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A winter trip to the Outer Banks swims against the tide, but is worth it

Although the beaches of North Carolina's Outer Banks are mostly empty in wintertime, they are still full of entertainment for children, including the author's 5-year-old son, Gibson.

GRAHAM CORNWELL/THE WASHINGTON POST

By GRAHAM CORNWELL | The Washington Post | Published: February 11, 2021

I recently returned from the ultimate getaway: A trip to a cold, rainy beach in the middle of the winter.

Hear me out. A trip to the beach in winter is the purest form of escape. There is no worry about the weather. A summer beach vacation can be knocked off course by a few days of rain, but not a winter trip. There are no activities on the daily calendar, because not much is open and there is no hurry to grab a good spot on the beach. There is no packing, carrying, unpacking and repacking beach chairs, coolers and sand toys several times a day, because I do not want to sit for a very long time on a frigid and windy beach.

Plenty of people surf and fish in winter. I admire them for that, but I prefer to go to the beach with no expectations or agenda beyond watching the changes in ocean and clouds.

By winter beach, I do not mean Aruba or Key West during resortwear season. That’s too easy. I mean chilly, probably wet, mostly gray mid-Atlantic beaches, like those along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a thin, 189-mile strip of barrier islands where my family spent two socially distanced weeks in December and January.

A winter beach around these parts is quiet. The rain and cold pretty much guarantee that you’ll have the place to yourself. The waves sound louder and more constant. The heavier winds intensify the smell of salt and sea grasses and blow a salty mist into your face as you near the surf. In weather that might otherwise keep me locked inside, the draw of the ocean lures me outdoors.

I have been a beach person all my life. While I’m happy to spend time at lakes or in the mountains, salt and sand seem to trigger a different humor in my body. I breathe more deeply, I sleep better, I am more active and I probably even eat better.

Over the years, I’ve learned to be a beach person in all seasons. There is still nothing that beats cool saltwater lapping over you on a hot summer day, sand clinging to the bottom of a cold beer can, or the smell of bluefish hitting the charcoal grill as that day stretches out into a golden, breezy evening. I miss those days when they are gone, but I’ve come to appreciate a whole different set of joys that winter brings to the beach and the areas around it.

During summer, for example, I have a tough time committing to any activity that doesn’t offer the promise of a swim. But I love historical sites, scenic drives and nature walks, too, and winter is the best time to do these things. There are no crowds or traffic. On our recent trip to the Outer Banks, we had Jockey’s Ridge State Park nearly to ourselves. Here, the tallest active sand dunes on the East Coast offer perfect views of the ocean, sound and Roanoke Island to the west. The driving winds made patterns across the sand and drove off the other visitors.

I worried about entertaining my 5-year-old son at the beach in the winter. But in his eyes, the short days and early sunsets were just more opportunity for headlamp beach walks and seeing the stars before dinnertime. I would carry our newborn strapped into her carrier on my chest, and my wife would lead our son on epic, but frosty, beachcombing expeditions. With no competition to speak of, they filled bucket after bucket.

Best of all, he paid little attention to any bad weather. Instead, he sprinted through wide-open spaces, swung a furled umbrella around like a lightsaber and embraced the thrill of evading the icy waves as they rolled on shore. On our last nighttime walk, he got a little too close and soaked his shoes and pants. But as we turned back home, he asked if he could splash through one more time. It was no more than 35 degrees outside, and yet it was impossible to deny him that simple, silly delight.

How many times during the pandemic have you sought to take a quiet walk in the woods only to spend most of your time stepping off the path so others can pass in socially distant safety? Go near a beach in winter, and the trails and boardwalks along the sound and marsh are all yours. In our region, it is the best time to see birds and waterfowl.

I have been to the Outer Banks several times a year for most of my life, but I had never spied tundra swans there until my trip in January, even though North Carolina sees more wintering swans than any other state on the East Coast. My son and I spent a morning watching pied-billed grebes dive deep for food, trying to guess when and where they would finally emerge. I had to look them up because this was the first time I’d seen, or at least noticed, them. The fuzzy, short-nosed birds are common to coastal North Carolina, but in winter they come out on the sounds and bays in big groups.

In peak summer, traffic is terrible and deters us from driving anywhere, while the heat keeps us near water and shade and air-conditioning. None of these things are much of a concern in winter. I ventured into the little town of Duck and, even though it was during the pandemic, started to feel a true sense of place. Locals hit the coffee shops and bakeries on their way to work — just as they would in summer — but now I had the time to notice, to ask questions and to listen in. The fishmonger had a few more minutes to tell me how to cook the locally caught sea mullet and speckled trout, and to explain that the shrimp boats I see every evening just offshore come down from New England and never sell their catch locally.

On those somewhat rare days when the sun shines and the temperatures creep into the 50s or beyond, the deep blue of the sky and the reflections off the water are more brilliant than any other time.

I tried not to miss a sunset, whether over the bay or by the ocean, where the glow behind us from the west turned the horizon a rainbow of pastel pinks and purples.

The winter sky at night, minus much of the light pollution from high summer occupancies, explodes with constellations. We spotted Mars first, then Uranus, and then Orion’s belt as we scrambled to find answers for our son’s questions about every single cluster or pattern of stars that came into view.

Joan Didion said that the appeal of the ocean for her was the constancy of the horizon, “always there, flat.” That perfect parallel line complements both the tumult of rough waves and the gentle swells of calm seas. One day, after hours of downpour finally let up, we took one of our regular evening walks down to the beach and peered out over the water. I thought about how often I look at the sky but how infrequently I actually see the horizon. Everything was gray, sea and sky, but in between I could just make out that thin band separating the two. 

The author's son and wife near the summit of Jockey's Ridge State Park, home of the tallest active sand dunes on the East Coast.
GRAHAM CORNWELL/THE WASHINGTON POST