3 Day Winter Vacation to The Crystal Coast, NC (what to see and do)

Winter is a time for slowness. The cooler weather and fewer sunlight hours are a beckoning to retreat, unwind, and let go. And it’s why a beach vacation on the North Carolina Coast is perfect for this time of year.

a woman and girl collecting shells on the beach
Cape Lookout National Seashore on The Crystal Coast of North Carolina

It invites slow mornings with a hot cup of coffee appreciating the fresh stillness of the salty air, the sun rising over the Atlantic ocean, the gentle lapping of the waves, the bird soaring in blissful freedom, and the dolphins chasing their breakfast.

There’s no need to hurry into the day or over pack it with things to do.

My favorite part of our three-day Crystal Coast vacation was waking at 7am and sitting on the balcony of our condo at Grand Villas on Indian Beach enjoying a coffee and an hour of doing nothing but watch the slow waking up of the ocean.

On our first morning, we even wore t-shirts, so unseasonably warm it was.

Grande Villas, Indian Beach, the Crystal Coast, North Carolina
The View from our balcony at Grande Villas on Indian Beach was a highlight

That’s the thing with a North Carolina winter, you just may get the odd day that takes you out of your chilly winter chill despair.

During the summer, we’d be up and out early to seize the day with outdoor activities like kayaking, surfing, biking, paddle boarding, and playing at the beach.

This winter beach vacation opened the door to other things to do on the Crystal Coast that summer would ignore like cultural and historical tours, and aquariums.

a person walking on a side walk next to a house
Exploring historic Beaufort, NC

I loved how the history of the region was weaved through each of the attractions we visited. Moving from the Civil War era fort, through the stories of soldiers, sailors, and spirits on a Beaufort ghost tour to graveyards and pirate shipwrecks off the rugged coastline and uniquely displayed at the Aquarium.

This Crystal Coast vacation was a paid partnership with The Crystal Coast tourism, and we’re excited to share our personal insights below.

Where is the Crystal Coast of North Carolina?

Sunrise at Indian Beach, Crystal Coast, North Carolina
Sunrise at Indian Beach, Crystal Coast

The Crystal Coast is an 85 miles stretch of coastline in Carteret County and extends from Cape Lookout National Seashore to Emerald Isle. It is also known as the Southern Outer Banks due to its location on the North Carolina Coast directly south of the Outer Banks!

Alongside stunning beaches and crystal-clear waters filled with dolphins, you’ll find historical towns, port cities, and friendly communities.

Indian Beach, Crystal Coast

Bogue Banks is the main 25-mile barrier island of the region from Fort Macon to Emerald Isle. It has five beach towns from Atlantic Beach (the oldest), to Emerald Isle (the biggest). We stayed in Indian Beach, around the middle of Bogue Banks (more on our condo below). 

Cape Lookout National Seashore

Cape Lookout National Seashore

Do you love undeveloped stretches of beautiful soft sand beaches with no one on them?

Welcome to Cape Lookout National Seashore, most known for shelling, shore fishing, and wide sandy beaches, and some of the best North Carolina beaches we have visited which reminded us of Australia!

Stretching fifty-six miles from Ocracoke to Beaufort Inlet, this area comprises three barrier islands (North Core Banks, South Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks) and is only accessible by boat.

The 20-minute Islands Express Ferry ride to Cape Lookout departs from Harkers Island (or Beaufort). If lucky, you may see dolphins, or wild horses on Shackleford Island as you pass by (we saw horses in the distance). Your driver will slow down to see them. (We saw the wild horses on Shackleford Island in 2010. It was fantastic!)

A group of people swimming in a body of water
So pretty, and stunning colors
animals on a dry grass field
Wild horses in the distance

Barefoot and in t-shirts, we wandered up and down the stunning beach, shelling and soaking in the views on a gorgeous 73-degree winters day. We found the largest shells we’ve ever collected washing up with the waves. (You can take them home only if nothing is living in it).

You will need to take all supplies with you as it’s an undeveloped island. You can stay as long as you like – be sure to know the last ferry return time as if you miss it you are marooned!

The main attraction in the Cape Lookout National seashore is the Cape Lookout Lighthouse with its diamond pattern!

Cape Lookout Lighthouse

A path with trees on the side of a lighthouse
Cape Lookout Lighthouse

As your ferry arrives at the Cape National Seashore, you will alight at the famous Cape Lookout Lighthouse.

This towering black and white diamond lighthouse (nicknamed Diamond Lady) was built in 1859 to warn ships of shoaling sands. The diamond patterns serve as directional tools, with the black diamonds pointing to north and south and the white diamonds, east and west. The area features a restored lighthouse keeper’s quarter, which now serves as a museum with exhibits on lighthouse history and early shipwrecks and rescues.

You can either stay on the sound facing beach near the lighthouse or follow the boardwalk to the ocean facing beach, which is the beach we walked to.

In the summer season, you can climb the 163ft lighthouse for extraordinary 360-degree views.

Fort Macon State Park

a war memorial
Fort Macon

We arrived at Fort Macon State Park with the question, “Why would this be one of North Carolina’s most visited state parks? It’s just a fort.” This question was answered as we approached it from the sand dunes of the Elliott Coues Nature Trail.

Fort Macon State Park is more than just the beautifully reconstructed 19th century Civil War pentagonal brick fort.

This free North Carolina state park encompasses 385 acres of beach, dunes, and maritime forest and is surrounded by three sides of water – the Atlantic Ocean, Beaufort Inlet and Bogue Sound.

