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By Melissa Howsam and Lauren Kruchten
You’re not a true NC’er until you’re sporting a “Sanitary” tee from Sanitary Fish Market and Restaurant in Morehead City (indulge in its famed “deluxe shore dinner” while you’re at it). Or, if it’s your thing, fish the Big Rock (which is no rock at all)—a 35-mile hard-bottom stretch of agua southeast of Morehead in a “sweet spot of the Gulf Stream and the continental shelf” so famed for fishing that it hosts the annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament (one of the oldest, largest sporting fishing events in the country). Then there’s the rite of passage that is snacking on 70+ flavors of saltwater taffy from The Sweet Spot in Emerald Isle. And basking in the beauty of Beaufort (NC = BOW-firt; SC = BEW-furd), from strolling its charming downtown to a sunset cruise to casting a line in the famed fishing town. Not to be left out, probably the most visited of all: Atlantic Beach, dubbed by Coastal Living Magazine as one of the “Best Beaches”—nuff said. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a trip to the Crystal Coast—aka the “Southern Outer Banks”—without a beach day, which is best spent lazing in the sun on its 85 miles of NC shoreline. Life’s a beach!
Welcome to Pleasure Island—literally. Situated at the southern end (with Kure Beach), this casz coastal town is known for its salt air, seafood, dives and doughnuts. Hit up SeaWitch Cafe & Tiki Bar (aka hidden paradise) for fab food and open-air live tunes—then nurse your hangover at cult-status Britts Donut Shop (dubbed best doughnuts in NC by myriad renowned publications) before tying on a lil hair of the dog at beach shack-meets-dive bar The Fat Pelican’s sandy picnic area.
Rocky Mount Mills
Situated among the falls of the beautiful Tar River, Rocky Mount Mills is a destination unto itself. Not your “run-of-the-mill” mill, the development breathes new life into the historic cotton mill with River and Twine, a collection of 21 boutique tiny houses; hoppin’ breweries like HopFly Brewing Co. and TBC West Tacos & Taproom; top-notch restaurants like Tap @ 1918 and The Prime Smokehouse—plus a roster of ongoing events, from live music to trivia. So, in essence, plenty to keep you millin’ around.
Located just 30 minutes from Wrightsville—and just south of Carolina Beach—Wilmington Beaches’ quietest beach town is worth the extra drive time for the parking alone (you’ll find a lot more open spots here!). But also for its oceanfront park oasis; fam-friendly, no-alcohol-allowed Kure Beach Pier (the oldest fishing pier on the Atlantic Coast); fresh local seafood restaurants; and its proximity to the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.
This riverfront city near the coast (and, fun fact, NC’s first capital!) is a charming picturesque small town where “everything comes together”—i.e. over 300 years of history, waterfront eats and drinks at Persimmons Waterfront Restaurant, and lazy days by kayak via Stillwater Kayaks.
The shortest drive to the coast from the City of Oaks, Wrightsville is a local fave—from fam-friendly Johnnie Mercers Fishing Pier to beachside bites at Bluewater Waterfront Grill, or go-to beachfront boutique resort Blockade Runner and its EAST Oceanfront Dining resto (NTM poolside bevs, surf lessons and more). But you haven’t really done Wrightsville “wright” until you’ve been tipsy in casual watering hole Jimmy’s, wrecked at Red Dogs, or drunk in dive bar-meets-beach bar Lagerheads Tavern. And add King Neptunes (aka a WB staple and the oldest resto in New Hanover County) back to your beach bucket list when it reopens later this summer.
Sip + Stay
Peace, love and beer is Mother Earth Brewing’s MO, and you’ll find all that and more—including a literal devotion to the Earth!—at its 100% solar-powered Gold LEED-certified taproom (NTM all the old brick, wood, metal and steel were reused from the original structure) and beer garden—and at the Mother Earth Motor Lodge, a kitschy motor lodge reminiscent of the ’60s. So groovy!
Drink up at Social House’s speakeasy-style cocktail bar, The Pumphouse 1906, where edgy housemade cocktails showcase small-batch collections of craft spirits, infusions, syrups and bitters. And while you’re at it, take a tour of the Social House distillery too.
This treasure trove of sun, sand and seafood makes for an altogether blissful beach vacay. Get your seafood fix at the unassuming—yet legendary—Capt. Nance’s Seafood Restaurant, which boasts some of the best Calabash-style eats in the “Seafood Capital of the World.” Thirsty? Hit up Lonerider’s newest waterfront outpost on Oak Island for beer, spirits and snacks. And for those with a sweet tooth, you’re not gonna wanna pass up a homemade ice cream cone from Calabash Creamery. Cowabunga!
Life is better on a sandbar… and if 100+ miles of wide-open shoreline is wrong, we don’t wanna be right.
More than just lighthouses, history and home to the first flight, this mix of charming seaside villages and towns that is OBX is also a great place to get high—with kites that is. Its famed Jockey’s Ridge State Park is the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic Coast—perf for kite-flying, sunsets and ocean vistas. (Huge kite fans, be sure to “fly” in for the Outer Banks Kite Festival in September).
Aloha, OBX? Move over, Hawaii and Cali, on the East Coast, surf’s up on the Outer Banks’ big waves—renowned as the best surfing destination from Florida to New York—where surfers from all over the country flock to hang ten for the annual ESA Easterns Surfing Championships.
If “feet in the sand” is your vibe, the OBX is your oasis. Because these barrier islands (which separate the Atlantic Ocean from the NC mainland) are a chain of ever-shifting sandbars—and OBX has a lot of sand. Translation—wide beaches. Perf for long walks—or four-wheeling in Corolla where the road “ends,” either in your own vehicle, ATVs or via private tour. Added bonus: the wild horses. Oh, hayyy!
Duck never disappoints—case in point the pink haze and perfect “daze” on the Sunset Grille & Raw Bar patio. Go for the Caribbean-style seafood and waterfront setting. Stay for the Picasso-esque painted sky. (And, if you’re forever chasing sunsets, in Nags Head, head to Miller’s Waterfront for quite the golden happy hour.)
When it comes to seafood, OBX is “shrimply” the best. But one can’t-miss craving is, well, Cravings in the heart of Duck—Guy Fieri agrees, hence its spotlight on Diners Drive-ins and Dives. Besides the famed fresh-caught indoor/outdoor breakfast, lunch and dinner, the steamer pots to-go are also hot. If you’re feelin’ a lil white tablecloth, the award-winning Four Diamond fine dining Kimball’s Kitchen—housed in the famed Sanderling Resort—serves up stunning Currituck Sound and sunset views to match its Wine Spectator Award-winning vinos, handcrafted sips and fresh-caught local seafood.
Two ferries, 21 coastal villages and miles of stunning scenery in all directions? Yes, please. Dubbed one of the “most beautiful stretches of pavement—and water—in NC,” this Outer Banks Scenic Byway is made for the quintessential road trip—from lazy day adventures and weekend escapades alike.
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