Chilled Not Frozen, the North Carolina Coast Awaits You

Chilled Not Frozen, the North Carolina Coast Awaits You

When visitors aren't paddling the waters of Jockey’s Ridge State Park, they're frolicking on the sand dunes

Out of season, out of mind. But you’d be remiss if that’s how you viewed the North Carolina coast as a winter vacation destination. Because once the days and the waters cool, the outdoor adventure is just warming up around here. Winter’s the perfect time for a no-sweat coastal vacation, whether by land or sea. Just ask the hundreds of thousands of geese, ducks and swans who spend the season here.

4-Day Itinerary

Day 1: Hiking Goose Creek, navigating a quirk-filled museum

Day 2: Birding at Pea Island, paddling a maritime forest, doing the dunes

Day 3: A day on the water docking for ice cream, dabbling into the past

Day 4: Biscuits and birding at Lake Mattamuskeet, looking for bear at Pocosin Lakes

Day 1: Escape from Reality

You’ve been cooped up. The first thing you need to do after establishing base camp in Little Washington is release some of that pent-up energy. Nearby Goose Creek State Park on the north bank of the sprawling Pamlico River has eight miles of trail taking you beneath behemoth oaks festooned with Spanish moss and through an understory thick with myrtles and bays. From the Visitors Center, take the Palmetto Boardwalk through a dense wetland; then pick up the Ivy Gut Trail for a counterclockwise ramble through this swamp forest. You’ll finish revitalized — and hungry. Fortunately, on the way to your next destination is the Old Town Country Kitchen in Bath, offering great seafood at even greater prices. The fried oysters in a classic plastic wicker basket are especially good.

Your escape from reality slips into hyperdrive with a visit to the Belhaven Memorial Museum. In her 92 years, Bellhaven resident Eva Blount Way collected just about everything peculiar she came across. Three years after her death in 1962, her collection — from jars of pickled biological oddities, to a pair of fleas dressed as bride and groom, to more than 30,000 buttons — provides an afternoon of browsing you won’t soon forget. Back in Washington for the evening, you can ponder and puzzle over Eva’s eclectic collection while feasting on traditional Italian fare at Marabella Old World Pizza.

Day 2: Up and At ’Em

You’ll need to be up early for your day at the Outer Banks, a day that begins at 8 a.m. with a free guided bird tour at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. More than 400 bird species call the refuge home, a number that swells in winter with the arrival of migrating waterfowl led by the greater snow goose. After an hour and a half with a guide, you’ll have a keen grasp of our feathered visitors from the North — and likely a decent appetite. Your wake-up coffee long worn off, caffeine is a given. But with the mid-morning end to your tour, the question is: breakfast or lunch? It won’t matter at Waveriders Coffee & Deli in Nags Head, where you can get your full complement of caffeinated beverages, and either a breakfast sandwich or a sandwich more suitable for midday: The Motz (pesto, spinach, tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and balsamic drizzle on ciabatta), or a BLT loaded with six slices of bacon.

Eat up, because the afternoon will find you paddling the Safari River Maritime Forest. This paddle in the Kitty Hawk Woods is ideal for cool weather, protected from the coast’s sometimes bracing winter winds by live oak and red maples lining the banks. Beginner friendly, it’s wallet friendly as well. Afterward, stick around and frolic on the tallest (80 to 100 feet, depending on the day) sand dune on the East Coast at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. If you have questions about what you’ve seen so far on the water, land and in the air, swing by the Coastal N.C. National Wildlife Refuges Gateway Center in Manteo where you can take a virtual tour of the region’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service preserves.

After birding, paddling, rolling down sand dunes and taking a virtual tour, you again find yourself hungry. Too hungry, perhaps, to make it all the way back to Washington? That’s fine, because you only need to get to Williamston by 7 p.m. for some revered Eastern North Carolina barbecue at Shaw’s Barbecue House. A plate (pig, chicken, shrimp or fish) comes with two sides.

Day 3: Feasting on the Go

After a busy couple of days, ease into this one. Start with a leisurely cup of coffee and a Danish at the Coffee Caboose, Etc., off the east end of downtown Washington, where you’re welcome to hang until you’re ready to face the day. Take your time, because you’ll be spending most of your day on the water. Just down the street at the City Boat Docks you can rent a kayak at Inner Banks Outfitters. Warm up with a mile-long paddle up intimate Runyon’s Creek, and then head out to the Pamlico River.

You’re not long on the water before you realize your Danish has worn off. Simply paddle a short distance upstream to the downtown Washington waterfront where you can dock and dine at any number of restaurants. Opt for On the Waterfront, perhaps, for a crab cake sandwich, or Scoops for an amaretto chocolate truffle/peanut butter caramel cookie dough/banana pudding ice cream cone.

Back on the water, explore several small islands across from the waterfront, including The Castle, which has a colorful past dating back to the Civil War, and documented in Bland Simpson’s The Inner Islands: A Carolinian’s Sound Country Chronicle. Continue upstream and pass under U.S. Highway 17 for more intimate paddling on either Tranter’s Creek or the Tar River (which merge here to form the Pamlico).

By the time you make it back to the put-in, you may have barely enough energy to climb out of your boat. Dig into your reserves and walk the 15 feet from the dock to Backwater Jack’s Tiki Bar & Grill. Burgers, seafood, libations, tropical ambiance: a great spot to swap stories about your day on the water.

Day 4: Welcome to Wildlife

So far, this active escape has done exactly what you were hoping: releasing sufficient endorphins to the point where your body requests a little relief. Sounds like time to let the scenery come to you with a little birding. But first, a biscuit! On your drive east on U.S, Highway 64, pull over in Bellhaven at Gingerbread Bakery & O’Neal’s Snack Bar for a biscuit (egg, cheese, ham and pork chop). Maybe grab an extra or two to stick in your pocket for your day in the field.

First stop: Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. If you want to be overwhelmed by wildlife you can’t do much better than this 50,180-acre expanse of lake, marsh, forest and cropland. Its location on the Atlantic Flyway makes it exceptionally popular with actual snowbirds escaping the North: Up to 80 percent of the migrating Northern Pintails and up to 30 percent of Green-wing Teals spend the winter here. All told, more than 200,000 ducks, geese and swans call Lake Mattamuskeet home November through February.

Complete your day and your stay by heading northwest to the neighboring Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, another 110,000 acres of prime coastal preserve. You’ll find more overwintering waterfowl, and something else if you stick around until dusk. Park at the corner of Pungo Lake and South Lake roads, be patient and alert, and there’s a good chance you may spot a black bear waddling down the gravel road. Pay attention, though: As soon as the bruin gets wind of you, he’ll scatter into the dense woods.

Unless, that is, you still have that biscuit in your pocket.

Joe Miller is the author of Adventure Carolinas and other guidebooks, and writes about health, fitness and adventure at


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