Activities & Attractions
Eco Escapes, Historical Haunts & Delightful Distractions
The Coastline and The Waters
An 85-mile stretch of crystalline blue water and pearlescent shoreline nestled along North Carolina’s southernmost outer reach, The Crystal Coast is blessed with warm, clear waters due to the Gulf Stream gently caressing the coast. The east and west orientation of the beaches allows for visitors to watch the sun both to rise and set into the sparkling Atlantic waters. Thanks to the protective southward curve of the barrier islands along the coast, the coldest the waters get on The Crystal Coast in winter are the warmest the waters get in Boston in the summer.
Cape Lookout National Seashore
A 56-mile strand of silken beaches that make up the coastal islands of eastern North Carolina, and one of the few remaining natural barrier island chains in the world, accessible only by boat. Those seeking the freedom to experience complete solitude and an opportunity to discover endangered animals in their natural habitats can also explore the beach to find a multitude of large unbroken conch shells. Frequently dotting the beaches and woven in between the sand dunes are families and shore fishermen camping with tents pitched – fishing, hiking and delving into all that Mother Nature has to offer. History comes alive at the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters built in the mid-1800’s to warn passing ships of the dangerous coastal waters. Standing at 163 feet tall, the 207-step “Diamond Lady” lighthouse was painted with a distinctive black and white diamond pattern in order to distinguish direction – North and South from East and West – and differentiate it from other North Carolina lighthouses. This Crystal Coast must-see is open to visitors to climb during the summer, May through September.
Since 2021, Cape Lookout National Seashore boasts an IDSP (International Dark Sky Park) designation due to the exceptional quality of its nocturnal environment. Cape Lookout provides uniquely clear dark skies with minimal light pollution, providing ideal conditions for viewing constellations and even the Milky Way with the unaided eye. As of 2022, Cape Lookout National Seashore is the only International Dark Sky Park in the coastal northeast. Visitors can reach the seashore through the local ferry in the evenings or go on guided tours hosted by local operators including the Island Express Ferry Service, The Crystal Coast Stargazers and events hosted by the National Parks Service.
For more than 400 years the wild horses of Shackleford Banks have taken care of their young, frolicked on pristine deserted beaches and foraged for food with not a saddle or fence in sight. The horses have enjoyed the protections afforded by Cape Lookout National Seashore in cooperation with the Foundation for Shackleford Horses dedicated to maintaining the animals’ way of life. Scientists, historians and nature lovers alike have speculated the origins of the Shackleford horses, or “Banker ponies” – the most popular being that the horses swam ashore after a Spanish ship exploring the new world met with a tragic fate off of North Carolina’s shores. Visitors make their way to the island by private boat or ferry running from Harkers Island, Beaufort and Morehead City – and the captains of Island Express Ferry Service are more than happy to dish most their secrets to shelling during the ride.
Crystal Coast Kayaking
Explorers seeking the ultimate outdoor excursion can float along the intricately laced inlets and waterways zigzagging through The Crystal Coast, with the mossy earthen aromas of North Carolina’s maritime forests filling the air. Paddling, as any true kayaking, canoeing or stand-up paddle board enthusiast calls it, is a challenging yet enjoyable experience with hundreds of guided excursions available for every interest and schedule. From guided nature photography tours to bird watching explorations, every new paddling adventure is sure to get the muscles burning and the adrenaline pumping.
Croatan National Forest
Rich in nature’s splendor, the Croatan National Forest puts visitors in touch with North Carolina’s native woodland environment. Camping, picnicking and adventure trails winding their way throughout the forest give nature enthusiasts ample opportunities to view the natural eye-candy in the forest including “pitcher plants,” bald cypress trees and longleaf pines.
Visitors with a keen eye and an extensive attention span might catch a glimpse of a white-tailed deer, wild turkey, black bear, otter, gray squirrel or even an alligator. Bird watching enthusiasts delight in the variety of avian life available including ospreys, bald eagles and red-cockaded woodpeckers.
Quickly gaining ground as one of the top eco-interests among nature lovers, bird watching has taken flight on The Crystal Coast. The spring is an excellent time to view shorebirds from the tiny Piping Plover and the majestic Tundra Swans to egrets and White and Glossy Ibises, while the fall is the peak time for viewing Sharp-shinned Hawks, Peregrine Falcons and frigate birds. Cape Lookout National Seashore is home to two-thirds of the nests found in North Carolina for the Piping Plover, listed on the federal list of endangered species. The Crystal Coast bird watching is active at anytime of the year and there are endless ways to watch and admire the birds whether by nature or paddle trail.
Visitors to The Crystal Coast are serious about their fishing and that should be no surprise given the warm waters of the Gulf Stream current that have provided idyllic conditions. The Crystal Coast has one of the longest fishing seasons on the Atlantic giving visitors the freedom to fish all year long with at least one breed of fish abundant at any time of year. In the fall there are plentiful schools of false albacore, red drum, and seatrout; the winter is popular for striped bass and blue fin tuna; cobia in the spring and the summer is known for the rich population of white and blue marlin, sailfish, dolphin and wahoo. There is a range of options for those wishing to try their hand at catching a “big one” including private chartered fishing excursions or the more affordable, family friendly, head-boat fishing tours that take anywhere from 50 to 100 people.
