The North Carolina beaches are the most similar to what we’d find back home in Australia so we have a special bond with the Carolina Coast, and have fond memories of all our North Carolina beach vacations!
They are not too overdeveloped, have pristine conditions, loads of space, spectacular sunrises and sunsets, the stunning Intra-coastal waterway offering even more water activities, and a vibrant surf culture!
We have been exploring the Atlantic Coast for years, and while we still have so much to do, we have seen and experienced some of the top attractions and want to share with you what we feel are some of the must not miss experiences on the coast of North Carolina.
This post is less about the beaches – as we all know they’re fantastic. Just laying on the beach and swimming is a worthy experience. We’ll have posts coming soon sharing the best beaches in North Carolina.
Instead, we’re sharing the experiences that tells the unique story of our now home state and will be the moments you remember the most.
This fall, we road tripped the North Carolina coast from Carolina Beach to the Brunswick Islands to create content on the North Carolina beaches in partnership with our sponsor Allianz Travel Insurance – with our annual travel insurance policy we feel confident in travel on a whim knowing we’ll be protected against any unforeseen events when we travel, including pandemics and natural disasters (see epidemic coverages here).
We have plenty left on our NC bucket list so please share in the comments what you think are unmissable experiences on the North Carolina beaches.
And, we have trips planned soon to the Crystal Coast and Wilmington, and potentially to Hammocks Beach State Park on Bear Island and North Topsail Beach.
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Learn to Surf Wrightsville Beach
Wrightsville Beach is one of the best North Carolina beach towns.
It is where surfing started in North Carolina. It also receives accolades as one of the world’s best surfing towns (National Geographic, Coastal Living and Surfer magazines all agree). And we also have experience in global surfing towns to say this is a legit title.
So far, it’s number one on our top beaches in North Carolina list for its all-round beach experience.
Put on your wetsuit, grab a board, and hit the waves. And don’t worry if those waves look far too small to ride.
Craig and Savannah had a blast riding what looked like un-surfable waves thanks to the great instruction by Steve from the South End Surf Shop.
Here’s a local tip: Some of the best surf in the Wrightsville Beach area is over the channel at secluded Masonboro Island. Either paddle your way over or arrive by boat.
Climb the Oak Island Lighthouse, Caswell Beach
Quite an unexpected thrilling adventure is to climb the 131 steps up to the Oak Island Lighthouse viewing platform. What makes it thrilling is it is the only known lighthouse that uses a ladder configuration the entire way, rather than the typical spiral staircases.
While not as beautiful on the outside as some of the other North Carolina lighthouses, it’s the most adventurous and exciting lighthouse to visit on the North Carolina coast.
The views up here are magnificent and a definite Brunswick Islands highlight. Cross the road to the beach boardwalk for the best views of the Oak Island Lighthouse.
The Bodie Island Lighthouse and Cape Hatteras lighthouse are two more favorites in North Carolina.
Leave a note in the Kindred Spirit Mailbox
For over 40 years, people have been coming to this secret mailbox tucked into the sand dunes on Bird Island, the most southern beach in North Carolina before reaching South Carolina.
The Kindred Spirit Mailbox was first planted on the barrier island by Frank Nesmith in the late 1970s.
People walk the 1.4 miles along the beach from Sunset Beach Pier to record their wishes, thoughts, prayers, and dreams through letters in the mailbox.
Savannah and I wrote our own before leaving our hotel. She wrote her dreams for the future and I shard our manifesto for travel – which really applies to living a full life.
The mailbox is filled with notebooks and pens so you can write your stories when you arrive. Or you can just spend time reading them. There is a seat waiting for you.
Enjoy Sunset Beach and Bird Island (a world’s best beach)
What makes this North Carolina experience even more special is that you get to spend time at what I think is one of the best beaches in North Carolina for familes: Sunset Beach, which extends into Bird Island.
