Unplug for real along North Carolina's coast
In North Carolina, "the coast" doesn't mean just the 300 miles of beaches that make up the Atlantic shoreline. The Outer and Inner Coastal Plains account for roughly 45% of the state, stretching from the Outer Banks barrier islands to the central Piedmont region. Without ever straying far from the water, you'll find—for starters—forests, farmlands, vineyards, wildlife preserves, cottages, campgrounds and cultural and historic sites.
What you're not going to find? Endless resorts, cookie-cutter towns or surface-level experiences. So dig in a little deeper and enjoy the for-real hospitality, whether you want an off-the-beaten-path romantic escape, family adventure or friends' getaway. And for some of the best ways to connect with each other—and the place—while you're there, read on.
Meet the terrestrial flora and fauna
Naturally, the marine life is abundant and epic here, and we'll get to it soon—but surprisingly, so are the land animals. Among the most mythic are the wild horses of the Outer Banks and the Crystal Coast, whose mystique is only heightened by a backstory that's largely been lost to time: A herd of Spanish Mustangs presumed to have arrived in the area around 500 years ago with explorers may or may not have been the power-swimming survivors of shipwrecks. Or maybe the living relics of defunct settlements. Either way, get to know these official state horses of North Carolina on a guided tour of Corolla or Shackleford Banks (the bigger adventure). And you can meet their tamer cousins—the Ocracoke Ponies—on the island of the same name. No matter where you discover these coastal celebrities, however, don't feed or come within 50 feet of them for everyone's safety — and the horses' continued survival off the land.
The only true coastal forest in the East—and the home of the only national forest saltwater trail in the country—Croatan National Forest blends pine forests, saltwater estuaries, bogs and raised swamps. The resulting menagerie includes black bears, deer, fox and turkey, osprey and gators, for starters. To spot these creatures (or just enjoy their dreamy habitats), hike, bike, horseback ride or boat your way through the national forest.
Another hot spot of biodiversity is Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, where several residents are famed for their rarity—among them, the red-cockaded woodpecker, fox squirrel and non-venomous pine snakes. The flora is no less of a draw, with everything from Sandhills pyxie-moss to the insectivorous purple pitcher plant accessorizing the ancient longleaf pine forest and wiregrass.
Of course, there's an entirely different plant of interest to those who visit Rose Hill's Duplin Winery, home to The Mothervine, a sweet white wine "made from clippings of the oldest living grapevine in NC." More than four centuries old, "this Scuppernong vine is still growing on Roanoke Island." Indeed, the sprawling gnarl is believed to be the oldest living grapevine in the US. Another good source of this varietal? Vineyards on the Scuppernong, where the signature grape appears in the Simply Scuppernong.
If you're visiting with kids, the more tempting local fruit might be strawberries—pickable as of late April or early May at Mike's Family Farm (where you can also pick pumpkins in the fall, and find all kinds of North Carolina-sourced treats year-round). Besides being delicious, the local abundance provides a teachable moment for the whole family: Nature needs our protection, and there are seven simple steps that make for an excellent starting point.
Immerse yourself in the local waters
Whether literally or figuratively, there are countless ways to do a deep dive of North Carolina's life aquatic. One of the most dramatic is to visit "the graveyard of the Atlantic," a series of 2000+ shipwrecks that date back to the Spanish fleets of the 16th century—and include the Civil War-era blockade runner that became North Carolina's first Heritage Dive Site as well as various 19th-century steamers, WWII-era submarines (including various German U-Boats of the state's so-called "Torpedo Alley"), 20th-century passenger liners—and that's just the short list. Operators offer wreck-diving all along the coast, from Roanoke Island down to Wilmington—and if you give yourself enough time, you can get certified in these often clear, warm waters.
Even if you don't dive, you can get a look at the amazing local sea life at one of four North Carolina Aquariums, with each branch offering special exhibits. At the Roanoke Island outpost, for example, you can see the otters, alligators and turtles of the Wild Wetlands, the sea jellies of the Delicate Drifters and—if you've elected not to go scuba diving in the area—still get a good look at what's there in the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" exhibit. A variation on that theme—the teeming, 306,000-gallon "Living Shipwreck" exhibit—is one of the stars of the sister aquarium in Pine Knoll Shores, where you can also see a secondary wreck installation: a replica of the debris field believed to be the remains of Blackbeard the Pirate's flagship. The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, for its part, is home to a massive albino alligator named Luna, a rescue eagle named Maverick and an array of sharks, turtles, eels and rays. And finally, there's the Jennette's Pier location, where the "Life Under the Pier" exhibit introduces you to the local sheepshead, trigger fish and more.
North Carolina's waters are equally enjoyable from the surface, mind you: You can, for starters, surf and sail along the Crystal Coast and Outer Banks; kayak through wildlife refuges along the inner coastal region's paddle trail; stroll the two-mile Wilmington Riverwalk along the storied Cape Fear River; and go sport fishing, pier fishing, shrimping and crabbing throughout the region (or skip straight to the catch of the day at the renowned local seafood joints).
