We are now into what is commonly known on the Outer Banks as the “off-season.”
I am not sure that there is an absolute date on which the off-season begins. Years ago, it probably would have been right after Labor Day, but we’ve become more of a shoulder season destination – with visitation even slipping into the winter months – so probably every business has its own definition of when the true off-season begins. It might be mid-October, or after fishing season, Veteran’s Day weekend, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. But regardless, it means that the pace on the island is less hectic, and everything is a bit quieter than at the height of summer.
To be sure, last year and probably this year will be different due to the pandemic. Many folks said that there wasn’t an off-season last year at all, as we seemed to have highway and beach traffic right through the winter and spring months.
That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it is true that it never seemed to get as quiet during last winter as it has in years past. There are a lot of summertime visitors who want to experience Hatteras Island in the off-season, and as we are getting closer to that time, (if we’re not already there), I thought it might be helpful to set some expectations for first-time wintertime guests.
The first question we get at the Cape Hatteras Motel about visiting in the fall and winter is, “what will the weather be?”
That’s such a difficult question to answer because, truly, we never know. That uncertainty IS a certainty. Beyond that, I think it is wise to prepare for the worst and be pleased when you get the sunny, milder days without wind.
Wind is a constant here, and when it blows from the northwest and especially the northeast, it can be unrelenting and chilling. After all, it is winter, and while we are in the state of North Carolina, we are situated way out in the Atlantic and our weather patterns where winds are concerned can be significant. Plan for cooler days, and sometimes downright cold nights. Bring layers, and don’t forget hats and scarves and gloves. Beachcombing on a cold, windy morning is not fun if you’re freezing!
Always have plans for things to do or see if you are experiencing particularly cold, blustery, or rainy days. You may end up driving a lot, and just looking at how the island goes about its daily life when it’s not heaving with summertime crowds.
Walking on the beach when possible, birding, going fishing, or just reading a book or relaxing to the sounds of the winter waves crashing are all great suggestions. There may be a few gift shops open, but shopping on a large scale probably isn’t going to work as well as it would in the summertime. And if you are fortunate enough to experience snow, (and it can and does happen on rare occasions), it is absolutely magical. Grab your camera or cell phone, and snap away for unforgettable shots of the lighthouse, beach, docks, and ferries all covered with a dusting of the white stuff.
It is important to watch the weather daily while you are here, and if it looks like a significant storm is headed this way, (just ask the locals – they will tell you if that’s the case), you may want to consider getting off the island, as it is not uncommon for N.C. Highway 12 to experience ocean overwash, meaning no one goes on or off the island for a few days.
This happened just a few weeks ago, and you may not have even heard of the storm, because in the winter, they are not named like hurricanes, and with so few visitors here, they don’t get the same amount of media attention. But make no mistake, these storms can be very, very difficult, and if you don’t like bad weather or are worried about getting isolated, best to cut your visit short.
Another thing to consider is dining options. The summer season is long and arduous, and folks in many customer service industries tend to take their breaks in the winter. While some places close from Mid-October to Easter, others take a month here and there. Other restaurants choose to limit days and/or hours of operation. Your best bet is to look on social media for the latest information. On the positive side, the fact that your favorite summer eatery is closed means you have opportunities to try different places. And of course, our grocery stores all stay open all year, so if you stay where you have a kitchen, you can cook to your heart’s content. Maybe try your hand at some local island creations while you are here.
At the motel, the off-season is a chance for us to repair and renovate. It isn’t uncommon for us to close off a portion of one of our buildings so that we can bother others as little as possible while updating or fixing-up. Rooms that are used on a constant basis for three-quarters of the year need love and attention to be ready to do it all over again. Moreover, these things can only be done when there are fewer visitors, and the rooms are empty for a time. It’s the same for fishermen, shopkeepers, and cottage owners. Everyone has something that needs attention.
If you are thinking of moving here permanently, a wintertime visit for a few weeks is a must. It will give you a chance to see if the island between October and April holds the same magic for you as it does from May to September. It is a great chance to talk with people who do live here. Pick their brains about why they came, and how they handle the sometimes cold and rainy stretches that do occur now and again.
Most folks will tell you they wouldn’t have it any other way. The peace and quiet, the stark emptiness of the beach, the fabulous winter sunsets, and the time to reconnect with friends all add up to a wonderful season of re-charging and renewal.
This might be your year to “turn on” to Hatteras during the “off-season.” Have a great winter experience!
Janet Morrow Dawson is the owner and operator of the Cape Hatteras Motel in Buxton, where her husband Dave is celebrating his 50th season there in 2021. She has lived full-time on Hatteras Island since 2015 and is celebrating her seventh season at the motel, however, she has been an Outer Banks fan since her family started coming to Hatteras Island for vacations in 1964.
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