Who said summer is the best time to hit the beach? The fun doesn’t have to stop just because the temperature drops. Despite the chill in the air, during the winter North Carolina’s coast is still prime for paddling and loaded with land-based adventures and cultural attractions. You’ll find everything from traffic-free maritime trails to timeless historical sites and adrenaline-inducing sports. These five beach towns make for an excellent getaway any time of the year.
This southern coast town soared to stardom as the location of the film-adapted Nicholas Sparks novel Safe Haven—with Southport providing a perfectly picturesque backdrop. Straddling the Cape Fear River, the Intracoastal Waterway, and of course, the Atlantic Ocean, Southport is also a premier paddling destination. Explore Southport’s rich history—from earliest Native American inhabitants to the pirates prowling the town’s waters in the 17th centuries to the Civil War blockades—at the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport. After a stint on the mainland, change gears and hit with water with a paddling tour of the eclectic collection of backwaters and salt marshes with the Adventure Kayak Company. Or use Southport as a launch pad for exploring Bald Head Island, which is just two miles offshore. It features the state’s largest swath of maritime forest and boasts the oldest lighthouse in North Carolina, "Old Baldy," which was built in 1817.
Located on the Crystal Coast, Beaufort is one of North Carolina’s oldest towns, and one of the most charming. The town is swirled with colonial-era lore, and about two decades ago one of Blackbeard’s most dreaded vessels, the Queen Anne, was discovered in the Beaufort Harbor. Delve deeper into the area’s colorful coastal history at the North Carolina Maritime Museum or get a whole other perspective of the town on the Beaufort Ghost Walk. Explore Beaufort’s delights by bike with Hungry Town Tours, which offers trips showcasing the town’s culinary and historical highlights.
While Beaufort is laden with creature comforts like craft beer and elegant cuisine, the town provides an ideal base for exploring one of North Carolina’s wildest stretches of coast, the Cape Lookout National Seashore. The pristine string of barrier islands is about 3 miles offshore. If conditions are too gnarly to make the trip to Cape Lookout, stick closer to town and head for Fort Macon State Park. The formidable stronghold was once tasked with protecting Beaufort from marauding pirates, and the historical site is also laced with hiking trails, which are virtually empty in winter.
Nags Head is the quintessential Outer Banks town—a symbiotic mix of land and sea with plenty of natural and cultural attractions. Terrestrial treasures around Nags Head include Jockey’s Ridge State Park, which boasts one of the loftiest active sand dune systems in the eastern United States. It’s also one the planet’s premier locations for learning to hang glide any time of year. Kitty Hawk Kites, just across from the dunes, offers hang-gliding lessons year-round. Even better, when icy temperatures make the ocean less appealing, the dunes are rideable too, with sandboarding allowed in parts of Jockey’s Ridge with a permit from the park office (from October 1 to March 31).
All-weather anglers will love Nags Head’s iconic fishing pier. The original wooden version was built in 1939, but it was demolished more than a decade ago by Hurricane Isabel. The sturdier, more sustainable iteration gracing the town today is Jeanette’s Pier, which juts 1,000 feet out into the Atlantic, making it possible to snag rockfish, bluefish, and red drum throughout the winter. While in Nags Head, head for another national treasure, the Wright Brothers National Memorial, celebrating the 12-second flight over the towering dunes of the Outer Banks credited with shaping the course of modern air travel.
During the summer, ease of accessibility makes Wrightsville Beach a popular stretch of shoreline. In the winter, the crowds are gone, but the town’s charm remains. If rough seas mean coastal paddling is a no go, explore the area’s buffered inland waterways like Town Creek or the Black River with a kayak tour led by Mahanaim Adventures. Aside from the stunning and easily accessible ribbon of coastline, Wrightsville Beach is also just 20-minutes from Wilmington, which is loaded with enticing cultural attractions, like the Cameron Art Museum, the Wilmington Railroad Museum, and the 18th century Burgwin-Wright House, which was briefly usurped by British General Cornwallis during the American Revolution. Wilmington also boasts the largest historical district in the state, and every November the town celebrates its creative side with the Cucalorus Film Festival, highlighting independent flicks.
Sprinkled over a corner of historic Roanoke Island, Manteo makes an alluring winter retreat. Make base camp in Manteo and get your bearings at the Coastal North Carolina National Wildlife Refuges Gateway Center. Use the town as jumping off point for exploring the area’s ecological treasures, like the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which harbors a population of native red wolves reintroduced in the 1980s. It also features hiking trails, wildlife drives, and a 15-mile paddling trail on Milltail Creek.
Back in town, delve into the mystery of the earliest European settlement on the Outer Banks. Visit the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site to learn about what’s now referred to as the Lost Colony, which was established at the end of the 16th century. The fate of Roanoke Island’s earliest English settlers remains unknown to this day. Make sure to visit the stunningly ornate Elizabethan Gardens, a living tribute to the disappeared colonists. Back in Manteo, celebrate the town’s thriving arts scene with First Friday, a vibrant, family-oriented street festival held the first Friday of every month from April to December.
Originally written for Visit North Carolina .