When fall settles over North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, the steamy days of summer make way for breezy afternoons and crisp nights — and we humans aren’t the only ones who notice. Prized fish swim up to the cooler waters off our shores. Tree swallows and monarch butterflies speckle our skies with flashes of iridescent blue and orange. On all fronts, nature puts on a show.
“Fall sunsets at the beach are the most stunning in the state,” says Stephanie McIntyre, the executive director of the North Carolina Seafood Festival, held each October in Morehead City. “You get the deepest reds, purples, blues.”
Thanks to back-to-school schedules that beckon most beachgoers home toward the end of August, the pace of life slows down this time of year. For many visitors, these quieter days make for the best vacations. “We have people who come from all over the country and even Canada and stay for several days after the North Carolina Seafood Festival,” McIntyre says.
Whether it’s nature, seafood, or festival fun that draws you to the Crystal Coast this fall, make the most of every day — from peaceful mornings to spectacular sunsets — with this three-day itinerary.
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Day 1: Emerald Isle
Located on the quiet, western side of Bogue Banks, Emerald Isle is a nature lover’s paradise. Fall’s humidity-free mornings call for exploration — but first, kick off your vacation with an al fresco breakfast. We recommend the shrimp and grits, with a poached egg on top, at The Trading Post.
Then get the lay of the land, preferably via a ride down Emerald Isle’s 11-mile bike path. Coasting along from the Indian Beach town limit all the way to “The Point” at the tip of the island, you’ll get an overview of the locals’ favorite access points for fishing, hiking, kayaking, and beach strolling. Take advantage of your breezy ride to check out the options, and choose your own afternoon adventure:
Adventure 1: Emerald Isle’s bike path starts along a stretch of road lined with beach houses and shady live oaks draped in Spanish moss, eastern red cedars and cherry laurels. About seven miles in, the trees thin out as you pedal up to the Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier on your left. Open 24/7, this pier is your best bet for fall trout fishing — a ritual that starts as the water cools down in mid-October. No need to bring your own gear; you can rent a rod at the Pier House.
Adventure 2: As you bike onto Coast Guard Road, keep your eye out on the right for Emerald Isle Woods, a 41-acre nature preserve where you can play a round of Frisbee golf, launch your kayak into Bogue Sound, or hike along the NC Birding Trail — a special treat for fall bird-watchers. In early October, look for junco, whitethroat, and kinglets. Later in the month, you can spot pine siskins and purple finches.
Adventure 3: From Emerald Isle Woods, it’s a quick two-mile ride to The Point, where the turbulent Atlantic collides with the calm waters of Bogue Sound, providing Emerald Isle’s finest panorama. If spreading a towel, burying your toes in the sand, and closing your eyes to listen to the ocean’s waves sounds like your idea of paradise, you’ve arrived.
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Day 2: Atlantic Beach
As the days chill out, so does the general vibe, McIntyre says. “People are laid-back when they’re on vacation in the summer, but there’s still a high intensity. In the fall, it just feels a little more relaxed.”
On day two, you’ll praise the start of school as you march straight into the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores — no lines, no crowds. Not only is it easier to take a closer look at your favorite marine animals, but also the volunteers out on the floor have more time for one-on-one conversations. Have questions about the aquarium’s Spot a Shark research? Ask away! And if you have little ones, plan your visit for a Wednesday morning — preschoolers are invited to a free program packed with animal encounters, crafts, stories, and songs all about conservation.
From here, lunch is a no-brainer. Head over to the Shark Shack in Atlantic Beach, a colorful wooden hut with outdoor seating that serves up fresh, no-frills seafood with a side of reggae. After ordering a basket of grouper bites and fries for the kids — and fried scallops for you — grab a seat at a picnic table and settle in for a leisurely lunch.
Once you’ve recovered from your fried-food coma, plan to visit Fort Macon State Park, a restored Civil War-era fort with a pristine shoreline on the eastern tip of Bogue Banks. While the park is famous for the fort’s network of brick-and-stone casemates, shelling on the beach is a close second. “In the summer, we have people here first thing in the morning out on the beach collecting,” park ranger Ben Fleming says. “That makes it harder for visitors who are hoping to find something rare. But in the fall, you’re more likely to find a whole sand dollar or a unique treasure to take home.”
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Day 3: Beaufort and Morehead City
This morning, gather your tiny treasures and pay a visit to Beaufort, the quaint, walkable town just across the inlet from Fort Macon. First stop: the North Carolina Maritime Museum. Take a few minutes to check out the museum’s pirate artifacts, including a collection from the infamous Blackbeard.
From the museum, set off on foot for Beaufort’s Old Burying Ground, a five-minute walk to the 400 block of Ann Street. Deeded to the town in 1731, this legendary graveyard reveals the haunting stories of privateers and Native Americans, the famous “rum keg girl,” and other historic tales — download the free smartphone app to listen as a narrator guides your tour.
For lunch, ask for a table on the rooftop of Moonrakers, a seafood restaurant along Beaufort’s historic waterfront. The view is spectacular. As you dine on crab cakes and clam chowder, you can look across Taylor Creek to Carrot Island, where wild Banker horses graze along the shoreline. Keep an eye out for newborns: The horses foal every year toward the end of summer.
After you’ve spent the early afternoon taking advantage of the end-of-summer sales at the waterfront shops and galleries in Beaufort, drive back over the bridge for an afternoon in Morehead City, another quaint waterfront town packed with quirky shops, one-of-a-kind souvenirs, and the Crystal Coast’s best antiquing. Around 4 p.m., head down to the scenic waterfront, where you can watch the charter fishing boats return from sea and the fishermen and -women clean their catch of the day.
On your last night, savor the return of “R” months with an order of oysters on the half shell and a glass of white wine at Southern Salt Seafood Restaurant. As you listen to live music, take in the glorious sunset and raise a toast: Here’s to fall on the Crystal Coast.
Tip: At Morehead City’s annual Seafood Festival, 2019 is the year of the oyster. Experience what “a buck a shuck” and listen in as an oyster farmer shares the secrets behind North Carolinians’ favorite mollusk.