Known for its unspoiled beaches with natural dunes and grasses, the Outer Banks offers plenty of watersports. It has some of the best surfing on the East Coast, and it ranks in the top three for windsurfing and the new sport of kite surfing. Because there are so many old shipwrecks in the waters off Cape Hatteras, it is a favorite with advanced divers. "You need a higher skill level than in Florida or the Caribbean, but out in the Gulf Stream, the visibility is tremendous," says Dennett Ransom of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. He also notes historical attractions like the Wright Brothers' launch site at Kitty Hawk; the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island, where Britain first attempted a U.S. settlement; and the tallest lighthouse in the country at Hatteras.

My sister had a property guidebook from Twiddy & Company Realtors, a local real estate agency, and we spent hours ogling the possibilities. We peered at decks and counted bedrooms. Should we get a place with a private pool or a hot tub, or use the community facilities nearby? Was beachfront important? Some came with Nintendos and portacribs and basketball goals, others with Weber grills and premium cable. We wanted it all. And the palace we settled on pretty much had it. We sent in a deposit on the $2,800 total fee to rent the place for a week in early August.

Yippee.

We left our home in Pennsylvania on the appointed Saturday at dawn. There were six of us in the Dodge Durango, stuffed to the gills with luggage, snacks, and the tiny TV/VCR we use for long drives. Beach chairs, a stroller, and plastic bins of supplies were strapped to the roof, and bikes hung off the back. By Washington, D.C., we had joined a line of similarly burdened SUVs and minivans, some with surfboards, kayaks, jet skis, and even boats in tow. A couple of interstates to the east of us, my sister and her family were in an identical caravan.