When it comes to visiting the beach, summer may be king, but those in the know make plans to hit the sand in fall. On the Crystal Coast of North Carolina, fall presents itself beautifully with warm days, perfect water and skies as pretty as a postcard. In fall, the fish are running, the waves are ideal and everything slows down to days of the easy, beach-to-yourself type.
Let me show you why fall is the perfect time to visit the Crystal Coast. Check out the three itineraries below and choose the adventure that fits your schedule best. An overnight trip, a weekend getaway or a week at the beach—discover how to extend your summer.
Choose Your Itinerary
One Night on the Coast
A Week at the Beach
On overnight trips, it’s easy to pack in plenty of what the Crystal Coast does best: a blend of beach time, play time and down time.
Plan to arrive before check-in at your hotel and head straight to Fort Macon State Park at the east end of Atlantic Beach. Fort Macon’s nature trails and swimming beach are much newer than the park’s star attraction: a fort and naval gun emplacement built before the Civil War with the engineering help of Robert E. Lee. Sunken into the ground, the sand helps insulate the thick stone and brick walls, creating cool, dry rooms. Walk the ramparts, take in the sweep of land and sea around you, witness cannons firing and reenactments—you have the command of the coast from here.
For your post-fort lunch, family friendly restaurants and drive-ins that serve a Crystal Coast favorite, the shrimpburger (fried shrimp, a steamed hamburger bun, ketchup and a smear of tarter sauce) are only a short drive away.
After a late lunch, check in to your hotel or motel. There are a variety of options along the entire coast to fit your budget and style, especially in Morehead City and Atlantic Beach. Crystal Coast’s hotels are especially great for an overnight stay, as they provide convenient amenities and locations at a discounted fall price. Once you get your key, change into something beachy then head to one of the many beach access points, as the days are still long enough to take a nice relaxing nap on the sand.
My recommendation: find a spot perched far out on the end of a pier where the breezes will be cool this time of year, the crowds lesser and the views spectacular.
End your day with some freshly caught seafood, which can be found at restaurants all along the Crystal Coast. Look for the Carteret Catch logo on restaurant doors, signs or menus, denoting the restaurants as members of the organization of the same name. Those symbols mean you are sure to find at least one local seafood dish on the menu. Carteret Catch connects local fishermen with area restaurants and seafood houses, guaranteeing the freshest—and most local—seafood around. So, when you eat at a Carteret Catch restaurant, you’ll not only enjoy a delicious meal, but also get a taste of local heritage.
The next morning, pack your bags, check out and hop on a nautical nature tour to see the Banker Ponies on Shackleford Banks or the Rachel Carson Reserve. Both locations consist of low barrier islands made of sand dunes, low maritime forests and marshes, and the Banker Ponies have a storied past. Descendent from shipwrecked Spanish Mustangs, the Shackleford Banks herd consists of 110–130 horses, and you’ll spot them in small groups as you watch from the water. Many nature tours are water-based, so you’ll always maintain a safe distance from the wild horses, but you’ll get close enough for a good photo of these amazing animals. Headed onshore? Be sure to stay roughly a school-bus length away to give these wild animals their due privacy.
Build your weekend getaway on the overnight trip itinerary but with two major distinctions: book a room at a bed & breakfast or inn, and with a whole weekend at your disposal, you can do even more.
Bed & breakfasts offer cozy accommodations perfect for a weekend retreat. Feel at home while exploring new adventures all along the coast. They’ll even make sure you start your day off right with homemade breakfasts from delightful innkeepers who know the latest scoop on local events, things to do and the best way to plan out your weekend. Beaufort, in particular, has a nice collection of “home sweet homes” to check-in to, and with plenty of things to do nearby, you’re never far from the action.
With warm water and bright, sunny days, but little humidity to deal with, fall is the ideal time for a long, quiet paddle along scenic paddle trails (or even a surf lesson if you’re feeling sporty). Taylor’s Creek, Bogue Sound and Down East’s Core Sound offer great paddling this time of year and your Instagram feed—filled with skies as blue as the water you’re paddling—will be the envy of all your friends. Don’t forget to tag #MyCrystalCoast.
