Stories about North Carolina usually crow about the Tar Heel State’s scenic beauty. It blankets the state from the Outer Banks in the east to the western Great Smoky Mountains.
We chose a week in Corolla for a recent family reunion, on the Outer Banks, just a stone’s throw from the Virginia line. Tourist-hungry eateries, hotels and condo rentals and T-shirt shops were happy to see us after Hurricane Florence blew through. A woman in Corolla told us, “We were 100 miles lucky.” It was hard to see any damage at all there, but the farther south we drove, the more sand was piled alongside the highway.
Now, I’m not much of a beach lover. The horizon doesn’t change much from day to day, some sunsets are prettier than others, and sometimes you’ll find a unique shell washed up by high tide. But at night the ocean’s waves become a calming concert, the stars always brighter than the evening before and the breeze tries to convince you to spend the night. That’s the best part.
There were nine of us there that week and rentals big enough to house all of us comfortably is tough to find. The number one priority? A hot tub. Not having one was a deal breaker. But this place was big enough that you might not see someone in the other end of the house all day. We learned to live with square toilets, saunas, jacuzzis, mirrored bathrooms (that freaked out a few of us), huge TVs in every room. Oh, and bidets. Really.
After the first day, we grew accustomed to living like the ‘other half’, at least for this week. Most of the family– Karen, Connie, Joyce, JB, David– was content to spend the week on the beach, reading inside, looking for shells, walking the beach. Scott and Jean took their Jeep on to the beach. Mike and I took pictures up and down the coast. And of course, the family made all-important dinner plans.
No matter what we did separately during the day, we tried to get back together for dinner. Most of us got to choose one dinner location, or if it didn’t matter, we passed the decision-making to someone else.
Connie was in charge, although she wouldn’t admit it. But that’s OK– someone had to make a choice. We ate BBQ, seafood (a safe choice and a big hit), pizza and typical Southern cuisine. Our compliments to the chefs, there was no bad dinner.
But the best treat of all was during a drive near Engelhard, as Mike and I were checking out Lake Mattamuskeet and the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
Generally, we try to stay away from franchise restaurants while traveling. We can eat at McDonalds or Wendy’s here, why drive eight hours to eat there again?
As we meandered down the road, we zipped past a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant called H & L’s. It looked like a three-car garage with a hand-painted sign over the door. It wasn’t the type of place that grabs your eye because of the sparkle, the neon lights or fancy building. No, this was Mom and Pop’s place.
I did a quick U-turn and headed back. It was the best lunch of the entire week– for half the price.
OK, half of our reunion party probably wouldn’t have eaten there. It wasn’t sparkling and shiny, and the place could’ve used a coat of paint. A health inspector might have worn her pencil down to a stub.
But the food and the wait staff was terrific. It was like being at home with Mom and Dad. Chopped steak and gravy was marvelous, as was the cabbage, greens, fried chicken, string beans, fried apples. If you wanted shrimp, they’d fry some up and bring it out on a plate–hot, hot, hot– just for you.
The biscuits were as big as softballs and tasty as dessert. Bathe one of those in steak gravy, and that was lunch all by itself. Living south of the Mason-Dixon line, my body weight would double in six months.
As Mike and I stuffed ourselves silly, we asked about Florence and the damage she might have caused here last week. Well, with that invitation, we gained a new friend.
One of the waitresses raced back into the kitchen to fetch her phone. And then she sat down with us for a long time to show all the flood pictures, explaining the photo and location. All the flood water has gone away now, she said with a great big smile, and indeed, we couldn’t see any damage.
We waddled out of H &L’s two happy men, convinced we wouldn’t have to eat until breakfast the next morning. In fact, while H & L’s was at least two to three hours away from our temporary home, we tried to make excuses to head that direction, and ‘maybe’ just happen to stop in again.
The saddest part of the trip was that we never returned to H & L’s.