Southeast

6 Historic and Pristine Beaches on North Carolina's Coast

Follow in the footsteps of wild ponies or fearsome pirates, and decide which of these top picturesque North Carolina beach towns to set your beach umbrella in.

As a former Massachusetts Yankee learning to love the “not-quite Deep South” state of North Carolina, I’ve come to recognize many memorable movie and TV settings not filmed on the rocky coast of Maine or a wide shore in California, but in North Carolina.

When Joey stood pensively on a dock thinking about if she would choose Dawson or Pacey on Dawson’s Creek, she was in Wilmington, not Capeside. The over-the-top Hamptons beach house in Weekend at Bernie’s? Also Wilmington. The supernatural series Under the Dome and Sleepy Hollow weren’t shot in bucolic towns in New England, but coastal North Carolina. Even Baby’s lake dance practice in Dirty Dancing was not New York’s Catskills mountains, but North Carolina.

In choosing a setting for their own summer vacation, most Carolinians have a favorite beach town to which they return to season after season (plus many times out of season, as the waters are warm long after Labor Day) with the kind of loyalty usually reserved for sports teams.

Follow in the footsteps of wild ponies, aviation pioneers, or fearsome pirates (Blackbeard is practically the official mascot of the North Carolina coast). Charter a boat for ocean fishing or tuck into a Calabash seafood feast, and decide which North Carolina beach town to set your beach umbrella in.

Dunes and Donuts in the Outer Banks' Duck

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Standing on the shores of the Outer Banks, it’s easy to see how the Wright brothers were inspired by its massive sand dunes, ocean breezes, and open skies to test their glider planes here more than a century ago. The Outer Banks (OBX on many bumper stickers) is a 200-mile narrow strand of sand sheltering a trio of Sounds (Currituck, Albemarle, and Pamlico) from the Atlantic Ocean. Leaving the mainland and turning left on Highway 12 will take you through Nags Head (with the tallest dune on the east coast in Jockey’s Ridge State Park), the Wrights Brothers Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, the nature preserve in Kitty Hawk, and eventually up to Corolla and the Currituck Banks, kissing the Virginia border.

Just before Corolla is the resort town of Duck, beloved for its low-key beach tourism free of high-rise hotels and food options that go beyond fried clam strips and ice cream cones. The relative isolation of this north end of the Outer Banks keeps the crowds from getting dense, yet there is no shortage of sophisticated dining with waterfront seating.

The Blue Point has set the standard for thirty years with farm-to-table cuisine (think: Carolina she-crab soup or ramen with green-tail shrimp from the Pamlico Sound) in a down-to-earth setting with out-of-this-world views. Duck Donuts’ made-to-order treats are now a national indulgence, but started here; top a hot and fresh donut with a drizzle of chocolate or crumble of bacon (I keep it simple with cinnamon sugar).

Hotels & Vacation Rentals - Duck

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Many visitors to this part of OBX come every year to rent a beach house, but there’s something to be said for the resort experience with room service, a beach valet to carry the umbrella and chairs, and a hotel bar to relax at after a day in the sun. Sanderling Resort is an understatedly elegant resort to match its setting between Duck and Corolla, with multiple buildings to suit different guests.

Families may choose a North Inn room with multiple beds overlooking the resort pool, while couples may stay in the quieter South Inn building with a private balcony overlooking the Sound.

There are also multiple pools and beach access points for guests. Modern southern cooking is served on the deck at the hotel’s Lifesaving Station, and guests are minutes away from the Paper Canoe waterside bistro with its signature lump crab ravioli and duck spring rolls.

Sanderling Resort

Top rated
Duck
9.0 Excellent (628 reviews)

Spotting Dolphins on the Ferry to Ocracoke Island

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Turning right down Highway 12 on the Outer Banks leads you further along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, with the iconic black-and-white striped Hatteras lighthouse (the tallest in the US), federally protected beaches free of development, and abundant wildlife and nature trails.

Playing most hard-to-get of all the beach towns in the southern Outer Banks is Ocracoke Island, accessible only by ferry (or private plane or boat if you roll that way), adding an hour or two onto your trip.

This remoteness not only limits the amount of tourists, it’s also part of the fun of visiting this small island, as you may spot seabirds and dolphins along the way. The island was also a busy shipping harbor in the 18th century and a popular haven for pirate ships, including the legendary Blackbeard who met his end here in 1718 (and may have buried his treasure here).

Hotels & Vacation Rentals - Ocracoke

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Ocracoke Harbor Inn is a family-run inn with water views and a location in the heart of the village. Rooms feature private balconies, kitchenettes, and Jacuzzi tubs, plus complimentary breakfast and boat docking if you bring your own transport. All of the town’s locally owned restaurants and shops (no chains here) are within a mile of the Inn and many of the beaches you’ll only share with native birds and sea turtles.

