Stepping into the backyard-style oasis at The Atlantis Lodge in Pine Knoll Shores one wouldn’t be surprised to see Poseidon himself rise from the sea, greeting visitors as they admire his storied domain.
But this Atlantis hasn’t much to do with the mythical city with which it shares its name. Rather, according to Donna Hall Nally, current general manager of the lodge and granddaughter of the original manager Ruth “Mabee” (pronounced Mah-be) Bray, the name was likely picked because it would appear first in the phonebook.
Though the calendar says 2018, those old enough may be brought back to the 1960s as they cruise down Salter Path Road and see the infamous teal and white Atlantis sign – the same one that has been there for 55 years. Should they decide to make the turn, they’ll see many things indeed haven’t changed at all – the yellow and teal color scheme that spreads throughout the property, the abundance of trees, bushes and birds, the feeling that you might’ve just stumbled upon a secluded chateau nestled between the road and the dunes. How one family has managed to maintain such a treasure, untouched by time in many ways, has remained somewhat of a mystery to locals and tourists alike.
Ruth Bray was the original manager of The Atlantis when the first guest checked in on May 29, 1963, and remained in that position until 1980. But the man behind the development of Atlantis was her son-in-law AC Hall, who managed the lodge from 1980-2003 alongside his late wife Dot (she passed in 2013) when their daughter Donna took the reigns. His apartment, the one in which he still lives, was converted from four original rooms and overlooks the restful retreat along the shoreline of the town he put so much of his heart into bringing to life.
The story of this Atlantis actually began long before the first piling was ever put in place. AC and Dot received a share of an insurance settlement when Ruth’s husband (Dot’s father) was killed in a work-related accident in 1958. AC and Dot managed to save their portion and eventually made the decision to buy property along the ocean side of Bogue Banks. Wanting to have an unobstructed view of the ocean but a naturally wooded area, they headed past Atlantic Beach and decided on a plot of land west of the Iron Steamer Pier.
AC intended to only buy 200-feet of the oceanfront property, but Shelby Freeman, an agent for the company representing Teddy Roosevelt, III who had inherited the land from his wife’s aunt, the infamous Alice Hoffman, insisted he must sell 300-feet. With some negotiation and financing, a deal was reached and so began the Atlantis Lodge.
The original building and guest rooms were completed and opened in 1963 and between 1965-1972, more buildings and thus more rooms were added for a grand total of 46 guest suites. When AC and Dot made the permanent move to Pine Knoll Shores from Raleigh, the four rooms they converted into their apartment brought the total of rooms to where it stands today, 42.
AC developed not only The Atlantis but was also heavily involved in the development of the Town of Pine Knoll Shores itself. The land between Salter Path Road and Bogue Sound was essentially an uninhabitable swamp and would have remained so unless a way was found to drain it and install septic systems. AC walked every inch of the saturated swamp in his knee-high boots, getting a feel for each rise and dip in the land, until he had devised the perfect plan to dig canals to bring down the water table and thus create the layout of much of the town as it is today. According to Donna, he even let his children help him name the streets.
“We (she and her three brothers) had to go with a theme – it was either going to be fish or trees, and we went with trees," Nally shared. "This was of course way before Google so we had our encyclopedias out on the dining room table picking out all of the names we wanted to use.”
The names have stood the test of time, as any local child will quickly inform you of the difficulty of trying to pronounce arborvitae at age 6.
Waking up at the Atlantis Lodge is akin to welcoming the day at an exclusive outdoor nature program. When visitors start to stir in the mornings here, it is as if the entire place – the buildings, the birds, the people – are collectively waking up. One may gaze across the property and see several others enjoying their morning coffee on their porches, silently engaging in that special camaraderie that only the partially-awake can share. Others may be heading to the beach or taking dogs on their morning walks. The birds are up busily hopping about the vegetation Atlantis surrounds, singing their sunrise songs and either oblivious to or not caring about anyone’s desire for a few extra minutes of sleep. The east-facing buildings are splashed in sunlight, waving good morning to their drowsy west-facing counterparts.
Pastoral mornings like these aren’t exclusively reserved for those on traditional vacations as the Hall family strives to give back to their community and the state as a whole. Every year, they participate in Mile of Hope which is an event where children with cancer visit the area on Mother’s Day Weekend. These children are selected by their nurses and primarily come from Duke, UNC and ECU hospitals. Many of these pint-sized guests stay at Atlantis.
During this special weekend, the children get to go out to eat at local restaurants, attend a wildlife show at the lodge featuring critters native to the area, participate in a sand sculpture contest and even get a visit from some local pirates. Donna said the family looks forward to the event each year.
A few things have changed at The Atlantis since its early days, but many things haven’t. A wildly popular trait, that owners say will never change, is the pet-friendly environment. One may assume that Ms. Bray was an avid animal lover, but Donna says this wasn’t entirely the reasoning behind the pet policy.
“She wanted people to be able to come down and stay for weeks or months at a time and feel like they were at home – if you’re a pet owner that means having your pet with you.”
The Hall family has always been sure to make their non-human guests feel welcome too. There are water bowls all over the property, a dog bathing area, a dog park, dog treats in the guests’ welcome packages and some lucky pups may even find the latest edition of Fido magazine in their accommodations.
