By Peggy Sijswerda
Like a shimmering mirage, the wild horses of Shackleford Banks seem to float on the waters of Bogue Sound, their heads bent over as they graze on salty sea grass. On this, the southern-most barrier island in Cape Lookout National Seashore, Cape Lookout Lighthouse rises as a sentinel, guarding this peaceful kingdom, its distinctive pattern of black-and-white diamonds visible for miles.
About 90 minutes north of Wilmington, miles of gorgeous sandy beaches welcome tourists to North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, attracted by the area’s serene beauty, natural landscape, and affordably priced accommodations.
You won’t find crowds of people converging in one spot. In fact, the Crystal Coast stretches for 70 miles from Swansboro in the west to Cedar Island in the east and includes idyllic beach havens such as Emerald Isle, Indian Beach, and Atlantic Beach, as well as cozy towns such as Morehead City and Beaufort. Its vibe is low-key, perfect for those who want to experience small-town charm and a restful escape from the hectic pace of life.
1. View bands of wild horses. Bogue Sound is one of the many spots to view the Crystal Coast’s wild horses up close as they roam their uninhabited island, wading and sometimes swimming to tiny spits of land for tasty grasses. The thriving band of horses’ ancestors likely came across the Atlantic on Spanish galleons 300 years ago. The horses have names ranging from the literary (Homer, Zelda, Shakespeare, and Penelope) to the playful (Aftermath, Tuna, and Texas). A group of Princeton students led by professor D.I. Rubenstein maintains a database of the horses, which number more than 100. Boats ferry folks over from the mainland to view the horses en route to Cape Lookout National Seashore.
2. Explore Cape Lookout National Seashore. Here you can spend an afternoon hiking, swimming and bird watching. The National Park Service gives tours of the stunning lighthouse, its 207 steps not for the faint of heart. The view from the top includes the sparkling Atlantic, the horses of Shackleford Banks, and the remote windswept beaches, which makes the climb worthwhile.
3. Take a family-friendly adventure. The whole family can take a tour with Barrier Island Kayaks . For two hours, your group can paddle around the sound, ending up at Fossil Beach, known for its abundance of fossilized shark teeth. Purportedly 6 million years old, they are amazing souvenirs to treasure. Or head over to the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, which takes visitors on a journey from the mountains to the sea. Exhibits focus on fish and mammals indigenous to both the fresh and saltwater ecosystems of North Carolina, including river otters, alligators, and tropical fish.
4. Check out some local culture. Blackbeard pirated these waters, and his ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, ran aground in Beaufort Inlet. You’ll find an exhibit featuring artifacts recovered from the shipwreck in the Maritime Museum in Beaufort. You can also take a trolley tour and learn about the city’s storied past. Civil War buffs can explore nearby Fort Macon State Park, a pentagonal fort that offers historic exhibits, as well as swimming and fishing. Bird lovers can spend time at Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center. Some exhibits feature quilt making, boat building, and decoy carving. Celebrating the “down-east spirit,” the center stands as a tribute to the people who make a living along North Carolina’s coast.