With 300 miles of barrier-island beaches to choose from, North Carolina's coastal destinations vary. From the Outer Banks in the north to the Brunswick Islands in the south, here are five cities and towns – with riverfronts and beaches – where you'll wish you could stay all summer.
1 Cheers to the Coast: New Bern
1 Cheers to the Coast: New BernAlbemarle & Pamlico SoundsSee on map
You’ll discover that our coastal cities and towns like New Bern are filled with acclaimed restaurants and wineries. Dine al fresco at Persimmons Waterfront Restaurant, overlooking the Neuse River. Fill your days with visits to Tryon Palace and the North Carolina History Center, wander through the spectacular gardens, historic homes and quaint shops of downtown, and stop by the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola.
2 Land on the River: Wilmington
2 Land on the River: WilmingtonSouthern CoastSee on map
Indulge all your senses in Wilmington and its island beaches. Downtown is an experience all its own, from the streets lined with restaurants, bars and shops, to the scenic Riverwalk where you can catch boat tours along the Cape Fear River. Among the many places you'll want to eat are The George on the Riverwalk, for incomparable views; Fork N Cork, a small dining spot that’s big on taste; and Caprice Bistro, a perfect date night choice. Plus, at any moment, you can take a 20- to 30-minute drive to one of the three nearby beaches: Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach – or stay at the beach and make the reverse trip to the city.
3 Leave Worries Behind: Bald Head Island
3 Leave Worries Behind: Bald Head IslandBrunswick IslandsSee on map
Bald Head Island is only a 20-minute ferry ride from Southport and the mainland, but it feels a world away. While lush nature preserves cover more than 80 percent of the island, there’s still room for the lodging, activities and amenities to make your vacation memorable. The island has its own transportation system, and cars are prohibited. So park yours in secure lots at the mainland terminal, board the ferry and prepare for an incredible retreat. Enjoy tours of nature with Bald Head Island Conservancy, including the Turtle Walks you can only experience in summer. Climb to the top of Old Baldy Lighthouse, and make it part of a larger experience by going on the Bald Head Island Historic Tour. The island features 14 miles of pristine beaches, where you can watch both a sunrise and sunset.
4 Beach Retreat: Nags Head
4 Beach Retreat: Nags HeadOuter BanksSee on map
Nags Head is the quintessential Outer Banks town – a symbiotic mix of land and sea with plenty of natural and cultural attractions. Treasures around Nags Head include Jockey's Ridge State Park, which boasts one of the loftiest active sand dune systems in the eastern United States. It's also one of the planet's premier locations for learning to hang glide. Kitty Hawk Kites, just across from the dunes, offers hang-gliding lessons as well as kayak tours, dolphin tours, and guides for wakeboarding and stand-up paddleboarding. But it doesn't have to all be adventurous, especially when a great variety of vacation rentals puts you steps away from beach relaxation.
5 Pretty Small Town: Edenton
5 Pretty Small Town: EdentonAlbemarle & Pamlico SoundsSee on map
Make this summer historic in more ways than one by heading to Edenton, which earns the distinction of being one of “America’s Prettiest Small Towns.” Beautifully preserved historical homes tell the story of 300 years of history, while a vibrant downtown district offers modern shops and restaurants to visitors and locals alike. Visit the Chowan County Courthouse, built in 1767, or the 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse that overlooks Edenton Bay. When hunger strikes, make sure to stop by the Herringbone – it's originally a 19th-century herring icehouse that serves American cuisine and wood-fired pizzas today.