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A HONEYMOON WITH LITTLE ADO ABOUT MUCH

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When none of the chairs was delivered for our wedding, we knew we had made the right honeymoon decision.

Our 100 guests were gathered at Rockwood Manor, a flower-filled park in Potomac that we'd chosen for our outdoor wedding. All the tables and food and wine were in their proper places; the guitarist and flutist were poised to play Pachelbel's Canon in D for our processional; the rabbi and minister duo we'd chosen to honor our two faiths waited by the gazebo with their blessings, and the photographer hovered, ready to catch every nuance of our big day -- and no chairs.

My imminent husband turned to my strained face, kissed me on the nose, and whispered: "Smile, my darling, the chairs will come, I love you, and it's all downhill from here."

Thank God we'd chosen a no-brainer honeymoon!

Not the diving resort in the South Pacific that we'd considered. Nor the African safari our best friends had recommended. Not even the Caribbean island that came with your own sailboat that we'd been offered at a bargain.

No, we were driving slowly south to North Carolina's Outer Banks for a veg-out week in a seaside condo. No planes to catch, no hotel bureaucracy to hassle, no restaurant reservations to make unless we felt like it. Our condo came with a fully equipped kitchen where we could make anything from a quick sandwich to a gourmet feast to a phone call for pizza delivery.

Our friends and colleagues were shocked at our humble plans. )) After all, we were both professional travel writers, with contacts worldwide, a gargantuan guidebook library, and a reputation as adventure seekers.

But after all the stress of wedding planning, what we were seeking in a honeymoon was a recovery, not a challenge. We'd switched caterers four times and bands twice. Our temperamental florist had threatened to mutiny over some minor boutonniere dispute, and the Weather Channel persisted in forecasting violent thunderstorms for our wedding day.

Miraculously, our wedding day dawned sunny and dry, 100 chairs materialized just in time for the ceremony, and the entire event went off without a hitch.

Our leisurely six-hour drive south two days later gave us plenty of time to reminisce about the wedding and to laugh about all the passionate squabbles we'd had over insignificant issues.

By the time we pulled into Nags Head, heart of the Outer Banks, all residual stress had evaporated and we were ready to crash. We did so with gusto.

The chain of barrier islands that stretch 150 miles from the Carova Beach on the Virginia border to tiny Ocracoke Island, south of Cape Hatteras, abounds with seductive sights and activities, from hiking to hang gliding and kayaking. But we stuck our prenuptial agreement to spend the first two days holed up in our condo, cuddling late into the morning, then leisurely reading the paper on our huge balcony overlooking the crashing Atlantic Ocean, where pelicans flew in tight formation, breaking ranks to crash-dive for fish.

We'd intended to take a long beach walk every afternoon, but a cold snap accompanied by violent winds put those plans on hold for the first few days -- all the better to concentrate on each other instead of our surroundings. We were not at all unhappy when an aborted ocean stroll metamorphosed into a languid Jacuzzi soak. Clinking champagne glasses, we toasted the rotten weather as we lolled neck-deep in the rich foam supplied by a handy bottle of Mr. Bubble.

Even when we did finally venture out to sample the attractions, we took them in little doses, steadfastly fighting the urge to see and do everything -- an occupational hazard for travel writers and other compulsive tourists prone to stop only when they drop.

Not this time. Our first day out we drove slowly up the coast, dropping in on the snazzy beach communities of Southern Shores, Duck, Sanderling and Corolla. We drooled over the million-dollar oceanfront "cottages," fantasizing about lazing on those wraparound wooden decks for the rest of our lives.

When hunger struck, we lunched alfresco on fresh tuna at a little restaurant called Chauncey's Porch that fronted the Pamlico Sound (much calmer than the ocean side) in Corolla. Hearing we were newlyweds, the 60ish waitress took a motherly interest in our meal, shaking her head in a cautionary manner when we considered ordering fish entrees that she knew to be frozen or not yet up to snuff for the season.

We got back to Nags Head just before sunset and high-tailed it to the upstairs lounge of Windmill Point Restaurant, which we had heard had a first-rate view of the nightly meltdown over the Sound.

Sipping cold beers while the sky turned from blue to orange, red and deep purple, we heard the bartender telling a couple from Milwaukee how he'd come to the Outer Banks on a quick trip from Connecticut a few years back and never left. That story is a common refrain around the barrier islands; again and again we heard recollections of vacations that became relocations as visitors succumbed to the dunes, the sea and the small-town neighborliness that prevails despite a boom in tourism.

By our third day we were up for a more far-flung expedition -- a day trip to Ocracoke Island, considered by many Carolina connoisseurs the best of the Outer Banks bunch. Accessible by a free, 40-minute car ferry across the Hatteras Inlet (a scenic, 90-minute drive south from Nags Heads), the 14-mile-long island is dominated by the dunes and high grasses of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

At the southwest end, the tiny fishing village of Ocracoke curves around horseshoe-shaped Silver Lake, which is lined with informal restaurants, motels and fishing piers.

