Each year, more than a million people flock to the Outer Banks to enjoy the soft sand, warm water, and to enjoy local specialties like fresh caught seafood and the beach’s unique history. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore announced on August 2019 that 1.57 million visitors came to the park through July this year
Far fewer people venture here during the colder months, but those who do are treated to a quiet oasis.
Hatteras and Ocracoke islands see a dramatic change in pace as the weather cools. From small towns bustling with visitors and seasonal workers to becoming hushed sleepy villages. With a year-round population of approximately 4,500 people on Hatteras — and just under 1,000 people in Ocracoke — visitors can expect to see a lot of businesses shutting of their lights for a few months over the winter. With the last big rush of visitors leaving after Thanksgiving, the islands typically see a wave of restaurants closing.
In 2019, recovery from Hurricane Dorian resulted in some area businesses choosing to stay open later in the year. Lisa’s Pizzeria in Rodanthe chose to stay open Thursday through Sunday for the month of December, a month when they are typically closed.
With the holiday season in the rearview mirror, more restaurants and shops shuttered until early-2020. For those who venture to Hatteras in January and February, the wild splendor of nature awaits.
Bird watching on Hatteras is as at its best in the winter months when thousands of swans, snow geese, grebes and dozens of varieties of duck flock to Pea Island for their winter home. Black crowned night herons stalk the grassy waters, while loons dive a few feet away. A lucky few may also spy a returning snowy owl. Song birds and shore birds join the masses. Bald eagles are also known to winter in Pea Island Wildlife Refuge.
Beach walks reveal dozens of varieties of gulls and other shore birds. Sea glass and shells are at their most abundant for eagle-eyed shell hunters. Harbor seals migrate south for the winter, and Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands make up their southernmost boundary for that migration. Lucky beachcombers may stumble upon a seal sunning itself on the quiet beaches in winter — but should remember to give these wild visitors plenty of space and privacy.
Those who stroll the beach should also keep an eye out for sea turtles. While turtles are common along the shores of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, changing water temperatures can leave turtles “cold-stunned,” the reptile equivalent of human hypothermia.
The nonprofit Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T), is on hand to help locals and visitors recognize the signs of cold-stunned turtles and can rescue the turtles to rehabilitate them for release when the water warms.
Though ocean temperatures may be enough to stun turtles, those willing to don wetsuits and booties will find that surf conditions are their finest in the winter months. Though surfing conditions are entirely dependent on weather and current patterns, winter months roll in to the National Seashore with the big, clean breaks that make Hatteras a world-class destination for surfing. High winds pair perfectly with those clean rides for kiteboarders looking to make the move from the sound to the sea.
Each village on Hatteras offers options for shopping and year-round dining. Waves Market and Deli in Waves, Oceana’s Bistro in Avon, the more upscale Cafe Pamlico at the Inn on Pamlico Sound, or newcomer Tavern on 12 in Frisco offer diners a variety of options to please any palate.
Tackle shops are open for anglers who want to take advantage of the islands’ stellar cold-water fishing.
Despite taking a beating from Hurricane Dorian in September, Ocracoke is open and ready to welcome visitors to the island.
“I think that visitors can expect to see a different landscape. There are still many homes and businesses that have had to be razed and others that have had to be raised like lifted up,” said Helena Stevens, executive director, Ocracoke Civic & Business Association. “The landscape is going to be different regardless: we’re still in the process of cleaning up debris and cars that were destroyed, so it’s ongoing. It’s getting better, but it is a process that’s not done yet.”
“There’s a lot of businesses that are seasonal… but there are a few that would typically be closed this time of year that are going to be open for a short time through the beginning part of January.”
Among those businesses are restaurants Back Porch, Flying Mellon, and Zillie’s. Plum Point Kitchen will also be open this winter. Island Artwork, The Ocracoke Variety Store, Bella Fiore, Ride the Wind surf shop, and Books to be Red will be open for shopping, as well.
Wellness options will also be available to visitors and locals, including Yoga with Amy, and Ocracoke Island Yoga.
“The beach is always beautiful. Springer’s Point just reopened,” Stevens said. “In the winter, you just kind of enjoy the quiet here.”
For those looking for specific details on schedules, Ocracoke Civic & Business Association maintains a section on its website detailing lodging, shops, services, and restaurants that are open in the off-season, as well as a special events calendar.
For those who want to help Ocracoke in its recovery, Stevens said the best way lend a hand is to visit, shop, dine, and enjoy themselves.
“I think it’s really important to know that the community thrives on tourism. Despite our having gone through this disaster, we are resilient and we’re rebuilding. We miss our visitors. We want people to come and to not feel like they’re imposing or needing to give us more time. We like people here and want them to be here,” she said.