If you’re anything like me, you’re always looking forward to the next best family vacation destination. This year we knew we wanted to visit coastal North Carolina for its family-friendly beaches and southern charm. My family of four is very active and enjoys boogie boarding, kite surfing and fishing. After researching the best North Carolina beach for families, we chose to go to the Crystal Coast and we’re so glad we did! From Emerald Isle to Atlantic Beach, there are so many family beaches to choose from when searching for sun-soaked adventures and endless memories. In this blog, I’m going to share with you the highlights of our trip which will go down in our history books as the best North Carolina vacation spot for families.

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Exploring the Crystal Coast

Nestled along the stunning North Carolina Coastline, the Crystal Coast provides the perfect playground for a family vacation destination. Whether you’re looking for the 56 miles of undeveloped beach, dunes, marshes and pristine waters found at Cape Lookout National Seashore, or family-friendly beaches surrounded by family-friendly activities, restaurants and accommodations, the Crystal Coast has it all. You’ll be able to keep the whole family entertained with exciting adventures including kayaking, hiking, biking, paddleboarding, mini golf, and a look under the sea at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.

Kids running into the sunset

Family-Friendly Beaches

First up, let’s kick things off with what the Crystal Coast is famous for-breathtaking beaches! From the bustling Atlantic Beach to the serene shores of Cape Lookout National Seashore, the options are endless. My family and I chose to stay in Emerald Isle because it was named by USA Today as the second-Best Beach in the South. After traveling excessively to beaches on both coasts I would argue that Emerald Isle is the number one beach in the south and beyond. The 21 miles of soft white sand beaches seem to stretch on forever! While my family could spend all day surfing in the waves, low tide offers plenty of tidal pools for little ones to splash in, the sand is the perfect consistency to build magical castles, and the warm sunshine is ideal for teens to get that perfect glow. From Emerald Isle and Indian Beach to Pine Knoll Shores and Atlantic Beach you truly cannot go wrong. To pick the perfect beach for your family during your stay at the Crystal Coast visit the family-friendly beaches page.

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Top Family Attractions

Beyond the beaches, the Crystal Coast has so many educational activities and attractions to keep the whole family entertained. You can dive into the wonders of marine life at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, explore the history of Fort Macon State Park, and learn about the infamous Pirate Blackbeard at the North Carolina Maritime Museum. With interactive exhibits, guided tours and plenty of hands-on activities your family will be excited to be immersed in the culture of the Crystal Coast.

Aquarium Family

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

After a full day of fun in the sun, we were ready for a chill day in the shade on the Crystal Coast. We started our morning with a trip to the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll ShoresWith interactive exhibits, hands-on activities, and up-close encounters with marine life, we found this place to be a must-visit for families of all ages looking to dive into the wonders of the ocean. It was a fun and educational experience for all four of us. Some of our favorite parts were the sea otter exhibits, the touch tanks with silky smooth rays, and the enormous aquarium filled with native fish and shark species surrounding a replica of a real shipwreck found a few miles off the coast.

Fort Macon Aerial

Fort Macon State Park

After the aquarium, we stopped for lunch in Atlantic Beach to try a Crystal Coast shrimp burger (DELICIOUS) and headed to Fort Macon, the most visited State Park in North Carolina that includes a fully restored 19th-century Civil War fort. The kids loved the cannon and musket demonstrations and climbing along the walls of the fort. We also hiked the 3.2-mile Elliot Coues Nature Trail that traverses the salt marsh, sand dunes with unbelievable views of the ocean, and through a beautiful canopy of the maritime forest. Fort Macon has great picnic areas throughout the park so we stopped for a snack after our hike. Before we left we stopped at the beautiful beach where we watched anglers catch fish for dinner.

Maritime Museum

North Carolina Maritime Museum

Discovering the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort isn’t just a journey through the state’s rich maritime history; it's an adventure for the whole family. With exhibits that transport visitors back in time to the days of pirates and seafaring explorers, kids and adults alike can immerse themselves in the captivating stories of the Crystal Coast’s heritage. My kids are very curious about the infamous pirate Blackbeard and were excited to learn about his history and especially to see real pieces from his ship The Queen Anne’s Revenge. From interactive displays to hands-on workshops where families can learn to tie knots and build boats, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Special events throughout the year, such as a pirate festival and sailing regattas add an extra layer of excitement. 


Wild Horses of Shackleford Banks

The adventure to Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout National Seashore is an experience my family and I will be talking about forever. The islands are only accessible by private boat or official ferry service, so one morning we took the drive to Harkers Island and caught the ferry to this secluded paradise. After being chased by a pod of dolphins along the shallow sandbars, our first stop was Shackleford Banks, a barrier island known for its wild horses. We got a glimpse of the horses grazing on seagrass on tiny patches of land on the ride over. We were able to get a closer look after hopping off the ferry and hiking along the sand dunes. As many of you know, keeping active kiddos still for any amount of time is a miracle, but once we spotted a small herd of wild horses including a foul, time stood still as we all watched the wildlife in silent awe. This is the moment we truly felt that this location was a magical North Carolina vacation spot for families.


