How to Have an Adventurous 3-Day Vacation on the Pristine Waters of the Crystal Coast

Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Cape Lookout National Seashore. Susan Sharpless Smith
Made Possible by
Curated by

Aptly named for the clarity of its stunning water, North Carolina’s Crystal Coast serves up one of the most spectacular stretches of shoreline on the Atlantic. Featuring 85 miles of coastline, fringed with an eclectic smattering of barrier islands just offshore, the Crystal Coast offers paddlers a buffet of adventures on the water. Even better, on dry land the Crystal Coast offers charming towns, waterfront eateries, and plenty of local lore—once dubbed the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the area was once a regular haunt of the pirate Blackbeard. Adventures are ample all along the Crystal Coast, but here’s one way to spend 72 hours during a long weekend getaway.

Day One

Where to Get Caffeinated: Begin in Beaufort, one of the state’s oldest colonial towns. Kick off the day with an invigorating dose of caffeine at the Beaufort Coffee Shop, serving up freshly brewed Costa Rican coffee, breakfast pastries, and artisan-crafted chocolates.

Hit the Water: Then, spend the morning exploring the crown jewel of the Crystal Coast, Cape Lookout National Seashore, one of the wildest stretches of shoreline on the East Coast. If you need a kayak or SUP, plan a detour to Beaufort Paddle or Down East Kayaks (both also offer multi-day rentals). Next, head for the Cape Lookout National Seashore Visitor Center on Harkers Island, accessible via the Outer Banks Scenic Byway. For an ambitious paddling tour, make the 4.9-mile trip across Back Sound to the iconic Cape Lookout Lighthouse, first lit in November 1859. Along the way, plan a pit stop on the eastern edge of Shackleford Banks. If you linger long enough, you might just catch sight of the roving bands of wild horses occupying the windswept barrier island, descendants of animals washed ashore from shipwrecked Spanish vessels.

If the jaunt to the lighthouse is a little too lofty a goal, opt for a tamer paddling trip by launching from the Straits Landing Boat Ramp, near the Harkers Island Bridge. Explore the avifauna-rich North River Estuary or continue to the shallow waters of Goose Bay for a longer excursion.

Where to Unwind: Not quite ready to leave the water yet? Opt for sundowners overlooking Taylor Creek at at the Front Street Grill in Beaufort. The venue has both an indoor restaurant and a waterfront bar that offers a menu featuring everything from surf-and-turf to southern-style comfort food. Ready for some time indoors instead? The Beaufort Grocery is not actually a purveyor of dry goods, but an elegant bistro with sophisticated menu serving everything from locally inspired Carolina crab cakes to a New York strip steak prepared Korean barbecue style.

Day Two

Where to Fuel Up: Fuel up for the day in Morehead City, just west of Beaufort. Sweet Beans Coffee and Cafe provides a quick caffeine fix and the extensive to-go menu, with everything from breakfast sandwiches to protein shakes. For heartier fare, The Banks Grille is an excellent spot featuring a full breakfast menu, including homemade jam on fresh biscuits. Other favorites include omelettes, breakfast burritos and its take on eggs benedict, the Lighthouse Benedict, which features deviled crab cakes.

Hit the Water: After breakfast, head for the sliver of land known as Bogue Banks, just across the water from Morehead City. If you need to grab a kayak or SUP, swing by the Hot Wax Surf Shop in Emerald Isle. For a leisurely paddle, launch from the dock in Emerald Isle Woods Park or the Cedar Street Park and warm up with a stint on the Intracoastal Waterway. For a longer excursion and the opportunity to explore some of the Crystal Coast’s interior waterways, head for the Cedar Point Recreation Area and hop on the 100-mile Saltwater Adventure Trail. From Cedar Point, you can delve into the wildlife-rich waters of the White Oak River on the 17.2-mile White Oak River Paddle Trail. For more information on paddling the White Oak River, check out the White Oak-New Riverkeeper Alliance.

Spend the afternoon relaxing on the beach at Fort Macon State Park. Before spreading a towel on the sand, take some time to explore the 183-year-old stronghold once charged with defending Beaufort from roving pirates and hostile foreign fleets.

Where to Unwind: After a day of paddling, head back to Morehead City for some well-deserved R&R. If you’re after artful cocktails with a trendy backdrop, head for the Arendell Room. Just want a nice, cold beer? Head for Morehead City’s brewery, Tight Lines Pub and Brewing Company, and sample from the joint’s lengthy tap list.

Need some fresh seafood to complete your time at the coast? Morehead City has plenty of options. Savor fresh, locally sourced seafood at the Bistro-by-the-Sea, or head for the hidden gem La Perla, which features Spanish/Latin inspired cuisine with southern influences. The restaurant, located off-the-beaten-path in a residential neighborhood of Morehead City, offers a seasonal menu with fish specials dependent on the day’s catch.

Day Three

Where to Fuel Up: Prepare to seize the day at Stir it Up in Emerald Isle, serving up organic, fair-trade coffee and an eclectic spread of breakfast goodies, including vegan and vegetarian options.

Hit the Water: Ready to ride some waves? Bogue Banks features plenty of public beach access and you can scour the shore for perfect surf spot. Grab a board or brush up with surf lessons at the Hot Wax Surf Shop in Emerald Isle or the Atlantic Beach Surf Shop in Atlantic Beach. Rather catch some wind instead? Blown Kiteboarding in Newport and Carolina Kitesurfing in Emerald Isle offer both kiteboarding lessons and local excursions.

Where to Unwind: After a day in the sun, stick around Bogue Banks. Unwind at one of the area’s more unique relaxation destinations, Harrika’s Brew Haus in Cedar Point, a purveyor of both craft beer and tea, featuring a revolving draft beer menu, an open-air biergarten, and a garage bar. Or grab a beer and a buttery Bavarian pretzel at the Idle Hour Biergarten in Atlantic Beach.

Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated in partnership with Crystal Coast NC.

Last Updated:

Next Up


Things Are Looking Up: The 6 Best Places to Catch a Nighttime Star Show Along the Crystal Coast


From Beach to Brew: 5 Places to Unwind After a Day on the Sand