You’re looking for a relaxing summertime in a warm place with a beautiful beach, and your ass is cheap. Where to go?
You want to go to Oak Island, North Carolina.
You’ll need to start with a minimum of four friends to pull this off — beach houses aren’t cheap anywhere,* but Oak Island is more reasonable than a lot of places because it’s about an hour from Wilmington and more than an hour from Myrtle Beach.
But you don’t actually want to go to those places, anyway. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Wilmington is a pretty little town with pretty little things in it, but you didn’t go all the way to the beach for that. North Carolina is full of pretty little towns, most of them substantially cheaper to stay in.
You want to find a beach house on the second row, or even a little further back. Don’t even bother looking at first-row houses — unobstructed beach views are for rich people. Although on this last trip, my friends and I beat the system by getting an apartment in a building where the first-row lot was empty. Great view and beach access, for second-row prices. West Long Beach Villas, check them out. They are not posh — they’re by no means the grodiest accommodations around, but they’re a little beaten up — and you’re in apartments, which means potentially noisy neighbors. But the location is unbeatable, and splitting with four of my friends brought the cost to less than $200 apiece for a full week.
Yes, a full week. This isn’t a casual getaway, even if it’s relatively cheap. Most beach houses rent for a week at a time, and it’s a good value — long about day three you start to turn into The Dude, and the real relaxation begins. You’ll also want to plan your trip for summertime, and to coincide with a dark/new moon. I’ll explain that bit later.
Before you leave, pack up about a week’s worth of non-perishables. Your house will have a fully-equipped kitchen, and the way to make your trip affordable is to eat what you bring for almost every meal. Bring a loaf of bread, some almond butter, a bunch of bananas, a couple of bottles of wine, maybe some pasta and sauce, and you’re golden.There’s only one grocery store on the island, and they jack up their prices accordingly. Go to the Food Lion for stuff that would spoil in the car on the way there, and bring everything else.
There are two good restaurants on the island that are vegetarian-friendly, the Thai place and the hibachi steakhouse, both of which are tasty and reasonable. (One day I might go to Oak Island without vegetarians, at which point I might be able to report on the seafood.) Oh, and there’s a Mexican restaurant — some sleuthing suggests it’s technically called San Felipe, but as long as I can remember the sign has just said “Mexican Restaurant” — right over in Southport and a long-time favorite of ours.
You also want to bring entertainments: movies, games, books, whatever you’re going to want to fill your time with. Do not expect to find entertainments “in town” — there aren’t any. And don’t assume that your accommodations will have Internet access; most affordable ones don’t, even now. Things move slowly on Oak Island. There are two nice spots where you can get a little internet time, Crazy Cake Chicks bakery (splendid cupcakes with hilarious names) and The Flying Pig coffeeshop (warm and friendly small-town service).
Carpool if you can. Oak Island is a long haul from anywhere that I’d charitably describe as civilization — I’m from around there, so I’m allowed to say that — and flying defeats the whole cheap-ass concept. Split gas among friends to save cash and keep you occupied on what will probably be at least a seven-hour drive from any-damn-place.
I can write with some authority on the appeal of Oak Island because my friends and I have been coming here for near 15 years. Not only do we not mind the total lack of stuff to do, we relish it. We come here for gorgeous, clean sandy beaches, a gentle oceanfront amenable to swimming (even for those like me who aren’t strong swimmers), the ocean air, and time together. And yet, in 15 years, we’d never figured out the best reason to come to Oak Island, until this week.
Here is the outing you must take. Around 11pm, put on your bathing suit — simpler is better, for reasons I’ll get to. Get a flashlight so you can find your way home, and wear flip-flops — you don’t want to step on something pointy in the dark. Bring at least one friend, so there will be someone to hang onto you if you get in over your head, or to go to shore and get help if you start to drown. (Better safe than sorry.) Walk down to a spot on the beach where there’s as little light from the houses as possible, and be careful to avoid the night fishermen, with the tall fishing poles buried upright in the sand. When you find a likely spot, leave behind your flip-flops and wade into the ocean. Stick together, and try to keep your feet on the ocean floor, as the strength of the outgoing tide can surprise you. Wade or swim out past where the waves break, to a spot where you are comfortable standing with just your head above water.
Strip off your bathing suit. Tie straps or drawstrings around your wrist, or grip it tightly in one hand, or both — let go and you’re streaking home. You need to be far enough out that the fishermen don’t have you arrested for public indecency. But the feeling of ocean water on your skin is so worth it. Now look into the water around you, and move. You’ll see what look like thousands of blue fireflies, swirling in the water around you, clinging to your skin. They are bioluminescent plankton, and they’re in the water all the time, but you can only see them on a very dark night. Trailing your arm through the water and leaving a trail of glowing sparkles is pretty much as close to feeling like a wizard as you can get.
Because the night is so dark, and you are so far from the lights of town, you should be able to look up and see a gigantic sky, full of stars, and the awesome glow of the Milky Way spiraling across the sky. Float naked in the water, carried by waves like the womb, stars twinkling above you and life sparkling below. Depending on how exciting your life has been, this may or may not be among the most incredible moments of your life.
This has been a cheap-ass guide to becoming one with the universe.
*Nobody paid me for any of the links in this article, by the way. Though they’re welcome to if they’d like.