With its lack of development, and sand dunes standing guard of white sand and pristine water, you’ll see why this was named this one of the world’s best beaches in 2017 by National Geographic.
With the name, Bird Island, you can only imagine the bird life surrounding you!
The protected Bird Island Reserve is the southern end of Sunset Beach with pristine sandy white beaches, high natural dunes, and more than 1,200 acres of salt marsh and tidal creeks. A nature trail leads from the beach and loops around the Bird Island Reserve.
Soak up the Small-Town Charm of Southport
Southport is a delightful small town on the mouth of the Cape Fear River where it converges with the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean.
The picturesque harbor town has been a favorite location for Hollywood, featuring in scenes from many films and TV shows, including Safe Haven, A Walk to Remember, Weekend at Bernie’s, and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
You can join an oversized golf cart tour of the town to learn more about it.
Stroll the live oak tree-lined streets as you explore ornate Victorian homes, historic buildings, and vibrant riverfront restaurants.
You can also catch the ferry from Southport to Fort Fisher Recreation Area at the end of Kure Beach and Carolina Beach giving you a much faster access to Pleasure Island.
Catching a ferry over to the small Bald Head Island is a favored thing to do in Southport, and is on our list for our next visit.
Read more amazing things to do in the Brunswick Islands region of North Carolina.
Hang Gliding over the Sand Dunes, Kitty Hawk
One of the most unique things to do in North Carolina is to hang-glide over the sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. This was one of our favorite adventures in the USA
Kitty Hawk Kites have been operating hang gliding lessons since 1974 with beginner, intermediate and advanced lessons from qualified instructors – who are awesome by the way!
We had a blast learning how to launch, fly, and land on the soft sands of Jockey’s Ridge with our instructor holding a rope all the way giving you a sense of safety!
Read our full review of hang gliding with Kitty Hawk Kites and book hang gliding lessons here.
While here, be sure to honor the birthplace of flying at the nearby Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills one of North Carolina’s most historic landmarks?
The Wright Brothers (Orville and Wilbur) piloted four successful flights with their powered, heavier-than-air flying machine in Kitty Hawk. You can see the historic sand dune where they did most of their gliding, and the location they lived whilst experimenting.
Hang Gliding Video
Daily Sunrise on any North Carolina Beach
We’ve seen plenty of sunrises around the world, and a North Carolina beach sunrise is one of my favorites.
Watching the giant orb light up the sky in the Outer Banks with its pastel pinks and orange over the glass like ocean and dolphins swimming past its lighted staircase was magical, mystical, and serene.
Watching a sunrise is our Daily Habit on our North Carolina beach vacations. Of course, staying in beachfront accommodation makes that an easier thing to do.
Top tip: Visit the NC beaches in the Fall. Sunrise is later and hardly anyone is around. #JustYouAndTheDolphins
Try these oceanfront hotels:
- Blockade Runner Wrightsville (read our review here)
- Ocean Isle Inn, Ocean Isle Beach
- Beachfront Vacation rentals
See Sunset over the Water, NC Beaches
Thanks to the Intra-Coastal Waterway, you’ll find many places along the North Carolina coast to see the sun set over the water.
The Brunswick Islands also run east to west, so in the Fall months (when the planets and align perfectly) it’s becomes the perfect place to see the sun rise and set over the ocean!
The places we have experienced a beautiful sunset have been:
- South End of Wrightsville beach
- Millers Waterfront Grille in the Outer Banks
- Jinks Creek in Ocean Isle Beach
- Onboard a sunset cruise around the Intracoastal Waterway in Wrightsville
Happy Hour at Fish Heads Grill & Bar, Nags Head
Now for a North Carolina Pier experience to remember.
Replace the tacky rides on fishing piers with colorful umbrellas in wooden tables, and a Tiki hut serving 40 craft beers, live music, and 15 cent shrimp!
Yes. You read that correctly.
