The Outer Banks’ rich history is often overshadowed by the 100+ miles of barrier islands and pristine beaches loved by summer vacationers.
I get it. Who cares what happened in 1587 when the warm, salty ocean beckons you to wash your cares away. That’s why a winter vacation in the Outer Banks is a great idea. The attention is no longer on swimming, surfing, sunbathing, kayaking, and building sandcastles. (You can do some of that if you want, but perhaps pack your triple layer wetsuits).
Sunrise at Outer Banks Fishing Pier
A winter vacation gives you permission to dive a little deeper into the character of the Outer Banks: What is its story? What is unique about it? How has it evolved over the years?
From lost colonies, to pirate escapades, first in flight, wild hurricanes, and a beacon of light for those searching for their freedom, the Outer Banks has a deep treasure trove of stories to share.
It will open your eyes to how unique this land of new beginnings is, both culturally and ecologically, and fall deeper in love with it. We recently spent three nights on a family winter getaway to the Outer Banks. While we still made time to dip our toes in the water and enjoy the salty air all to ourselves, we focused more on uncovering the deep roots.
Wright Brothers National Memorial
We turned our attention to other activities and attractions that showed us the Outer Banks is more than just some of the most pristine beaches and best sunrises in the world. (During the winter you pretty much have ALL of this to yourselves!)
Rent a Beach Cottage
Finding a summer vacation rental in the Outer Banks is a bit like trying to find the wild horses way back in the dunes. In winter, prices fall back to affordable and availability is usually as ubiquitous as the dolphins at sunrise.
It invites a slower morning sitting on the deck (or on the sand), coffee in hand watching the sunrise, or curled up in a blanket with a red wine listening to the waves crash at night.
Winter encourages you to use your vacation rental more: meals cooked-in rather than eaten out, family movie time on the couch rather than the more high energy, live music at a busy brewery. Slow moments are just as important on a vacation as the busy sightseeing and playing in the sun ones.
Our beach cottage was located in Nags Head, just south of Jennette's Pier. It was an excellent base for exploring the following Outer Bank attractions in the winter.
Bird Watching in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
While definitely not strangers to wildlife viewing, bird watching is not something our adventure loving family has ever considered before. Turns out that was a mistake. Just like our safaris in Africa, we felt fully alive being silent and present in the moment watching the birds and filling our curiosity and awe buckets.
Apart from seeing and learning about a wide variety of birds, the benefit of this slow and quiet wilderness activity is that I can just be at one with life. The surrounding chaos and problems that occupy my mind disappears as I put the binoculars to my eyes and glide with the birds.
Due to its geography and position in the eastern migratory flyway, the Outer Banks is a popular place for birdwatching and people flock to it from all over the eastern seaboard.
We joined Jonathan Cooley from Native Birding Tours for a four-hour birdwatching tour of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. This protected area consists mostly of a pocosin wetland, marshes, agricultural fields and a phenomenal amount of wildlife, especially birds.
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
We were thrilled to experience the Tundra swans and a few rare encounters such as a bald-headed eagle's attempt to catch a duck, two rough-legged hawks flying together, and a sandhill crane lost on his way from Texas.
Whether you are new to birding, have target species, or you want to go big day birding, Jonathan has a tour for you. He offers tours year round from full-day to half-day birding trips, shorter birding walks, and private tours!
P.S. Here’s a great story about the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. It has the highest concentration of black bears on the eastern seaboard AND the last remaining red wolves in the wild.
Wright Brothers Memorial: The Story of First Flight
Not to be missed at any time of year, the Wright Brothers National Memorial tells the story of the first flight as it happened amongst the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk in 1903.
A 60 ft. granite monument sits high on the sand dune where the brothers did most of their gliding experiments (now covered in grass). The memorial overlooks the field where they piloted the four successful first flights in their heavier-than-air flying machine (not to mention the stunning panoramic view of the barrier island!)
Start in the museum, which brilliantly tells the inspirational story from dreaming the impossible to making it possible through the phases of skill and character traits needed to do it, rather than a numerical timeline.
As you walk along the actual marked flight paths, you’ll believe that you can do anything too.
