North Carolina’s Southern Outer Banks (SOBX) represents one of the few remaining natural barrier island systems in the world. Strung together with 85 miles of silken coastline—56 being the protected Cape Lookout National Seashore—the Crystal Coast is both a place and a state of mind set apart from the ordinary.
This chain of islands is a culinary lover’s dream-come-true with a mixture of eateries tailored to suit any palate on any budget, from tasty seafood shacks to waterfront pubs to fine dining bistros. Thanks to the Carteret Catch program—a joint venture between local restaurants, retailers and fishermen—the Crystal Coast features a “fish to fork” initiative, serving only seafood caught that day by local fishermen. Boasting no chain restaurants, the program supports the 85 privately owned restaurants that change their menus daily depending on the fresh catch of the day.
But even if you’re not a foodie, tales of swashbuckling pirates, Civil War triumphs and tragedies, and deep-rooted maritime heritage are sure to entice history buffs. Glimmering waterways welcome eco-adventurers with stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking and world-class fishing. And for the shopping enthusiasts in your crew, unique treasures await in every charming town that dots the Crystal Coast.
Part of the Bogue Banks, Atlantic Beach is the oldest of the five resort towns on the Crystal Coast. Home to Fort Macon National Park, this town is directly linked to skirmishes in the Civil War. Fort Macon—built from 1826-1834—is impeccably preserved to educate and entertain visitors. Once a month on Canon Day, volunteers in traditional dress fire a canon over the wall to exemplify how the Confederates defended the fort over one hundred years ago. Twice a year, Fort Macon commemorates the Civil War with a battle reenactment that requires over 40 volunteers who sleep in the fort for an entire weekend. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fort Macon State Park also offers unspoiled fishing, hiking, swimming, and picnicking amidst serene coastal settings. Take a break from an enriched day of history to enjoy a fresh spin on traditional seafood dishes at the waterfront Channel Marker Restaurant. The she-crab soup and ahi tuna are staples on their menu, with delectable daily specials you won’t want to miss. Watch the sunset and sip a cocktail on their boardwalk as your plan your next day’s adventures.
Cruise down Taylor’s Creek to look for wild Shackleford horses on Carrot Island across from charming Beaufort, dubbed “America’s Coolest Small Town.” This gem is the third-oldest city in North Carolina bustling with fresh, tasty restaurants and coffee shops that neighbor the perfectly manicured gardens inside the white picket fences of each picturesque coastal cottage. Dive into the history, ghost stories and folklore at the world-class ship diving spot where the legendary pirate Blackbeard’s infamous ship Queen Anne’s Revenge lies in a watery grave just three miles off of the sandy shore.
Enjoy a double-decker bus tour around the town to learn which historic character lived in each house dating back from the 1700s. beauforthistoricsite.org Share in the rich maritime history rooted in Beaufort at the North Carolina’s Maritime Museum with official artifacts from Blackbeard’s ship, which illuminates the life of early 18th-century pirates. The museum also offers on-the-water sailing and boating courses, paddle boarding along the historic shore, and boat-building for all skill levels. ncmaritimemuseums.com
Known for some of the most diverse fishing, the Crystal Coast also has one of the longest fishing seasons on the entire Atlantic Coast. If you aren’t an experienced angler or simply prefer to take advantage of local knowledge, rows of charter fishing boats bob along the docks for a day of action and offer private charters, or choose a more affordable family-friendly fishing trip for up to 100 people. If you’re looking for more booty than just a fresh fish dinner, several fishing tournaments on the Crystal Coast offer big cash prizes. For folks not keen on a salty day reeling in the sun, the quaint shopping district has lovely art galleries intermixed with antique stores, as well as the Morehead Center for the Performing Arts.
Pine Knoll Shores
Teddy Roosevelt’s family previously owned this peaceful, eco-friendly, residential community. The Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is the second largest aquarium in the state and features animal feedings, live animal programs, dive presentations, and touch tanks with some of the most unique fresh and salt-water creatures. Expand your visit with a behind-the-scenes tour, kayak tour or fishing lessons for children. An attached ice cream shop and nearby beaches will delight everyone at this fun, interactive stop. ncaquariums.com
The most prominent of Crystal Coast’s banks, Emerald Isle is located at the western end of the Bogue Banks and named for its flourishing lush greenery. The town is also noted for its massive beachfront mansions known locally as “sand castles.” Its prime location sets it apart for watching the sunrise over the Bay side and the sunset over the Atlantic Ocean.
Stop by Hot Wax Surf Shop for exercise combined with sightseeing as you glide along the water on a stand-up paddleboard or kayak. Guided flat-water eco-tours wind amidst the grassy outer banks to look for river dolphins and coastal birds—you might even spot a bald eagle. Rent a surfboard or take a lesson if you want to catch one of the Atlantic coast’s premier waves. hotwaxsurf.com Fill up hungry stomachs with lunch at The Village Market— sandwiches, salads and award-winning key lime pie won’t disappoint. The neighboring bait shop can help prepare you for some fishing action in the afternoon and evening.
After the sunset, stop by Amos Mosquito’s Swampside Café for some unique specialties in a down-home atmosphere. Don’t let the name fool you—there are no pesky mosquitos, except for the funky décor—and the seafood favorites will satisfy with their gourmet preparation and hearty flavor. Named after an old family joke, the restaurant’s husband and wife manager and chef stay busy with upscale family favorites popular with the locals. I can confidently recommend everything—and double-recommend the oysters and mojitos—which you might need after 9PM once karaoke starts. Be sure to pack a light jacket to sustain the coastal breezes as you stargaze along the shore—the Milky Way is in full view on a clear night.
Cape Lookout National Seashore offers a 56-mile stretch of unspoiled, undeveloped beaches accessible by boat—as always, ensure you have current navigational charts. Visit the historic black-and-white checkered lighthouse, watch for herds of wild Shackleford horses that roam freely, and fish or camp on the beach of this national seashore. Be sure to bring everything you might need, as there are no stores or restaurants—although they do have clean bathroom facilities and a covered pavilion. If you prefer to leave your boat in a safe marina, the Island Express Ferry Service departs from the town of Beaufort Gateway and Harkers Island Visitor Center with guided routes to Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Shackleford Banks. islandexpressferryservices.com
With an endless list of activities, sightseeing, eating, drinking, and discovering to be had at North Carolina’s Southern Outer Banks, set your course for these barrier islands this summer. Visit crystalcoastnc.com to plan your trip around one of the festivals, tours, and food and wine events held in these charming towns. I guarantee you’ll be planning your return trip before you even leave.
By Christine Carpenter, Southern Boating June 2014