I’ve heard visitors to the Outer Banks often complain that it looks like transplanted Richmond at peak times in the summer. It’s true, Nags Head and areas south have gained enormous popularity in recent years, and it’s the default venue for local family vacations.
For families in the metro area growing up in the 1950s, there was only one beach associated with ocean and sand-filled vacations. Virginia Beach was the go-to location largely due to its small town atmosphere, family-run beachfront guest houses and hotels and a host of seafood restaurants.
In the 1950s, I’m not sure anyone actually knew the road to Nags Head and a trip to the Outer Banks required serious planning and research.
I visited once during those years on a business trip with my father. Although my memory is limited regarding that early visit, I do remember a recent hurricane and the damage it had unleashed on the area, and the large iconic sand dune was reduced.
The extent of my childhood memories of the beach revolve around day trips to Buckroe and family vacations at Virginia Beach. The beach and the crowds were smaller than the throngs that now line the boardwalk, and the oceanfront retained an aura of days gone by.
As new motels were opened on vacant lots along the oceanfront, they took their place among established old-style hotels, complete with large front porches that provided the only activity some guests required: sitting in a rocking chair and enjoying the cool ocean breeze.
Three-story hotels like the Halifax, The Avamere and The Albermale were just a few that lined the boardwalk, all of them serving meals in white linen dining rooms.
Even the smaller establishments like the one we stayed at called The Tides Hotel near 21st Street served delicious meals that made that most anticipated time at the beach seem closer.
It’s hard to believe compared to what that strip along the ocean has become today. For some, the transformation is viewed as progress witnessed by the many large and luxurious accommodations that are now available yards away from the ocean. I can’t help but see it as a lost bit of tranquility never to be regained and it leaves me lamenting the loss of those special days.
But, maybe, that’s too easy.
Perhaps, we wouldn’t appreciate those non-air conditioned rooms that depended on cool ocean breezes to provide relief from the sun-soaked days. Or maybe we’d miss the convenience of fast food or nearby shopping malls. And, no doubt, those rocking chairs are not everyone’s idea of a summer vacation.
As the new hotels replaced the old familiar ones, I remember their spaces filled with high-rise hotels complete with concierge service.
Soon, there were no more blocks of vacant beachfront land, and the old hotels of the past appeared tiny and almost model-like situated beside the high-rise condos and hotels.
One of the remaining dinosaurs hobbling on the edge of closure proudly advertised on its sign, “We have rockers.”
Sadly, the message didn’t mean much to anyone except old-timers like me, but it did evoke a pleasant memory of days spent on one of those porches and a breeze that seemed much more refreshing in those days.
All of the landmarks from those days are gone. Even at the time, considered futuristic architecture of The Dome met its demise as the city struggled to find space for more lofty commercial sites. The Peppermint Lounge, The Sea Escape, The Avalon and all of those others eventually faced the wrecking ball, and any semblance of a small southern beach town reverted to the pages of Virginia history, leaving only a vivid memory of those past days.