Ocracoke Harbor Inn

Ocracoke
9.1 Excellent (280 reviews)

Fishing and Seashells on the Crystal Coast Beaches

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The Crystal Coast is a more accessible Outer Banks, known for family-friendly beaches and ocean fishing. Crossing the bridge from mainland Morehead City, Atlantic Beach is the first town on the Bogue Sounds peninsula, which also includes Emerald Isle (mentioned frequently by author David Sedaris as his family vacation spot) and Fort Macon State Park with a restored Civil War-era fort.

The quaint village of Beaufort (say: BOW-fort, not to be confused with South Carolina’s BEEYOU-fort) is also just across the sound, where Blackbeard’s ship Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground and has been excavated by historians. It’s also a short ferry ride to spot wild Banker horses and do some serious seashell collecting on Shackleford Banks.

Hotels & Vacation Rentals - Atlantic Beach

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With a location offering something for everyone, it makes sense to book a vacation rental with room for your whole family, such as this renovated 1950s beach cottage. Steps to the beach and the center of Atlantic Beach, and a short drive to Fort Macon, this house has two bedrooms (book downstairs too for more space) with a spiffy nautical design, a fully equipped open kitchen, and a rocking-chair porch and sun deck with ocean views.

New! Renovated 1950s Beach Cottage With Beautiful Ocean View

Atlantic Beach
9.0 Excellent (18 reviews)

The Lost Colony and Found Beaches of Manteo

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Not many beach towns come with a 400-year-old unsolved mystery and its accompanying long-running outdoor drama. But Manteo is pretty special – as the earliest American settlement, known for Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed “Lost Colony” of early Europeans on Roanoke Island in the 16th century, and the birthplace of the first English child in America, Virginia Dare.

Manteo satisfies visitors seeking culture at the Waterside Theatre, where the “Lost Colony” dramatization has been performed outside for more than 80 years, and at the Elizabethan Gardens featuring hundreds of native plants, Renaissance statues, and Tudor-style buildings. It will also satisfy water thrill-seekers with ample opportunities for fishing boat charters and kayak or paddle board rentals.

Hotels & Vacation Rentals - Manteo

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The historic nature of Manteo makes it an ideal spot for an atmospheric bed and breakfast. The Cameron House Inn is one of Manteo’s best-rated inns with Arts and Crafts-style rooms, antique furnishings, and cozy touches like soaking tubs and fireplaces. The daily gourmet breakfast and homemade snacks, as well as its location close to the harbor, make it an easy choice for weekend getaway (or longer).

Cameron House Inn

Top rated
Manteo
9.4 Excellent (158 reviews)

Cinematic Carolina Beach on the Boardwalk

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Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River, the historic downtown and beaches of Wilmington have made it an idyllic cinematic backdrop and given it the nickname of “Wilmywood” for hosting productions of teen soaps Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill, as well as Nicholas Sparks’ romantic sagas (including Message in a Bottle and A Walk to Remember. Nights in Rodanthe was filmed in the Outer Banks).

Of Wilmington’s beach towns – including Wrightsville Beach, popular for water sports, and Kure Beach with its Ft. Fisher Aquarium – Carolina Beach comes closest to the classic summer hot spot, with an old-fashioned boardwalk. Stop for an old-timey snap at the crescent moon cut-out, and hit mainstays like Britt’s Donuts and Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar. It also offers an amusement park and arcade.

Hotels & Vacation Rentals - Wilmington

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In a town where lodging can quickly go from scenic to sketchy, Courtyard by Marriott checks all the boxes for a great beach hotel: an unobstructed stretch of sand, indoor and outdoor pools, updated guest rooms with balconies, free parking, and the other usual Marriott conveniences (fitness center, bistro shop and bar with snacks). However, where it really scores high is for location – right on the beach and next to the boardwalk, its an ideal spot for going to the weekly summer concert and fireworks series.

Courtyard Carolina Beach Oceanfront

Carolina Beach
8.2 Very good (1554 reviews)

A Perfect End to a Beach Day at Sunset Beach

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While just over the border from South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach, Brunswick Islands are a world away with undeveloped beaches, an active variety of birdlife, and small-town charm. Sunset Beach is renowned for its wide, powder-soft sandy beach, as well as the unique opportunity to watch the sunrise and sunset over the water in fall through early spring.

From Sunset Beach, it is a peaceful walk to Bird Island, where visitors can read or leave messages in the Kindred Spirit mailbox. Southport rivals Wilmington for movie locations, including more Nicholas Sparks adaptations like Every Breath (which features the Kindred Spirit mailbox) and Safe Haven. Calabash-style seafood, served lightly battered and fried, is found in more restaurants than you can shake a shrimp at, but this is its birthplace. Ella’s may not be fancy, but it’s been the real deal since 1950 and is our number one pick.

Hotels & Vacation Rentals - Sunset Beach

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The secluded nature and spectacular setting of Sunset Beach begs for a special place to take in the scenery without leaving your room. The Sunset Inn sits on a saltwater marsh, giving each room sublime views unmarred by other buildings from their private screened-in porches. The Inn provides all the personal touches of a smaller B&B, like freshly baked breads in the Continental breakfast, and a book and movie library with unlimited popcorn.

The Sunset Inn

Sunset Beach
9.4 Excellent (110 reviews)