Island Hopping: Crystal Coast Style
The perfect Crystal Coast island-hopping recipe consists of one adventurous soul, several wonderfully uninhabited barrier islands, sprinkled with a dash of saltwater and baked all day under the gloriously warm sun. Dangling like a delicate strand of pearls off the southernmost reach of North Carolina, the favored Atlantic beach destination of generations represents one of the only remaining natural barrier island systems in the World. The Islands are strung together with 85 miles of silken coastline. Amongst the barrier isles stand unscathed, remote islands situated among nature for visitors to explore and discover. Adventurers embark on a voyage aboard a chartered boat or wander out into open waters in a kayak or canoe to enjoy the spectacularly crystalline water and the sun-bronzed satisfaction on the way to their island of adventure.
North Core Banks
Portsmouth Island stands as a reminder that some wild places cannot be tamed. Contained within the sandy borders of Portsmouth Island lies Portsmouth village, a 250-acre hamlet once known to be a bustling Southern Outer Banks settlement bordered by precious, undisturbed beaches. The village was established by Carolina’s colonial government in 1753 and at the peak of settlement contained 505 permanent residents. Mother Nature eventually triumphed and forced the last permanent residents to leave the island in 1971, where it became part of the National Park Service as the Cape Lookout National Seashore in 1976. The echoes of the past seem to surround visitors here, inviting guests to explore and imagine the struggles the early settlers must have experienced but also humbling them in the face of the absolute beauty of the land.
Today, the village consists of 20 structures including a post office and general store, church, life-saving station and several family and community cemeteries scattered over the northernmost tip of North Core Banks. Accessible by private boat and ferry through stunningly clear waters, Portsmouth Island with its village and delicate, untamed beaches, is an island that is well worth the boat ride.
South Core Banks
At the Southern end of Core Sound, a valuable part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, lies a gem of an island known as Shackleford Banks. The only permanent residents on this nine-mile long island are Spanish Mustangs, locally known as “Banker ponies.” The majestic horses, survivors of Spanish galleon shipwrecks, have roamed freely across the miles of pristine beaches for more than 300 years. Visitors have the freedom to wander the island and take part in the multitude of activities that the area naturally lends itself to, such as kayaking, fishing, camping and hiking. Visitors make their way to the isle by private boat or on one of the ferries running from Harkers Island, Beaufort and Morehead City.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse, Keeper’s Quarters and Coast Guard Station
On the South Core banks, 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. The first lighthouse built in 1812 was proved too short for passing mariners and was recreated in 1859, continuing to warn passing ships of the shoals even today.
Standing at 163 feet tall, the lighthouse is painted with a distinctive black and white diagonal checkered pattern in order to distinguish direction and differentiate it from other North Carolina lighthouses; it is open for visitors to climb during the summer, May through September, with future Park Service plans allowing for year-round access. Visitors venture towards the southern tip of the island, finding the old Life Saving Station and U.S. Coast Guard Station where many courageous rescues took place. Explorers to the island meander down the deserted beaches hunting for stray pieces of driftwood or giant unbroken conch.
Like the North Core Banks, the only method of traveling to the island is by boat or ferry, making the task of getting to the island an adventure in itself. Kayaking trips are popular for more experienced paddlers.
Sand Dollar Island
Located between Bird Shoal and Shackleford Banks, and accessible at all tides, this sandbar offers the best hunting grounds for its namesake, sand dollars. The shallow tidal pools surrounding the sandbar offer a safe swimming environment and excellent snorkeling opportunities, providing a fun adventure for ‘little explorers.’
Eye candy for the residents of Beaufort, this picturesque island features a half-mile interpretive trail on the west side of the Rachel Carson Reserve highlighting the area’s indigenous species as well as spectacular vistas of Taylor’s Creek and Beaufort on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. The trail meanders through mudflats, uplands and salt marshes, allowing adventurers to experience the various unique environments native to The Crystal Coast. A small herd of domestic wild horses roam the islands and more than 200 species of birds have been recorded there. Bird watching enthusiasts will find late summer through winter as the prime time for viewing seabirds, shorebirds, marsh birds and wading birds, including the tiny piping plover, oystercatcher and terns.
The North Carolina Maritime Museum on Beaufort’s Front Street provides guided tours of the island, or voyagers can kayak the hundred yards across the channel to the islet on their own.
A glistening gem visible from Morehead City, 47-acre Sugarloaf Island is part of a string of undeveloped and uninhabited islets permanently under the protection by the North Carolina Coastal Federation. Morehead City has graciously purchased the island, sparing it from development forever. While explorers travel to the island by boat, canoe, or kayak, the walking trails on the island make for easy access – visitors will encounter small patches of maritime forests, sound front beaches, marshlands, and everything in between. As a result, Sugarloaf Island is a prime destination for fishermen, hikers, nature fans and birdwatchers of all varieties.
The quintessential coastal North Carolina community and official headquarters for Cape Lookout National Seashore along with Cedar Island – Harkers Island – or “Down East” as the local colorful characters like to call it, is home to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum. The Museum, located at Shell Point, helps preserve tradition on the island through the livelihood of the area known as “backyard boatbuilding,” in which seaworthy vessels are designed and built completely by “rack of eye,” without the benefit of sketched diagrams. Driving through Harkers Island, onlookers can still gaze out car windows and see coastal traditions happening backyard after backyard.
No vacation to The Crystal Coast would be complete without a visit to Cedar Island. Lingering in the northern most border of “Down East” Carteret County, Cedar Island, a quaint fishing village weathered with old world charm, gives visitors a taste of rural coastal North Carolina with its ferry service operating as the gateway to the rest of the state’s Outer Banks. It is rumored that native Cedar Islander’s are the living descendants of the “Lost Colony,” which mysteriously disappeared in 1587 from nearby Roanoke Island. This connection is not hard to imagine as the residents of Cedar Island, living in the same tiny island community for generations have developed a distinct brogue accent, part Irish and part Scottish, that is anything but southern.
Fishing has developed as the main industry in the area. Vacationers to The Crystal Coast can literally get their seafood “fresh from the docks” when they visit select mom and pop fisheries in the area. Hungry visitors simply pull up to the docks and select from a variety of the finest seafood The Crystal Coast has to offer, from flounder and tuna to big red drum and striped bass. Then guests can take their delectable catch home to fry, grill, steam, broil or barbeque.
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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