April 12, 2017

Wait… Is it Summer Already?


It seems like only a day or so ago that islanders were shivering in cool temps and winds, or driving along a lonely NC Highway 12 past businesses that were closed for the season…

In reality, it was more like a week.

Just last Wednesday, folks were hunkered down for a strong rain and wind storm, and only a couple weeks before that, certain corners of the island received a light dusting of snow.

But this week has clearly been the polar (or rather tropical) opposite of the island environment over the past month or two. And it’s been a topic of conversation for many locals who have looked around the landscape, got confused by the crowds, and wondered if they overslept for a couple months and woke up in the middle of summer.

Don’t be fooled. Yes, it’s still April, but it sure does seem like a switch has been flipped in the course of a few days.

Just take a look at the local evidence:

•    The area grocery stores were jamming on Saturday afternoon, and have stayed busy throughout the week.
•    Area businesses from restaurants to gift shops have opened their doors to waves of people.
•    The Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry is starting its spring schedule, with an increased number of runs from one island to the other.
•    The Oregon Inlet and Cape Point campgrounds will open for the season on Friday, April 14, and the Frisco and Ocracoke campgrounds will open on Friday, April 21.
•    The Rodanthe Pier and Avon Pier are open.
•    There’s a nesting corridor near Cape Point already.
•    The Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras Lighthouses will be open on Friday, April 21.
•    There are a LOT more cars on Highway 12…
•    In fact, there are even cars on Highway 12 after 9 p.m.!

And as if that wasn’t enough to leave people scratching their heads and wondering if they had a Rip-Van-Winkle-experience that made them wake up in June, there’s also the scene at the area beaches.

For the past several days, local beaches have been lined with colorful umbrellas, bathing suits, and kids and adults alike who are actually playing in the waves. Simply put, if you show up in typically wind-resistant and off-season gear, (like a sweater, jeans, and waders), you suddenly look entirely out of place.

This new wave of people – and the complementary sunshine to boot – may seem like it’s out of the blue, but really, it’s part of a trend that’s been growing over the past few years of longer seasons and more visitors.

For a few decades, it was just the longtime windsurfers, kiteboarders, and fishermen who were in-the-know of how fabulous the islands are in the off-season.

But it’s fairly apparent now that the word has spread.

“We do have a lot of people here this week. It’s definitely becoming a family tradition [for many people] to come down here for spring or Easter break,” says Beth Midgett, the Reservations / Operations Manager of Midgett Realty. “When you add the sporting crowds – the kiteboarders and fishermen – it creates an explosion of people.”

“This time of year, everything is really pristine,” she says. “There’s not a lot of traffic on the beach, the shops are just opening, and there’s a lot of excitement. And many visitors are busting out of the winter doldrums - they’ve been looking forward to this after every snow storm they went through.”

It’s a common theme throughout the vacation rental providers on the islands.

“For Outer Beaches, we're busy this week and next with mostly families coming in for Easter and spring breaks with the kids out of school,” says Alexa Nota, Marketing Manager at Outer Beaches Realty. “We also have a solid group of windsurfers in town who visit this time of year [annually] as well.”

“In general, we have seen a good increase in our shoulder seasons, as more and more people realize how great the weather is, and all that there is to do here outside of summer,” she adds.

The higher activity is obvious in the accommodations realm, but it’s carrying over to local restaurants as well.

 “We usually open a week or so before Easter, and April is definitely weather related when it comes to how crowded it is,” says Jomi Price, owner of Ketch 55 in Avon. “Thankfully, the weather is great, and it seems like there are a lot of people around.”

As for why people come this time of year, Jomi nicely sums it up: “The springtime is less busy, but still has all the amenities – [like restaurants, shops, beaches] - of the peak season.”

Simply put, people are recognizing that the off-season / shoulder season experience on the islands is worth traveling for – and many folks are making long-haul treks to squeeze in an April vacation.

“We always come in the summer, but the kids are out of school right now, so we thought ‘Why not?’” said one visitor from New York State who was relaxing on an Avon beach while her kids splashed in the water. “It was 40 degrees when we left, so this is paradise to us.”

When asked if her kids were cold while playing in the April waves, she laughed and replied, “You can ask them, but I’m pretty sure the answer is no.”

Another Virginia couple who have been coming to the beach in the spring for more than 15 years said that the reason they come is simply because of the isolation. “It’s definitely getting more popular,” said wife Marie while looking around at the crowds near the Avon Pier, “but it’s still quiet. Especially at night... At night, you can have the beach to yourself.”

The watersports fans and fishermen still come in the spring and fall seasons like clockwork, just like they always have.

But there’s a new wave of visitors who are coming in the off-season too – namely families and everyday vacationers –who just want to have a different kind of beach experience.

Devoid of the big crowds, heavy traffic, and those grueling 35 mph speed limits through the villages, (although it certainly feels like that will change any day), a mild spring or fall day on Hatteras or Ocracoke Island is pretty hard to beat.

This is the time of year where you can be sweat-free all day and still get a sun tan, when your “secret beach” is still relatively a secret, and when you can still spot dolphins or even whales playing offshore. (In fact, there have even been several recent whale sightings from both Avon and Rodanthe Piers.)

Now, if the past few years are any indication, this burst of summer-esque crowds is relatively short lived. After the spring break crowds depart, and Easter comes and goes, the region has traditionally experienced a dip in visitation until mid-May.

But as of this moment – when the piers and beaches are somewhat packed, and the ratio of bathing suits to sweaters is deeply noticeable – it sure feels like the summer season has arrived.

And even though 2016 had the highest visitation to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in 13 years, if the crowds this week are any indication, 2017 may very well be another record breaking year for visitors.

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