North Carolina’s Crystal Coast — that 85-mile strand of golden-sanded coastline stretching from Cedar Point all the way through Cape Lookout National Seashore — offers an abundance of fun as
North Carolina’s Crystal Coast — that 85-mile strand of golden-sanded coastline stretching from Cedar Point all the way through Cape Lookout National Seashore — offers an abundance of fun as varied and unique as its 11 waterfront communities. The name is inspired by sparkling waters that visitors enjoy from the comfort of their decks, docks, or beach chairs.
Sure, you could visit alone, but incredible dining, fascinating regional and seafaring history, and amazing outdoor activities make the Crystal Coast the perfect destination for a ladies’ getaway, a guys’ weekend, or a family retreat. Read on for three itineraries, then call your partners in crime and pack your bags for the coast.
Eighty-five miles of gleaming beaches only begin to tell the story of The Crystal Coast — from crystal waters bordering sandy, sparkling beaches, to wild mustang horses and a towering lighthouse — the natural beauty of the Southern Outer Banks await exploration.
Kick off your first morning at the Crystal Coast with a stroll along Beaufort’s 12-block downtown historic district. Art galleries, boutique clothing stores, and antique shops offer one-of-a-kind treasures and lively conversation pieces for your home.
Beaufort is North Carolina’s third oldest town, a distinction that’s not surprising given Front Street’s meticulously restored waterfront homes. To take a self-guided tour of historic Beaufort landmarks, stop by the Beaufort Historical Association at 130 Turner Street for information to get you started. (No tour is complete without a visit to the Old Burying Ground, a picturesque cemetery that dates back to 1724.)
When you’re ready for a bite to eat, stop for lunch on the waterfront patio at Front Street Grill. Try the chili-lime shrimp tacos, served with fried plantains, or standards like the soft-shell crab wrap with creole remoulade.
The wide and sunny Crystal Coast beaches are ideal for walking, shelling, or lounging year-round. Before you head to the beach for the afternoon, stop by The Book Shop in Morehead City to find your beach read among the more than 35,000 titles. “We’re the biggest book store in town,” says Bobby Bousman, who has owned The Book Shop for 16 of its 27 years and is often found greeting bibliophiles as they walk through the door. “We have new and used titles and are always busy with locals who love books like I do.”
One of the greatest pleasures of girl time at the beach is an epic seafood dinner. The cozy tables, expansive wine selection, heavenly smells, and unbeatable desserts at the Beaufort Grocery create an intimate atmosphere for close conversations. At Emerald Isle, Kathryn’s Bistro and Martini Bar can help loosen tongues more with a menu featuring more than 30 martinis and superb dinner selections.
On your first day at the Crystal Coast, toss in a line, and catch “the big one” on a chartered fishing excursion. (Pro tip: Plan an excursion for the beginning of your trip so you have plenty of time to fry up what you reel in.) All along the Crystal Coast, offshore charters with boats of all sizes can help you and your friends get out on the water to fish for marlin, wahoo, grouper, king mackerel, and snapper.
You may think you’ve gone as far as you can go when you get to Beaufort, but if you keep driving east, you’ll come to the sleepy Harkers Island community, home to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center. Here, you can learn all about the regional traditions of decoy carving, boat-building, and commercial fishing. If you’re there in December, plan to check out the museum’s annual Core Sound Waterfowl Weekend & Decoy Festival.
Want to get even farther off the beaten path? Take a ferry to Cape Lookout National Seashore, where you can get up close and personal with the Cape Lookout Lighthouse — aptly called our Diamond Lady for its bold pattern.
No trip is complete without a visit to Crystal Coast Brewing, centrally located in Atlantic Beach, just a few blocks from the ocean. Try a pint of their own Crystal Coast IPA, a brew that captures “that special feeling when you see the coast crest upon the horizon,” while you kick back in their taproom or huge game space (yes, they even have video games) out back.
Many folks think of the beach as the quintessential summertime family vacation, but the Crystal Coast has all the makings for a dreamy winter getaway, too. The Crystal Coast Christmas Flotilla, on December 2, sponsored by the Beaufort Maritime Museum, takes the joy of a holiday parade to the next level. All manner of “things that float,” from kayaks to commercial vessels, drift from the Morehead City waterfront to the Beaufort waterfront, their festive lights sparkling on the water.
Next, prepare to blow young minds at Fort Macon State Park. At the eastern tip of Bogue Banks at Atlantic Beach, you can explore the tunnels and watch the fishing fleet come and go at this restored Antebellum-era fort. If you time it right, you can even observe a cannon and musket demonstration.
Just a two-minute drive down the road, Amos Mosquito’s offers a menu guaranteed to satisfy the cravings of every family member, young and old. Shrimp and grits, sesame-seared tuna, scalloped scallops … the list goes on. It won’t be easy, but save room for their famous key lime pie with a graham-cracker crust and topped with whipped cream.
Nothing beats a trip to the aquarium. The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores gives you some stunning views of Bogue Sound. In individual habitats, otters glide past the glass, sharks slip in and out of a living shipwreck in a 306,000 gallon saltwater habitat, and baby loggerheads in the Sea Turtle Odyssey greet visitors with hopeful expressions.
In addition to daily events guaranteed to delight all ages, the aquarium offers special, seasonal experiences, like Santa by the Sea on December 9, where children can meet the guy in the big red suit and join the “whispered wishes among the fishes.”
Kids in second through sixth grades can also attend special holiday camps on December 27-29, where they’re invited behind the scenes at the aquarium to experience hands-on learning fun. And don’t forget to mark your calendar for the Sea Turtle Camp on January 15, 2024, also open to second through sixth graders.
If it’s a board game you’re after, go straight to Emerald Isle Books & Toys and pick up some fun. With a carefully curated selection of board games, puzzles, and books, they’ve got your indoor time covered.
Time for one last seafood dinner? Head on over to the Crab Shack, a Salter Path institution that’s been around since 1976. Grilled, fried, steamed, or broiled; this is as fresh as it gets. It’s a locals’ favorite, and they don’t take reservations. So get there early, grab a drink, and relax on their back dock that overlooks the Bogue Sound.