DUCK, N.C. - My family and I felt right at home from the minute we arrived at this seaside town near the northern end of North Carolina's Outer Banks.
Two of the first people we met were a mother from Warminster and her grown daughter from Levittown, shopping in a Rite-Aid for items we each had neglected to pack.
At a seafood restaurant, a young family at the next table turned out to be from Levittown - the father's Phillies cap was a conversation-starter.
And when we tried to phone in an order for barbecue, I accidentally dialed the restaurant's sister eatery - in New Britain, Central Bucks County.
"That's my brother's place," said Ken Forlano, wearing an Eagles T-shirt, as I picked up our platters of North Carolina-style 'cue at Duck Deli.
Throughout a weeklong stay last spring, my unscientific survey found Pennsylvania license plates second in number only to those of a much closer commonwealth, Virginia.
"We get a lot of people from Pennsylvania," a worker at a Nags Head Hammocks store confirmed as I bought an anchoring gizmo for our beach umbrella.
Duck is an appealing mix of shore activity and beach tranquillity - bustling shops and restaurants along the main, two-lane road (Route 12), and quiet neighborhoods just off it.
The seven-mile stretch of barrier island is bounded by fine-sand beaches and the Atlantic Ocean on the east and Currituck Sound a mere half-mile to the west.
As the merchants' guidebook touted, Duck is "a place where doing nothing can keep you pretty busy." Which suited my wife, Valerie; college daughter, Rebecca; and me just fine. We all were in need of some serious R&R, with time on the beach and the links our main priorities.
Within minutes of checking into our oceanfront resort, Barrier Island Station, we were sipping exotic drinks (except for Rebecca) on the deck at Fishbones Sunset Grille & Raw Bar while savoring the darkening blue-and-orange sky over the choppy water.
The popular restaurant and bar was hopping, yet we had avoided the peak summer crowds by vacationing in the second week of May.
The weather turned out to be unseasonably cold, with temperatures in the 60s instead of the mid-70s. On the beach, though, the sun's rays took the chill off the gusty winds, allowing us to escape into our novels to the background sound of lapping waves.
There's plenty to do in Duck, from gentle bike rides, shopping, and dining to sea kayaking, jet skiing, and fishing. Its neighbor, Corolla (pronounced COR-ah-la), has an imposing lighthouse to climb, and four-wheel-drive vehicles to ride on the beach to spot wild horses.
And within 15 miles to the south is Nags Head, home of the Wright Brothers National Memorial, and Kill Devil Hills, gateway to the 70-mile-long Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The memorial has full-scale reproductions of the Wright Brothers' 1902 glider and 1903 powered flying machine. Outside, the site of Orville's 12-second, 120-foot flight is marked.
The seashore, also part of the National Park system, features 30,000 acres of beaches and dunes, three distinctive lighthouses, and the communities of Rodanthe, Buxton, and Ocracoke. Ferries connect the barrier islands and the mainland.
For this vacation, though, we kept mostly to the Northern Beach area of Duck, Corolla, and Southern Shores.
And why not, with the beach a short stroll away - and virtually all to ourselves - and shops and restaurants nearby? Even when I took the car to play golf (notching my first birdie in years!), Valerie and Rebecca enjoyed exploring Duck by bike, when they weren't lounging at the beach or pool.
One of the first things I look for at a new vacation spot are bakeries, and I figured Duck had a winner when I spotted bicyclists steering with one hand along the main drag while clutching a box of doughnuts in the other.
Sure enough, Duck Donuts satisfied our breakfast craving, serving warm, made-to-order treats. No fillings here, but plenty of choices: cinnamon or powdered sugar, glaze, six icings, and four toppings - or bare. We went with the cinnamon sugar coating, and those doughnuts never had a chance - they were done before we left the parking lot.
Less than a mile down the road, I found another gem - Tullio's Bakery, which had a full assortment of doughnuts, pastries, muffins, cakes, and pies. Since I also can't pass up a bargain, I took home a few cinnamon rolls and scones marked down near the end of the day, and they warmed up just fine the next morning.
We also discovered Northern Lights Bakery while exploring Corolla. The customer before us scooped up the last of the cinnamon rolls - one of the bakery's specialties - so we happily sampled cupcakes and pastries.
Corolla is a combination of history and natural beauty, water sports and Shore-type activities, shopping and dining.
We started with the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, which towers 162 feet above ground level. It actually is a light station, because of the attached keepers' quarters (now a museum shop). First lit in 1875, the lighthouse, built with about one million red bricks, still operates.
The midday sky was getting darker by the second as we paid our $7 admission and started climbing the 214 metal steps in the circular staircase. As I stopped to read displays about coastal lighthouses, the Fresnel lens, shipwrecks, and the lighthouse keepers, Valerie urged me to keep climbing to beat the rain.
Lucky she did, because we reached the outdoor observation landing five minutes ahead of the downpour, barely giving us five minutes for picture-taking, admiring the view, and trying to identify landmarks.
The light station is part of the 39-acre Currituck Heritage Park, which also contains the Whalehead Club Historic House Museum and the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education.
