A south-facing cloister of coastal treasures, the Crystal Coast of North Carolina is truly one of a kind. Due to its unique geography, it’s the only place in the state—and one of few on the entire Atlantic shore—where visitors can watch both sunrise and sunset over the same clear, blue water. The Crystal Coast is a collection of towns and distinct areas that are known for their romantic scenery, world-class dining and shopping, sites of historical and cultural significance, and rare natural wonders, and each of the area’s destinations has its own personality and set of things to do. Find out more about each of these eleven stops along the crown jewel that is North Carolina’s Crystal Coast.
The oldest town on Bogue Banks, Atlantic Beach is the site of several centuries’ worth of American history. Built on top of an uncompleted 18th-century redoubt, Fort Macon predates the Civil War and is now the centerpiece of Fort Macon State Park. From its origins as a bulwark against pirate attacks to its role as a post-Civil War prison, the aged walls house incredible stories. Special events like Civil War reenactments and the NYE Cannon Firing take guests back in time. After exploring, meander through the park grounds to the seashore for sunshine and scenery.
The history book continues with a hop over to the nostalgic Oceanana Fishing Pier. Opened in 1959 and marketed as “The Family Playground of the South,” this family-owned and operated pier and resort have been the cornerstone of family vacation traditions for decades, coupled with a variety of other resorts and restaurants that bring Atlantic Beach to life.
Pine Knoll Shores
The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is ranked among the best aquariums in the country and is home to adorable otters, sea turtles, sharks, various fish species and more. Interactive exhibits let you get you up close and personal with stingrays and other underwater creatures. Events like Vulture Awareness Day, Cephalopod Awareness Day and holiday celebrations take place regularly at the aquarium, and make sure to say hello to Nimbus, the rare, white sea turtle and local celebrity.
If you’re traveling sans kids, consider reserving tee times at the Country Club of the Crystal Coast. The club offers weekly memberships, giving visitors a chance to enjoy its top-notch facilities for golf, swimming and tennis.
Built long after the Atlantic Beach Causeway connected eastern Bogue Banks to the mainland, the Cameron Langston Bridge grants quick and easy access to Emerald Isle, the westernmost community on Bogue Banks. The town’s unspoiled shoreline and quaint neighborhoods make it a family favorite for a day, week or longer at the beach. Rent bikes at Hwy 58 Bicycles and get some exercise on the scenic greenway, then indulge your sweet tooth with ice cream or other treats at The Sweet Spot.
The warm, clear waters of Emerald Isle are perfect for a variety of water sports and activities like surfing, kiteboarding, kayaking and paddle boarding, and many shops rent equipment to vacationers. Family owned and operated, Bogue Inlet Pier is a clear favorite for veteran anglers, but with a snack shop and observation deck, even lil’ fisher folk can get caught up in the fun.
The waters around Indian Beach are reminiscent of the Caribbean, their brilliant blue a rarity this far north. Maritime forests, luxury beachfront rentals and miles of soft sand define the resort community of Indian Beach. Once favored by Blackbeard the pirate, the area now draws a different sort of crowd. Workaholics and 24/7 go-getters can relax with a massage or aromatherapy Salt-Glow treatment at The OC Spa and Celebration Center. Naturalists will want to check out the Sea Turtle program, staffed by volunteers working with the Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium and Bogue Banks Sea Turtle Program. If you plan your vacation just right, you may be able to watch the loggerhead hatchlings emerge and make their journey into the sea.
Voted America’s Favorite Town and one of America’s Most Romantic Towns, Beaufort has the allure of amore. In addition to charming shops and galleries, a stroll of the boardwalk offers views of one of nature’s most powerful symbols of the indomitable and wild romantic sprit: the wild horse. Although horses are not native to North Carolina’s shores, the horses on nearby Rachel Carson Reserve reverted to a wild state after spending generations living outside of captivity and can often be seen from the Beaufort shoreline.
