Winter at the beach is for the birds – literally.

American Avocet at Pea Island

I like the beach.  I would love it if it weren’t for the heat, the sand, the sun, the crowds, the sun-worshipers, the traffic, the jet skis, the raucous teenagers, the bad food and the ubiquitous smell of sweat and suntan lotion.  Get rid of that stuff, and I could love the place.  So generally, I just don’t go.

Which is not a problem, unless you are married to someone who LOVES the beach.  Loves the sand, the sun and the whole carefree beach scene with all the boardwalk spectacle and flip-flop living that goes along with it.  In which case, you compromise – you go to the beach in the off season, vacation separately in the summer, and when I do go, I am in a constant quest to round out my visits to the coast with as much beach-free activity as possible.

For those in a similar predicament – or even those who like more variety in their beach vacation than just moving your chair with the sun – the Outer Banks of North Carolina offer a great respite.  Our family goes on average about once a year, and in the process I have discovered some great beach-free diversions – including a few hikes that do not involve chafing-wet-bathing-suit-clad beach walks (really, who in the world thinks “walks on the beach” are romantic??  I truly believe that un-fun activity became filler in the “likes” section of those personal ads for people who aren’t honest enough to say “sit in front of the TV with a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos watching reality television”.  But I digress…)

So if you find yourself in the company of someone who does like the beach – or if you are looking for a string of day-hiking and wildlife viewing opportunities that are close to some kick-ass rental houses and fun restaurant options, try out this menu of activities at the Outer Banks:

Currituck Banks National Estuarine Research Reserve

Take your kids to the best “boardwalk” on the East Coast! This small preserve is at the northern tip of the Outer Banks of NC past Corolla, and offers a boardwalk through dense coastal forest out to a stunning sound view where we saw Blue Herons, woodpeckers and a Virginia Rail.  There is a 1 mile side trail – and it offers a rare shady walk in the summer or a wind-protected walk in the winter.  We did it in the snow and it was beautiful

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Located 3 miles south of Oregon Inlet, this is a Mecca for shore birders, with almost 6000 acres of sound front ponds and marsh.  Better in the fall and winter when the weather is cool and the migrating waterfowl are there, we saw more than 37 species among the thousands of birds during a December visit.  There is a half mike boardwalk but for the more adventurous, there is a 3.5 mile loop around the “North Pond”, where you can walk the last mile south along the perfectly preserved and remarkably wide ocean front beach.  Either park at the visitor center, or there is a small 1 mile north where the trail crosses the road between the sound and the ocean.

The Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo, NC

I know, this is not quite a “hike”, but it is a pretty cool spot for anyone who likes the outdoors.  It is a stunning reproduction of a formal “garden” with more than a mile of walking paths through a range of garden rooms, lawns, and period structures.  It offers a shady walk in the summer and is beautiful any time of year.  Also great for kids to run around the various hidden paths.

The Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary and Trail

This is a 2.5 mile trail that parallels Route 12 north of Duck, NC along a 5000 acre sound-front preserve.  It a great, wide trail for an energetic 5 mile walk (by retracing your path once you get to the end) through high scrub and sound front views with 2 observation decks along the way.  On a hot day, I would recommend doing it either early morning or evening when the short growth around the trail offers shade.  We saw numerous birds and wildlife along the trail.  The trickiest part is finding the trailhead and parking – at either the Sanderling Inn’s health center on the south end where there are a few spots for hikers, or the parking lot of the Pine Island Racquet Club at the north end, where the trail starts from the back of their lot. 

Whichever trail you choose – and during a week’s stay you could do them all – make sure you reward yourself with a visit to the Duck Deli & Café to check out what they have on the smoker, then run across the road to the Duck Cottage books & coffee for a Mucky Duck.

 If you plan well, you could get through the whole week without ever being confined to a beach chair!

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