Most folks think about the beach in terms of their annual vacation. That was the way I grew up in North Carolina during the fifties. Most summers mother would pile me into the car with as many of her nieces as would fit and off we would go to the magical world of the beach.
The fifties were a time before television and malls homogenized America. Regional differences existed because places were different and not just so some national chain could exploit them for business. Our simple beach cottages on North Carolina's shores were never oceanfront, but they were always just a short walk to beach. No one cared about the cottages because we did not come to sit inside and watch television. We came to play on the beach.
There was always a chance that you might meet someone from a strange, far away place like New Jersey. At night the beach boulevards changed into magical places with neon lights, open shops with things that made your eyes go wide and then there was the sound of beach music. Years of television and tiny computers that we call smartphones have changed our lives. People come to the beach and jog along the tide line with their iPods or iPhones welded to their ears. Why come to the beach if you drown out the sound of waves. They expect home theaters so they can watch the same movies as at home instead of wandering the beach at night. We were so tired at night after a full day at the beach that sleep came quickly and the televisions were black and white anyway. Few cottages even had phones, but there were pay phones which are now relics of the past. The waves cannot work their night magic unless they are given a chance.
We are lucky the beach has not changed as much as people have. There have been changes of course, many small beach cottages have been replaced by sand castles that house multiple families. I often wonder how five or six families manage to get along for a week at the beach. There must be special families than can handle it. We enjoy our grown children but even the most loved child moved out on their own for good reasons.
Summer at the beach does change when you live at the beach. When we went to the beach in the fifties and sixties, there was always at least one or two big seafood meals at restaurants. Since we live at the beach, we long ago figured out that the best seafood is what you catch and cook yourself. Failing that, you find a reliable fish monger and then cook it yourself. We rarely go to a fancy restaurant during the summer for an evening meal. They are packed and too expensive.
We do still enjoy the beach itself. I sometimes walk the beach five or six times during a week in the summer. I usually walk in the afternoons when many of our visitors are back in their beach houses. There are some lesser known beaches that are favorites of mine. I also fish the area waters but catching fish is not nearly as easy as it was years ago. North Carolina is the only state according to the documentary, Net Effect, "that allows broad and extensive use of gill nets in inshore waters" in the Southeast. Recreational and commercial fishing is feeling the impact of poor management practices by the state. If I had it to do over, I might have chosen a different state with more enlightened fishing rules.
Still once in a while I will catch a flounder, trout, or slot drum that brings back lots of memories. Fortunately we have found that there are plenty of things to do at the beach besides fish or roast yourself on the sand. There are some very interesting places to visit or to hike that are not even on the beach and we take full advantage of all of them.
Then there is getting out on the water. Most of us live here because we love the water in one way or another. No one in the fifties had heard of kayaks but they are now a major source of fun and exercise at the beach. That is especially true in a place like the Crystal Coast which is blessed with many beautiful shallow waters that are perfect for kayaking. We also take to the water in power boats at the drop of hat in our area since we have some wonderful big coastal rivers. The Intracoastal Waterway is our superhighway since it provides safe boating between harbors and homes.
There have been other changes. I can remember hauling groceries to the beach because there were few stores. We brought lots of tomatoes for sandwiches. Now we have a wide-assortment of grocery stores to take care of our visitors. However, if you live here, you learn to shop from Monday to Thursday for groceries and even then you try to find a store a few miles from the beach.
Of course not all beaches are the same or have changed as much. The towns on the Northern Outer Banks, Nags Head, Duck and Corolla, and much of the strip down to Hatteras and including Ocracoke are small outposts on thin stretches of sand. Here on the Crystal Coast, our beaches have more vegetation but are closer to the mainland and the less seasonal populations that live there. The mainland here happens to be very agricultural. We have plenty of farm stands and some of them that are exceptional. That means it is easy to eat locally.
We are also blessed with a communities that do not disappear when the summer leaves. Few restaurants or stores close along our end of the Crystal Coast. They may shorten hours for the winter or close during January for a well deserved vacation but for the most part life goes on with or without visitors. Without the crowds, the shop keepers and restaurant owners get to renew their friendships with locals each year.
True summer at the beach begins around Memorial Day and runs to around the second week in August. It is not a long time to share our beaches and the truth is that most visitors are gone before the best beach season arrives in the fall. Fall means the water is still warm, the humidity will disappear and the fish bite a little better. Few complain about summer beach visitors because we need them to survive and they give our communities a festive air. Our wave of visitors is a little like a river flooding each spring and refreshing the soils and people along the river.
Our visitors always leave a little of themselves with us and hopefully they take home a little of us with them. Life on the beach is still special. It is special not only because of the tides and seasons that come and go but also because of our flood of visitors that continues to ebb and flow. We live in land touched by many people and by a place shaped by the powerful forces of nature. All that gives the beach character that cannot be duplicated in a mall. I like to think that with every summer's high tide of people, there are few that are thrown up on our shores and never leave. The forces of mother nature and the diversity of spirit makes the beach a very special spot.
If you want to learn more secrets of our beaches, try our five-star-rated travel guide, A Week at the Beach - The Emerald Isle Travel Guide. We have a condensed free guide to the area that is online and you can find a map at this site and links to more articles here. If you do make it to Emerald Isle and want a paperback copy of our books, the Emerald Isle Town Office has them available. The 142 page color paperback is $20 and the b&w one is $8.