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North Carolina is home to some of America’s most beautiful beaches. Whether you’re looking for a beach that offers scenic beauty along with lots of things to do, or simply an ideal spot for soaking up the sun and the sand, these beaches are for you.
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Holden Beach is an ideal destination for families, as one of five barrier islands that make up the Brunswick Islands off the North Carolina coast. While the pristine sands are uncrowded, even on busy summer days, visitors can enjoy a host of activities. It’s an ideal launching point for kayaking, fishing, sailing, and surfing, as well as making a perfect getaway for families who want to spread out the beach blanket, pop up the umbrella and kick back to take in the scene. Watch the shrimp boats that travel up and down the waterway, look for dolphins that play in the surf, and keep an eye out for the endangered loggerhead sea turtles that frequent the area. Ghost crabs can even be seen in the sand if you bring out a flashlight after dark. Beachcombers often discover a number of treasures too, as the gradual slope ensures small finds can easily and regularly wash up without breaking, and it’s not unusual to find a collection of small oyster drillers, periwinkles, augers, scallops, and colorful coquina clams with every incoming low or high tide.
Shackleford Banks, a 9-mile ribbon of silken sands, is popular for shelling, as one of the East Coast’s best destinations for beachcombing, but the most unforgettable part of a visit here are the horses that race along the sands. An entire herd of them roam wild, and it’s said they’ve been here for 400 years. This unique historic and cultural legacy of the Crystal Coast region is descended from a core group of Spanish mustangs of the earliest explorers of Colonial America. The herd is made up of some 225 horses that are the only inhabitants of this southernmost of the Outer Banks barrier island chain. Visitors can also enjoy close encounters with an albino sea turtle and playful otters at the Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, then enjoy a night under the stars with a camping adventure at Cape Lookout National Seashore nearby.
Part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Coquina Beach is totally unspoiled and undeveloped, offering a tranquil experience, yet it’s close enough to the towns of Nags Head and Kitty Hawk that visitors will have easy access to a variety of amenities, including restaurants, bars, and shops. Considered by locals to be the most beautiful beach in the Outer Banks, it’s also home to the 1921 shipwreck, Laura Barnes, and a few pieces of the ship still remain. It’s a popular beach for swimming, and especially for surf fishing, with a good chance of reeling in a bluefish, mullet, or other local catches. Surfing and body boarding is excellent following an offshore hurricane or nor’easter, which produces a local swell. It’s also perfect just for reveling in the scenery in peace, enjoying practically endless stretches of sand from the ocean to the natural dune line.
Wrightsville Beach is made up of two islands that are easily accessible from the mainland. Especially popular with surfers, Wrightsville was named one of the best surf towns in the world by National Geographic. If you want to learn how to ride the waves, you’ll have access to some of the best pro instructors in the world. The Wrightsville Beach Family Surfcamp offers instruction tailored for beginners, and with water temperatures in the summer typically idyllic, in the low 80s, you won’t even need a wetsuit, and the waves are outstanding for those just getting the hang of the sport. If a surfboard isn’t your thing, you can explore Intracoastal Waterway on a standup paddleboard, or book a boating adventure through Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours, with everything from trips out to Masonboro Island and sunset harbor cruises available. On land, you might bike the Wrightsville Beach Loop Trail or explore the town on foot, checking out the surf shops, open-air villages, and boutiques.
Want to forget about the buzz of your smartphone for a while and truly get away? Bald Head Island is a 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland town of Southport and feels as if it’s light years away from the “real world”. With 14 miles of uncrowded, pristine stretches of sand it is the ultimate spot for a relaxing vacation destination. It’s the perfect place to forget about your worries, enjoy lounging in the sun or take part in all sorts of outdoor adventures and recreational activities like golfing on a seaside course, paddling hidden creeks in a kayak or surfing, paddle boarding or sailing in the surrounding waters. Deep sea fishing is outstanding too. People get around by golf cart rather than cars, which makes the roads perfect for biking and walking too. The island’s eateries offer a range of dining experiences, from romantic fine dining to casual, barefoot dinners by the water.
Part of the Crystal Coast located on the Bogue Banks, Emerald Isle Beach does have a number of homes and a few condos on its oceanfront, but there are no hotels, so it has a quieter, more family-friendly feel. Mostly protected from outside development, there is an abundance of flora and fauna that thrives here, and it’s fabulous for enjoying a host of activities, from kayaking, fishing paddle boarding and diving to golfing and scenic nature hikes. There are a number of museums nearby along with a wealth of attractions for the kids, including Water Boggan, Playland, and Emerald Forest Putt-Putt.
Topsail is a long, thin stretch of land just south of Camp Lejeune. Its shape means the beach is on both sides, so you can enjoy the warm Atlantic waters on one, ideal for swimming or splashing around with the kids, or the calmer inlet side for kayaking and fishing. While Topsail is filled with all sorts of enticing activities for everyone, it also has a wonderfully laid-back atmosphere. When you want to take a break from the beach, you’ll find the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center housed here, it cares for sea turtles who’ve been injured or are ill, and is open to the public for visits. You can also check out the island’s past as a test rocket launching site at the Missiles and More Museum, and enjoy the outstanding local nightlife at popular beach bars and lounges like the Brass Pelican tavern, where locals and visitors alike enjoy sipping a cold brew on the outdoor deck under the stars.
Ocracoke Island, the outermost island in the Outer Banks, is home to 16 miles of undeveloped wild beaches as part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The island attracts those who are seeking wide-open spaces for relaxing as well as for enjoying activities like boogie boarding, surfing, kite flying and sandcastle building, as well as wildlife viewing, with the beach and surrounding area home to a wide range of wildlife, including over 400 species of birds and wild ponies. The Ocracoke Lighthouse is one of the island’s most popular attractions – the oldest operating lighthouse on the east coast and the second oldest in the entire nation, it can be seen throughout the village of Ocracoke. If you’re into shelling, head to North Point where everything from Scotch bonnets and sand dollars to tiny, butterfly-like coquinas can be discovered.
Carolina Beach offers an old-fashioned kind of beach vacation with its vintage boardwalk that hosts live music, an arcade, a number of eateries, ice cream stands, gift shops, and rides and games along the strip during the summer. Visitors can cast a line from the wooden beer, hike beach trails, ride the waves on a surfboard or get out on the water on a stand-up paddleboard. Carolina Beach hosts frequent music festivals on the sand and is also close to the Fort Fisher State Historic Site and Civil War Museum, two of the state’s most visited attractions. Those who want to party will have plenty of options too, including local favorites like Fat Pelican, named one of the top dive bars in the nation, as well as The Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar, named one of America’s best beach bars.