Wondering what it's like to vacation at the beach during the pandemic? Here's my experience
Posted July 28, 2020 12:06 p.m. EDT
If you have been thinking about a beach vacation this summer and want to know what to expect while in the middle of this pandemic, here is my experience at Ocean Isle Beach, NC in late July 2020.
Honestly, I was hesitant to venture out right now, but after speaking with the hotel office about their safety precautions, I felt much better about being away from home for a couple days.
We spent two nights at the Ocean Isle Inn. Over the last 10 years, I have stayed at this hotel many times and we have always enjoyed it. Thankfully, even during a pandemic, this trip was no exception.
Ocean Isle Beach is about 2 hours and 35 minutes from Raleigh. It's an easy drive and most of the trip is spent on I-40 East and 140 (which you get on just before you get to Wilmington, NC).
Just after you cross over the Intercoastal Waterway, you'll find the lovely little town of Ocean Isle Beach. See more about the history of this small community at oceanislebeach.com.
I have found this beach to be much less crowded than the larger beaches in the bigger towns nearby. It's also very family friendly. You'll find more ice cream places, restaurants and gift shops than bars. There is also a little putt-putt place in the middle of town.
The Ocean Isle Inn
The hotel has 3 floors. The first floor is for parking and the office. The 2nd and 3rd floors are guest rooms. There is an elevator available. We took the stairs the whole time and found it easy to socially distance because there are multiple stairways to each section of the hotel.
Check-in is anytime after 3 and check-out is by 11 am. Parking is free and we have not had an issue finding a space, although they do fill up sometimes. There is parking right across the street if that happens, though.
The hotel is smoke-free and pets are not allowed.
They offer a free continental breakfast every morning from 7 am to 10 am. I'll share more about the breakfast and how things have changed because of COVID-19 below.
This hotel is definitely not new, but it is clean and has been updated. I also love that the rooms have tile floors, which are much easier to keep clean than carpeted floors at the beach.
At this time of this article, ocean view rooms in early August 2020 on a weekday start at approx. $189 per night.
Check out the video below that I took from the gazebo at the hotel. You can see how beautiful the view is from the hotel and you can also see that the beach really is not crowded. The video also shows the outdoor hotel pool and the walkway to the beach. We walked on the beach multiple times a day and we were able to social distance with very little trouble, especially earlier in the morning and in the evenings.
When we arrived at the hotel, we found the sign below on the office door when we went to check in. The front desk also had plexiglass barriers between the employees and guests.
We were told that housekeeping would not be entering our room while we were staying there and if we needed any additional toiletries or towels that we would pick them up at the front desk. They even had a bucket for guests to put the pen they used after they signed the check-in paperwork. The sign on the bucket indicated that the pens would be cleaned before they were used again.
When we got to the room, I thoroughly wiped down everything I could with Clorox bleach spray cleaner I brought from home. I have no idea if I needed to do that extra level of cleaning, but it made me feel better and allowed me to relax a little more in the room.
Did I remember to take any photos of the inside of the room? No. No, I did not.
But, you can see what the rooms and the whole hotel look like on the Ocean Isle Inn website.
Each room has a mini fridge, microwave and coffee/tea/hot water maker. The rooms facing the ocean also have a porch with 2 chairs and a little side table. We spent a lot of time just sitting in the rocking chairs on the porch watching and listening to the ocean. We also ate all of our meals there since we got take out from local restaurants for lunch and dinner both days we were at the hotel.
I brought a book to read but never even cracked it open because it was so peaceful and relaxing to just sit and watch the ocean and the many birds that flew by!
We had a room on the top floor. If you decide to stay here at any point, I recommend the rooms at the far end of the hotel on the top floor with the ocean view. You won't hear the pool chatter as much if you are at the far end of the hotel. The view is better on the top floor than the lower floor (although those views are still beautiful).
The hotel is right on the beach and there is a nice walkway from the pool to the beach (that you can see in the video above). You'll also find a rinse station on the walkway so after hanging out at the beach, you can rinse off outside in your swimsuit to get a lot of the sand off of you.
Next to the pool is a lovely little gazebo with a great view of the beach.
The sunsets are gorgeous and the beach is very quiet at night.
There were even some folks on the beach from a turtle rescue organization monitoring a nest near the hotel. They were waiting for the little ones to hatch so they could guide them to the water without getting hurt.
Complimentary breakfast to-go
The hotel offers a complimentary breakfast each morning and everything is now grab and go. Guests cannot eat in the breakfast room at this time. They did a great job of making sure guests were social distancing in the breakfast room and the very nice woman responsible for managing the breakfast area was wearing a mask each morning when we went to get our meal.
We took our food back to the room each day and enjoyed our meal on the deck overlooking the ocean. As I mentioned above, each room comes with a microwave oven and a coffee maker with coffee and tea in the room.
Here you can see the pre-packaged, single serve items they offered for the free breakfast including granola bars and cereal cups that you just pour the milk right in to so you don't need a separate bowl. They had a mix of sugary cereals and somewhat healthier options like Raisin Bran.
