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Off-Season in the Outer Banks
By Glenn Kaufmann
With picture-perfect sand dunes and a steady breeze keeping the heat down, bugs away and their dreams aloft, it’s easy to see why the Wright Brothers chose Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina’s Outer Banks as the place to design and fly the ungainly aircraft that would change the world. With near perfect off-season weather, full hookups year-round, easily accessible natural beauty and history dating to the earliest settlers and their mysterious disappearance, the Outer Banks just may be the perfect choice for your next getaway.
While most people opt to visit the Outer Banks during the May-to-September period, the weather, although beautiful, can be hot and muggy. If you have the flexibility to plan your trip for springtime, fall or even the winter months, you will be rewarded with cooler temperatures, fewer bugs and virtually no crowds. It never gets brutally cold, so not everything closes during the off-season. Most restaurants, museum docents, park attendants and outdoor sport vendors not only have the time to treat you right but, in the off-season, are thrilled to have the opportunity.
Situated south of Norfolk, Virginia, in a long, sinuous tract that hangs like a lobster bib from Virginia’s chin across the bosom of North Carolina, the Outer Banks area includes the communities of Corolla, Duck, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, Manteo, Rodanthe, Waves, Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke Island and others.
A Natural World
Established in 1953 as the first National Seashore in the nation, Cape Hatteras National Seashore offers visitors terrific hiking, kayaking, sailing and birding. Stretching from Nags Head in the north to Ocracoke Island in the south, this national treasure is composed of long beaches, rugged dunes and sound-side wetlands.
Designation as a National Seashore protects the area from development. This results in long stretches of beach where not a single structure interrupts the view of the water or attempts to conquer the ocean.
Inside the barrier of islands and peninsulas that create the Outer Banks, Albemarle Sound and Pamlico Sound offer perfect sheltered waterways for both novice as well as experienced adventurers wanting to get out on the water (by kayak, canoe or sailboat) without having to battle the extremes of surf and tide. These wide, diverse sounds provide the perfect opportunity to enjoy the water in literally hundreds of places, from grassy flats and marshy shallows to the wide-open channels in the middle of the sounds.
Home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, fish and reptiles, these waterways will put you in touch with a wide sampling of the winged, finned and four-legged locals, even if you are on a short excursion.
Considered to be “a living memorial to America’s original English colonists,” the Elizabethan Gardens, located on the north end of Roanoke Island, offer acres of manicured grounds that display outdoor sculpture, such as a Shakespearean Herb Garden, a Rhododendron walk, a Fragrance walk and much more.
Open in all seasons, the gardens offer a perfect afternoon stop or an all-day adventure for the serious gardener.
A Landmark of Mystery
In July 1587, nearly 120 men, women and children set foot on Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks. They were determined to fulfill Sir Walter Raleigh’s dream of founding a permanent settlement in the New World. As the colony had been founded two years earlier, these colonists were to serve as the reinforcements that would ensure the colony’s success.
The next month, John White returned to England, leaving behind, among others, his daughter and his newborn granddaughter, Virginia Dare. On his return in 1590, White found the colony abandoned. To date, The Lost Colony remains a mystery.
The provocative story is played out by the actors and actresses at The Lost Colony, a spectacular waterside theater in Manteo. The Lost Colony is said to be the longest running outdoor drama in the United States (2007 will be it’s 70th season). Unfortunately, the production runs only during the summer. However, there are other places on Roanoke where you can learn about the mysterious disappearance.
First in Flight – Wright Brothers National Memorial
A large cement pylon sits on an unassuming dune in the heart of Kill Devil Hills, N.C. This memorial marks the actual spot where the Wright Brothers’ amazing flights took place, on December 17, 1903. The nearby visitor center and well-signed walking areas do a terrific job of explaining the details of the brothers’ lives as well as the difficulties they overcame. As a visitor, you will walk along the path of their four famous flights, reading informational markers at key points along the flight paths. Viewing the actual landscape over which they flew adds a whole new dimension to the concept of first flight. It is no longer an abstraction, but a visceral reality of sand, wind and grass.
If the Wright Brothers National Memorial whets but doesn’t satisfy your appetite for flight, you’re in luck: Where the area really earns its keep is by teaching the world how to fly – in, on and around the same dunes used by the Wright Brothers.
Adventures High and Low
For more than 30 years, world-renowned Kitty Hawk Kites has been training people to hang glide from the same dunes the Wright Brothers utilized. From their base in Jockey’s Ridge State Park, trained instructors lead thousands of students through ground school and their first flight each year. Open year-round, the hang-gliding school is an exciting way to see and get a feel for the Outer Banks.
With favorable winds and lots of navigable water, the Outer Banks are also the perfect place to take flight on the water. Nor’Banks Sailing, in the northern town of Duck, rents sailboats – from small catamarans to full-size day-sailors. While lessons are available at various places around the Outer Banks, be aware that wind, tidal flow and currents make the Outer Banks a fairly difficult place to sail, not suitable for those without appropriate sailing experience.
Like most any place in the American South, you don’t have to go far in the Outer Banks to find palate-pleasing food, particularly seafood. Doubly blessed with both the ocean and two large coastal sounds, this part of North Carolina offers terrific fish and shellfish. In season, there is nothing like soft-shell crab. When the soft shells aren’t available, you’ll find good crab almost anywhere. And many of the crab shacks up and down North Carolina’s Highway 12 are great.
All of this aquatic bounty comes with a healthy dose of country side dishes and “fixins,” like hush puppies, corn bread, greens, beans and okra, all prepared to Southern standards and presented in portions that leave little doubt that Southern hospitality is alive and well.
From a tide pool on Ocracoke Island to the heights of Kill Devil Hills, if you have a mind to get out in nature, sample a taste of history or experience an extra helping of adventure, the Outer Banks can satisfy it all. Whether you opt for the summer, or the cooler, quieter off-season, you’ll be met with Southern hospitality, good cooking and an open road to fun and relaxation.
For More Information
Note: Many businesses list their address by mile marker. These numbers refer to North Carolina Highway 12 and the “bypass” (US 158).
1308 Duck Road
Duck, NC 27949
Kitty Hawk Kites - Hang Gliding School
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Outer Banks Visitors Bureau
24798 North Carolina Hwy 12
Rodanthe, NC 27968
Cape Hatteras KOA
25099 North Carolina Hwy 12
Rodanthe, NC 27968
(252) 987-2307, (800) 562-5268
Cape Woods Campground
47649 Buxton Back Road
Buxton NC. 27920
Frisco Woods Campground
53124 North Carolina Hwy 12
Frisco, NC 27936
Ocean Waves Campground
25313 North Carolina Hwy 12
Waves, NC 27982
Check in advance for seasonal campground closures.