Fall is also a great time for fishing, which means fishing tournaments. Throughout October and November, you’ll find a school of fishing tournaments with both inshore and offshore trophies. Cast a line for flounder, redfish, speckled trout, king mackerel and more from onshore or at deep sea. And, if you land “a big one,” take home one of many cash prizes. Or, take out the competition and cruise with a fishing guide to the perfect spot for that perfect catch. You can even take a kayak fishing class—kayak, tackle and rods included.
For some inland action, a bike tour of Beaufort, “America’s Favorite Town,” is a beautiful way to get a look at the historic buildings, small-town streets and waterside drives that make this town so lovely. And if you combine it with a food, history or sightseeing tour, you’ll experience Beaufort from two sides. If you feel pressed for time (or if you just don’t want to pedal around), take a double-decker bus tour that gives you a dose of humor along with local history, and it goes right by a building that the pirate Blackbeard once called home.
When the sun sets, dine in style at one of many sit-down seafood spots, which range from family-owned seafood joints to white-tablecloth restaurants with chef-driven menus. Since you’re right on the coast, the seafood is fresh and many restaurants use locally grown ingredients, making for dishes rich in taste and local heritage.
At the end of the day, relax on the B&B’s porch then snuggle into your high thread count sheets and fall asleep to the sounds of the seaside, waking up to fresh air and coffee the next day.
Make the most of your week at the beach by renting a cottage or condo (the bigger the better, bring friends). You can cook fresh seafood at home and take in those incredible ocean views from your deck (because you are renting a beachfront house, after all). On Emerald Isle, vacation rentals range from grand oceanfront villas to condos to humble soundside abodes, and since vacation traffic lessens in fall, that means you get more house for your dollar. You can easily find a place that fits your vacation style and budget.
Once you get that beach house for a steal, you have to splurge a little, so how about living the high life and bringing in a personal chef? Several personal chefs and private caterers on the Crystal Coast will come to your rental and cook a meal to remember, serving plated or family-style feasts (and cleaning up) at costs comparable to a night out.
Whether you spring for the private chef or not, a fresh seafood feast is a requirement when vacationing on the Crystal Coast. For the absolute freshest seafood, pay a visit to the fish market, pick up a couple pounds of today’s catch and ask for a few preparation tips—they’ll never steer you wrong and you’ll go home with a new dish up your sleeve.
The crowds are gone, so the beach is yours for the taking from morning till evening. There are morning strolls, hours of studying the high-tide line for the perfect shell and more than a few rounds of wave frolicking. You’ve got the elbowroom to do it all, so dive in.
Also pay a visit to the historic sites of Beaufort—the Old Jail, the County Courthouse dating back to 1796 and a tour of The Old Burying Ground, a cemetery as storied as it is picturesque. While you’re around the area, stop at the North Carolina Maritime Museum to check out artifacts from Blackbeard’s flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Get an idea of what’s swimming just offshore at the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, where you’ll find giant tanks filled with everything from sea turtles to otters. Even get a behind-the-scenes tour with staff, or participate in a number of free programs.
Still have more time to fill? Kitty Hawk Kites offers tandem hang gliding, towing you up to a mile high and letting you float back to the ground (a bird’s eye view of the Crystal Coast).
Boat tours out to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse will take you past the islands with the Banker Ponies and stop at the Cape Lookout National Seashore, an uninhabited stretch of shore where the beachcombing is unparalleled, the fishing is simply awe-inspiring and the views of the black-and-white diamond-patterned lighthouse are jaw dropping. Depending on the weather, Cape Lookout is known to have some great breaks for surfing. And if you’re into fishing, charter a boat to take you inshore or offshore to catch your dinner.
There’s only one drawback to a week on the Crystal Coast, particularly a week in fall: you won’t want to leave. You’ll get a feel for the people and a taste of the pace of life; you’ll picture yourself at the local markets; you’ll get used to that beach house and you’ll ask yourself, “Couldn’t I just stay? Another week? A month? Maybe forever?”
Whichever length of time you choose to stay, all you have to do now is book it. Check out the latest fall deals to get the best Crystal Coast bang for your buck.