Though the most frequent visitors are dogs, they’ve had their share of other pets as well: cats, a ferret who visits yearly, a few birds and one time even a pot-bellied pig came for a beach getaway. Overall, guests enjoy having the animals around – it is just another thing about Atlantis that reminds visitors they’ve gone somewhere different, they aren’t at another chain motel but rather have stumbled upon a magical maritime forest complete with its very own variety of woodland creatures.
Whether or not guests bring along any furry or feathered friends, extended stays continue to be an option – one may decide to come spend a winter month at the lodge where space, peace and quiet, and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets are most abundant. The phenomenal views can be found both in and outside of the accommodations at Atlantis as each room has a window and sliding glass door that runs its entire length on the beach-facing side.
The room decor could possibly be described as retro but that would be a step too far – you’ll find no shag carpet or disco balls here. Rather, it’s as if the decor of the 1960s and 70s took one big step towards the 21st century … then took a pause and decided to keep one foot planted firmly at home.
This mix creates a uniquely inviting space for vacationers, one that they know they want to spend as much time as possible in but can’t quite figure out how to perfectly describe to friends back home. There are hints of the past, comforts of today and color combinations and pieces of art here and there to remind people they’re at the beach.
Most rooms at Atlantis aren’t rooms at all but rather efficiencies or suites. The large suite is about 600 square feet and has all the makings of what may be authentically described as a beach bungalow, the kind of place that creates the urge to kick off one’s shoes and start digging through bags for flip flops upon arrival. The majority of the units at Atlantis fit this description with only a few traditional-style rooms being available.
Of course, Atlantis has kept up with modern-day technology. It has the wi-fi no one can live without and flat screen TVs with cable in the suites. But reservations must be made the old-fashioned way: over the phone. According to Donna, they tried doing online reservations for a year, but quickly realized that it just didn’t work for a place as unique as theirs.
“The location of your room within each building truly determines what kind of view you’re going to get and that is really hard to explain online, especially to people who have never stayed here. The way we’re positioned, if you are in a first floor unit, you’ll see the ocean but you won’t be able to see any of the sand”, she explained. Overall, people don’t mind having to call though, just another personal touch that makes Atlantis distinctive among its competitors.
With its abundance of repeat annual visitors, many reservations are actually made in person while checking out. Returning guests have first right of refusal on the room they’ve just stayed in and have the option to book it again the following year before it is made available to anyone else. It is for this reason Atlantis only allows reservations up to 11 months in advance. This policy highlights the level of loyalty and commitment the owners show to their customers and illustrates why the customers return that loyalty by spending their vacations with the Halls year after year.
Regardless of room location within the lodge, all guests can go to the third floor sun deck and lounge areas for a truly panoramic view of the ocean and the shoreline. Visitors can play pool, ping pong, watch movies on the big screen or just hang out in the large living room style area that was added along with the 1965 additions to Atlantis.
The lounge is home to many of the awards that have been bestowed upon AC throughout the years as well as mockup drawings of the Atlantis before it was built along with other artwork depicting the lodge that has been given to the family. The small back room of the lounge where AC’s plaques and ribbons are housed has a museum-like feel – it would be easy to lose track of time studying the pieces of history adorning the walls.
One of the spaces that has been recently revamped and encourages, practically demands, all things relaxation is a lanai-style space (think Golden Girls) that lies just behind the lobby complete with a fire pit, chairs and sofas with deep teal cushions, wicker basket-style swings and grills for guests to use. This area is perfect for guests to get out of the sun while still enjoying the warm summer breeze, sipping a cocktail and waiting for their freshly caught dinner to finish cooking on the grill. Pets are invited to join here too, just please be sure to wipe off their paws, lay down a beach towel or utilize the nearby doggie bath area.
Speaking of man’s best friend, one of Donna’s favorite additions has been the dog park – a fenced grassy space where guests can let their four-legged friends run around off-leash. There are picnic tables and chairs, both in the sun and shaded, for pet parents to sit and enjoy watching their little ones play.
“People have really enjoyed this area and so have the pets," said Nally. "It’s nice for them to have a space to run around without owners having to get in the car and drive to one of the other area parks.”
The swimming pool is another guest-favorite. Though the pool itself isn’t new, Donna decided to switch from chlorine to salt water and to have the pool heated. The heating mechanism allows the pool to be open March-October which is much longer than most area pools. It boasts the same natural landscaping as the rest of the property. Trees hang lazily over the deck of the main pool and run thicker towards the kiddie pool area which is more shaded and fed by a waterfall from the larger pool. Like much of the outdoor areas of Atlantis, the trees around the pool create a hidden feel and a fantastic place to lie down and get lost in a book or nap.
Visitors who’d rather enjoy the sand and ocean instead of the pool have just a short stroll down the wooden walkway to reach the pristine beach of Pine Knoll Shores. In the summertime, beach attendants are available to carry out umbrellas and chairs and set them up – though if they prefer, guests can give the age-old art of erecting a beach umbrella the “Ol’ college try” there is a sign at the end of the walkway with instructions.
The Atlantis Lodge is probably not for everyone – like all things, there are those who get it and those who don't. Beach lovers looking for a vacation that isn’t so run-of-the-mill, but instead where they can load up the kids and the pets and just relax and be authentically themselves for a few days or a few weeks will find just that in The Atlantis Lodge – a home away from home. And odds are, they'll return.