NORTH CAROLINA, The Crystal Coast with Kids – South of the summer crowds collecting on North Carolina’s better-known Outer Banks lies an 85-mile stretch of lesser-known shoreline that’s making a name for itself—a new name in fact. No longer satisfied to simply be dismissed as “the Southern Outer Banks,” the Crystal Coast is indeed a world unto itself with 56 miles of protected National Seashore, barrier islands where wild horses roam free, its own postcard-worthy Cape Lookout Lighthouse, and pristine waters lapping at wide sand beaches. And being home to charming historic towns like Beaufort, recently named America’s No. 1 Small Town by Travel + Leisure and America’s Coolest Small Town by Budget Travel, isn’t hurting anything. As I recently discovered, there is a lot to like about North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, especially for families. If you’d like to get acquainted with the region, here are my top four recommended activities for experiencing this special place, along with recommendations for one great place to eat and one great place to stay while visiting the Crystal Coast with kids.
Activity 1: Ferry Over to Cape Lookout National Seashore
There’s no better way to see the barrier islands of the Crystal Coast than by boat, and the passenger ferry ride from historic Beaufort to Cape Lookout will give you the chance to cruise right through them, most likely with sightings of the wild horses of Shackleford Banks along the way, and possibly dolphins and sea turtles, too. Once you land at at Cape Lookout, you’ll have the opportunity to climb the 207-step “Diamond Lady” for dazzling views of Cape Lookout National Seashore’s white sand beaches and sailboat-dotted waters (that’s the view from the top in the lead photo). The climb begins with a safety talk, and large purses and backpacks must be left below with the ranger, but don’t worry too much–the climb may be easier than you think (see my videos below for the full scoop). After your climb, reward your troop with a hearty picnic and refreshing cold drinks on the beach. Bring sand toys, sunscreen, a small ice chest, and your usual beach favorites. There is a potable water bottle refill station at the restrooms, too, so bring your favorite reusables along for the ride. Find out more: http://www.islandexpressferryservices.com/
Tip: Shelling enthusiasts will find some great treasures here, but they may also want to catch the island shuttle to “the best shelling beach” there–ask your Park Ranger for details and departure times.
Activity 2: Visit the aquarium
Who would have guessed that North Carolina’s single largest aquarium is located on its petite Emerald Isle? But while the 306,000-gallon “living shipwreck” tank with its spectacular sharks and educational dive shows is a delight to watch in its own right (check schedule for daily dive program & feedings), and petting the sting rays in their touch pond and watching the jellyfish dance is not to be missed, there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes here that may be of interest, too. As one of North Carolina’s four non-profit aquariums dedicated to protecting the coast’s most vulnerable creatures, the aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores helps educate visitors about and tell the stories of many creatures they rescue and rehabilitate right there. In fact, the aquarium’s sea turtle nursery helps nurture roughly 200 struggling hatchlings each year and cares for them until they are ready for release. If your children are especially keen on marine life and marine biology, be sure to check out the aquarium’s behind-the-scenes tours for kids 5 years and older, and even an “Aquarist Apprentice” opportunity for kids 13 years and older. Find out more: See my friend Debbra Dunning Brouillette’s feature and additional photos of the aquarium and visit the official site at www.ncaquariums.com/pine-knoll-shores
Activity 3: Kayak or SUP the Sound
Protected by Bogue Banks and other barrier islands, Bogue Sound offers up its sheltered waters as a haven for bird lovers and boaters alike. Whether you want a guided ECO tour by paddle board and/or kayak or a kayak fishing tour through the area–or if you prefer a self-guided SUP or kayak tour at your own pace, Hot Wax Surf Shop can help you plan and enjoy a great paddle with your family. Rentals are offered on an hourly basis, by the half day, and also with multi-day packages, and delivery is also available. Interested in SUP or surfing lessons? They’ve got you covered there, too, with group lessons for those 7 years through adult, private lessons for those who prefer (including kids younger than 7), and surfing camps for kids. Find out more: www.hotwaxsurf.com
Tip: Because oyster beds are found throughout Bogue Sound, water shoes or sport sandals are recommended for paddling activities. Come prepared!
Activity 4: Hit the Beach
With so many other fun activities, don’t forget to carve out several healthy doses of beach time for your visit. The 86-mile stretch of “Crystal Coast” has lovely, uncrowded sand beaches–and loads of sea-shelling hot spots–throughout. And along Bogue Banks, at the heart of the Crystal Coast, the Atlantic beaches face south for marvelous sunrises at one end of the beach and sunsets at the other. If you find yourself in the Emerald Isle neighborhood, don’t miss your chance to stroll the landmark Bogue Inlet Pier shown above.
1 Great Place to Eat: Amos Mosquito’s
If you pull your hair out over menus that offer just way too many good sounding seafood dishes to choose from–especially with a southern twist, you might want to bring a trustworthy friend to choose for you when you visit Amos Mosquito’s Restaurant and Bar (or wear a very tight-fitting hat). Whether you start with the warm-and-cheesy lobster dip, baked oysters, or seared local yellowfin tuna, it will not make it any easier to choose your entree to follow. But with kids in tow, you’re likely to land upon a dessert course decision with ease: s’mores roasted right at your table. If seafood isn’t everyone’s thing, not to worry. There are other temptations on both adult and kid menus (you can view both online). Amos Mosquito’s opens for dinner at 5 p.m. seven nights a week. Find out more: www.amosmosquitos.com
1 Great Place to Stay: Dune View, a Bluewater Vacation Rental
If you’re at all interested in renting a beach house, townhouse, or condo on the Crystal Coast, do yourself a favor and take a look at those available through Bluewater Vacation Rentals–they manage roughly 900 vacation rentals from Beaufort and on through Emerald Isle and Atlantic Beach. And if you’re planning a big multi-family get-together or reunion, take a look “Dune View,” this 8-bedroom, 10.5-bathroom beachfront home where I stayed in the Emerald Isle area near Bogue Inlet Pier. Not only is there plenty of space for multiple families to sprawl–yet maintain some privacy, but there’s also a swimming pool with poolside tiki bar and hot tub, game room with pool table, and extra kitchen in the basement (if I’ve done my math right, it sleeps up to 18 people in beds–plus there’s a crib in one of the rooms). There is even an elevator to accommodate those who don’t do stairs, those who do use strollers, and those who just want to make good use of it for getting the luggage to the upper levels. 😉 You can walk through Dune View with me in my video below, and see rates on this and other vacation rentals on their site. Find out more: http://www.bluewaternc.com
Thanks to the Crystal Coast Tourism Authority for hosting my stay. For more help planning your own visit to the Crystal Coast with kids, visit www.crystalcoastnc.org. For more North Carolina family travel recommendations click here.
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