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The North Carolina Coast Travel Guide

This Is the All-Time Greatest Summer Beach Vacation Destination in the U.S.

There is nothing more spectacular and endlessly entertaining for people of all ages than the uncomplicated fun of the beach–particularly those of SOBX. 

Depending on where you’re from, the Outer Banks of North Carolina are either a widely-known tourist attraction or an off-the-radar beach vacation destination. In the last 30 years, it’s become a hot spot for East Coast families looking to escape the summer sameness of the annual trip to the Jersey Shore or the Florida coastline. Spanning most of North Carolina’s coastline, the Outer Banks (or “OBX”, as bumper stickers up and down I-95 proclaim) are a string of peninsulas and barrier islands that mostly run down North Carolina’s Atlantic coastline until they abruptly jut west at the “The Crystal Coast” of the Southern Outer Banks (SOBX). And for those in the know, OBX’s popularity has given way to even more secluded, less famous SOBX. But to much of the rest of the U.S., they’re all just out-of-the-way, ordinary coastlines for surfers and locals. A beach is a beach, right? WRONG! The Crystal Coast is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. 

Cross That Bridge When You Come to It

It’s true the Crystal Coast is out-of-the-way. It takes an effort to get to the Southern Outer Banks–or really any of the beaches on the Outer Banks shoreline–and regardless of whether you’re flying to the nearest large airport (Wilmington International Airport is closest, about 85 miles south, Raleigh Durham International Airport is next at 150 miles west), you’ll need a car to take you across a bridge or ferry onto the southern facing barrier island beaches. And while some families consider long rides in the car torturous or inescapable, this particular road trip isn’t just about schlepping ourselves to vacationland–it’s all a part of the fun. 

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The nature of road trips is communal, and that’s what makes them so special for families together. The entire experience is shared, from the views to the tunes (kids have to take off their headphones at some point, right?), as each rider watches the outside go by. Road trips build excitement as speedometers track mileage markers, but the landmark of a SOBX road trip is the intracoastal waterway. The visual, and even more so, olfactory marker of your arrival in coastal paradise is the crossing of the sparkling blue Bogue Sound, which blasts the breezy, salty freshness of sea air that signals arousal like bacon in the morning. Many travelers opt to not only cross the sound in an effort to head to the beachfront, but indulge in sound fun, like watersports, fishing, and boating. But it is the bridges that serve as a welcome mat for the beach towns. Roll down your window and take a deep breath–vacation starts now. 


It’s perhaps this great effort that makes the Outer Banks slightly less knowable (and thus, the Southern Outer Banks practically off-the-radar) to the rest of the states, but it’s also what makes them special. It’s not an easy jaunt to get to this remote stretch of pristine beaches. You’ll need to want to go there. And because you want to go there, and you’re making an effort to do so, you build anticipation, which is perhaps one of the best parts of traveling. And that’s just the beginning. To start a vacation with everyone on the same page, building excitement as the destination literally comes into sight, creates a shared sense of adventure, anticipation, and togetherness. The optimism smells like salty sea air.

The Coast Is Clear 

The environmental landscape of the Outer Banks may not seem as awe-inspiring as, perhaps, a grand canyon or prismatic spring, but there’s a feeling of stepping onto protected land and knowing it is special. This coastal ecosystem is so pristine and the beaches are supremely unspoiled. And perhaps even more special about Crystal Coast’s environment is the negative space: what’s not there distracting you from the landscape. Commercial enterprise is practically nonexistent on SOBX’s oceanfront, so nothing detracts from the beauty of this particular stretch of nature. 

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Scenic Views of the Crystal CoastThe Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority

Like their desert sisters, beaches are peculiar natural wonders in that their seemingly “barren” landscape is teeming with life. The Crystal Coast’s dunes are strange and glorious wilderness: endless mounds of sand covered in sea grass and wild oats, with forests of gnarled live oak trees alongside holly, beach olive, and pine, shaped by years of stormy ocean winds. Scuttling crustaceans rush around sea turtle nests, as gulls, sandpipers, and shorebirds swoop and glide low to the shoreline. Just beyond the breaking waves, pods of dolphins lazily pop out of the sea, circle, breech, and call for each other. Above them, pelicans swoop and dive for dinner. These everyday matters of nature are both exciting and exquisite to witness in their ordinariness. No zoo bars or glass tanks to observe–just wilderness.  