As one of the two spots in North America where the warm waters of the Gulf Stream caress the coast, diving enthusiasts refer to The Crystal Coast as a “wreck diver’s dream,” with near perfect conditions and crystal clear water with the average temperature hovering around 80° F and more than 100 feet of visibility. A mysterious realm awaiting exploration is known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” – as more than 2,000 vessels have made their watery graves along the North Carolina coast. In addition to wreck diving, divers also experience underwater photography clinics as well as shark and spear fishing dives. Guided dives, equipment rentals, nitrox fills and training are available through several local dive shops such as Olympus Dive Center and Discovery Diving Company.
North Carolina Maritime Museum
A haven for the unconventional history of The Crystal Coast, the museum is the official repository for all of the artifacts discovered on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ship captained by the infamous pirate, Blackbeard. With an impressive display of seashells from around the world with 5,000 specimens from more than 100 countries, the museum is also home to an interesting contraption known as the “Life Car,” a mini-submarine used to rescue mariners stranded at sea.
Just across the street from the museum is the Watercraft Center where volunteers actively build and restore boats in an effort to preserve The Crystal Coast’s tradition of “backyard boat-building.” The Watercraft center also is home to the “Boat in a Day” program, an opportunity for families to build and take home a six-foot boat, known locally as a Harkers Island skiff.
History Museum of Carteret County
Delving into the rich cultural history of The Crystal Coast, the History Museum of Carteret County showcases historical treasures from artifacts chronicling the area’s indigenous Native American peoples to an on site Civil War library with a detailed genealogical record for the area. Patrons of the museum step into another era in the Historical Rooms exhibit marking the fads and fashions that were popular during the early years of The Crystal Coast. Records of an eccentric past adorn every corner, from a carriage used to chauffeur local confederate army spy, Emeline Pigott, arrested while carrying 30 pounds of mail and food under her skirts in an odd metal contraption that women once used to make their derriere’s appear more “womanly.”
Beaufort Historic Site
The salty-sweet scent of an ancient maritime heritage wafting in from the Atlantic permeate the painstakingly preserved Federal period buildings at the Beaufort Historic Site. Personal guided tours showcase the collection of 10 historic buildings, including a jail, courthouse, apothecary and doctor’s office as well as three homes, all-dating back to the 1700’s and 1800’s. In addition to the guided walking tours, explorations of the historic district are available aboard a vintage 1948 English double-decker bus.
Old Burying Grounds
Also in Beaufort lies the Old Burying Grounds, one of the oldest cemeteries in North Carolina. Cloaked in centuries old Live Oak trees, there is an air of mystery and sorrow wafting throughout the grounds. Gravestones with poignant sayings, describing the lives of those buried there line shaded pathways and speak of the colorful past The Crystal Coast has seen. As legend goes, one gravesite is home to a girl whose father buried her in a rum barrel after her unfortunate demise during a voyage from England.
Fort Macon State Park
Originally designed to guard Beaufort Inlet and Beaufort Harbor, Fort Macon has been the site of wartime tragedies and triumphs, and is now the most visited park in North Carolina. During the Civil War the fort changed hands several times between Union and Confederate forces, eventually fell into disrepair. The fort was sold to North Carolina for one dollar in 1924 and was restored as a part of the state park system in 1934, and finally opened as the state’s first functioning part in 1936. The fort was taken over by the federal government once again during World War II and used to protect a number of important nearby facilities. Now the state park is home to a protected beach, complete with seaside bathhouse, sunny nature trails, family friendly picnic facilities and a rich supply of fish. Visitors take spirited ghost tours highlighting the eccentric past the fort has experienced. The fort underwent a multi-million dollar renovation, restoring the 26 casemates, or vaulted rooms, used as shelter, kitchen space, and as prison cells for soldiers.
North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
Visitors to the aquarium will be awe-struck by the more than 3,000 specimens of North Carolina’s most colorful aquatic life, making it the largest saltwater aquarium in the state of North Carolina. The aquarium concentrates on eco-systems all native to North Carolina with different exhibits emphasizing various marine habitats. The “Living Shipwreck” features a life-sized replica of a German U-352 submarine and Blackbeard’s infamous ship, The Queen Anne’s Revenge with a 60-foot viewing window. Other attractions include: stingray touch-tank, a river otter exhibit, mountain trout pool, jellyfish gallery, sport fishing gallery and a rare (and quite famous), albino sea turtle named Nimbus. The aquarium itself resides in its own native North Carolina habitat, the 300-acre Roosevelt Maritime Forest.
Core Sound Waterfowl Museum
Built as a tribute to the history of the residents of Harkers Island, and to preserve the practice of decoy carving, the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum serves as a gathering place for the heritage and traditions of Core Sound. Decoy carving, an established tradition in coastal North Carolina, involves skilled artisans carving a perfect replica of a duck from a block of wood. The ducks were used, quite literally, as decoys during duck hunting season. The museum frequently hosts live demonstrations from actual decoy carvers in their “decoy-carving workshop.”
Mirroring the independent nature of the area, there are no big shopping malls but several individually owned shops and boutiques each with their own coastal flavor. From maritime elegance and cashmere sweaters, to fine linens, handcrafted jewelry and stunning works of art, even the most discriminating shopper will find shopping satisfaction on The Crystal Coast.
Additional visitor information about these and other area attractions is available by calling The Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority and Visitor Center at (252) 726-8148 or by visiting www.crystalcoastnc.org
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