Happy Hour on the Fish Heads Grill & Bar in Nags Head on the Outer Banks happens every day 4-6pm. Join the stream of people arriving on the jetty – it’s one of our favorite North Carolina beaches experiences.
Drinks at the Friendliest Beach Bar in the USA
Moving to another North Carolina beach pier not to miss: the Center Pier in Carolina Beach.
Similar to our Fish Heads Bar & Grill discovery in the Outer Banks, the Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar is the hidden local gem you always hope to find when you travel.
The Tiki Bar is built on the ruins of Center Pier, destroyed by Hurricane Fran in 1996. It serves a limited menu, but it’s really the outstanding views and atmosphere that you come here for.
The service was excellent and by the number of people who stopped to talk to the people with the funny accent, I could name this The Friendliest Beach Bar in the USA. You’ll find live music at sunset during the season.
Visit the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area
The Fort Fisher State Recreation Area wraps around the southern end of Pleasure Island, hugging the Atlantic Ocean from Kure Beach over to the Cape Fear River.
There are six miles of pristine shoreline here offering sun and surf-seekers plenty of fun. Loggerhead turtles also love laying their eggs. You can drive your 4WD along the beaches here. Permit required.
Apart from the beaches here, two of North Carolina’s most visited tourist attractions are also in this area: The North Carolina Aquarium and the Fort Fisher State Historic Site.
Paddle the North Carolina Coast
One thing you can be sure about when you visit the North Carolina beaches – apart from miles of beaches – you’ll have miles of calm waterways to play in as well.
The Atlantic Intra-Coastal Waterway runs the entire length of the NC coast (and beyond) offering miles of open sound water and narrow channels bordered by marshes, swamps, and small islands.
You’ll get a different ocean perspective with the hundreds of oyster beds, herons flying low over the grassy reeds with beautiful white wings outstretched, and mullet jumping out of the water while fleeing from prey.
Choose your flotation style – kayak or paddle board – we always do both and find the nearest launch pad.
We’ve done it at every North Carolina coastal region we’ve visited both on the sound and ocean. We paddle boarded on the ocean at Corolla Beach in the Outer Banks and fell off several times. It’s much harder on the ocean, even when it’s relatively calm – but it’s totally worth it as it’s loads of fun.
If you go out during sunrise you will probably have the best North Carolina beach experience ever.
We’ve also paddled in:
- Wrightsville Beach waterways
- Jinks Creek, Ocean Isle Beach
- Snow’s Cut, Carolina Beach
- Corolla Beach
See the Wild Horses of the NC Coast
The North Carolina coast is one of the best places in the USA to see wild horses.
I’ll never forget the fun we had searching for the wild ponies of Shackleford Banks barrier islands in the Cape Lookout National Seashore region with my parents and rising over the sand dunes to see them grazing on the grass. My Dad was spellbound. It was a memory.
You can also see the wild horses in Corolla at the northern end of the Outer Banks. You can see them on a wild horse tour, or if you have your own a 4WD, cruise along the beach (permit needed) until you find them,
You can also see wild horses on Ocracoke Island in a secluded 180-acre area enclosure on the sound side of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Seeing the Ocracoke wild mustangs remains high on our North Carolina bucket list.
Explore Cape Hatteras National Seashore
If you drive down to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse you will be immersed in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
This 70-mile stretch of the Outer Banks from Oregon Inlet to Ocracoke Inlet is the country’s first national seashore.
I wish we dedicated more time to exploring its unique beach communities, historic lighthouses, and endless water based activities. It is a beautiful area. I’d love to come back here for beach driving, hikes, paddling in the quieter waterways and a beach house rental.
If you like Nicholas Sparks, be sue to take a peek at the Inn at Rodanthe in Rodanthe which was the setting for the book and move, Nights of the Rodanthe. You can even stay there.
Watch Video: 10 Amazing experiences to have on the North Carolina Coast
Comment: What should we do on our next trip to the North Carolina beaches? Help us find those ultimate moments.