By Gretchen McKay

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The off-season is the perfect time to visit NC’s Outer Banks

Categories : Travel
On a windy day, there’s not better place to fly kites in the Outer Banks than at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head. Sand dune sledding is another popular activity. (Gretchen McKay)

MANTEO, N.C. — So maybe it wasn’t the nicest message I ever sent my son. Especially since the whole point of our off-season beach getaway was to leave our many worries behind in Pittsburgh, and simply chill.

“Just in case: Dad and I are about to go up in an airplane,” I texted him, attaching a screen shot of our cottage rental agreement so he could retrieve our belongings and cash in our life insurance  “in case it goes south.”

In truth, I was only half-kidding. It had been more than 30 years since the last, and only, time I’d squeezed myself into an airplane as tiny as the one parked before me on this sleepy Roanoke Island runway.That ride in a crop duster high above Colorado farmland only happened because I knew, and trusted, the pilot (my brother-in-law David).  I wasn’t so sure I wanted to put my life in the hands of Andy, who looked nice enough with his scruffy white beard and aviator sunglasses but who I didn’t know from Adam.

But I was on vacation. I wanted to live a little. So after strapping in and putting on the proffered headset, up, up, up in the air we went in the Cessna 172, less than 1,000 feet above North Carolina’s most famous chain of barrier islands.

It was thrilling.

It’s one thing to trek across the moonscape-like terrain at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head, the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast.  It’s another thing entirely to see entire 426-acre ridge of sand from the air. You can’t believe how massive it is, or how wonderfully pristine in light of all the sprawling vacation homes surrounding it.

From the air, we also got a new appreciation for the vastness of the Wright Brothers National Memorial, and why the brothers chose what was then a wind-swept, isolated stretch of beach in Kitty Hawk to test their gasoline-powered glider in 1903.

It was such a clear day, Andy pointed out various shipwrecks along the Atlantic coast, schools of fish and  the oyster farms that are poised to make North Carolina the “Napa Valley of Oysters” in the coming decade. We also got a bird’s-eye view of  the region’s many duck traps and fishing piers that draw crowds in summer.

By the time we landed 30 minutes later, I was already planning my next ride in Andy’s 1942 open cockpit bi-plane. And friends worried we wouldn’t find enough to do during the off season.

We’d chosen to vacation there in March for two reasons: we’d avoid summer’s crowds and to save money. Our three-bedroom oceanfront cottage rental in Kitty Hawk was just $170 a night, a discount of more than 50 percent, and we never had to wait in line at a restaurant. Also, traffic was such that I was able to bike and run beside the ocean on Beach Road without fear of getting hit by a car.

Yet going during the off-season also meant not everything was open. We had to go to three Duck Donut locations before we found one that wasn’t getting a pre-season facelift. The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama on Roanoke Island,  America’s longest running outdoor drama, was on hiatus. And it was just too darn cold for some favorite beach activities, such as swimming, paddle boarding and sunbathing.

Instead, pulling on our winter coats, we went thrift shopping, wandered around art galleries, listened to live jazz at the Kitty Hawk hangout Art’s Place and quaffed draft beer at Outer Banks Brewing Station in Kill Devil Hills.

We also drank in local history. At the Wright Brothers memorial ($10), we marveled over the full-scale reproductions of the siblings’ 1902 glider and 1903 flyer, and followed the path, marker by marker, of their four ground-breaking flights on Dec. 17, 1903. We also got to poke our heads into a reconstructed 1903 hangar, and snap pics of the sculpture park that recreates their flight into history.

On Roanoke Island, we spent a good hour trying to solve the mystery of where the first English settlers in the New World might have disappeared without a trace in 1587 at Fort Raleigh National Historic Park. Here’s where you also can tour the Elizabethan Gardens ($9) and its collection of camellias, roses, historic herbs and wide variety of native coastal species. Then, wet your whistle in nearby Manteo at OBX’s first distillery,  Outer Banks Distilling (reservations only, $10).

From October through March, sandboarding is permitted on Jockey’s Ridge, and it’s also a great spot for hang-gliding, if you’re rated or want to take a lesson. We instead sprang for a cheap souvenir kite at Kitty Hawk Kites and giggled like children when, after taking turns letting the line out, it effortlessly soared up and danced across the sky.

Climbing up those vast mounds of sand can be arduous. But it’s free, and it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful spot to watch the sunset, so long as you keep your eye on the directional arrows that will keep you from getting lost on the hike back to your car.

It was a quiet week, but also a restorative one. We left feeling refreshed and happy we’d missed the chaos and crowds of summer.

If you go: Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Getting there: Kitty Hawk is located in the heart of the Outer Banks, halfway between the beach communities of Southern Shores and Duck to the north, and Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head to the south. It’s about an 8-hour (500 mile) drive from Pittsburgh on mostly highway roads. If you want to break the trip up over two days, it’s easy to spend the night in the Washington, D.C. area, as the route takes you along the Capital Beltway on your way through Richmond to the Outer Banks.

Where to stay: There are dozens of hotels in all price ranges to choose from in the Outer Banks, and many offer discounted rates during the off-season that runs from mid-September to mid-May. You also can rent houses, cottages and condos through local real estate companies and vacation rental sites such as VRBO.com. flipkey.com and airbnb.com. We found an absolutely charming oceanfront cottage built in 1930 in Kitty Hawk through Homeaway.com for less than $200 a night. We watched dolphins splashing in the ocean each morning as we drank coffee on the deck.

Food and drink: Most Outer Banks businesses go to bed by 9 p.m., so plan to eat dinner out early. Local joints worth a visit include Art’s Place (terrific burgers and breakfast daily), Bad Bean Baja Grill (tacos and margaritas and Sam & Omie’s (sandwiches and seafood). If you’re a doughnut fan, there are four Duck Donuts locations on the OBX, including the original shop in Duck. For local seafood, small plates and fine dining, The Blue Point in Duck won’t disappoint, and it also has views of Currituck Sound. The diner-like Kill Devil Grill in Kill Devil Hills dishes up the best wings on earth, along with burgers, sandwiches and chalk board specials that might include duck breast one day and chicken and ribs the next. Longboard’s Island Grill in Kitty Hawk has a late-night menu that goes until 1 a.m. Plus, live music every Friday night and karaoke on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Activities: Unless you’ve got a wetsuit , the Atlantic ocean is too cold for swimming in the off season. (Though we did spy a few surfers.) But you still can watch for dolphins or take a quiet stroll on the beach. Off-season Outer Banks activities include thrift store hopping and shopping, kite flying at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, and bike riding. If you’re into history, the Wright Brothers National Memorial ($10) explains and celebrates the aviation pioneers’ historic achievement; Fort Raleigh National Historic Site aims to answer one of America’s most burning questions, what happened to the lost colonists of Roanoke? Farther north in Corolla, you can take a guided safari-like tour of the barrier islands’ wild horses, play a round of golf or climb to the top of the famed Currituck Beach Lighthouse.The 1,822 acre Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve is a popular destination for kayaking, hiking, birding, and other outdoor activities off the oceanfront

Information: outerbanks.org or 1-877-629-4386