by MOLLY HARRISON
photography by ERIC LUSHER
Escape is exactly what it feels like from the crest of the Bonner Bridge, 66 feet above Oregon Inlet, dropping down onto what appears to be little more than a skinny sandbar awash in the sea.
Coasting off the bridge onto the two-lane blacktop is like a long, freeing exhale as the island welcomes you into its uncultivated nature – dunes spilling onto the roadway, acres of salt-stunted trees and shrubs, water at times lapping too close to the road.
The farther you drive through the open, undeveloped stretches – more than 70 percent of the island is protected territory – the more you know your regular responsibilities, and worries and plans and lists, have no place here.
If you want to disappear into this atmosphere for a couple days, the Inn on Pamlico Sound, about three-quarters of the way down the island in Buxton, offers a skillful blend of the laid-back, Hatteras-style mentality and the professionalism and luxuries of a boutique hotel.
Owner Steve Nelson opened the inn in 2004 as a five-room bed and breakfast. Within two years he had renovated and expanded it into a European-style boutique hotel and gourmet restaurant. His goal was to attract a high-end clientele to remote Hatteras Island, historically the haunt of fishermen, water-sports enthusiasts and families.
It was a big risk, but it obviously filled a niche; today it’s one of the most popular places to sleep, eat and get married on the whole Outer Banks, with reservations booking months in advance from all over the world, driven entirely by word of mouth and online review sites.
The European flavor comes in large part from the restaurant, Cafe Pamlico, and the organic kitchen gardens, which provide for nearly all the restaurant’s needs. Nelson and his staff grow a wide variety of fruits, berries, vegetables, herbs, beans and peas. Nearly every square foot of the grounds is covered with lush edibles, from basketball-sized cabbages next to the car park to forests of broccoli, collards and kale by the restaurant entrance – all of it fortified by richly composted soil created on site.
“We’ve always been huge on farm-to-fork, but when we started growing our own food, the clientele strongly reinforced that,” he says. “They say things like, ‘Oh, this reminds me of an inn on the Amalfi Coast.’ We have effectively gotten rid of all landscaping that is not food. And now we’re actually growing more than we can use.”
For dinner, Executive Chef Scott Surratt’s menu reflects what’s growing in the garden and what’s being harvested in the local waters: the jumbo lump crab meat, offshore and inshore fishes, sea scallops, calamari, clams, shrimp and oysters are married with the the gardens’ produce in simple, well-crafted dishes that focus on the flavor of the seafood and vegetables. Cafe Pamlico attracts diners from around the island, so reservations are required.
A hands-on owner who lives on site Nelson is an expat from corporate New York City who knew nothing about the hotel and restaurant business, much less gardening. He applies the skills of his finance career to island innkeeping and still talks like an executive, using words like “deliverables” and “desired outcomes,” but he has adopted the demeanor of a carefree Key West biker.
“This place helped me to change my life,” he says. “It will slow you down like no place else in the world.”
He says the beauty of the island drew him in, but the small, tight-knit community has kept him here. A large part of his business model is to share his success with other businesses on the island and to treat his employees exceptionally well, and it shows. Nelson is deeply ingrained in the community, and the staff members, some of the few with year-round jobs on Hatteras Island, are committed to their careers all year, resulting in top-quality, genuinely friendly service.
The inn is set on the waterfront at the edge of a maritime forest, and since it’s tucked a bit into the trees, it feels secluded, though there are neighbors. It offers 12 casually elegant guestrooms with decks, some private, overlooking the sound and sunsets, and – beyond the water-oriented recreation options – a 14-seat movie theater and extensive viewing library.
Perhaps the most coveted amenities are the four Adirondack chairs at the end of a long dock on the sound. These relaxation magnets are often occupied, so if you spot them empty, you’d best snag one for watching the kite boarders and windsurfers zip across the sound or the sun slip from the sky.
If you’re tired of the water and the kayaks, standup paddleboards and fishing gear, take a hike through maritime forest or visit the museums, galleries and shops. The remarkably clean and uncrowded beach is close, and you can drive onto the beach if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a National Park Service permit.
At cocktail hour, the decks and porches and bar at Cafe Pamlico fill up with inn guests, locals and visitors, and on some nights there is live music.
Breakfast, served in the restaurant with full wait service, is worth getting up for. The basics – buttermilk pancakes, French toast, biscuits and gravy, eggs Benedict, omelets, bagels and such – are dressed up with herbs, fruits and vegetables from the garden: a berry compote for the French toast, a roasted tomato pepper cream for the hash, an avocado mousse atop the breakfast burrito. This being an island breakfast with a water view, a popular starting selection is the Morning Punch with Absolut Mandarin and pineapple, white grapefruit and blood orange juices.
After a few days here, you’ll probably start to feel like Nelson did when he left the city. You may not be ready for the mustache and motorcycle, but you’ll definitely feel like a different person, in a different world – one farther than just two hours from Tidewater.