The tourist traps are empty, vacancy abounds
Almost like it used to be before the circus came to town
That’s when it always happens, same time every year
I come down to talk to me, when the coast is clear
— Jimmy Buffet "When The Coast is Clear"

I absolutely love being at the beach in the off-season. I always have. I don't like crowds, traffic or waiting in line for things, so I will sacrifice being able to swim in the ocean for the solitude of the beach in winter. To me, that is the only sacrifice. Everything else is pretty much the same. My two visits to the Outer Banks of North Carolina these last few months have both been in the off-season, and both were amazing. 

Back in October, before setting off on this current journey, I had to take Shadow Catcher, my van, out on a test run. I wanted to be sure everything worked, to see how it handled on long drives and what I might need to add or remove from my packing list. My folks were headed down to the Outer Banks for their annual vacation there, so I decided to join them. 

Cape Hatteras Light

Our trip took us to Buxton, home of one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world, The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. I spent a week camped in its shadow (not literally, but not far off). The National Park Campground there is open until November, and while the sites don't have any hookups, it is a pretty great place to camp. Beyond being able to rock up without a reservation, there were no bugs, it was cool enough to sleep outside and there were very few other people around. October is a great time to fish in the Outer Banks, and while this year wasn't great (at least not for me), it was still fun to get out and enjoy some quiet moments standing in the surf and casting out a line. Because of the fisherman, this is technically the "shoulder season", so most restaurants and many shops were still open. At that point, it was actually still warm enough to swim in the ocean as well, so I took full advantage. 

Last week, I returned to the Outer Banks, this time in January. I stayed in the more populated Kill Devil Hills between Nags Head and Kitty Hawk, and had a wonderful time. While I stayed with a friend there, I did a little checking around, and accommodation prices were incredibly low. Hotel prices were pretty good, but the prices for Airbnb rentals were unbelievable. As the number of tourists drop, the competition goes up and the renters are happy to get what they can. There were certainly plenty of places that were closed, but there were also plenty that were open as well. These towns do support a year-round population, so the grocery stores and gas stations are open, as are many of the bars and restaurants, granted with limited hours. You'll also find that because things are quieter and the locals are catching a breather, you'll get better and more friendly service in the off-season. They're actually happy you are there. 

Bodie Island Light, All To Myself

As I made my way around from one beautiful place to another, I loved having them almost all to myself. I got to take some wonderful photos at some of these places without a single person in them. On the beach I could sit for hours reading my book with hardly another person in view. Every once in a while someone would jog past or wander by with their dog. We would wave to each other and they would keep going. While I was wearing a sweatshirt instead of working on my tan, having the beach to myself to read and listen to the crashing of the waves made it all worth it. When I went to the beach at dusk with my friends and their dogs, I found that I could stand in the middle of the beach and look all the way to my left and all the way to my right and we had the beach entirely to ourselves. It was magic. 

As summertime crowds grow and these beach communities reach and exceed their saturation points, they become less fun to visit. The heat and the crowds and the traffic will test anyone's patience, and isn't the whole point of going to the beach to relax and get away from all of that? I understand that some people have kids in school and summer is the best time to get away for a family vacation, but for the rest of us, we're not as tied to those 3 months. I recommend you stay local in the summer, go to the lake or camping in the state park close to home and save your big beach vacation for the quieter times of the year. Get out to the State Fair or the amusement park for your fix on rides and hit the sand when all of those things are closed and there isn't a screaming kid in sight. You may not come back with a tan, but you will come back far more relaxed and ready to get back to work than you ever could in the summer time. You'll also save time and a ton of money and get to interact more with the people who actually live there. I will swim in the pool in the summer, and save my beach time for winter, when the coast is clear.

When the Coast is Clear