There's not much to do on the island. Stroll or cycle to the pretty lighthouse just out of town, join a fishing charter, kayak around the coastline, or drop into the 76-year-old Community Store for picnic food and the latest town gossip.

Ocracoke was love at first sight. So much so that we decided we had to stay over to take in as much of its magic as possible. Sure, our condo in Nags Head was all paid up for the week, and finding accommodations on this tiny island on a weekend is usually all but impossible. (The village has only 200 hotel rooms, and the 150 rental cottages lease by the week and fill up months in advance.)

But that Friday the fates smiled on us in the form of rough seas and a forecast of rain that caused at least one cancellation at the little lakeside Shoal Motel. For $55, Room 4 was ours for the night. We celebrated with a lunch of crab cakes at Howard's Pub & Raw Bar down the road, then spent the rest of the day strolling around the village.

As dusk approached, fishing boats came chugging into the harbor, tracked by swooping gulls that hooted for handouts as the fishermen cleaned their catch and threw the innards overboard.

All that fish made us hungry, so we headed for the Back Porch just out of town, considered the most innovative of the island's seven full-service restaurants. The cozy cafe doesn't take reservations, and on weekends there's often a 30-minute wait for a table, but we got lucky again and soon were feasting on angel-hair pasta with shrimp, olives, feta cheese and pine nuts; deep-fried crab crepes; and a rich pate of shrimp, scallops and other fresh fish.

Night life is not a priority on Ocracoke, but we weren't at all disappointed with the country and western band at the 3/4-Time Dance Hall, where beer was a bargain at $1.25 and the dance floor was filled until 2 a.m. with folks from their 20s to their 70s.

The next day's cold rains only somewhat ameliorated our sadness at leaving the island, but we were perked up big-time by the spicy, fresh-steamed shrimp we purchased at the Buxton Seafood Market en route north from the Hatteras Ferry Terminal.

A day of exploring deserved a day doing nothing, so most of Saturday was spent snuggling on our living room couch, watching the rain lash against the Atlantic surf and sipping mellow zinfandel. For dinner, David made a pilgrimage four miles north to the Fish Market Restaurant in Kill Devil Hills. He brought back steaming cartons of hot-spiced shrimp and meaty New England-style clam chowder, which we wolfed down with the last of the wedding baguettes.

Sunday we panicked at the realization that our honeymoon days were waning, and suddenly got ambitious. We rented a Jeep Cherokee and joined the slew of 4-wheel-drive vehicles zooming up the beach north of Corolla and splashing along the edge of the surf. At sunset, we climbed the 140-foot-high sand dunes (the highest on the East Coast) at Jockey's Ridge State Park, where we had a fine view of the sun sinking into the Sound.

Hungry for still wilder environs, we signed on with Kitty Hawk Sports for a Monday kayak tour of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, a 45-minute drive west on the North Carolina mainland off U.S. 64. Paddling plastic one-person boats through grassy channels and alongside live oaks, cypress trees and wild purple iris, we saw nesting ducks, snapping turtles and snakes sunning in the tree branches, but, alas, no alligators -- though they have been spotted in more isolated sections of the preserve.

That night, pleasantly tired and just slightly sunburned, we popped open our last bottle of champagne and toasted the week, before packing up for the drive north and homeward the next day.

The things we hadn't done and sights we hadn't seen could fill a guidebook. We had sampled only a few of the Outer Banks' many good restaurants, we hadn't gone hang gliding or windsurfing, or joined a fishing charter, or even visited the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse or the revered Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, site of the first powered airplane flight in 1903.

We were proud of these lapses. Two type-A's, we had plunged joyfully C-ward in the interests of honeymoon harmony, and ended up relaxed and happy. Our bliss carried us most of the way home, through rush-hour traffic in Norfolk and blinding rains in Maryland. A $140 speeding ticket in Pennsylvania finally did break the spell.

Inside information on the Outer Banks

North Carolina's Outer Banks are about a 6 1/2-hour drive from Baltimore. Or, you can fly to Norfolk (Virginia) International Airport and rent a car for the two-hour drive to the Banks.

Our three-bedroom condo in Nags Head was rented through Seaside Realty, 4425 N. Croatan Highway (Route 158), Kitty Hawk; phone: (800) 395-2525 or (919) 261-5500. Our pre-season price was $775 per week, and would have jumped to $1,375 June through August, then dipped to $625 mid-September. Smaller and larger condos, as well as private cottages up and down the coast, range from a few hundred dollars a week to several thousand, with oceanfront accommodations getting the premium rents. Most places must be rented Saturday to Saturday, especially in season.

Dozens of other Outer Banks vacation-rental firms are listed in guidebooks and pamphlets available from the Dare County Tourist Bureau, which covers the region: (800) 446-6262.

A good resource for information about the area's communities and attractions is "Insiders' Guide to North Carolina's Outer Banks," by Dave Poyer and Jayne DePanfilis ($12.95, Insiders' Guides Inc.).

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