Adventures on the Crystal Coast

Where the sun rises and sets
By Renee C. Gannon
Adventures on the Crystal Coast

Shackleford Banks & Cape Lookout (Photo by: Renee Gannon)

The Southern Outer Banks, a different set of islands south of the OBX, creates the Crystal Coast. Stretching 85 miles along the Atlantic (in Carteret County and northern Onslow County), from the Cape Lookout National Seashore west to the New River, this region boasts inland towns and coastal beaches such as Morehead City, Beaufort, Cedar Island, Harkers Island and Shackleford Banks as well as Atlantic Beach, Indian Beach, Emerald Isle and Hammocks Beach State Park.

A special treat on this coast? The east-and-west orientation of the region allows you to see the sun rise AND set over the waters by just turning your gaze to the left and later to the right, whether on the Beaufort waterfront or the sandy beaches.

Beaufort

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Maritime Museum Watercraft Center (Photo by: Kevin Childress Photography)

Some say the blue paint on porch ceilings of many of this town's historic homes was chosen to ward of spirits. In a hamlet known for the legend of Blackbeard, that's a safe tale to believe.

Recently voted as the Coolest Small Town by Budget Travel magazine's online fans (tied for first with Hammondsport, N.Y.), this third-oldest town in North Carolina is small enough to visit in one day, but offers plenty for an extended visit.

Located at the southern tip of the Outer Banks, this seaport village has survived hurricanes and pirates since the late 1600s. Divers recently discovered Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge in the shoals just three miles out from the waterfront. The North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort (www.ncmaritimemuseums.com/beaufort.html) offers an extensive exhibit on Blackbeard, the Queen Anne's Revenge and the shipwreck's discovery.

A walk along the waterfront offers views of Taylor's Creek, Carrot Island and the Rachel Carson Reserve. The island's small band of wild horses can often be seen foraging along the creek side. Many ferry services offer various tours to this island and Shackleford Banks to see wild horses, hunt for seashells, bird watch and learn the area's pirate history (www.portcitytourcompany.com, www.islandferryadventures.com, www.crystalcoastecotours.com and www.outerbanksferry.com).

Historic building tours are a must. The two-acre Beaufort historic site (www.beauforthistoricsite.org) on Turner Street offers guided tours through six restored buildings that highlight 18th and 19th century life in Beaufort. A self-guided tour to some 30 sites within the six-block historic district is an easy stroll through history. If hoofing around town doesn't suit you, catch a ride on a Double Decker Bus Tour, featuring a 1967 English double-decker bus and listen to a local narrator while you take in the view.

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Beaufort’s Old Burying Ground (Photo by: Renee Gannon)

One must-see is the Old Burying Ground, which dates back to 1704. The guided tour through this cemetery includes a Revolutionary War British naval officer who before dying wished to be buried standing up in full uniform, facing England; and the "Girl in the Barrel of Rum," a sad story of a young daughter who died on the voyage back to Beaufort, and whose father preserved the little body in a barrel of rum for the trip home and burial. Visitors, young and old, often leave items, such as toys, coins and ribbons, on the girl's grave.

What better way to learn more about the town's history than to go on a pirate and ghost tour after dark? The Port City Tour Company (www.portcitytourcompany.com) offers family-friendly ghost and pirate tours in Beaufort. The Beaufort Ghost Walk is led by a local "pirate" who regales the many tales about haunted houses, pirates and evil-doers in Beaufort, with the final stop at the Old Burying Ground — which many say is haunted.

Along the shores

Just beyond the Beaufort waterfront lies the Cape Lookout National Seashore (www.nps.gov/calo), featuring 56 miles of protected Core Banks shoreline accessible only by boat. Local ferry services from Beaufort, Harkers Island and other ports provide roundtrip rides to Cape Lookout. These rides also feature a view of Shackleford Banks and the 115–120 "banker" horses that live on the banks' islands.

As you approach Cape Lookout on the South Core Banks, you can't miss the diamond-patterned, 163-foot lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper's station just beyond the shoreline. The refurbished 1859 lighthouse and its cast-iron stairwell opens to the public from mid-May to mid-September. Trivia about the diamond shapes: the black diamonds point north and south and the white diamonds point east and west.

Besides visiting the lighthouse and keeper's station, visitors can fish, swim, camp and explore the National Park Service site.

Cape Lookout Seashore also features the historic fishing town of Portsmouth Village on the North Core Banks. This 1753 village was one of the first settlements in the area and once home to more than 1,000 people, though abandoned since 1971. The National Park Service maintains a dozen or so buildings as part of the Portsmouth Village Historic District. Access to the North Core Banks is limited to ferry service from Ocracoke Village or four-wheel-drive vehicles from the south.

Beach side

The Crystal Coast beaches are bookended by the Bogue Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, with Atlantic Beach, Indian Beach, Pine Knoll Shores, Salter Path and Emerald Isle offering families a variety of activities, from simple toes in the sand to casting a line into the Atlantic from the Emerald Isle Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier, boating and paddling in the ocean and the Bogue Sound, as well as sightseeing.

Beyond the shoreline of Atlantic Beach sits Fort Macon State Park, a 398-acre state park that features a five-sided, brick-and-stone Civil War fort and adjacent museum worth an hour or two of exploration. A self-guided tour of the fort, first garrisoned in 1834, offers a glimpse of military life before, during and after the Civil War. Park Service personnel are on-site to provide information and demonstrations.

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Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores (Photo: NC Aquariums)

Another attraction worth taking a beach break for is the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores — the newest of the state's three aquariums offers five galleries showcasing the state's varied eco-systems and 3,000 aquatic species from the mountains to the coast. The centerpiece is the 306,000-gallon "Living Shipwreck" tank, that features a life-sized replica of a German U-352 submarine and Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge artifact replicas — all behind a 60-foot viewing window. The aquarium is situated within the 300-acre Roosevelt Maritime Forest.

Speaking of forests, if you are in the mood for a walk or bike ride in the shade, Emerald Isle's Woods Park offers 41 acres of canopied trails that takes you from the parking lot to the banks of the Bogue Sound. The park offers picnic sites, a floating dock, walking and hiking trails, and is part of the N.C. Bird Trail.

If just catching the warm solar rays and listening to the ocean suits all your needs, plenty of sand awaits your chair and towel. And remember, the sun rises and sets along the Crystal Coast.

More to see and do

This adventure doesn't cover all that the Crystal Coast offers. Visit www.crystalcoastnc.org or call (800) 786-6962 to find out more.

About the Author

Renee C. Gannon is the senior associate editor of Carolina Country.

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