North Carolina’s Outer Banks offer a wonderful variety of activities and experiences. But unless you can manage an extended stay, it’s nearly impossible to explore all that the 200-mile stretch of barrier islands has to offer. One option is to start your adventure on the Crystal Coast, a roughly 85-mile section of the southern Outer Banks, which offers easy access to history, great casual dining, and, of course plenty, of beautiful beaches.
What: Situated along the Bogue Sound, Atlantic Beach is the oldest of Crystal Coast’s five resort towns and also one of its most charming. As you cross the bridge off Highway 70, which connects the mainland to the islands, you’ll find yourself amongst cozy cottages, expansive beachfront mansions, and two miles of near pristine coastline.
Can’t Miss: Though the beach here is the true attraction, Atlantic Beach also boasts bustling retail attractions, an expansive boardwalk, and the beloved, 1,000-foot Oceanana Pier, a popular place for fishing. History buffs will enjoy the 389-acre Fort Macon State Park where you can relax in two scenic beach areas, stroll the miles of walking trails, or simply enjoy a picnic lunch in one of the gazebos. But you’d be remiss if you didn’t visit the expansive Civil War defensive fort, which has been painstakingly restored.
Eat: When your stomach starts to rumble, head to family-owned Amos Mosquito’s Restaurant & Bar (www.amosmosquitos.com) where you can nosh on fresh seafood, pork chops, steaks, and sushi.
Pine Knolls Shore What: Heading west from Atlantic Beach on N.C. 58, the Crystal Coast’s main thoroughfare, you’ll next arrive at Pine Knolls Shores. This quiet residential community has mostly private homes with a smattering of hotels and limited commercial development, which includes the semi-private Country Club of Crystal Coast (www.crystalcoastcc.com). Guests can purchase weekly memberships here and enjoy golf, tennis, swimming and a full-service restaurant.
Can’t Miss: To get an up close look at the region’s wildlife—from the mountains to the Piedmont to the coast—visit the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores (http://www.ncaquariums.com/pine-knoll-shores). Here, you can see dozens of exhibits showcasing everything from otters and sharks to sea turtles, as well as fascinating shipwrecks, such as a three-quarter-size replica of the U-352, a German submarine that went down off the East Coast in 1942.
Eat: There are few options in terms of food in this small Outer Banks town, but a great option is the Big Oak Drive-in & Bar-B-Q where the seafood burgers—everything from clam to shrimp—are the real draw.
Emerald Isle What: Continuing on N.C. 58, it’s only about eight miles to Emerald Isle. Located on the western end of Bogue Banks, Emerald Isle is one of Crystal Coast’s more popular towns, with a variety of accommodations, including spacious beachfront homes loaded with luxurious amenities. If you need help finding the right place to stay, Emerald Isle Realty (www.emeraldislerealty.com) offers more than 700 rentals.
Can’t Miss: A haven for nature lovers with its lush greenery and five miles of beaches, Emerald Isle is best explored via surf board. Head to Hot Wax Surf Shop (www.hotwaxsurf.com) where, in addition to surfing and SUP rentals and lessons, the retailer offers guided kayak eco tours of the Intracoastal Waterway, numerous secluded islands, and White Oak River, which runs through hardwood forests and salt marshes teeming with wildlife.
Eat: Grab a bite to eat at The Village Market (www.villagemarketofei.com), a charming little restaurant and shop with delicious sandwiches, salads, a full wine and beer list, along with funky, locally-made artwork and gifts.
Beaufort What: North Carolina’s third-oldest town beckons visitors with its historic charm and walkable downtown. Recently named the coolest small town in America by Travel Budget magazine, Beaufort boasts a scenic waterfront boardwalk, oak-lined streets, beautifully preserved homes, and an eclectic mix of shops, boutiques, and restaurants.
Can’t Miss: The postcard-perfect downtown features The North Carolina Maritime Museum (http://www.ncmaritimemuseums.com) where you can explore the state’s natural history with hundreds of exhibits, including one showcasing pirate Blackbeard’s flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, which ran aground here in 1718. To explore Beaufort’s wild side, catch the ferry (www.outerbanksferry.com) to Shackleford Banks, where feral horses run free, or to the southern tip of the 56-mile Cape Lookout National Seashore, where you can climb to the top of the 163-foot Cape Lookout Lighthouse and gaze out over the sparkling blue water.
Eat: For epicureans, a wonderful way to explore Beaufort is via Hungry Town Bike Tour (www.hungrytownbiketoursw.com), during which you can pedal along the town’s historic streets and visit many of the area’s restaurants for food and wine tastings.