Dust off your flip-flops and get ready to travel, gather unforgettable beach-side memories, and perhaps pick up some seashells and sand dollars too. The Crystal Coast – North Carolina’s Southern Outer Banks – has something for everyone in your family: a Civil War era fort for history buffs, wild horses roaming the shores of an uninhabited island for animal lovers, rich southern-style cuisine for gourmands, and miles and miles of pristine beaches for sandcastle builders. Perhaps best of all, the Crystal Coast is lacking in the crowds and traffic that typically plague most Eastern beach towns, making for a peaceful escape from the everyday.

Recently our family took a trip to the Crystal Coast. We hopped on the painless flight from Chicago to Raleigh, then rented a car at the airport – it’s a 2.45 hour drive to the Atlantic shores. Along the way to the coast, we made a pit stop for boiled peanuts and took a small detour to visit a Civil War battle site. (The Historic Preservation website contains an interactive map/guide to Civil War era sights of interest). We liked having the rental car available to better explore the area during our stay, but alternatively you can fly into the New Bern airport and catch a 45 minute shuttle service to the coast (Shuttle Me Transportation; Tel. 252/637.7433; shuttlemenc.com). The area is very bike friendly – get in touch with Crystal Coast Bicycles for rentals (407 Atlantic Beach Causeway; Tel. 252/257.1110; crystalcoastbicycles.com).

There is so much to see and do on the Crystal Coast: the wide range of outdoor activities, quiet beaches and starry nights make for a relaxing and fun four-day escape. Awesome beachside rental cottages would make for a fun family or friends getaway.

Explore

Historic Beaufort Site
(Downtown Beaufort; Tel. 252/728.5225; beauforthistoricsite.com)
Step back in time and watch as 18th and 19th century North Carolina comes alive before your eyes. Eleven historic buildings – including an apothecary shop, a courthouse, and a jail – are enhanced by authentic artifacts and knowledgeable volunteer tour guides. Snap a photo of the kids beside the towering hollyhocks in the heirloom gardens.

U.S. history is on display at Fort Macon (2300 East Fort Macon Road, Atlantic Beach; 252/726.3775; ncparks.gov), an oceanside Civil War era fortress garrisoned in 1834 and seized from Union forces by the Confederate Army at the start of the war (only to be recaptured in 1862). Be sure to catch the video program at the Visitor’s Center before you tour the fort on your own. The fort is at the center of Fort Macon State Park , which boasts 385 acres of beaches, dunes, and maritime forest ripe for hiking. Download the Approved NC State Parks Guide-Pocket Ranger on your iPhone or Android for excellent trail guides and more.

Shakleford Banks, a barrier island just off Beaufort, is best known for the herd of feral horses that graze its meadows – the legendary descendents of wild Spanish mustangs that survived a long ago shipwreck. We caught a small ferry ride to the island with Island Ferry Adventures (610 Front Street, Beaufort; Tel. 252/728.7555; islandferryadventures.com) which offers departures on the top of the hour beginning at 9 a.m., seven days a week, weather permitting. It took us about 45 minutes of hiking the nine-mile long island before we spotted the beautiful wild horses.

Dive into the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores (1 Roosevelt Boulevard, Pine Knoll Shores; Tel. 252/247.4003; ncaquariums.com), where you can explore shipwrecks, view fierce sand-tiger sharks, and watch playful otters without getting wet. Other highlights are the touch tanks and the sea turtle care center, where naturalists study and take care of these vulnerable and beloved sea creatures, including a recently hatched rare albino sea turtle.

Create your own personalized, naturalist-led tour or join a group with Crystal Coast Eco Tours (Based in Morehead City; Tel. 252/808.3354; crystalcoastecotours.com). Explore the beauty of the uninhabited barrier islands, sea grass meadows, peaceful backwater sounds, marshes, near-ocean waters, and the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Hike, boat, or bike – and choose from a wide range of accompanying activities: shelling, clamming, crab-spotting, dolphin-watching, birding, snorkeling, and more.

Play

Kayaking
One of the highlights of our trip to the Crystal Coast was the morning we spent kayaking under the guidance of Hot Wax Surf Shop (200 Mallard Drive, Emerald Isle; Tel. 252/354.6466; hotwaxsurf.com) owner Mike Crews. Kayaking is simply the best way to explore the ICW (Intercoastal Waterway). Take a peaceful and relaxing journey and head to Shark Tooth Island, Huggins Island, Bear Island, or paddle up the White Oak River.

Surfing
Surfers of all levels are drawn to swelling waves off the Crystal Coast. Mike Crews at Hot Wax Surf Shop and his certified staff also offer private individual and group surfing lessons for kids and adults: you’ll be hanging ten before you know it thanks to Mike’s contagious positive attitude. Boards and gear are also available for purchase or rental.

Eat

Circa 81
(4650 Arendell Street, Morehead City; Tel. 252/648.8300; circa-81.com) Specializes in small plates and fresh cocktails. The house-made crab cakes – made with local lump crab and served with Wasabi aioli and grilled pineapple relish – are a must-order for seafood lovers.

Flipperz
(311 Mangrove Blvd, Emerald Isle; Tel. 252/354.7775; flipperz.net) This casual eatery, located on Emerald Isle near Hot Wax Surf Shop, features sandwiches made with freshly baked in-house bread and a selection of seasonal salads. Don’t skip dessert – especially the hot apple dumpling: a gooey, decadent apple pie.

Stay

The Atlantis Lodge
(123 Salter Path Road, Pine Knoll Shores; Tel. 252/726.5168; atlantislodge.com) A friendly inn is nestled in a beautiful, wooded ocean front site on Pine Knoll Shores. Comfortable suites with efficiency kitchens, dining, and living areas make you feel at home.

Cannon & Gruber
(Atlantic Beach; Tel. 800/317.2866; cannongruber.com) Specializes in beach cottage and condo rentals, both short and long-term, along the Crystal Coast.  

Don’t Miss

  • Watch divers swim with the sharks in the 306,000 gallon Living Shipwreck exhibit at the North Carolina Aquarium, daily at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
  • The Rocking Chair Bookstore in downtown Beaufort (400 Front Street; Tel. 252/728. 2671; rockingchairbookstore.com) features a wide selection of local and regional books for both adults and children, new and used.
  • Pick up a brochure at the headquarters of the Beaufort Historic Site and head over to the Old Burying Ground (400 block of Ann Street, downtown Beaufort; beaufort-nc.com/history/old-burying-ground.shtml) to tour this peaceful, old (and spooky!) cemetery. Particularly poignant is the young girl buried in a keg of rum.
  • Are you a pirate aficionado or boating history buff? Visit the North Carolina Maritime Museum (315 Front Street, Beaufort; Tel. 252/728-7317; ncmaritimemusuems.com) where you’ll find artifacts from Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, which was ground on an ocean bar off Beaufort in 1718.