The Empty Beach

May 30, 2008
Outside Magazine

PORTSMOUTH ISLAND, NORTH CAROLINA - On a weekend last summer, while the rest of the beachgoing world descended upon overrun sand traps like Nags Head and Virginia Beach, I took a 4x4 and a shortboard and made for Portsmouth Island. There are a few selling points to this skinny, 18-mile-long barrier island in the northernmost part of North Carolina's Cape Lookout National Seashore. The surf, for one—you can catch punchy beach-break waves all along the eastern, Atlantic-facing shore. The fishing's not bad, either—bring a spinning rod and some shrimp and you'll pull in as much drum as you can eat. Also, the whole damn place is uninhabited. Except for a smattering of cabins near its middle, all that's to be found is miles of sea oats and dunes and the Atlantic coast's finest, most surprisingly reachable beach camping. There's not a paved road on the entire island, so the Park Service permits beach driving, which does wonders for people who secretly harbor redneck alter egos, like me.

Fly into Wilmington (US Airways flies direct from LaGuardia in less than two hours), rent a vehicle, and drive the three hours to the town of Atlantic. Go to Morris Marina and catch a 40-minute ferry ride to Portsmouth Island (round-trip, $14 per person or $75 per vehicle;, but don't board before renting a kayak at the marina ($150 for three days). Portsmouth offers only a few lodging options with roofs and walls, such as the unfortunately named Kabin Kamps (from $100; Pass the cabins by, head for the beach on the eastern shore, and pitch your tent above the high-tide line. Paddle out to the west side of the island and explore the miles of tidal marshes. Upon returning to your campsite, you'll notice, well, nothing. No lifeguard towers, no Rollerblades, no wafting scent of hair gel mixed with sunscreen. Just a big, white beach that's all your own.