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Best beaches in North Carolina

From quiet getaways to popular fishing piers and surf shops, the long stretch of North Carolina coastline has some of the best beaches in America.

Photo of Currituck Beach Lighthouse. Photo courtesy: J.S. Fletcher

Currituck Outer Banks

On the Northern shores of the Outer Banks, Currituck offers countless activities for every age group. This beach is home to one of North Carolina’s 10 lighthouses, this one built in 1875 and open to climbers. Take a beach Jeep safari to view some of the wild Spanish Mustangs that roam the ocean beaches and sand dunes — they’re descendants of the horses brought here in the early days of exploration, dating to the 1500s. Plus, visit a turn-of-the-century soundfront hunting mansion dedicated to the wildfowl sport hunting that reigned supreme. Sunsets over Currituck Sound are a photographer’s delight.


The Outer Banks and Cape Hatteras National Seashore

More than 100 miles of narrow barrier island comprises the Outer Banks, housing prominent beach communities such as Duck, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head and Rodanthe, on southward to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, home to the black-and-white, spiral-striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The entire area is known for great beaches, year-round fishing, kayaking, sunbathing and surfing. There’s even a stretch known as Canadian Hole, popular with windsurfers, especially those visiting from Canada. Further south, Ocracoke Island, reached by a car ferry, was rated America’s best beach in 2007 by Dr. Beach.


Atlantic Beach

Called the Crystal Coast, Atlantic Beach constitutes the state’s southern Outer Banks and is a popular year-round spot with beaches teeming with visitors in the summer. During spring and fall, too, you can enjoy long sandy strolls to collect seashells, catch a wave, or order up a seafood dinner with a great view. The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knolls is one of the big attractions of this area. Artifacts from Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, which was discovered offshore here, are now on display at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in nearby Beaufort. Arrgh, mateys.


Bear Island

Part of the Hammocks Beach State Park, Bear Island is one of the undeveloped beaches of North Carolina. A camper’s paradise, the island is almost 900 acres of mostly wild vegetation with only occasional bathroom facilities and a few primitive campsites. A ferry ride is required to reach the island but is so worth the effort. Wildlife abounds amid the sand-dune-lined shoreline.


Sunset Beach

Located in the southern part of the state, Sunset Beach provides a quiet getaway known for its wildlife, friendly community and clean seashore. Bigger attractions, such as the Ingram Planetarium and the Museum of Coastal Carolina, are only a short drive from Sunset. Because of its orientation, this is one of the few beaches on the East Coast where the sunset actually sets over the ocean.


Wrightsville Beach

Just east of Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach provides fishing, swimming and historic entertainment. The local fishing spot is Johnny Mercer’s Pier. The Wrightsville Beach Museum of History, featuring highlights from the town’s past, is located in one of the many houses built in the early 1900s. Nearby Wilmington offers historic homes and an active nightlife and is the hub of the North Carolina film industry. (Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill were filmed here.) Also close by is family-friendly Carolina Beach.


Bald Head Island

Offering 14 miles of beaches, Bald Head Island is a popular North Carolina vacation spot. Reachable only by ferry, no cars are allowed on the island. Transportation via golf carts, bikes and skates is allowed. The island features a seaside golf course, sailing, kayaking and historical tours, as well as turtle beach walks at night during nesting season. For the best views, climb to the top of the squat lighthouse fondly called Old Baldy. And stop by the harbor front for cruising, fishing, kayaking, dining and shopping or just to meet the locals.


Alyssandra Barnes contributed to this article. She is a photojournalist and assists the authors with photography, writing and research.

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