A Family-Friendly Wildlife Tour of the North Carolina Coast

North Carolina is truly a natural playground. For endless animal adventures on and off the water, plan a 3-day family getaway to our central coast. It’s here in the charming towns of Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores, Jacksonville and Surf City where you’ll enjoy aquariums, a sea turtle center, a zoo and a boat tour.

Day 1: Enter Atlantis

Amos Mosquito's in Atlantic Beach

The word “Atlantis” conjures the image of a paradise fit for royalty, and the view at Atlantis Lodge in Pine Knoll Shores surely fits the bill. Yet, the vintage beach lodge itself is a playground for families, thanks to pools, hot tubs and lots of on-site activities like kayaks, beach toys and more. Bonus: Many rooms have kitchens, which can help you save a little dough and opt for leisurely mornings over home-cooked pancakes and omelets on your balcony overlooking the Crystal Coast.

After checking in, head to Salty Air Open Market to stroll the stalls filled with fresh produce, unique crafts and ready-made po’ boys perfect to grab and go or eat while you browse. Then, head to Paddle NC’s Hammocks Beach State Park tour rendezvous point to spend time on Emerald Isle’s water. Tours depart at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., and children under 15 must ride in a tandem kayak with an adult (paddleboard and half-/full-day tours also available).

Families, pat yourself on the back for a first day of vacation well done and head to Amos Mosquito’s Restaurant & Bar in Atlantic Beach for its fun atmosphere, reasonable prices, No. 1 ranking on TripAdvisor and make-at-the-table s’mores. If you start your getaway on a Thursday night, don’t miss the karaoke.

Day 2: Eco-Hop Around the Crystal Coast

Marsh Boardwalk at North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

Gear up for a fun-filled day with a quick stop at The Spouter Inn’s bakery. This waterfront restaurant opens its bakery early, so visitors can get the most out of their day exploring the area’s ecosystem and marine life. Grab a table at the outdoor seating area, or grab-and-go so you can get to the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. Experiences at the aquarium include: Loggerhead Odyssey, Little Minnows Play Area, Living Shipwreck with diver interaction, Queen Anne’s Revenge Feeding Program, Creature Connection, outdoor programs such as marsh exploration and canoeing, and much more.

Onward! Today is not the day for a leisurely lunch – there’s just too much to do and see. And since a family vacation isn’t complete without a pizza pit stop, hit Luigi’s on your way to Fort Macon State Park in Atlantic Beach for a waterfront pizza party. Spend the rest of the daylight hours on a customized ecotour or boat tour with Crystal Coast Ecotours’ Captain Hawkins, whose fun-meets-smart educational trips have earned him a 5-star reputation. Dinner means a chance to experience Eastern North Carolina’s thriving barbecue tradition at White Swan Bar-B-Q. Choose from pork, ribs, shrimp, flounder and chicken doused with a vinegar and spice sauce to bring out the meat’s smoky flavor, served alongside traditional sides.

Day 3: End Your Trip on a Sure-Fire High Note

Sea Turtle at Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue & Rehabilitation Center
photo: Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center

Today’s pace will be set by a leisurely brunch at The Island Grille, which serves shrimp and gouda grits, surf-n-turf benedicts and a key lime pie that demands dessert with breakfast. But don’t feel guilty; there’s plenty of exploring to do today on foot. Start at the Lynnwood Park Zoo in Jacksonville for more up-close animal encounters that will delight visitors of all ages. The 10-acre zoo has 80 animal exhibits focused on mammals, reptiles, birds and more.

Next, make your way to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City, a nonprofit staffed by volunteers who take care of about 40 sick or injured sea turtles at a time. The center is open to the public April through December and is a great educational opportunity during your time at the beach. Later, squeeze in one more meal at River View Cafe (hush puppies, fried scallops, catfish) or Lo-re-Lei Pub & Grill (crab balls, deviled crab) before saying “goodbye for now.”

Updated November 13, 2018
About the Author
Shawndra Russell

Shawndra Russell

Shawndra Russell, a travel writer and novelist based in Asheville, loves North Carolina for its craft beer and abundance of outdoor adventures. She's written for Forbes Travel Guide, BeerAdvocate and Travel + Leisure.

Top of Page