They also had oatmeal packets, muffins and fruit cups.
There were a number of breakfast sandwiches available that can be heated in the microwave in the hotel room.
Yogurt, milk, juice, peanut butter and jelly were also among the offerings.
We brought some additional proteins including hardboiled eggs and nuts because we expected the breakfast foods would be heavy on the carb side.
Restaurants & grocery stores
Since we were only there for 2 days and it was just the two of us, we decided to get take out for lunch and dinner (which only included 1 lunch and 2 dinners). The day we checked out, we were back home for lunch since it is only a 2.5 hour drive.
If you are looking for a more frugal option to dining out, especially if you are going to be there for many days or you have a big group to feed, the mini fridge in the room can store your cold foods and you can use the microwave to heat up meals. The fridge isn't very big so you may want to bring a cooler, as well. Our mini fridge did not have a freezer at the top, as I have seen at some hotels. They do have an ice machine on-site at the hotel.
In addition, there are Publix and Lowes Foods grocery stores 2.5 miles from the hotel, if you need to pick up any grocery items or non-food essentials.
Once of the best things about the Ocean Isle Inn is that it is in walking distance to most of the restaurants, shops and putt-putt golf which are all only .3 to .5 miles from the hotel. We parked the car the first afternoon we arrived and didn't move it again until 2 days later when we were headed home.
The first night we ordered take out from Jinks Creek Waterfront Grille. They had a separate entrance for take out, they were all wearing masks and the food was delicious. I had a crab cake, asparagus and cole slaw and it was all very tasty. Photo credit: Jinks Creek.
The next day for lunch, we got sandwiches from a great little place that I just discovered on this trip. Drift Coffee is a small local business with 3 cafes on the NC coast including 2 in Wilmington and 1 in Ocean Isle Beach. They have coffee, tea, sandwiches, pastries, fruit smoothies, brunch and more.
They required a mask to enter and all the employees had on masks. They do have outdoor seating available, but we took our sandwiches and drinks back to the room to enjoy on the porch with the fabulous ocean view. In addition to trying the egg, avocado and cheese sandwich on multi-grain bread, I also had the iced chai tea and iced coffee with caramel (the next morning). Everything was so good that a few hours later, we went back for fruit smoothies, which were also delicious! I definitely recommend the strawberry and banana smoothie! Photo credit: Drift Coffee & Kitchen.
For dinner the last night, we got take-out from a local bar & grill. We ordered at the restaurant, because they do not take call in orders. We were told it would be about 45 minutes before the food was ready. There was basically no social distancing going on while we were there and I do not think I saw anyone, employees or customers, wearing masks.
While the food was being made, we went to the next building over and enjoyed a beer at the Coastal Wine Room, a wonderful locally owned business. It is adjacent to Drift Coffee. We sat outside at a table and there was nobody else outside or anywhere near us. The tables were spread far apart to easily allow for social distancing. The owner chatted with us and was very friendly. He, and all the employees, wore masks and you had to have a mask to go in to the business.
When we are in Ocean Isle Beach again, we will plan to have a full meal there including small plates and wine. I was very impressed with the selection on the menu and the safety precautions they took.
We also enjoyed Hershey's ice cream from Breakers Pizza, Grill and Arcade. We had planned to go to a different ice cream place in town but it was packed with customers and there was no social distancing going on and very few face masks to be found. We felt much more comfortable at Breakers.
During past visits, we have dined at Sharky's Restaurant and Ocean Isle Fish Company but they are not really in walking distance from the hotel for to-go meals so we decided not to go there this time. We will be sure to go there next year though. The view of the Intercoastal Waterway from the outdoor dining at Sharky's is fabulous.
Our safety precautions
There were some basic safety measures we took throughout the trip in order to lessen exposure. We did not stop on the way there or on the way back to use any public restrooms. We wore a mask everywhere we went. We had hand sanitizer with us at all times and every time we got back to the hotel room, we washed our hands for a good long time. The only supply we had to ask the front office for more of was hand soap.
All in all, we had a very nice time. Many places made an effort to provide a safer environment for customers and we were able to find plenty of options where we felt relatively comfortable. My favorite place to be on this trip was on the porch of our hotel room, rocking on the chairs and relaxing.
Am I ready to head back out on vacation again this summer? I don't think so.
Do I regret going in the first place? Not yet, but I guess we'll know in about 2 weeks.
We all have our own individual comfort level regarding this virus and going in public.
I am now more comfortable going to the grocery store during less busy times (very early morning or later at night) than I was in April. Some people are still not going in any places and some people are going everywhere with no hesitation.
If you are very anxious about any exposure at all to people not wearing masks, a beach vacation may not be the best option for you at this time.
If you are being cautious, but are still willing to venture out, I think Ocean Isle Beach is probably one of the better beaches you can go to regarding social distancing and safety because it isn't very crowded and there are plenty of good restaurants offering take-out and outside seating. We did not see any restaurants offering delivery.
I hope that helps to give you an idea of what it is like to vacation at Ocean Isle Beach this summer. I can say that I very much look forward to staying at the Ocean Isle Inn again next summer!