Camping and Outdoor Getaways

For families craving a taste of adventure, camping and outdoor getaways in the Crystal Coast provide the perfect escape. From the rustic charm of Cedar Point Campground to the family-friendly amenities of Dogwood Family Campground, there’s no shortage of options for a memorable outdoor retreat. Explore the winding trails of the Croatan National Forest or bask in the beauty of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Our family chose to spend the night on Cape Lookout when we learned about the national park’s dark sky designation. The children were very excited to get up close to the “Diamond Lady” lighthouse where we learned about the history of the island from a small museum inside the lighthouse keeper’s quarters and by speaking with friendly park rangers about the importance of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse to the safety of mariners’ past. After our history lesson, we took our boogie boards and picnic lunch across the boardwalk to the ocean side of the island where we had the beach and waves to ourselves. After sunset, we pitched our tent, roasted hot dogs, and stayed up way too late watching the sky transform into a gorgeous canvas of shooting stars. We hope this experience will be something our children remember forever.


Exploring the North Carolina Coast Wildlife

The Crystal Coast is a paradise for wildlife enthusiasts, offering so many opportunities to observe and interact with nature. On our North Carolina family vacation, we decided to head toward Beaufort to rent kayaks and glide through the marshes of the Crystal Coast. The wildlife and scenic views made the experience so peaceful and relaxing. Once again, we were able to see the wild horses, but this time at the Rachel Carson Reserve. We also watched snowy white egrets and ibises fishing and flying through their natural environment. The most exciting moment for the children was spotting a pod of dolphins making their way down Taylor’s Creek as we were heading back to shore.


Choosing the Perfect Family Getaway

When planning a family getaway in North Carolina, it’s essential to consider the needs and interests of every family member. From choosing family-friendly accommodations to selecting activities that cater to all ages, thoughtful planning ensures a fun and memorable vacation for everyone. It is difficult sometimes to make everyone happy, but with a place like the Crystal Coast, it was easy to find something special for each of us. There were so many accommodations to choose from along with plenty of activities, things to see, and places to eat that made it a perfect all-around vacation for our family.


Family-Friendly Accommodations

While looking for places to stay we did find plenty of family-friendly hotels and resorts, but when we travel we really enjoy renting houses. We like having our own space not only together as a family, but also as individuals. Rental properties also give us the option to cook and eat in a couple of times during our family vacation. We found several places along the Crystal Coast that would have been perfect for our family between Beaufort, Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores and Indian Beach, but we decided to stay in Emerald Isle. We quickly learned that restaurants, grocery stores, and parks were easily accessible by bicycle along a safely designated bike path. Plus, with a variety of family-friendly activities nearby, including a water park, mini golf, and the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, we had everything we needed for a fun family vacation by the sea.


Planning Family-Friendly Activities

When planning family-friendly activities on vacation we always try to choose activities that make the entire family happy. Thanks to its beautiful beaches and abundant wildlife, the Crystal Coast offers something for everyone in our family to enjoy. Some of our favorite activities were beach days. We spent lazy days building sandcastles, playing in the surf with our boogie boards and surfboards, took advantage of some windy days to kitesurf and calm days to soak up the sun. We also rented kayaks to get up close and personal with some of the wildlife on the Crystal Coast. We saw wild horses, dolphins, a sea turtle and beautiful birds on our paddle.  One afternoon we booked a boat tour on the Beaufort Pirates Revenge. Our son is a huge fan of pirates and loves hearing the stories of the Crystal Coast’s most infamous pirate Blackbeard. The cruise featured sword fights, a treasure hunt, and a chase on the high seas. This was the perfect adventure for the kids to go wild. Captain Spike made the cruise fun for adults as well by talking about local sites and telling great jokes. Once we hit dry land, we really enjoyed walking through the historic streets of Beaufort. We found great ice cream and coffee shops and discovered a wonderful restaurant on the waterfront featuring live music. Another activity we enjoyed as a family was the Salty Pirate Water Park.  We packed a cooler with lunch and drinks and had a great time flying down the slides.


Making the Most of Family Time

While the Crystal Coast has some great activities for families, some of our best memories of the week are simply spending time together at the beach. On our trip, we prioritized quiet moments by setting aside time for evening walks along the water watching the sunset, collecting seashells and sharing stories. We also bonded through a variety of activities like exploring the incredible islands and sandbars, getting out in the water, and hiking as a family at Fort Macon State Park. These moments really reinforced the importance of family and created lasting memories that everyone will treasure long after the vacation ends.

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Your Next NC Family Vacation is at the Crystal Coast

With its stunning beaches, rich history, and endless opportunities for adventure, the Crystal Coast is the ultimate destination for families seeking a fun-filled escape. Whether you’re planning a weekend trip or a week-long retreat, the best vacation spots in North Carolina for families await along the picturesque shores of the Crystal Coast. Start planning your next family vacation today and discover the magic of North Carolina’s coastal paradise. I hope our experience inspires you to check out this North Carolina vacation spot for families and now that you have the scoop on some of the many gems it’s time to start planning your getaway. For more information, visit the Crystal Coast things to do page and embark on an unforgettable journey with the people you love the most!