The Next Stop Tour: Oak Island, NC

It’s not that we didn’t like Oak Island, the quaint and quiet North Carolina beach town that was the second stop on our Tour, back in mid-October. (Map, here.)

It’s nice. It’s warm. I imagine you can find, if you look hard enough, a cool little place on the beach or near the beach or, at worst, a few minutes up the road from the beach in quaint and quiet Southport, NC. We drove nearly seven hours with the intention of looking, too, at this planned community, St. James, just across the Intracoastal Waterway from Oak Island. St. James has restaurants, great homes, 96 holes of golf or something, walking and biking paths and its own beach club. It’s clean and safe and all that. It looked promising. We never got there.

We learned something about our search, and ourselves, in our visit to this tiny swatch of land about a half-hour south of Wilmington.

Quaint and quiet might not be our thing.

But this is what these trips are for, really. They’re not only to look around and get a feel for places you might like to live. They’re to look around and get a feel for how you’d like to live, too. And living, in my book, is more than a nice house and a nice beach. We want a place, too, that offers opportunities for living outside the house and off the beach.

I’ve gone over this before, right? I know, I know. We want everything. And I realize that, yes, we may have to settle on something short of everything. But … not yet.

Let’s go over my wish list from the last Tour post, where I bulleted everything we’re after in our new place to live. (At the risk of looking lame and lazy, I’m lifting from that first post:)

It has to be somewhere warm. We’re not moving to Minnesota. We’re not moving to someplace that has a real winter. I define that as, say, more than an inch of snow a year.

It can’t be too warm. South Florida is great, but the sun down there can be relentless. Walking across a Publix parking lot can be harrowing at midday. It’s brutal is what it is.

We’d like to live on a beach, or near enough to one. Like, minutes. Not hours. On the beach? Walking distance? We can dream, can’t we?

We’d like to be close to a downtown area — can’t live in the sticks — with good restaurants and things to do. Walking distance would be absolutely awesome. We always thought a college town would be a great place to live, with all the activities around campus. Is there a decent-sized college town, close to a beach, in a place that’s warm year-round but not too warm?

We’d like a cool, not-common house — doesn’t have to be big — with a private back yard (yeah, Brodie’s coming with) and, preferably, a pool. The house has to have a place where we can work. An office for Mary Jo. A nice corner for me where I can get away. A screened-in or enclosed porch or deck so we can enjoy the outdoors without getting eaten by bugs. (That’s one of the best parts of the house we live in now.) And it’s got to be new or recently updated. Because tools and me … we have an understanding. Mostly, I don’t understand how they work.

The cost of living has to be reasonable. The definition of that will change, I’m sure, as we move along in our tour. But we didn’t work on our nest egg all these years to throw it away in a place that’s stupid expensive. And Luke doesn’t want us living with him when we hit 75 ’cause we ran out of money. (I’m sure Luke doesn’t want us living with him when we hit ’75 if we still have money. Lots of money. Ungrateful kid.)

We also need to be fairly close to Cincinnati, where Mary Jo’s family lives. How close … well, that’s a moving target, too. We’re a 7 1/2-hour drive now. We don’t want to get much longer than that. But a two-hour flight? Maybe three?

So, there’s the list. It might change as we tour along, but for now, it’s what we have.

Let’s look at Oak Island and Southport, eh?

Weather: Fine. Good, even. It was warm the weekend we were there, but not uncomfortably so. The area gets, I read, about an inch of snow a year. January can be a little nippy. That’s not good. But January is nippy in most places. Except, of course, in our perfect place. Wherever that is.

The beach: Fine. Just fine. We couldn’t find a spot to park, though I know they’re there somewhere. But the beach, from what we could see out the window and when we pulled over in a couple spots, seemed nice and sandy and plenty wide. It wasn’t particularly stunning. In fact, it wasn’t all that pretty at all. One side was water, the other mostly boxy beach houses, every one it seemed for rent, on stilts. I imagine this beach would be a good place for a family to rent a house for a week. But to make your home for a while? I’m not so sure.

The town: Oak Island is not really much of a town, just those rows of beach houses. A convenience store here and there. A handful of restaurants that’re hanging on until next season. That’s about it.

These two screengrabs probably aren’t representative of the place. But they are representative of what we saw. The first shot below is typical of the main roads on Oak Island. The other is a restaurant — just one I picked randomly off Maps, not one where we ate — on that road.

It’s not pretty.

Now, I think we could live in a nice quiet spot on the beach — though I’m not sure this would be the beach — if we had a decent town close-by that offered a little more than a slice of pepperoni on a styrofoam plate. We headed over to quaint — I guess what some would call charming — Southport to see if that was a fit.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how first impressions matter? We pulled over on a side street in Southport to get our map-bearings, and saw a sweaty 60+ guy, maybe 250 pounds, walking a little dog.

I immediately thought, “Geez, I hope this place isn’t full of old geezers.”

It wasn’t, really. It wasn’t full of much of anything. Curio shops. Sandwich joints. A pet shop. A lot of closed up storefronts. Downtown, what there is of it, was very, very quiet and very empty on a nice October day.

If anything tells you the impression this place left on us, it’s probably the photo at the top of this post. That’s the only one we took while we were on the trip down there. And it wasn’t even there.

(That photo, taken as we were filling up, is South of the Border, a gloriously tacky rest stop along I-95, just before you cross from South Carolina into North Carolina. “If Las Vegas hooked up with Route 66 and had a baby,” The Post and Courier of Charleston said earlier this year, “this would be it.” It may be the most blatantly racist spot in the South — and, damn, that’s saying something — though the backstory in the P and C sheds a nicer light on it than that.)

Homes: We went through a new house on the outskirts of the center of Southport — like, a mile out of the center of town — and it was great. Beautiful. Really, the type of place we could live, with a nice smallish layout on the main floor and a room we could get away to, over the garage, if needed. The lots in this particular neighborhood weren’t as private as we might like. But, with a shrub here and there, it could be done. And, for a brand new home, this place was relatively cheap. Meaning under 400K, as I remember.

Cost of living: Based on the price of that home, we have to think this place would be pretty affordable.

Cinci-proximity: Close enough.

Final thoughts: We don’t pretend to say we saw all of Oak Island and Southport. Making a call on the basis of a quick in-and-out weekend is patently wacky. But we saw what we saw, and we have to make our judgment on that. Unless we plan on going back. And we have no plans of doing that.

Look, we don’t need to (or want to) live in someplace as vibrant and happening as New York City. There’s more than enough to keep us busy in Atlanta, and we’re getting out of here. Still, we’d like a place where you can find a decent movie theatre, something besides Wal-Mart (the nearest Target to Southport is in Wilmington, 37 miles away), a downtown that doesn’t roll up in the off-season, some good restaurants, a little culture that doesn’t come on a styrofoam plate and a place that isn’t known, mainly, for cheap vacation rentals.

The Tour rumbles on …

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