Summer may be peak tourist season, but one species that populates the area in the spring and fall months are people sometimes known as “Beaufort Snowbirds,” a flock that abandons its northern homes during the winter months in favor of Florida’s sunshine. Either they roar up and down I-95 in their Winnebagos or they putter and sail in seagoing vessels of all sizes and descriptions along the Intracoastal Waterway — sometimes called a “floating I-95.”

First envisioned by Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Albert Gallatin, the Intracoastal Waterway is a series of linked rivers, canals and bays that today amounts to a 1,300-mile north-south passage. Once that became fully developed, it was only a matter of time before wayside attractions emerged.

Traveling by highway, the Beaufort Snowbirds might overnight at South of the Border, a midway point on I-95 between New York and Florida, with dozens of full-color roadside billboards promising sensational attractions and counting down the miles. The nautical route has no equivalent hype, and its far more subdued stopover of choice in Beaufort, NC is utterly devoid of neon lights and video arcades.

The many marinas in town cater to the annual migration. Dockage fees are based on the size of the boat and in many cases include the use of a car. In a coin-operated laundry in the General Store on Front Street, there is a stack of used books sitting on the folding tables, free for the taking.

When the boaters swarm ashore they are hungry, thirsty and in search of gifts, groceries, supplies and souvenirs. A 10-block section of vintage storefronts stands ready to meet their needs, and flanking the commercial district on both sides are blocks and blocks of gracious and historic Southern-style homes. One common element among the historic homes are foundations built with ballast stones — weights once used to help regulate the buoyancy of boats.

Another standard architectural feature found in Beaufort, NC homes is the widow’s walk. Sailors of long ago put out to sea for weeks, months, sometimes years, and their wives were left with the combined tasks of maintaining the house and looking for their return through Beaufort Inlet. The houses were built with a rooftop platform where women would stand or sit, shading their eyes with their hands, straining to see a familiar mast on the distant horizon. Sometimes they never saw their husbands again.