Laughing All the Way to the Banks: On North Carolina's outer banks, a family sets up house for a week of sunning, crabbing, parasailing, and exploring

Our approach to the Outer Banks of North Carolina is southeast along the Virginia peninsula that General McClellan took running from Lee in the Seven Days Campaign. McClellan was known for his assiduous protective measures when moving troops, and I have taken some myself. Between my girls, ages five and 12, prime combat years, I have placed a jumbo black canvas duffel, which, filled with their own excessive essentials, crowds them into the walls of the station wagon, and which is called, in a hat-tip to Muammar al-Qaddafi, the Line of Death. The girls respect this construct, reporting faithfully any trespass by the other in hope that an execution will be forthcoming. They have taken to putting stuffed animals astride the Line of Death to irritate each other, confident that I will not execute a stuffed animal. My wife, Sidney, drives while I monitor the Line and handle arbitration. We are rather like Nixon and Kissinger. We need the wide-open beach, soon.

We see things in the approach that McClellan did not, but that maybe Lee saw coming. The first signs of impending commerce are fruit stands flanked by miles of handmade roadside advertisements—10-foot plywood ears of corn, scarecrows sitting atop tractors. Inside these stands, the prices are as staggering as is the heat outside them, and we have arrived in record heat, for which indeed something called a Heat Advisory has been issued. I squint back to the car in a Price Advisory, refusing to buy so much as a tomato.

These stands are harbingers of what may be more commerce on less land than anywhere else in the States. The Outer Banks is a sandbar sometimes not one-eighth of a mile wide running parallel to about one-half of the North Carolina coast. Its northern citizens consider the Outer Banks proper to run from the Virginia line down to Ocracoke, about 120 miles; folk south would include another 58 miles constituting the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Whichever, it is long and thin. And developed: from the relatively quiet Ocracoke (accessible only by ferry), development gradually increases northward through places like Buxton, which as yet look like small towns, to Duck and Corolla, which look like small malls. "The big boys are up there," a real estate agent in Avon, about in the middle, says.

We have been offered a choice of two beach houses. One is in Avon and features a Jacuzzi and private walkway to the ocean for $2,700 the week. The other, in a private community in Duck, offers a pool, a walkway to the beach, tennis courts, a kiddie pool, and organized activities for the children. "Let's see," Elena, who is five, advises, "if the one with the pool also has a Jacuzzi." When we laugh, she says, "Well, that's what they're named," and we laugh some more, assuring her we are not laughing at her. Which we are not: we will take the house with the pool should it also have a Jacuzzi, and at $4,200 the week, odds are good.

The odds are very good. Our house at Ships Watch has a queen-size Jacuzzi with a king-size bed beside it, four more bedrooms down the hall, an upstairs living area that has a bar facing the ocean, a stereo entertainment center set into a pine fireplace-mantel complex, a kitchen that compacts what it doesn't Insinkerate, porches upstairs and down, open and screened, around all of the house, four and one-half bathrooms throughout it, washer and dryer inside it, overstuffed furniture inside it, plastic furniture outside it, canvas furniture under it, to be taken to the beach in front of it, Jenn-Air and Royal Dirt Devil and microwave, ice maker in the refrigerator and ice maker outside the refrigerator and cable on three televisions and answering machine and binoculars and crab tongs. The cherry on this sundae is a brand-new state-park-grade outdoor grill with an unblemished galvanized coal hod and shovel for disposal of ashes. I come from people for whom a proper beach house has a sandy linoleum floor that seems to break when you walk on it, a refrigerator with rust on it and beer in it, and a shower you hope fresh water comes out of.

The house is so large that I make nervous patrols of it, like an emperor ruling over a strange new province. Sidney says, "I'm afraid we'll lose our stuff." The girls can't figure how to fight over a bedroom when they perceive they may each have two.

