There's never a wrong time to plan summer adventures on the North Carolina coast. Whether you're planning a family reunion or a romantic getaway, you can have your pick of quiet beaches and coastal communities, history, lighthouses, outdoor activities, golf and, of course, fresh seafood.
While each region offers plenty to see and do during your trip to the beach, you can also match your vacation style and interests to specific spots along our 300 miles of shoreline.
Here are some ideas for how to plan a North Carolina beach vacation tailor-made for you.
1 History and Lighthouses
1 History and LighthousesOuter BanksSee on map
Beloved for decades as a classic North Carolina beach destination, the Outer Banks provide great places to explore our state’s coastal history and lighthouses. Depending on your interests, Outer Banks history can be found at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, Roanoke Island Festival Park, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum and even the wild horses that still roam the beaches of Currituck after 500 years.
Lighting the way to boats and ships for more than a century, the lighthouses on the Outer Banks and Currituck are pieces of history that are open to the public. Four of North Carolina’s seven coastal lighthouses are situated on the Outer Banks. In order from north to south, you can visit Currituck Beach Light Station, Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Ocracoke Lighthouse. In season, you can also climb all but Ocracoke.
2 Fresh Seafood
2 Fresh SeafoodThe Crystal CoastSee on map
The Crystal Coast is a great place to head when you’re passionate about all things fishy, whether that means maritime history, fishing or fresh seafood. Those hungry for history will want to head to the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, which explores shipwrecks along the coast. Fishing on the Crystal Coast also remains popular with those hungry for fresh fish.
Local seafood is on the menu at many restaurants along the Crystal Coast, including local favorites such as Amos Mosquito’s, SoundSide and Circa 81, as well as at several seafood shops that have a loyal following with both locals and veteran visitors. Whether you’re perusing menus at a local restaurant or the laundry list of seafood sold at local shops and grocery stores, your best bet is to look for the Carteret Catch logo. That way you’ll know it’s fresh seafood from the Crystal Coast.
Further afield in either direction, all of North Carolina’s coastline provides bountiful opportunities to enjoy just-caught fish, just-netted shrimp, fresh oysters and other local seafood possibilities. That includes restaurants with local catches on the menus and seafood shops featuring numerous options for preparation at your rental house or once you’re back home, which makes for a tasty North Carolina souvenir to savor after your vacation.
3 Keep it Quiet
3 Keep it QuietTopsail IslandSee on map
Topsail Island has long been known as one of North Carolina’s quieter coastal destinations for good reason. The island is truly a throwback to earlier times, when spending most of the day on the beach, playing a game of miniature golf and going out for ice cream provided all the activity needed for those so inclined.
Today, Topsail Island is still beloved as a quiet destination, both on the beach and inland. Even the turtles like how quiet it is, returning year after year to lay their eggs on the island’s peaceful beaches. Those interested in gentle giants will definitely want to head to Topsail Island’s Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center.
4 Beaches + City
4 Beaches + CityWilmingtonSee on map
Perhaps no other area on the East Coast is as lively when it comes to outdoor adventures on, under and near the water as Wilmington and Carolina, Kure and Wrightsville beaches. The options for outdoor island fun seem almost endless in this area, including surfing, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), kitesurfing, kayaking and other boating options; deep sea, surf and inland fishing; scuba diving and more. Dog owners who enjoy adventures with their best friends will be happy to know the area’s beaches are especially dog-friendly from October to March.
This area offers everything you love about a beach vacation, plus a city, too. Fronting the Cape Fear River, Wilmington offers historic places and timeless character. Choices include wandering the river district, visiting Battleship North Carolina, shopping, nightlife and varied movie tours around town. Visitors can take walking tours to see locations featured in movies and TV shows such as Iron Man 3, several Nicholas Sparks books that were made into movies, Sleepy Hollow, Under the Dome, One Tree Hill, Dawson's Creek and more.
5 GolfBrunswick IslandsSee on map
Though there’s good golf to be enjoyed all along the coast and inland, the Brunswick Islands have a plethora of championship courses with lots of warm-weather tee times. There are more than 30 courses open to the public, offering various views and challenges to golfers in search of top coastal play.
Book a round at Tiger's Eye or Leopard's Chase, two of the Big Cats Golf Courses of Ocean Ridge Plantation. Both regularly make the North Carolina Golf Panel's annual list of top 100 courses and are open to the public. Or, if you're feeling adventurous, hit Farmstead Golf Links in Calabash, the only place in the world where you’ll find a Par 6 so long you tee off in one state and putt in another.
Of course, after one or two rounds, many duffers and their non-golfing family and friends head to famed Calabash, where you have the pick of restaurants offering Calabash-style fried seafood. The town’s distinctive fried seafood has had a loyal following since the 1930s.