Your Turn to Fly with Kitty Hawk Kites
You’ve curiously watched the birds in flight and learned how the Wright Brothers used that curiosity to create a flying machine, why not come full circle and fly like a bird yourself? Harness up. It’s time to learn how to hang-glide over the sand dunes in the nearby Jockey’s Ridge State Park.
The dunes here make up the tallest natural dune system on the East Coast, ranging from 80 ft. to well over 100 ft. tall. This, along with their perfect and consistent wind patterns, is why it’s considered one of the best hang gliding locations in the US.
Kitty Hawk Kites have been operating hang gliding lessons since 1974. Their excellent instructors will help you learn how to launch, fly, and land on the soft sands. Most importantly, these sand dunes offer beautiful views of Roanoke Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. You can read our full experience here.
Historical Walking Tour of Manteo with Chief
The best way to learn about the meteorology, geography, ecology, culture and history of the Outer Banks region is to join retired Police Chief, Francis D’Ambra for an evening stroll through the Historic Waterfront of Old Manteo.
Chief will transport you through 400+ years of history, leaving you in awe over the resilience of this small barrier island region off the treacherous Atlantic coastline the land of new beginnings and firsts in history.
We traveled through the stories of the native Algonquin, Lost Colony of Roanoke, First in Flight, the Underground Railroad, The Mother Vine, the crazy antics of pirates and moonshine producers, and the wild hurricane weather that shapes land and culture.
Something from every era of the USA’s history happened on Roanoke Island, or near to this little island between the barrier islands of the Outer Banks and the mainland.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site: The First Colony Story
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is the perfect winter attraction for its cooler temperatures and lack of crowds. At the northern end of Roanoke Island is the original home of Algonquin Indians and then the first English settlement in the present-day USA.
These original colonists were part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s doomed efforts to settle the New World in 1585 and 1587. So doomed that these colonists disappeared without a trace.
You can learn of this fascinating story through a 17-minute video in the visitor center as well as exhibits which contain artifacts excavated from the original sites.
The Thomas Hariot Nature Trail is a short loop walk that takes you to the restored earthen fort that would have originally been built here over 400 years ago. During the summer months, you can experience the early settlement story through America’s longest outdoor drama, The Lost Colony.
This area was also where the Freedmen’s Colony, a self-sustaining colony of free African Americans, was established in 1863. Their story is told in the visitor center and is honored with a marble monument out the front.
There is a longer trail which takes you to the Elizabethan Gardens, an elaborate 10-acre garden with sculptures and seasonal flowers founded as a living memorial to the Lost Colonists. The Winterlights Festival is a popular holiday attraction that runs from the last week of November, the entirety of December, and into January.
Sunset at Bodie Island Lighthouse
The panoramic view of Bodie Island lighthouse bathed in orange and pink light is a thing of beauty and one that cannot be replicated through the narrow lens of a camera.
It’s now my favorite lighthouse in the USA and just another magical sunset spot in the Outer Banks. Unlike other lighthouses in the area, it does not sit near the ocean shoreline, but in the middle of the salt marshes of the Roanoke Sound in the first part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
There’s a short boardwalk over the marsh with fantastic sunset views of the 150ft high black and white horizontal striped lighthouse. Turn around to look over the marshlands leading to the ocean, protected by rising sand dunes.
The golden light was also fantastic for shooting family photos and portraits.
Another joy to a winter beach vacation: sunset is much earlier. As I’m an early bird, clocking off on the couch by 8pm is my joy. 9pm summer sunsets are tough, especially with kids.
Seafood Dinner in Your Vacation Rental
Many of the popular restaurants in the Outer Banks close for the winter season, or operate reduced hours.
That’s a perfect invitation to either catch your own meal, OR purchase fresh seafood from any of the local fish markets and cook a feast in your rental home. The Outer Banks is not short on good, fresh, local seafood.
We opted for fresh oysters, blackened mahi mahi, and sea scallops and shrimp cooked in a lemon garlic butter sauce.
Make this story even better by purchasing a bottle of wine made from Scuppernong vine, the oldest living grapevine in the US. Expect a sweet muscadine wine made from grapes that have the highest concentration of antioxidants of any fruit!
Beer lovers, your seafood will pair nicely with a local brew from any of the Outer Bank Breweries. Cheers to this land of first and new beginnings. We can’t wait to come back!