EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Our State.
Featured Image: USS North Carolina
You know these places, so familiar and recognizable.
There’s the lighthouse you climb every year, the drive-in with the shrimp burger you always order, the bridge you cross to get to the island, your island, where your favorite saltwater symbols stand to welcome you back, every time.
Here are 100 of the countless landmarks that give our coast its character and remind us that what’s important endures.
Built in 1817, Old Baldy has survived two centuries, two wars, and its share of hurricanes to earn the title of oldest lighthouse in the state. And although oldest doesn’t always mean best, no one would disagree that being first is an honor worthy of acknowledgment. Old Baldy and six others — Currituck Beach Light Station, Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Ocracoke Lighthouse, Cape Lookout Lighthouse, and Oak Island Lighthouse — were once guiding lights for sailing ships. Now, they serve as beacons of coastal beauty and history.
8: Jockey’s Ridge
The tallest sand dune system on the Atlantic coast covers a staggering 420 acres, and is made up of three distinct ecosystems. In 1975, it was designated as a state park and is protected by law. And though it’s always shifting — sands once swallowed a Putt-Putt course — this natural phenomenon’s beauty is never diminished.
9: NC 12 Outer Banks National Scenic Byway
People get bumper stickers with the Highway 12 road sign just so folks behind them in traffic will know: That guy/gal loves the Outer Banks. It runs 148 miles (and includes two ferry rides) between Cedar Island and Corolla. When a storm strikes, the state rebuilds it.
10: Wright Brothers National Memorial
Kill Devil Hills
A 120-foot path marks where brothers made history, inspiring a friendly feud with Ohio and our state’s much-loved “First in Flight” license plate. When it came out in 1982, it won “Plate of the Year” from the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (yes, that’s a thing).
11: The Airlie Oak
At 128 feet tall and 21 feet around, this massive live oak is the largest in the state, and at nearly 500 years old, it has stories to tell that could rival your grandmother’s. You know, if it could talk.
12: St. Thomas Episcopal Church
For 284 years’ worth of Sundays, someone has sat, and stood, and sung, and knelt, and prayed at North Carolina’s oldest church. Click here to read our story on the church.
13: Ocracoke Watermen’s Fish House
Local fishermen banded together to save the island’s last remaining fish house — and its maritime identity. Today, fishermen tie their boats to the dock they rebuilt.
14: Kindred Spirit mailbox
Bird Island, Sunset Beach
Don’t forget to wear shoes for the 1.4-mile walk from the Sunset Beach Pier. For decades, thousands of visitors have penned heartfelt notes in the mailbox’s journals, but it was Frank Nesmith who put it there in the 1970s as a place to leave love letters to his girlfriend, Claudia.
15: Lifeguard Stands
They’re symbols of reassurance that help is always nearby: On Wrightsville Beach, 13 towers line the shore, from south of Shell Island Resort to Albright Street. After intensive training, dedicated Ocean Rescue Squad lifeguards keep watchful eyes and trained ears on beachgoers. Oh, and keep a lookout for the colorful flags that signify important messages on water conditions: double red … well, we’ll let you figure that one out; if you see green, you’re good to go.
16: Wild Horses
Sturdy through storms and sun, the wild horses of the Outer Banks roam on: For nearly 400 years, wild horses, descended from Spanish mustangs brought by the earliest European explorers, wandered the length of the Outer Banks freely. Today, only three herds remain, but they aren’t hard to find — if you know where to look. On Shackleford Banks; at Corolla; and in the Rachel Carson Reserve, which is made up of Town Marsh, Carrot Island, Bird Shoal, and Horse Island, visitors can catch a glimpse of these resilient wild horses.
17: Salvo Post Office
Measuring just 8 by 12 feet, this tiny post office built in 1910 is the second smallest in the country. It represents an old tradition: Postmasters used to purchase the post office and move it to their respective properties.
18: Duck Research Pier
As long as the Kure Beach, Avon, and Surf City piers combined, this private pier stretches 1,840 feet into the Atlantic, and aids researchers recording the changing waves, winds, tides, and currents.
19: Roanoke River Lighthouse
It looks like a quaint coastal cottage that grew legs and hopped in the river, but this square building once guided boats in Albemarle Sound, and is believed to be the last of its kind in the country.
20: Three Sisters Swamp
Home to the oldest trees east of the Rockies, scores of paddlers come each year in search of the cypress Methuselah, which took root around 364 A.D. Few find it.