There are 47 large pelican-colored houses at Ships Watch, on a 400-foot swath of land from ocean to sound. The community gives a welcoming party on the beach on Saturday, after the residents are comfortably settled in. Someone writes a name tag for you, and then you may have at the hot dog and hamburger and slaw-and-bean buffet, get a drink, and sit on the beach to eat. The residents are in their private groups—some houses at Ships Watch accommodate up to 10—and do not seem much interested in cross-pollination. Large speakers play popular music. Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" was weird when it came out, and it still is. The Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin' " takes us back to before Hendrix and Joplin, and then "In the Midnight Hour" to before that, when our love could come tumbling down, but "Smoke on the Water" ruins the mood, and "Joy to the World" gets us nervously tapping our feet, wondering how we ever seriously invested in the exploits of Jeremiah the bullfrog. But we did, and somehow have come to be parents for it, indifferent to others, eating hamburgers on a beach.

When Jane Scott of Ships Watch breaks out the hula hoops, we recoil, embarrassed, but the children charge. Boys seem particularly determined to master hula-hooping. Girls sense something—Elena ignores the scene publicly but sneaks a hoop home to practice privately. Then the limbo contest: Children observe no rules in limbo. They perceive that the object is to get under the bar, period, and they do. They will crawl facedown like a soldier under wire if you let them, and you will because you are laughing too hard to stop them. Then the women of Ships Watch do line dances in the sand, like the Electric Slide and the Chicken. Only one civilian adult joins them. The others stand by, kind of hula-hooped and Jeremiahed and Chickened into diffident agreeableness. Back at the buffet, someone says, "There's a bug in the mustard. I guess I should get him out."

But now the work of vacation begins. In the first day and a half of living the dream of living in an oceanfront dream house, the girls have toasted themselves through all species of sunblock to the very marrow of their slender bones, and the surf is losing its appeal. Though the water is clear and deliciously cold, the sand can burn your feet (Solarcaine on burnt toes is a rush). Elena, faced with going to the beach, says, "I'll watch some cartoons to get some energy." Amanda, 12, sees a parasailer aloft over Currituck Sound, has no idea what it is, wants to do it.

At nine o'clock Sunday morning we board a Zodiac—the early-bird discount boat at North Beach Sailing, across the street from Ships Watch—that ferries us to another boat moored in the sound. The mean depth of Currituck Sound, about four miles wide by 35 miles long, is four feet, making it a giant water-sport playground in which you can stand up anytime something goes wrong.

This boat may be more of a thrill than the parasailing; a 31-foot Ocean Pro whose 300-horsepower turbo diesel can keep the sail—a vented parachute—out of the water, and, more impressive, handle the difficult launch. The chute is laid out on the aft deck, then snapped up into the air by throttling full into the wind, which tips the boat on its side and has everyone looking at and trying not to fall into the plowed swale of water under the boat.

Aloft, taking turns in tandem with the girls, because they are too light to fly solo, I can look over the town of Duck. "Jelly, jelly, jelly," I sing, "jelly stays on my mind. What's on your mind, Elena?"
"Flying," she says.
"I hope a bird doesn't hit us."
"I hope a bird doesn't peck the parachute," she says.

Back on the ground, Amanda has decided that horse riding is more the thing.

But before we ride, we crab. Bright and early Monday morning on Currituck Sound, Jane Scott provides us South Bend crab lines, which are weighted industrial-strength safety pins on kite string to be wound on a stick. Jane hands the children any old stick off the ground for this, which they readily accept, but most of them will not touch the chicken backs they are supposed to pin up for bait.

The size of a crab, when running around a dock en garde against threats made with net handles and tennis shoes, waving its spectacular Popeye-heavy blue-and-red claws, is not important to children. They have difficulty with the notion that one crab is too small to eat, another not, probably because they can't fathom eating one at all. The number of crabs, on the other hand, is very important. When Amanda has two to Elena's none, we nearly lose Elena to what looks like terminal prison-yard sulking. When we finally induce her to pull in two infant crabs, the music of the spheres resumes, and she cavalierly gives her crabs away to the community bucket and retires from crabbing.

