Two friends and I took a road trip from New York to Miami a couple of years ago, and on the way down we visited Nags Head in North Carolina and fell in love with the place. As a trio of pasty Brits who had lived in cold rainy towns and cities for the majority of our lives, this was one of those picture perfect beach locations that you can only dream of.
That is exactly what we used to do: Dream. My best friend and I were studying Leisure and Tourism at college back in '98, and all we ever used to talk about was getting a group of us to buy a beachfront property when we'd all "made it" and we'd meet up there every year for a vacation. It was a pretty nice pipe dream and it never happened.
But here we were - nearly 15 years later - in one of those towns that you only ever see in surf movies and holiday programmes. A true postcard destination. We walked down the beach after checking in to a B&B (a 30 second walk) and as we walked on to the beach, we turned round to see huge elevated beach houses, with balconies filled with people who were the opposite of us: Tanned and good looking.
My friend turned round to me and said: "Do you remember when we were supposed to do that?" I ignored him and ran into the sea instead. It's a good way to cool off after being hit with a rush of pure jealousy and disappointment. It was exactly what we'd talked about though.
After a day at the beach, we went to a bar and indulged ourselves. We met two awesome surfer guys who picked us up in their car the next day and drove us all around the town and the surrounding coastal area. I stuck my hand out of the window and filmed the row of beach houses, all painted in light blues, greens and yellows. I asked our guide how much one of those houses costs and he just laughed. I took that as a hint that it might be a little out of my price range.
We bought a case of beer and took it down to the beach with us, and our two guides brought their friends (and their dogs) down to meet us. My friend and I started speaking telepathically to each other, like JD and Turk in Scrubs. We were in mutual agreement that we should grow beards and "accidentally" lose our passports. At least that's what I made out of the conversation.
We took a walk down the pier, and at this point, I gave up my desperate attempt at not being a typical tourist and begged our new friends for an opportunity for us to check out one of those beachfront homes, if they knew of anybody who had one. They hooked us up within a couple of hours with one of their friends' homes. It turns out that a lot of the houses were empty a lot of the time because of work, holidays and the weather.
The "weather" comment didn't really register with me, I was too busy imagining an 'American Pie 2' scenario for me and my friends as I walked out onto the balcony and looked out over the ocean. If there was ever a moment that I wished I'd paid a little bit more attention at school: That was it. The guy who was staying there showed us everything from a wet room with a hot tub in it to the cargo lifts outside that was used to take up luggage and - in their case - ridiculous amounts of food and booze for parties. I had that feeling of jealousy and disappointment again, only this time I wasn't prepared to jump off the balcony in order to cool off.
We thanked our graceful hosts and went back to the bar for a few hours before heading to the beach in a drunken state. I woke up the next morning with a perfect imprint of my body made out of sand on my bed where I'd passed out before having a chance to scrub it all off. My friend took one look at it and said: "Looks like Peter Parker finally killed The Sandman".
Leaving Nags Head was hard. All three of us felt an affinity to the place, from how chilled out it was to how friendly the people were. We knew we would never be able to afford to live there but we agreed that we would return again. Our guides gave us their email addresses and we offered to return the favour if they ever came to the UK. Not that it would be quite as attractive or as warm as Nags Head.
Six months after returning home, one of the guides was in the UK for a wedding and he came to meet up with us in Leicester, and I gave him a guided tour around Rutland Water and Oakham, the town I grew up in. Nothing makes you appreciate where you came from better than showing an American around it. They have so much enthusiasm for our history. It was quite a humbling experience for me, as I realised I knew more about the history of my little home town than I previously realised.
After discussing how jealous we were of their beach living back in Nags Head, our guests were hit with the news that Hurricane Irene was tearing their beautiful town to pieces, and that mass evacuations were taking place. We felt as helpless as they did, not to mention terrible at watching them frantically calling their family and friends to make sure they were okay. The most I've ever had to deal with is forgetting my house keys, and here I was with two people who might not have a house to go back to at all.
Fortunately all there was to report was structural damage and flooding, but we heard stories of houses being swept away and the pier that we had walked on had been all but wiped out. It highlighted to my friend and I that the dream of beachfront living was a nice one to have, but perfect it most definitely wasn't. We're still planning to go back there one day, but as tourists, not as homemakers.