INSIDER TIPMarine life isn’t the only fun animal spotting in the SOBX. On Shackleford Banks, you’ll spot feral mustang ponies, the descendants of equines brought by Spanish explorers more than 400 years ago. 

And there’s an extra special aspect of the Crystal Coast in that, while it’s an effort to get there, there’s no exclusive or elite access to the best parts of it. Go ahead and claim your shoreline space–there are numerous public beach accesses, each with ample parking, and no private beaches. Watch the waves from the deck of your rental home–there are no high-rise hotels to block your view–and watch the sun both rise and set, made possible due to the Crystal Coast east-west running horizon. And at night, the stars blink on with such luminous brilliance that you can imagine what’d it be like to be in the middle of the Atlantic, the cosmic cupola guiding you across the vast ocean. 

The World Is Your Oyster 

That’s not to say there’s nothing but scenery to enjoy on the Southern Outer Banks. There are a variety of restaurants and attractions along the islands’ main “highway,” NC 58. Mini-golf, movie theaters, water parks, and other rainy-day filler fun welcome travelers of all ages. Explore quaint Beaufort, a town so idyllic it’s recognized for inspiring myriad romance novels. The SOBX vibe is nostalgic and sanguine rather than overwhelmingly commercial, creating an atmosphere that delights children and relaxes adults. 

Local restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores offer the same laid-back, door-always-open, come-one-come-all ambiance. Families are universally welcome across establishments, and most feature local, freshly caught seafood and snacks. There’s everything from shrimp tacos from the beloved food truck Shark Island Eats to crabcakes and country boils at Billfish Grill and Bar

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The Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority;Brad Styron

For the more active set of beachgoers, the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is undoubtedly a traveler’s (and especially a family) favorite. Besides the typical viewing visit of tanks and terrariums, this aquarium provides hands-on opportunities like beachcombing; standup paddleboard exploration through Bogue Sound; fishing, kayaking, and canoeing trips; and even a sea turtle trek to visit an actual beach nest. While the sight of all that varied sealife might cause some awe and wonder, others might hear their bellies rumble at the thought of all that fresh seafood and the opportunity to catch it. The Crystal Coast is ripe with fishing opportunities that range from angling at the 1,000-foot Oceanana Pier in Atlantic Beach to deep-sea ocean fishing charters to inshore fishing in the marshes of the sound. You can even surf fish wherever you feel like setting your cooler. 

The Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority

And for those looking to level up their beach-vibes road-trip experience, add UTV riding to the docket. The Island Express Ferry–a subdued yet adventurous ride in itself–takes visitors to Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Shackleford Banks, gorgeously uninhabited designated national seashores (public lands operated by the National Parks Service). Incredibly enough, the shores here are even more pristine, the waves even calmer, the swimming and fishing bays clear as crystal (as their nickname moniker suggests), and the masses practically nonexistent. Rent a UTV and find your own secret cove to claim or explore Cape Lookout’s lighthouse or the abandoned houses of Portsmouth Village. Whatever you do, the gang is together and all in. Enjoy the panoramas and embrace the togetherness. 

NCTraveler23 July 4, 2023

We love the Crystal Coast! My husband spent his high school years near Atlantic Beach and learned to surf there. Years later on a NC lighthouse tour with our kids, we spent a day at Cape Lookout National Seashore and fell in love with the area. The boat ride over was a learning experience as our captain was a high school science teacher. We not only got to see the wild horses but hear about their history. 2 years later, we went back but took our car over on the ferry and spent the day shelling and playing in the water. Those are some of my favorite memories with our kids. We love Beautfort as well, and this article has inspired me to plan a trip back. It's quite a drive from western NC but well worth the trip!