21: Morris Landing Oyster Reef
Hundreds of volunteers came together to build this living reef as part of an ongoing conservation project to restore oyster and salt marsh habitat, and to protect an eroding shoreline.
22: Weeping Radish Farm Brewery
The first craft brewery in the state was also one of the first in the South to integrate a farm and butchery.
Sometimes, the journey really is as important as the destination: Without more than a dozen ferries that operate 365 days a year, travel to the islands of the Outer Banks would be largely impossible. And that’s worth remembering the next time you’re racing to catch one, standing in the sunshine watching the gulls dive and chase the wake, or nodding off in the front seat of your car to the lull of the waves and wind.
24: Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center
An outstanding archive of life in Down East Carteret County, the museum also sports a tower up top, a perfect perch from which to see the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.
25: The Mother Vine
This scuppernong vine is believed to be the oldest cultivated grapevine in America: Possibly planted by the Croatan Indians or by early English settlers, it has survived 400 or so years, a bulldozer, and an accidental herbicide poisoning, and today, our history thrives.
26: Old Beaufort Post Office
During the Great Depression, the U.S. government commissioned artists to paint murals in the state’s post offices as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. At Beaufort’s former post office, now town offices, a mural portrays the sinking of the Crissie Wright in a storm — an event that prompted Beaufort natives to start calling bad weather “a Crissie Wright day.”
27: Old Burying Grounds
The weathered tombstones marked with shells, brick, and wood from ships are old, but a seemingly empty corner of the cemetery is older, full of unmarked graves dating to the early 1700s. In the back, a small wooden plank marks the resting place of a child who died at sea and was buried in a rum keg.
28: The Museum of Coastal Carolina and Ingram Planetarium
Ocean Isle Beach, Sunset Beach
Hang out with sea creatures like urchins and hermit crabs at the only natural history museum on a barrier island, or head to the planetarium to feel like an expert the next time you spread your towel beneath a night sky.
29: Britt’s Doughnuts
Since 1939, there’s been a line out the door. The Carolina Beach Boardwalk, a beloved seaside symbol with an 80-year history, has gone through its share of changes, but at least one thing about it has stood the test of time: the “Sweetest Place on Earth” and its warm doughnuts with a flaky glaze.
30: Kitty Hawk Kites
Offering far more than colorful kites, the world’s largest hang-gliding school, founded in 1974, has taught more than 300,000 people how to fly off the dunes of Jockey’s Ridge, and to kiteboard off the surface of Pamlico Sound.
31: Frying Pan Tower
If you’re in search of accommodations with an ocean view, this remote inn in a tower 32 miles from land fits the bill. A former U.S. Coast Guard Light Station, it’s only accessible by boat or helicopter.
32: UNC Wilmington
Since 1947, the red-brick buildings and walkways, grassy lawns, and salty breezes of our coastal university have been a beacon to those who prefer to take their study breaks near the surf.
33: The Bean
Across from the town docks, this café is the spot to get your early morning coffee — and evening ice cream — fix. Fuel up while watching the boats from the shaded porch.
34: Robert’s Grocery
The city’s oldest store, this neighborhood market on Lumina Avenue has been open since 1919. In addition to necessities, it’s renowned for its deli. Hint: Try the homemade chicken salad — it has its own T-shirt and a Facebook page devoted to its glory.
35: Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center
Volunteers at this sea turtle hospital have rescued, rehabilitated, and released hundreds of these gentle sea creatures since 1996, when one injured turtle named Lucky inspired a sanctuary. Today, the naming of “patients” continues, and often follows a theme — at least one group has been named after characters in Harry Potter.
36: Fishing Piers
It doesn’t much matter if you choose to bring your tackle box, your date, or your camera, if you prefer to head out before dawn or wait ’til the sun is sinking: At Kure No. 51 on Kure Beach, Jennette’s Pier on Nags Head, Johnnie Mercer’s on Wrightsville Beach, and more than a dozen others that dot our coast, a stroll to the end of a fishing pier feels like an escape to the heart of a community. Even the Frisco Pier, closed since 2008 and slated for demolition, is a beloved local landmark.
