"Winter's light is softer and more peaceful,'' said Christina. "It's not just the light, either. It's the movement of the water and the wind, too. It's kind of a meditative time, a slowing-down time.''

Now and again, though, winter required a floor trader's hustle. We walked next door to Christina's house. It was ringed with beautiful shells. The shells washed up on Ocracoke's beaches by the hundreds during winter northeasters. But they didn't stay there long.

"You get to the beach at 7:30," said Christina, "and here comes someone with a backpack full of conch shells.''

OUTDOOR OPPS
Buxton, North Carolina, and Ocean City, Maryland
Don your skivvies and a positive outlook, and winter coughs up plenty of prospects for outside activities. And so I headed briefly north to Buxton, where the Outer Banks Motel supplies free rowboats to its guests.

"Not too many people take 'em out in the winter,'' said the desk clerk. "In the summer they're real popular though, families taking them out to go crabbing.''

Still, early one morning, I spent two magical hours sliding across Pamlico Sound's marble-still surface.

Up the coast 200 miles or so, in Ocean City, Maryland, I rented some wheels from Mikes Bikes. Stopping in front of the store, I pulled my car up to a parking meter that appeared to have been decapitated.

"No parking fees this time of year,'' the clerk alerted me. "They do whatever they can to draw people in here so we can get some action.''

The beach towns I passed through offered conventional draws like winter jazz festivals, Christmas pageants, dog shows, and antique extravaganzas. Perhaps reflecting long days around the Chamber of Commerce office, there were also lima bean festivals and, my favorite, a Quiet Festival with a cloud-appreciation session and a feather-dropping contest.