In the evening, Beaufort’s restaurants fill the air with enticing aromas. Front Street Grill, Beaufort Grocery Company and Queen Anne’s Revenge are just a few of the award-winning restaurants that bring fine dining to your fingertips. If you and your travel partner share a love for the epicurean, plan your Crystal Coast interlude to coincide with the Beaufort Wine & Food Weekend for an indulgent treat.
If you’re angling for some time with your rod and line, Morehead City, North Carolina, is awash in maritime activities. A long-time favorite for sport and commercial fishing, Morehead City and the community of The Promised Land based their economies around the fecund water that fed the fishing industry in the region. The Promise Land Festival celebrates the history of this fishing community that began centuries ago. Today’s sportfishing enthusiasts know of Morehead City as home to The Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, a highly anticipated annual event spawned from a local fishing competition in 1957. Whether you’re out on the water or waiting for the weigh-ins on land, the event has entertainment for all.
Prefer a demi-glaze and butter to sunscreen and chum? The North Carolina Seafood Festival gives guests a taste of the coast with fresh seafood and so much more. Three days of rides, concerts and other musical performances, a sailing regatta, pier fishing competitions and boat shows make this one of the largest seafood festivals in the region and a visitor favorite in North Carolina.
If you hear North Carolinians talk about Down East, they are likely referring to the collection of communities of the past and present that lie east of Beaufort, North Carolina on the Outer Banks. Many Down East communities are located along Core Sound of the Crystal Coast, including Harkers Island, Marshallburg, Davis and Cedar Island. With rich histories and strong ties to the natural environment and ecosystem, a visit to any of these former or current communities will stir a desire to connect to the past and to the sea.
The Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harkers Island is the center of cultural and environmental preservation of Core Sound and Down East communities. Hike the interpretive trails surrounding Willow Pond where kids can learn about the importance of clean water, conservation and restoration. During the winter Waterfowl Weekend and Decoy Festival, carvers demonstrate their craft and display their wares. The history of the Core Sounders is innately tied to the sea and island environment. Exhibits on shipbuilding, displays of Americana, and the maritime forest trails that lead to the shore will keep your crew busy for hours.
The visitor center on Harkers Island is the main gateway to a swath of barrier islands that make up Cape Lookout National Seashore.
The remote shores of Cape Lookout National Seashore — including Shackleford Banks, North Core, and South Core—hold pristine maritime forests, salt marshes, undeveloped beaches, white sand dunes and hidden stories of the past. The only true maritime forests on the island, the salt-pruned trees that twist from the ground on Shackleford Banks are almost otherworldly, combined with the incredible experience of observing some of the 100+ wild horses that call Shackleford Banks their home. The Diamond Lady lighthouse, with its stark black and white diamond pattern, has a view that is worth the 207-stair climb. Tours of the lighthouse and keeper’s house are seasonal, sometimes even by the light of the moon.
In the late 1800s, residents of Shackleford Banks’ Diamond City community literally packed up shop and rebuilt on the narrowest part of Bogue Banks. Salter Path, as it came to be called, tells an amazing story of a community’s fight for its land and is part of the Down East Community Tour. Today, people know Salter Path, North Carolina, for its abundant fishing, aquamarine waters and white sands. Make a trip to a local market for shrimp so fresh it’s like they jumped straight out of the sea and on to your grill. Not a culinary master? Visit the Big Oak Drive-In for what they claim is the best shrimpburger on the Crystal Coast.
Western Crystal Coast
Western Crystal Coast is comprised of several inviting communities including Cape Carteret, Cedar Point, Stella and Pelletier. If it’s a rainy day, or you just need to play a different way, the giant arcade at Mac Daddy’s Entertainment Center has a mix of games including new favorites and the classics. Grab some wings and hit the lanes for a bit of bowling, or let the kids roam and enjoy some frosty adult refreshment at the bar. Looking for more outside fun? Stop by The Golfin’ Dolphin, for the high-speed thrill of a go-kart race or the laid back fun of mini golf. Croatan National Forest is also a treasure of this area with trails for kayaking, biking, hiking and other outdoor sports.