37: Beach Resorts
Memories of vacations past — of taking showers that seared your sunburn and of cold aloe in a freezing, air-conditioned room, of sandy carpet and the after-ocean dip in a warm pool — are tied to the places we return to year after year: hotels like Atlantis Lodge in Pine Knoll Shores, The Winds Resort Beach Club in Ocean Isle, and the Blockade Runner Beach Resort in Wrightsville Beach are as dear to us as old friends.
38: Inn at Rodanthe
Famed for its portrayal in the romance movie Nights in Rodanthe, this house was bought and renovated by fans, who moved it a short distance away from a precarious position near the waves and turned it into a vacation rental.
39: North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
The classic rainy-day-on-vacation activity is impressive enough to warrant a trip in good weather. There are also aquariums in Fort Fisher, at Jennette’s Pier, and on Roanoke Island.
40: Tryon Palace
Our first permanent state capitol was built in 1770 for Royal Gov. William Tryon, but shortly after the capital moved to Raleigh, the Georgian-style palace burned to the ground. In 1959, after being faithfully rebuilt, it opened to the public.
41: Futuro Saucer Home
This UFO-shaped building first landed in 1970. Since then, it’s been a home, a Boy Scouts meeting place, and a hot dog stand, among other things. The current occupant is known, on occasion, to dress up as a green alien to greet visitors.
42: Fort Raleigh
The site of the first English settlement in North America. Until, as you might have heard, everyone disappeared.
43: Lake Mattamuskeet Pumping Plant
Built in 1915 to drain the state’s largest natural lake in an attempt to create farmland, in 1934 the land surrounding it became a wildlife refuge. Today, millions of birds migrate through the area, and a 120-foot observation tower in the former smokestack offers soaring views.
44: Lejeune Memorial Gardens
The Camp Lejeune gardens are a place to reflect and honor those who’ve served our country.
45: Brunswick Islands’ Golf Courses
Fore! Along the 45 miles of coastline that make up North Carolina’s “Golf Coast,” many homes have two garages: one for the car and one for the cart. Ocean Isle Beach even passed an ordinance to allow golf carts on the streets, and on Bald Head Island, you won’t find any cars at all.
46: Fort Macon
This perfectly restored Civil War-era fort at Atlantic Beach was once the project of Robert E. Lee when he was a young army engineer.
47: Professor Hacker’s Lost Treasure Golf
Kill Devil Hills, Salter Path
You can still be part of a worthy beach trip tradition, even if your skills aren’t up to par for the real deal.
48: NC Highway 400
The shortest primary highway in the state, this .63-mile stretch of road leads travelers from U.S. 64 to Manteo’s Festival Park.
49: Provision Co.
When you tell people you went to Southport, they’re going to ask you if you ate here. You should! The shrimp is fresh, and the view of the water is fantastic.
50: The Ospreys at Lone Cedar Cafe
Lucy and Ricky may winter in South America, but the two resident ospreys at this Nags Head restaurant return to their nesting platform in the bay every spring, much to the delight of vacationing diners who are lucky enough to claim a window seat.
51: Morehead City Waterfront
In a city renowned for its public docks, many marinas, and its charter fishing fleet, spot the lined-up boats and watch fishermen bring in their catch.
52: U.S. Weather Bureau Station
This building, now a welcome center, housed the first U.S. Weather Bureau Station from 1902 to 1946, and helped develop the nation’s meteorological network.
53: Minnie Evans Bottle Chapel
This open-air chapel in Airlie Gardens was created from more than 5,000 recycled glass bottles in honor of artist Minnie Evans, a gatekeeper at the estate gardens for nearly 30 years.
54: Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden
Wear closed-toe shoes at this garden, whose paths are lined with pitcher plants, sundews, and Venus flytraps — these plants do have teeth, you know.
55: Historic Currituck Jail
The original jail, built after the county got the OK from Colonial legislators in 1776, burned down. But its 1857 replacement is still one of the state’s oldest standing jails. For 50 years, it had just four rooms.
56: Cape Point
The closest you can get to Bermuda without hopping on a flight, the sliver of beach at the geographic center of Hatteras Island stretches out farther into the Atlantic than any other part of the Outer Banks. Just don’t forget the four-wheel drive.
57: Sunny Point
It’s home to the world’s largest military ocean terminal. If you get close enough to read the signs telling you to keep out, it’s best to listen.
58: Intracoastal Waterway
This 3,000-mile nautical highway that stretches from Boston to the Florida Keys was once an important trade route. Today, fishermen and recreational boaters also frequent the route, which follows natural inlets, rivers, bays, canals, and sounds, and is free of many of the hazards in the open ocean.
