Winter is a remarkable season on the Outer Banks. Without the buzz of summer crowds, the 130-mile strand of sandy islands off the North Carolina coast feels like even more of a frontier. The famous wild horses of Corolla look more untamed, and the candy-striped lighthouses and massive dunes appear to tower even higher on the sea-level landscape.
Visitors in this quieter time often have long stretches of beach all to themselves. They also get their choice of cozy oceanfront lodging and just-off-the-boat seafood like yellowfin tuna, Atlantic Spanish mackerel and smoothhound shark. Fried flounder and shrimp are definitely on the menu, and some restaurants serve such Outer Banks’ specialties as clear-broth clam chowder, fried hushpuppies and thick crab cakes.
Most visitors arrive by taking the three-mile-long Wright Memorial Bridge across Currituck Sound. Two other bridges link the Outer Banks to the mainland through Manteo. Travelers can also take a North Carolina state ferry from points south. Whatever the route, visitors and residents say they breathe easier as soon as they hit the coast-hugging, two-lane N.C. Highway 12 (aka “the beach road”) on OBX. (That Outer Banks acronym, born in the 1990s, is now used throughout the islands in business names and on signs and bumper stickers.)
ISLAND ART, FESTIVE LIGHTS
The landscapes of the Outer Banks inspire artists who paint, sculpt and photograph the birds, fish and lighthouses. Carvings of ducks and shore birds are featured at the Bird Store in Kill Devil Hills. Other galleries that show and sell the work of local artisans include Wanchese Pottery in Manteo and the colorful Pea Island Art Gallery on the surfers’ haven, Hatteras Island.
All eyes are pointed skyward during the annual Kites with Lights event, held above the massive dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. And throughout December, the WinterLights festivities enliven the Elizabethan Gardens, covering more than 10 acres in Manteo. Camellias are in bloom, fire pits are lit on the Great Lawn, and drinks are served.
Believe it or not, in winter you can go sledding and sandboarding (similar to snowboarding) at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Its 426 acres of sand dunes are the tallest in the eastern United States. Sandboarding is only permitted from October through March when the sand is cooler; participants glide down dunes that look like small ski mountains. Jockey’s Ridge is also known to have great conditions for hang gliding: consistent winds and deep sand that makes for softer landings. Outfitter Kitty Hawk Kites offers hang-gliding lessons year-round.
Wild horses live on the northern beaches of the Outer Banks, and winter is a terrific time to see them. You’ll start to notice plenty of four-wheel-drive vehicles as you head north of Duck and Corolla. Eventually, the paved portion of Highway 12 disappears in the sand. From that point on, only outfitters and others in off-road trucks and Jeeps can drive on the 7,500 acres of beaches that are home to the wild descendants of colonial-era Spanish mustangs. (Note: The horses are protected by law; you’ll face a stiff fine if you get closer than 50 feet.) Locals know that the holidays are a good time to take family and friends on excursions with outfitters like Corolla Outback Adventures and Wild Horse Adventure Tours.
South of Nags Head, incredible seaside scenery is the star attraction on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Along this windswept, mostly undeveloped stretch of coast, blowing sand from tall dunes must be scraped regularly from the highway by bulldozers so that traffic may pass. The shore is known for its seashells; one of the best shelling spots is Coquina Beach, near the Bodie Island Lighthouse. And some 400 species of birds frequent the Outer Banks, including wintertime warblers, finches and orioles. Birders bring binoculars to the Charles Kuralt Trail and the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
At Roanoke Island Festival Park, learn about the “lost colony” of English settlers who mysteriously vanished from Roanoke Island in the late 1500s. Boat-building workshops are offered at the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum. Meanwhile, displays and stories of shipwrecks, sea battles and pirates can be found at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras—some 2,000 ships have sunk along the Outer Banks over the centuries.
Perhaps the greatest visitor activity in the Outer Banks, though, is a flight of imagination. Thousands of people from around the world make their way to Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills each year to see the place where Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first powered flight happened in 1903. Full-scale reproductions of their practice glider and their first “flying machine” are among the displays at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. The historic grounds are marked by a towering marble obelisk on a mound that can be seen from miles away—a reminder of the feat the brothers accomplished on these wild barrier islands little more than a century ago. Thanks to them, travel has never been the same since.
Bird Store: 807 S Croatan Hwy; 252.480.2951
Wanchese Pottery: 107 Fernando St; 252.473.2099
Jockey’s Ridge State Park: jockeysridgestatepark.com
Corolla Outback Adventures: corollaoutback.com
Wild Horse Adventure Tours: 610 Currituck Clubhouse Dr; 800.460.4136; wildhorsetour.com
Cape Hatteras National Seashore: 1401 National Park Dr.; 252.473.2111; www.nps.gov/caha
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge: fws.gov/peaisland
Roanoke Island Festival Park: 252.475.1500; nchistoricsites.org/rifp/rifp.htm
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum: 59200 Museum Dr; 252.986.2995; nchistoricsites.org/rifp/rifp.htm
Wright Brothers National Memorial: 1000 N croatan hwy; 252.473.2111