Not the road to Morocco

To celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, my wife and I had a grand trip scheduled for two weeks exploring all over Morocco in mid-July.  The novel coronavirus, naturally, quashed those plans.

After Delta refunded our business class tickets, we decided to direct those not-insubstantial sums to rent oceanfront houses at Topsail Island, NC twice (two different weeks) and to make each week a family vacation.

We are halfway through the first week (the second will be over Labor Day), and I’m so glad we came.  It’s only 2 hours, 15 minutes from Raleigh, but it seems, well, so exotic.  Not Morocco-exotic or Rarotonga-exotic, but compared to being imprisoned in Raleigh for nearly five months, this beach is sheer paradise.  If I squint in the ninety-plus degree heat, it could almost be The Maldives.

Okay, no palm trees or Frangipani, but the whitest white sand and a glorious surf tame enough to swim in without drowning, and with tropical-warm water.

Literally tropical, because the Atlantic Ocean washing up on the beach in front of our house is warmed by the Gulf Stream, which meanders very, very close to the North Carolina shore in summer. 

To add to the fun, the car trip down from Raleigh was an unexpected adventure.  It was 97° F. all the way, then dropped to 91 on the barrier island. But it felt like 110. Late in the day it cooled off to the low 80s, a welcome contrast.  Nights have been high 70s to low 80s.

On the drive along I-40 from Raleigh, I’ve never seen such speeding. The NC Interstate limit is 70 mph, and I set the cruise on 75…and then passed not a single vehicle. That made me the slowest car on the road. Scores and scores of beach-bound cars, roughly half with out-of-state plates, flew past me. Many had to be going 100 or more. Yet I didn’t see a single one pulled over.

Friends in high places say many state highway patrol agencies have been told to take it easy on speeders during the pandemic. I’m no prude and have a heavy foot myself; however, routinely driving such very high speeds is dangerous. I-40 to the beach has always been a racetrack, but I’ve never seen speeding like we encountered on Sunday. Both the sheer numbers of offenders as well as the average rate.

I had read about speeders during the total shutdown back in early spring, but assumed that was a quirk and about over.

Maybe not.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon during what might be called “shift change.”  Saturdays and Sundays along the NC coast are characterized by heavy outbound and inbound traffic as weekly rentals typically end those days. 

Because Topsail Island still had a 60 year old drawbridge over the busy Intracoastal Waterway, weekend traffic on and off would get snarled up every time the bridge opened, a nightmare. To fix that problem, NCDOT built a new high bridge to replace the old swing bridge.

Seemed like the right solution, but the traffic engineers designed the bridge ends with two utterly dysfunctional roundabouts, the worst I’ve ever seen. Rather than keeping cars moving, the two circles back up traffic in all directions.

Having lived and worked in the U.K. and on the Continent, and in cities like Hong Kong, and therefore having navigated hundreds of roundabouts, I’m a huge advocate. But the ones here must have been designed by idiots. On the positive side, finally reaching our own oceanfront house was made that much sweeter.

This beach house, in downtown (such as it is) Topsail Beach, is not fancy, but comfortable. With blasting air-conditioning, supplemented by lots of spinning overhead fans, and with a decent kitchen, this will do nicely for a week. Very relaxing.

Mostly free of politics as well.  One Trump 2020 flag flutters across the street, and a lone Black Lives Matter sign sits by the street a block away.

Most local places of business have signs advising customers to wear masks, but our observations indicate about half ignore the admonition.  However, the two big grocery stores hereabouts, Food Lion and Publix, routinely enforce the mask rule, as does even the little IGA Supermarket.

We are not much bothered by maskless folks because we mostly stay in our house on the ocean, enjoying the sand and surf and cooking our own meals during this Covid-time.

Speaking of food prep, after settling in, we spent a frenetic two days of cooking:

  • 7 lbs boiled shrimp
  • 2 signature shrimp dipping sauces
  • Fried flounder
  • Fried red snapper
  • Thai yellow curry fish
  • Jasmine rice
  • 2 blueberry pies (my own recipe with lime zest, lime juice, and cinnamon)
  • Whipped heavy cream (with vanilla and sugar, of course)
  • Clam chowder (old family recipe)
  • 2 kinds of pasta
  • Croissants w/ cured ham and Swiss cheese
  • Not to mention mundane breakfast dishes and numerous cocktails
  • Also salads and fresh fruit (grapes, blueberries, cantaloupe) and vegetables (local tomatoes, etc.)
  • 15 soft shell crabs await frying, perhaps tomorrow afternoon, accompanied by green beans, other veggies. 
  • Oh, and my wife made a killer gazpacho, too.
  • And more food I’ve lost track of…but it’s all in the fridge. Yum!

Now, with the heavy cooking done and stockpiled, I have time to swim in the surf and to read until Sunday.  Punctuated, of course, by the odd G&T in the afternoon.

Over Labor Day week we’re coming back to Topsail to stay in a much bigger place in Surf City, again right on the beach. It’s a splurge to rent for 2 weeks, but the kids wanted this, too, after being cooped up in the house for months.

With apologies to Crosby & Hope, we had to skip the road to Morocco this year. Instead, I did my best Burt Lancaster impression to my wife’s Deborah Kerr as we kissed in the surf like they did in From Here To Eternity to celebrate 25 happy years together.

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