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Spotlight: Crystal Coast

Climb the stairs of an iconic lighthouse and hit the surf

A scenic string of white sandy beaches, windswept barrier islands and tidy coastal townships make up what is collectively known as North Carolina’s sparkling Crystal Coast.

Jutting eastward out into the Atlantic, the rare south-facing barrier islands and beaches are often confused or lumped in with the Outer Banks barrier islands slightly to the north. But where the Outer Banks are directly exposed to the Atlantic’s often punishing and relentless east-west winds, storms and ocean currents, the Crystal Coast’s bend inland represents calmer shores.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Bank on the Banks

Unlike shipwrecked pirates of centuries past, folks who visit the Crystal Coast today will find themselves drawn happily to Bogue Banks, a 21-mile-long island that constitutes the bulk of the Crystal Coast, and which separates the Atlantic Ocean from Bogue Sound. The Banks are home to the communities of Emerald Isle, Indian Beach, Salter Path, Pine Knoll Shores and Atlantic Beach.

Emerald Isle and Indian Beach are popular water-sports destinations for summer-rental cottagers. Salter Path, located further east at Bogue Banks’ narrowest juncture, is a tiny fishing village that’s home to some of the Banks’ original descendants. The communities of Pine Knoll Shores and Atlantic Beach tend to attract the bulk of the crowds visiting Bogue Banks.

Fascinating Fish and Fighting Ships

At Pine Knoll Shores, those traveling with kids won’t want to miss the North Carolina Aquarium, which is home not only to an abundance of marine life (including favorites like sharks, stingrays and sea turtles) but also to three intricately recreated famous shipwreck sites. The exhibits show how a sunken vessel can form the nucleus for a marine ecosystem.

The wrecks also detail violent maritime history. The first is a replicated version of U-352, a German submarine sunk off the coast of Cape Lookout by the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. The second is a replicated version the Caribsea freighter ship, torpedoed by the German U-158 near the Cape in 1942. And the third replication is the crown jewel of the collection: Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s infamous pirate ship. For all the terror it inspired on the high seas, its end was pedestrian. It ran aground in Beaufort Inlet in 1718.

Crystal Coast Tourism Authoriy

Crystal Coast Tourism Authoriy

One of the Best Beaches

Just east of Pine Knoll Shores at Atlantic Beach, sunbathers, surfers and sand-castle aficionados can enjoy free access to what’s been routinely selected as one of the best beaches in the country. It’s also the jumping-off point to Fort Macon State Park, home to the Civil War fort of the same name.

From Bogue Banks, your next stop should be a hop across the water to Beaufort and Harkers Island.

Nearby Harkers Island is mostly full of private homes and communities, but from here you can catch daily ferries that offer easy day trips to nearby Shackleford Banks (an undeveloped island that’s home to more than 100 wild horses—most likely descendants from abandoned shipwrecked horses) and Cape Lookout.

Cape Lookout, located at the far eastern point of the Crystal Coast, is part of a protected National Seashore that stretches northward for 56 miles. Accessible by boat, the must-do activity here is as simple as climbing a flight of stairs to the top of Cape Lookout Lighthouse, which has beamed brightly for more than a century.

For More Information

Crystal Coast Tourism Authority
North Carolina Department of Tourism