Summer 1988: My grandparents have brought me to the Atlantis, a weathered gray motor lodge on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast that looks like something I have seen on old postcards. Our room on the top floor has a bed and a sleeper sofa, a kitchenette, and a view of the Atlantic. These waters have sustained my family on both sides for generations, but they are still foreign to me, as I moved back to North Carolina from Alabama with my parents and brother not too long ago. I was born here, but I am not yet of this place.
That weekend, my grandfather shows me how to ride the surf into the shore. On our balcony, we eat sandwiches that my grandmother makes, water from our bathing suits dripping through the plastic chairs onto the planks below. I am nine years old and still unsure why we left behind my friends in Birmingham for the Tar Heel State. But this—sand everywhere, turkey on whole wheat, the endless beckoning waves—this, I can get on board with.
Summer 2021: I am standing chest-deep in the blue pool at the Atlantis, holding my breath as my daughter, Flynn, and her best friend, Kira, leap into the water. My husband, kid, and I have come here for a sweltering August weekend with friends. We have relocated to North Carolina after fifteen years in New York and are comfortable being back, although the pandemic has cast a pall. But today, no matter: The girls are goggled up and ready to practice diving. They are wholly unsuccessful, but they continue undeterred, jumping and splashing like the mermaids they imagine themselves to be.
An older couple sits by the pool and watches the girls, laughing with each belly flop. “How old are they?” the man asks me. “Six,” I say. He smiles again, and then sudden tears spill down his face. “Enjoy it,” he says, and dabs at his face with his towel. “It goes so fast.” He and his wife have just dropped off their youngest at the University of South Carolina, and they are wending their way back to their empty house in New Jersey. “This is the good stuff. The best stuff.”
I nod and smile for this man whose heartache I understand but don’t yet know. Then I turn to our water babies, and my eyes blur. I am afraid that if I speak, all the love and fear and sadness and fury of the past years will tumble out. Instead, I reach for Flynn and Kira, so full of atomic weight already, like stars in formation, their light bursting out. I am forty-two and unsure about our return to what we thought was home but doesn’t yet feel like it. But all this is a gift: colt-legged girls running from beach to pool and back again, and later, drinks with new friends on the balcony as the moon rises over the waves.
For the past thirty-plus years, in all seasons, I have found comfort and joy at the Atlantis: reading for hours on its turquoise beach chairs; midnight walks both in summer heat and against icy ocean winds that cut to the bone; waking, no matter the temperature, to a crystal dawn shining through the glass door to the balcony. The salt air acts as a buffer between us and whatever might be eating at us: It gives us permission, for a time, to put it all down and look at the ocean and wonder what could be. Here we’ve toasted birthdays, anniversaries, and just the good fortune of being alive and in this place that has persisted and thrived, regardless of what time has thrown at it.
Ruth Bray, whose family still owns, operates, and lives in it, opened the lodge in 1963. Even at the height of summer, you could eat off the trimmed grass. The rooms all have clear views out to the water, and it’s easy to imagine yourself on a boat out to sea.
Birds flit over the lodge’s bird feeders to their hiding spots and back again—waxwings and warblers and terns, depending on the season. Sun-tired families cook their dinners on the grill by the hammocks. You’ll find a dog wash to hose off sandy paws and a game room on the top floor with shelves of well-loved paperbacks. On cool evenings, the firepit calls.
We’ll make it back sometime this summer, if we can get a room. (We’re not the only people who think this is the best place in the world.) Flynn and Kira have new diving skills to test, and we have a new negroni recipe to try with our friends.
Despite its longevity, the Atlantis is not a place where time has stood still. It’s too lived-in, and it has seen too much, to encourage that. Instead, it wants you to take the time you need, because time, it does march on. You take a breath, and you have a swim, and you think: Here I am, exactly, for this moment, where I want to be.