59: Elizabeth II
Anchored in the bay at Roanoke Island Festival Park, this square-rigged sailing ship was built to represent the Elizabethan vessels used to carry the first English colonists to the New World.
60: Beaufort Flags
They wave at visitors on the waterfront boardwalk and at those approaching by boat: This colorful flagpole features the American flag, state flag, and town flag, with the other eight nautical signal flags spelling out B-E-A-U-F-O-R-T.
61: Battleship North Carolina
During World War II this battleship, now permanently moored in the Cape Fear River, had its own print shop: Between 1941 and 1942 it put out a weekly newspaper, The Tarheel, for all of the crew on board.
62: Burrus Red and White Grocery
Five generations of the Burrus family have run this grocery since 1886.
63: Hertford Swing Bridge
Built in 1928, this S-shaped bridge is one of the only ones in the nation that’s still operational.
64: The Birthplace of Pepsi-Cola
The pharmacy where “Brad’s Drink” became a sensation in 1893 is now a museum, shop, and throwback soda fountain that’s perfect for Pepsi people.
65: Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center
On Taylor’s Creek, it keeps the state’s wooden boatbuilding heritage alive.
66: Fiberglass Bears
The city’s Swiss founder named it “Bern,” or bear, after his hometown. For the bear city’s 300th anniversary, local artists decorated many of these friendly looking statues.
67: Croatan Forest
Hikers, campers, and paddlers love to explore the only coastal forest on the East Coast. Just keep a lookout for things that bite. Like, say, carnivorous plants, black bears, and alligators.
68: North Carolina Estuarium
For one, they’ll tell you what an estuary is (the area where ocean water and river water mix). Then this museum/aquarium near the Pamlico River vividly shows you how important estuaries are: 90 percent of the species caught for seafood spend time in them.
69: Swiss Cannons
Overlooking Edenton Bay, these three cast-iron Swiss cannons were brought here from France in 1778 to defend North Carolina during the Revolutionary War.
70: Whalehead Club
This historic, yellow, Art Nouveau-style manor was built as a prestigious hunting retreat in 1925. Today, it’s been renovated to its original glory.
71: Waterside Theatre
It’s been home to the outdoor symphonic drama The Lost Colony, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green, for 80 years. In lieu of a curtain backdrop, the theatre features Albemarle Sound.
72: Atlantic Beach Surf Shop
The oldest surf shop on the coast was just a simple shack selling surfboards when it first opened in 1964.
73: Brunswick Town
During the Civil War, Fort Anderson was built on the remains of this once-thriving port, which was destroyed by the British in 1776. Today, Colonial foundations and earthworks are still visible.
74: Dismal Swamp Canal
At more than 200 years old, this 22-mile waterway, now part of the Intracoastal, is the oldest operating man-made canal in the country. It took 12 years to construct, and opened in 1805.
75: Octagon House
The land on which this 162-year-old house sits was once an Indian camping ground, and was given to Thomas Lee by King George III in 1713.
76: Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
Shaped like a ship, it features remnants of the earliest known shipwrecks in our waters, which date to 1650.
77: New Hanover County Historic Courthouse
It was built overlooking the Cape Fear River in 1839, and yeah, it’s the one you saw on that TV show or in that movie, most recently on the show Sleepy Hollow.
78: Hammocks Beach State Park
The only way to access this pristine, undeveloped barrier island is by ferry or a three-mile paddle.
North Carolina’s coast hasn’t been kind to ships — like the Civil War-era CSS Curlew, sunk off Roanoke Island during a battle; the USS Monitor, sunk in heavy storms off the coast of Cape Hatteras; and German U-boats sunk during World War II — but finding the wreckage captures our imagination. The discovery of the Monitor, in 1974, led to the creation of the first U.S. marine sanctuary.
80: The Swing Benches at Waterfront Park
At the beginning of his first term as the director of Southport’s parks and recreation department in 1984, Joe Medlin knew that visitors to Waterfront Park needed somewhere to take in the view. While looking through catalogs for benches and swings, he realized he could just make them himself — and for half the price. Designed to reflect the spirit of Southport, they’ve been beloved for decades by visitors and locals alike — and have even made appearances in movies. And although he’s been retired since 2002, Medlin, a local and a veteran, still makes benches and swings for the city today.