Look toward the sky
No less dazzling than the local waters is everything that's overhead along the North Carolina coast—starting with the April-July Milky Way display over the Brunswick Islands, where the absence of light pollution and the south-facing beaches make for renowned astrotourism experiences. To camp under a stellar skyscape, consider the Jones Lake State Park and Roanoke River platform sites.
To get somewhere between 150 and 200 feet closer to the sky, visit one of the area's several climbable lighthouses, from the 1875 Currituck Beach Lighthouse down to Old Baldy—the state's southernmost lighthouse and one of the oldest, at 206 years old. And while the Cape Hatteras Light Station is closed for climbing in 2023 because of renovations, this icon is worth a visit regardless, if only to take in the 198.49-foot stature (the tallest on the coast).
Another way to gain some altitude? Go hang gliding at Jockey's Ridge State Park, where Kitty Hawk Kites can outfit your hang gliding, kiteboarding and windsurfing needs, plus provide lessons to get you in the air. This spot is home to winds so epic, they helped launch the Wright Brothers' first flight 15 minutes away, as you'll find at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills. For a more extensive aerial overview than Orville and Wilbur would have gotten at the time, book a biplane or Cessna tour through Barrier Island Aviation. Or go on a nearby flightseeing expedition with Crystal Coast Air Tours.
For a different kind of winged wonder, don't miss the fall migration that takes place largely along the Outer Banks, where this year marks the 25th anniversary of the beloved Wings Over Wildlife Festival (Oct. 17-22, with an encore Dec. 8-10). Not that you need to be here in the fall, nor stick to the Outer Banks, for spectacular birding. Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, for one, is home to the state's largest natural freshwater lake—as well as marshes, swamp forests and upland forests. So many birds winter here—tundra swans, snow geese, pintails, glossy ibis, and ruddy ducks, for starters—you might witness what appear to be bird blizzards over the lake from November through January. And those famed red-cockaded woodpeckers of the Sandhill Nature Preserve? You can spot them raising families there in the spring and summer months.
Learn about local history
As all the aforementioned shipwrecks attest, the regional history is incredibly rich—and it begins, of course, well before the arrival of the Spaniards. You can find traces of Native American life in the wealth of ancient dugout canoes, clay pots and stone implements that have been dredged from Lake Phelps in Pettigrew State Park, where the annual Indian Heritage Week each fall brings a series of displays and demonstrations. For a glimpse at the imagined interactions of the original coastal inhabitants and the first European settlers, catch a performance of The Lost Colony on Roanoke Island (June 2-Aug. 26)—the nation's longest running outdoor symphonic drama.
If pirate history is your thing, don't miss the local Blackbeard Trail. Start in Beaufort at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, where you'll find artifacts from his flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge. From there, head to the last town he called home: Bath, where he arrived in the summer of 1718 and was said to have remained well after his death that same year in the form of "Blackbeard's Lights," a large fireball reported to sail between Archbell and Plum Points all night during storms. Be sure to visit the Blackbeard-themed rooms at the Bath State Historic Site and Van der Veer House before moving on to Ocracoke, the sight of his last stand. In November of 1718 two sloops cornered Blackbeard in Ocracoke Inlet, and the Virginia governor-dispatched hitmen on board killed him in the ensuing battle. After his head was affixed to a ship, his body was reportedly sent to an aptly watery grave.
Fast-forwarding to the late 1700s, you'll find various Revolutionary War era sites, with historic Halifax among the most notable: Situated on the Roanoke River, the town hosted the Fourth Provincial Congress in the spring of 1776, when the first official action by an entire colony recommended independence.
Moving ahead to the days of the Underground Railroad, Camden County's Great Dismal Swamp Park (where George Washington had once been a stakeholder in a failed drainage plan) was a known runaway route and home to what might have been the largest maroon colony. Archaeologists also believe that centuries earlier, Native Americans who'd fled the colonial frontier took refuge here. And though you won't be able to see on-site evidence of any of the above unless you happen to be traveling with a research expedition, the boardwalks that lace the area now place you in the footsteps of those who've sought refuge here since at least the early 1600s. Indeed, the place is now preternaturally serene, as you'll discover by boating to the famed Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of enslaved people never managed to escape, and the Civil War was fought to ensure that status quo. Among the various sites in the region that bear witness to that era, a particularly pivotal one is Fort Fisher—the last protector of the supply lines to Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. The fort fell to an amphibious assault in January of 1865—a defeat that helped doom the Confederacy.
The modern era is full of opportunities to help improve the coastal communities, including easy ways for visitors to participate and establish stronger local ties. One beloved epicenter is the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City, where you can adopt a nest, observe healing turtles and attend releases (check the events calendar).
There are also volunteer opps along the North Carolina Oyster Trail. But no matter where you are, or what you're doing in the area — taking a dip in the refreshing waters, casting out a line, kayaking or paddleboarding — you can lean into citizen stewardship and help keep North Carolina's coastline pristine.