A short drive from the brassy, tourist-infested Virginia Beach is a demure, solitary respite that's as cool as it sounds. Sandbridge, in contrast to Virginia Beach's 40 blocks of fun, calls out to the beachgoers who need a break. And after spending a day on Atlantic Avenue, I find myself taking a deep breath in Sandbridge. This hidden gem reminds me of the Outer Banks, but it is only 266 miles from Baltimore.

Sandbridge Road, an evergreen-shaded road off General Booth Boulevard, leads visitors right up to the dunes of Sandbridge Beach. On the 4.5-mile trip to the coast, the road zips through the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and passes the Hell's Point Golf Club, both vacation-worthy places to spend an afternoon.

Once I see the sign for Sandbridge, at the corner of the parking lot for the general store, I know that this beach caters to a different type of beachgoer. A quick glance around shows no strip or boardwalk to contend with, just beach backed by dunes, two restaurants, one general store, two beach shops, a fire station and a frozen yogurt shop. And rentable houses -- not hotels.

The backbone of Sandbridge is the dunes, which protect the town. During Hurricane Isabel in September 2003, these dunes overflowed into the streets. Because only two main roads run through Sandbridge -- Sandfiddler and Sandpiper Road -- there was nowhere for the sand to go.

Driving down Sandfiddler and up Sandpiper, I am careful to avoid mounds of unswept sand, remnants of Isabel. The houses on the streets are lined up like vertebrae, with paths between them that lead out to the five-mile-long beach.

Every house has a catchy name: Pick Shore Perfect, Barefootin', Therapy, Copa Cabana, Miller Time. The signs for Sandbridge Realty and Siebert Realty are on almost every house (approximately 75 percent of the houses are rentals). As I drive past, I am tempted to try to rent one. I can picture my friends sitting on the deck overlooking the beach, margaritas in hand, spouses cooking steak on the grill.

A stop in the Sandbridge market reveals a store where anything that I might have forgotten could be picked up. The clerk at the front is especially friendly, probably because she doesn't see too many people during the off-season. She tells me that Sandbridge welcomes approximately 8,000 visitors in the summer months.

As I reluctantly drive out Sandbridge Road toward General Booth Boulevard, four seafood shacks catch my attention and change my food fantasy from steaks on the grill to crabs in the pot.

Sometime in the next few summers, I plan to return to Sandbridge Beach with some friends, some margarita mix and relaxation on my mind.