81: Portsmouth Island
This uninhabited barrier island off Ocracoke is only accessible by small boat or private ferry, but is beloved by those who find comfort in its simplicity. Once a thriving port, today just a handful of National Park Service-regulated cottages remain in the historic village.
82: Lockwood Folly Inlet
Known to be tricky to navigate, it was once the mouth of the nearby Lockwood Folly River, whose appearance on a 1671 map makes it one of the oldest named rivers in the state.
83: “Unpainted Aristocracy” Cottages
A handful of century-old — and older — cottages have withstood every type of storm. Their longevity can be traced to their builder, S.J. Twine, who was more interested in function than form, and the families who’ve preserved them.
84: Camp Sea Gull and Camp Seafarer
These overnight camps — Sea Gull for boys and Seafarer for girls — are on one of the widest parts of the Neuse River, and have been the perfect spot to learn to sail since 1948.
85: Historic Corolla Village
Unpaved sandy roads, live oaks, and historic buildings recall the town’s simpler past as an isolated, seaside fishing community called Jones’s Hill.
If you’ve ever spent time behind the wheel, watching a ship pass through the road and counting down the seconds stuck on the wrong side of the bridge — in places like Beaufort, Harkers Island, Surf City, and Wrightsville Beach — you’ve been served a necessary coastal reminder: It’s time to slow down, and sit back.
From the longest — the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge, 5.2 miles across Croatan Sound — to the highest — the 65-foot-tall Cape Fear Memorial Bridge — to the weather-beaten — the Bonner Bridge, which carries NC 12 over Oregon Inlet, and is finally being replaced to better withstand the elements — they serve as landmarks, spanning the divide to keep us connected.
88: Cape Fear Serpentarium
This indoor zoo is not recommended for those with herpetophobia — a fear of snakes. It houses more than 40 venomous species and giant constrictors, as well as other creatures, such as crocodiles.
89: Calabash Seafood Strip
If you go as far southeast as you can go in the state, a little town with a lot of seafood has a legendary claim to fame: For every 10 residents, there’s a seafood joint. One stretch around River Road is home to Ella’s, Beck’s, Captain Nance’s Seafood, Coleman’s Original, and more.
90: Cherry Point
It’s home to The Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, which explains the roaring fighter jets and helicopters that can be heard — and seen — flying by surrounding areas.
91: Fort Fisher
The fall of this fort in 1865 helped seal the fate of the Confederacy. Today, just 10 percent of the original fortress stands, but the site is still a Civil War buff’s dream. Plus, it borders miles of quiet, pristine beach.
92: Life-Saving Stations
Commissioned by the federal government in 1871, life-saving stations and their crews of surfmen became blueprints for the modern U.S. Coast Guard. A few of the historic seven original stations built on the Outer Banks remain, and have been restored and preserved: The Caffey’s Inlet and Kitty Hawk stations are now restaurants, the Ocracoke station is now used by the Coast Guard, and the Chicamacomico station is a museum.
93: Barden Inlet
The southernmost inlet of the Outer Banks, this channel just northwest of Cape Lookout was originally opened up by the 1933 Outer Banks hurricane (20 years before we started naming our storms).
94: Wilmington Riverwalk
A mile of scenic wooden walkway hugs the Cape Fear River downtown.
95: The Shoals
These submerged sandbars off the coast of Cape Fear have been a hazard to ships, and the stuff of lore, since the 1600s.
96: Albatross Fleet
The state’s first offshore fishing charter was established in 1937, and today, their famous boats can still be spotted at the docks and on the Gulf Stream.
Satisfy your beachy lunch cravings at the walk-up window: El’s in Morehead City, John’s in Kitty Hawk, and Big Oak in Salter Path are old favorites. Don’t forget the shrimp burger.
98: Sanitary Fish Market
Even if you haven’t eaten here, you’ve seen the T-shirt. A fish market with just 12 seats for diners when it opened on the waterfront in 1938, its name was intended by the owners to convey a demand for cleanliness.
99: Howard’s Pub
Once open 365 days a year, this island institution is famed for being the only place open in town during many a hurricane — and with cold drinks to boot.
100: The Atlantic Ocean
Whether we’re dropping fishing lines into it, boating across it, swimming and playing near its shore, listening to the crash of its waves, watching the sun rise out of it, or just pondering its vast, blue beauty from afar, the second-largest ocean in the world is our coastal muse.