When I purchase a video about the local wild horses, I am calculating toward recreation that I hope may not involve becoming airborne. The adventure begins safely enough: on the couch, where the girls watch Wild in Corolla, a very well-put-together film. Narrated by the late Charles Kuralt and freighted with good local talkers, it tells the story of the oldest denizens of the Outer Banks: horses descended from, it is heavily argued, those of Spanish conquistadors. If so, they are now the only wild Spanish mustangs in the world. The girls are sufficiently encouraged by the images to risk a trip outside for secondary evidence.

Scott Trabue of Corolla Outback Adventures takes us to see the horses in his Chevy Suburban 4 x 4, which we need because the last 12 miles north of Corolla to the Virginia line, the 16,000-acre fenced home of these horses, is without paved roads. A northeast wind has kicked up, canceling the Heat Advisory and throwing sand like snow into the car tracks on the beach. There are 30 or 40 residences up here, and a few dozen rental houses, scattered and serene. There is an active livestock ranch, abandoned development roads and canals, the stately, fast-moving Penny's Hill dune, an eerie 1,400-year-old forest of petrified cypress stumps, low quiet maritime forest with loblolly pine and stunted bonsai-like live oak, two wildlife preserves, and the horses, so tame you can pet them from the car. Scott Trabue says there are seven species of poisonous snake up here, which gets me hoping for a nonchalant moccasin in the placid live oaks. If you were not obligated to provide girls Things to Do, this would be, to my mind, the place to be. But if Things to Do is imperative, and Things More Appropriate than moccasin sighting, then Ships Watch and Duck is the place. We quit the wilderness, back to Duck.

Duck is small, but not. From Ships Watch you can walk to Island Bookstore, Diane's Lavish Linens, Eden Spa & Salon, North Beach Sailing & Outfitters, Islands (festive and exotic clothing and gifts), Toy-Riffic, Sunset Ice Cream, Donna Designs (wearable art), Blue Point Bar & Grill, and Duck's General Store (whence the horse video). In the event you have not yet found what you might regard as necessary for your beach stay, you may hie on to Beach Essentials for rafts, wind socks, flip-flops, sunscreen, key chains, ceramic lighthouses, crayons, toothbrushes, shells, toys, pails and shovels, flags, hats and visors, crab nets, swim fins and masks and snorkels, rubber duckies, blow-up boats and tubes and pools, Boogie boards, postcards, change purses, kites, Wiffle balls, Frisbees, life jackets, sunglasses, swim caps, and scrunchies and cozies and croakies and saltwater taffy.

There is relief in all this. Dockside 'N Duck Seafood Market has the best stock of what might have to be called seafood accessories I have ever seen. They'll get you the Zatarain's Crab Boil from the back if it's not on the shelves and you prefer it to Old Bay, and live crabs to go with it. Nothing is so delightfully uncommercial as a cardboard box full of scrabbling crabs under your arm. The proprietress, Karen Lassiter, tells me she'd like to go to Italy but that she winds up on the beach during her vacations "just being useless." After all my exertions entertaining girls, I want to be useless myself. I am about familied out.

I go to Bob's Bait & Tackle next door, in Duck's oldest building, a Hopperesque canopied gas station. Approximately where the gas pump would be is a snow-cone stand. Inside are two or three hundred fishing rods in a room that feels smaller than any in my house at Ships Watch. If they have a refrigerator, it's going to have rust on it. They do have a refrigerator, with bait in it, and they let me look at bloodworms, an exotic northern bait. Bob Vaught is talking on the phone almost nonstop, booking fishing charters for 71 of the 140-odd charter boats that work the Outer Banks. "I've got a guy, retired merchant captain," Bob tells me. "Even if you didn't get fish you'd be entertained." "No fish" sounds good in the surfeit of essentials around here. I could sit in a boat and be useless. This would work. I am coming back.

