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Southward Bound

Friday, October 7, 2011, 16:43 EST Leave a comment Go to comments

Surf City PierVacation, here I come.

If it’s October, it must be time for my quasi-annual trip to the Den Brother’s vacation house on Topsail Island, barrier island about halfway between Ocracoke Island (of North Carolina’s Outer Banks) and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Unlike during the summer months, most of the houses in DB’s neighborhood are unoccupied at this time of year, though there will be some weekenders taking advantage of the Columbus Day holiday. But once they’re gone, it will be like having our own private beach. The water is still warm enough for swimming and the days are typically in the high 70s.

Of course, if the weather doesn’t cooperate, we won’t be going to the beach. The extended forecast on AccuWeather.com has changed on a daily basis for the last week; right now, it looks like a cloudy week with at least a chance of showers most days awaits us. I take comfort in knowing that weather forecasts are often wrong. If this one isn’t, well, it will still be a week off from work.

Topsail Island is comprised of three towns: North Topsail, Surf City, and Topsail Beach. Surf City, in the middle, is the only one that spills onto the mainland. It’s also the town where most of the island’s businesses are, including a small supermarket and lots of small shops and eateries.

One of the two routes onto the island is the Surf City Swing Bridge, which swings open on a regular schedule to allow taller watercraft to pass through the Intracoastal Waterway. (The only other way onto or off the island is several miles up the island via the North Topsail “high bridge,” so-called because it’s high enough for watercraft to pass under.) The state plans to replace the 56-year-old Swing Bridge with an as yet undetermined alternative design in 2016.

About a half mile from the swing bridge, on the ocean side of the island, the Surf City Pier extends out 700 feet over the water. The town charges a nominal fee to access the pier for fishing or just to sitting and relaxing; funds raised help pay for beach refurbishment after storms.

The beaches themselves are fine sand, with dunes protecting the inner island from storm surges. It isn’t uncommon for hurricanes or lesser storms to cause significant beach and dune erosion, but the towns on the island build them up again fairly quickly. There is a lot of real estate value behind those dunes, and they aren’t that big compared to, say, the dunes on Cape Cod’s National Seashore. Were it not for human intervention, half the island would probably be uninhabitable.

Coastal cities sandwich the island to the northeast and southwest. Up the coast is Jacksonville, home of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station New River, the latter of which serves as home for the choppers that can sometimes be seen flying over the ocean just east of the island. Camp Lejeune is an enormous operation whose personnel patronize the businesses of Jacksonville; it’s hard to go anywhere in the city without seeing Marines in and out of uniform.

Down the coast is the city of Wilmington, which claims a campus of the University of North Carolina where the Den Niece is currently a junior. The eastern edge of campus is a stone’s throw from Wrightsville Beach. There is much more to Wilmington than just the college, including a small airport, but I haven’t seen any of it.

Last year’s North Carolina vacation included a two-day detour to visit friends in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, a charming community south of Myrtle Beach. The area is a favorite destination for northern golfers who want to extend the playing season. This year, our friends will drive up to spend a couple of days with us.

It isn’t often that I have guests visiting me while I’m on vacation, but the Den Brother’s house is big enough. With two king rooms, two queen rooms, a room with two sets of bunk beds, and a queen sleeper in the great room, the house accommodates up to 14 people. Even with guests early in the week, there will only be five of us.

One feature common to many of Topsail Island’s houses, whether seasonal or year-round, is that almost all of them are built up off the ground. The high water table doesn’t allow for basements, and the threat of storm surges makes homes built on grade vulnerable to water damage or worse. So all that’s at ground level is the entrance to the house, closet space for items like beach chairs and trash barrels, and a garage if there is one. Living space is above that. DB’s house has bedrooms on the second floor and common areas on the third floor, which is a fairly typical layout for larger homes. I think of them as upside-down houses.

Have I mentioned the drive? I always drive when I got to Topsail. It’s less expensive than flying, and I don’t have to rent a car when I get there. True, it takes about 15 hours by the time you figure in meal stops, gasoline stops, bathroom stops, leg-stretching stops, etc. We’ll leave at 7:00 tomorrow morning and be there around 10:00 at night, haul our luggage inside, make up the beds, and be asleep by 11:00. Then we have six days to slack off before doing it all again on the way back. Some people might find such a trip to be too much time in a car. But I like the sense of control I have driving rather than relying on an airline schedule. Besides, with three of us to share the driving, it won’t be so bad. After doing the entire trip by myself a few years ago, this will be a piece of cake.

Maybe I’ll pop in here to post while I’m away. Maybe I won’t. You’ll just have to come back and find out for yourself.

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