My first night was spent on North Carolina's Outer Banks, in the town of Duck, where I wandered into the Roadside Bar and Grill, which had been recommended by a local ("Good food. Plus, it's open.''). Perhaps because it was small and the food locally renowned, the Roadside was nearly full. It was warm and cozy, and the plate laid in front of me was fat with scallops touched with an angel-sweet glaze. The cold beer didn't hurt either.

But there was something more, a relaxed air of down-home leisure missing in the pell-mell months of summer. This came up again and again. Traveling up the coast, I had long conversations with bartenders, bookstore owners, and hotel clerks - friendly people who, come the tourist invasion, could become monosyllabic, dark countenanced, even grouchy.

The reason for their relaxed air was apparent everywhere. Along the narrow, mostly two-lane ribbon of highway from Duck, through Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, Rodanthe, and Avon, the wind whispered over empty dunes, under stilted homes, and around boarded-up motels. People stopped their cars in the middle of the road to talk, local fire departments offered bingo nights, frost-cheeked fishermen hung lines off piers, and there wasn't a line to stand in for miles.

Winter's chill palming the Roadside's windows, Jason, the bartender, poured beers and everybody at the bar talked - everybody being myself, Jason, and five men in their late 40s, in town to enjoy a long weekend of fishing and drinking. All of us agreed that winter's beaches were prettier, the traffic nonexistent, and if you turned the heat up high enough, the beer tasted just as good as it did on a sultry August afternoon.

"A lot of people are missing out, which in a way is a good thing,'' said Jason. "It gives the people who have the smarts to go against the grain the opportunity to en- joy the beach the way it used to be before the crowds discovered the place.''