Just north of the park is Historic Corolla Village, consisting of six restored buildings dating to the early 1900s and several others replicating the Outer Banks architectural style. The village portrays a time when the community, started by lighthouse keepers and their families, had grown large enough to sustain a church, a Post Office, and a school built with beams salvaged from shipwrecks.
The buildings now house businesses worth checking out, including a garden shop, a specialty-foods store, and a BBQ hut.
We replenished our reading materials at Island Bookstore, built on the site of a general store and connected to A Greener Shade of You, an organic women's-clothing boutique.
Continuing north on Route 12, we came to a dead end at the beach. Those in four-wheel-drive vehicles can keep going for about 10 miles, possibly spotting the registered Colonial Spanish mustangs that have been named the state horse, before needing to turn back at the Virginia line.
On our way back, we stopped at TimBuck II, a shopping center of mostly locally owned shops and restaurants.
While the ladies shopped for Pandora charms, shoes, and mementos, I stopped in a real estate office to inquire about vacation rentals. The agent quickly printed out the profiles of two five-bedroom, oceanside homes with central air, screened porches, and Jacuzzi or pool, one sleeping 10, the other, 13 - perfect for our next visit with the whole family and maybe a few friends. The weekly rents ranged from $655 in early May to $3,220 in the peak weeks of mid-June through mid-August.
I met up with Valerie and Rebecca for a snack, and, once again, we were reminded of home, this time by the shop's name: Big Buck's Ice Cream.
Things to See and Do Around Duck, N.C.
Currituck Beach Light Station
1101 Corolla Village Rd., Corolla
Climb 214 steps to the top of the brick lighthouse for a panoramic view of the Atlantic coastline and islands in Currituck Sound. Information: $7 per person to climb, free for children 7 and younger. 252-453-4939, www.currituckbeachlight.com.
Currituck Heritage Park
Route 12, Corolla
The waterfront park's 39 acres contain the light station, the Whalehead Club Historic House Museum, and the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education. Information: www.whaleheadclub.org
Wright Brothers National Memorial
U.S. Highway 158, Kill Devil Hills, N.C.
See full-scale reproductions of the Wright Brothers' 1902 glider and 1903 flying machine, an engine block from the original 1903 Flyer, and a reproduction of their first wind tunnel. Then go outside and see the site of the first powered flight: 12 seconds, covering 120 feet, on Dec. 17, 1903. Information: 252-473-2111, www.nps.gov/wrbr/index.htm
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Entrances at Nags Head and north of Ocracoke
Seventy-mile stretch of the Outer Banks includes the communities of Rodanthe, Buxton, and Ocracoke; three light stations; and the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Information: 252-473-2111, www.nps.gov/caha/index.htm
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
1401 National Park Dr., Manteo, N.C.
Site of England's first New World settlements, from 1584 to 1590, which then vanished. The national park preserves the cultural heritage of the Native Americans, European Americans and African Americans who have lived on Roanoke Island. Information: 252-473-5772, www.nps.gov/fora/index.htm.
Places to eat
1223 Duck Rd. (Rt. 12), Duck
Beef, chicken, pork, and pork ribs are cooked on hickory wood-burning smoker. Barbecue sauce is vinegar-based, not as sweet as I'm used to, but meats melt in your mouth. Mostly takeout, with limited seating.
Fishbones Sunset Grille & Raw Bar
1264 Duck Rd. (Rt. 12), Duck
Seafood and shellfish galore - she-crab soup, blackened tuna, and seafood combo were all winners - but also steaks and plenty of other options. Serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with views of the bay from inside or the deck. Try the exotic drinks, including the Miami Vice, big enough for two ($21.99 with take-home memento glass).
Osprey Landing Center, 1190 Duck Rd. (Rt. 12)
Bet you can't eat (or buy) just one. Customize the basic, warm donut with your choice of cinnamon or powdered sugar, glaze, or icing (vanilla, chocolate, lemon, peanut butter, maple, strawberry), plus shredded coconut, chopped peanuts, and chocolate and rainbow sprinkles. Three other shops in Corolla, Kill Devil Hills, and Kitty Hawk; all close at 1 p.m.
Loblolly Pines Shopping Plaza, 1187 Duck Rd. (Rt. 12), Duck, 252-261-7112, tulliospastry.com
Cinnamon buns, fruit turnovers, scones, and other pastries make it tough to choose.
They also sell family-size trays of baked ziti, penne a la vodka, and lasagna that feed about 14, for $50 to $55 each.
Places to Stay
Barrier Island Station
1245 Duck Rd. (Rt. 12), Duck
An oceanfront resort of 176 one-, two- and three-bedroom suites available as timeshare units and for daily (two-night minimum) and weekly rental. There's a 36-unit sister complex, Ocean Pines Resort, down the road; 252-261-8101; www.oceanpinesresort.com.
1461 Duck Rd. (Rt. 12), Duck
Sprawling complex with 95 guest rooms and suites and five rental homes on the ocean, and shops, a spa, indoor pool and a restaurant on Currituck Sound; just completed a multimillion-dollar renovation.
- Bill ReedEndText