy platters. Several friends gravitated to the menu's build-your-own salad (not so very French), with around 30 toppings including haricots verts, shaved fennel and bacon. I opted for a bowl of plump mussels in saffron cream sauce with a paper cone of excellent fries. The only problem was the salad-eaters' wandering hands, which continually migrated to my fries until I moved them protectively to the end of the table.
On Sunday morning, while Washington lay buried under two feet of snow, I sat on the beach house porch with my coffee, watching sunlight bounce off the waves while I waited on hold with the airline to reschedule my ticket home. I'd have to seek refuge at my parents' house in Durham for a few days, but I was already looking forward to a return trip this summer.
Next time, I'll find room for some heels in my suitcase next to the flip-flops, for all those citified stops. And maybe some sneakers.
Martin is a Washington-based writer who blogs about food and restaurants at metrocurean.com.