At Ships Watch the last day, we meet some fellow residents. While the girls are at swimming lessons, to be followed by Camp Sunshine, I discover poolside that the woman whose children crabbed beside mine three days ago, and who refused my offer to watch her children while she went for a crab pot, is Wendy Sherman, publisher of Owl Books, a division of Henry Holt & Co., my own publisher. She has been coming to Ships Watch for five years precisely because of these activities for children that allow one to be useless.

Jane Scott arrives with a yellow star painted on her face, which signals that the day's activity will be face painting. I ask Wendy to determine why no bookstore can get my second book, one of four she publishes. I am rudely intruding business into the business of being useless. Children are under a tent already champing at the bit to paint their own faces. "Wendy," I say, "bye."

At Bob's Bait & Tackle I stop and peruse the snow-cone flavors—royal strawberry, wild cherry, watermelon, lime, orange, piña colada, banana, root beer, magic pineapple, bubblegum, grape, and tiger's blood. It is a moment of the old surfeit bugbear until I select grape. Amid this embarrassment of riches on the Outer Banks, you can have a house with no road to it and a boat with no fish in it and just a grape snow cone with a whole lot of syrup in it, if that is all you want.

Or you can have everything, as you choose.

We make our escape down the Banks to Ocracoke, a trip of such rapid commercial depressurization that it could cause the bends. The Avalon Pier in Kitty Hawk is—excepting the high-tech virtual-reality arcade in place of old-timey low-tech pinball—exactly what a pier was in the fifties. Shirtless men with quart bottles of beer look at young women in bikinis. Bad stomachs abound. People fish in the roasting heat of the day and keep everything they catch. Small dried marine carcasses blow around like chaff. A boy has nearly drowned and is being attended by paramedics; the sentiment at pier's end is that he should be fined $200 for swimming when red flags are posted. A guy goes around saying, "You don't got good odds bucking Mother Nature." The pier moves with the swell, and nothing is level or plumb about it. It is the absolute antithesis of Ships Watch.

After Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hill and Nags Head, where the land is wide enough to support actual shopping malls, you narrow into long stretches of unspoiled dune and beach (Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Cape Hatteras National Seashore). Interspersed are the small towns Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Hatteras, and finally, by ferry, Ocracoke.

In Ocracoke people walk from cafés to shops to more cafés, rent bikes, ride them to the beach. All houses are soundside. At the Island Inn & Dining Room our last night we are serenaded by four fellows who have never sung together before but who, as members of other barbershop quartets, can do all right. They sing for everyone in the restaurant, having dined themselves. It's great fun—rather like The Lawrence Welk Show busting out beside your table—and it's something you don't see up north on the Banks. Up there, at, say, the Blue Point Bar & Grill in Duck, where the food is so good the reservations in high season must be made a week in advance, there really isn't even room for serenade.

So, again, it comes to this: On the Outer Banks, take your choice. There's high-end, and low. There are 1 million beach essentials, and there's the beach. You can spread a family out.

PADGETT POWELL's latest collection of stories is Aliens of Affection (Henry Holt).

For information on Outer Banks real estate rentals, call the Chamber of Commerce at 919/441-8144. Ships Watch (800/261-7924) leases houses from $2,200 per week.

Here's the inside scoop on the Outer Banks:
Bob's Bait & Tackle (Duck Rd., Duck; 919/261-8589)
North Beach Sailing (in Duck; for reservations call 919/261-7100)
Dockside 'N Duck Seafood Market (Main Rd., Duck; 919/261-8687)
Corolla Outback Adventures (in Corolla; for reservations call 919/453-0877)
Blue Point Bar & Grill (Duck Village Waterfront Shops, Duck; 919/261-8090)
Kitty Hawk Kites-for yo-yos and kites to buy, kayaks to rent (in Duck; for kayak reservations call 919/441-4124)