You’ll find hiking trails, picnic areas, and a lifeguard-protected and pristine swimming beach.

The fort itself is a historic landmark where a reconstructed fort stands guard over Beaufort Harbor as it once did during the Civil War.

Take a guided tour of the restored fort or conduct your own like we did to see bunks, cannons, a rations storage room, Civil War artifacts and more. It offers a great insight into Civil War history and its WWII occupation.

Hot Tip: Hike the Elliott Coues Trail (includes viewing the fort)

a girl standing on a hill overlooking sand dunes
Stunning Atlantic ocean views along the Elliott Coues Trail

This 3.3-mile loop trail encircles the state park taking in its diverse landscapes and is well worth doing.

Park at the beach parking lot just as you enter the park and start the Elliott Coues trail from here! The midway point of the loop trail will be where the fort is, and where you can stop for a while to explore and rest!

The beach side of the trail has great views of dunes, beaches, and ocean. The loop trail back follows the sound side, which has beautiful, canopied pathways, boardwalks, and views of the marshes.

Experiencing Fort Macon state park in this way enhanced the experience and made the walk seem less cumbersome (especially with kids in tow). I think if you did the Fort first and then hiked the trail it would seem like a long add on rather than part of a cool experience.

Enjoy the Beach

A group of people on a beach near a body of water
Cape Lookout National Seashore

Just because it is winter, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the Crystal Coast beaches. Had I remembered to pack my swimmers, I would have jumped in as it wasn’t so cold.

There are plenty of ways to enjoy the beach in the winter from fishing to shelling, beach walking to surfing, watching dolphins play close to shore, or just playing in the sand and watching the ocean breathe.

Sunrise beach walk out the front of Grande Villas, Indian Beach
Sunrise beach walk out the front of Grande Villas, Indian Beach

Everywhere you turn you’ll find a beach, and many with few people crowding your space – especially in the winter!

With mainly south or southeast facing beaches, enjoying a sunrise and sunset is one of the best things to do!

Explore Beaufort

A man standing in front of a house
Charming Beaufort

With its raw edge and historical charm, Beaufort quickly became one of our new favorite North Carolina towns.

The town has a long history in fishing, whaling, and more notoriously, piracy, earning it many ‘Pirate Town’ accolades, and “America’s best small town”.

Founded in 1709, Beaufort is the 3rd oldest town in NC, and the 12th oldest town in North America. 

With many of the homes still owned by original families, you know this is a neighborhood that is happy to keep Beaufort’s traditional spirit passing down through the ages. Drop your pretenses on the drive in and just come as you are.

It’s not to be confused with Beaufort in South Carolina (pronounced as in beautiful), which has more of a sophisticated and elegant Southern charm. (But not better or worse, just different).

Front Street is the main street running alongside Taylor Creek and is where you’ll find local boutique stores, beautiful old buildings and homes, and museums. There is a nice short boardwalk along the creek with several waterfront restaurants and views across the inlet to Carrot Island. Don’t miss the sunset from here!

A group of people walking down a board walk next to a body of water
Lovely boardwalk
people standing on a board walk watching the sunset
Gorgeous sunset in Beaufort

There are many ways to experience Beaufort (pronounced as in hair bow).

As Beaufort has such a rich history, a guided tour is the best way to learn about its trials and tribulations, including the stories of those who have wandered in and out, swords in hand or not.

It will help you connect to the uniqueness of this North Carolina coastal town.

Take a Historical Beaufort Walking Tour (guided or self-guided)

people standing in front of a house
Walking tour is a must

One of the best things to do in Beaufort is an historical walking tour. You can either join a tour or pick up a self-guided map from the Beaufort Historic Site welcome center.

While there, enjoy the two-acre Beaufort Historic Site on Turner Street which is home to a complex of nine historic houses that tell the story of the coastal region of North Carolina in the 18th and 19th centuries.

On the map, you’ll find 30 listed historical houses that range in styles from cottages to elaborate Queen Anne and Greek Revival styles.

Choose an ambling pace as you wander down the tree-lined streets over six blocks to see homes that once belonged to sea captains, seafarers, generals, and merchants (maybe the odd pirate visitor.)

What will quickly become apparent to you is that every home in the downtown area is historic – 150 of these restored homes bear plaques on the exterior walls noting the names of the earliest known owners and the year it was built.

The oldest, and possibly most famous house on the tour is Hammock House (The White House). Built on a small hill or hummock it was used as a navigation point on early maps and once had Taylor Creek running quite close to the home. It is mistakenly known as Blackbeard’s home, due to rumors he once stayed there. Join the ghost tour to learn the truth of that and a fascinating ghostly tale!

A girl standing in front of a large tree with a house in the background
Hammock House

Plan for about one hour to do this self-guided walk, depending on how much photography you do.

Get Spooked on a Beaufort Ghost Tour

a girl holding a lantern outside
Our kids loved the ghost tour. no, really!

One of Beaufort’s most popular attractions (deservedly so), the Port City Co Beaufort Ghost Walk is a walking tour through the historic district at night with a pirate guide.

They will bring the history of the town to life with entertaining (and slightly chilling) stories of murders, haunted homes, ghost ships, civil war heroes and villains, pirate shenanigans, and girls buried in a barrel of rum.

Tell me you don’t get chills standing outside the iron gates of the Old Burying Ground with the streetlight flickering and the pinwheel madly spinning (on a still night) at the grave of the girl buried in a barrel of rum.

a gravestone
Grave of the girl buried in a barrel of rum

I recommend doing the ghost tour before visiting the Old Burying Ground during the day if possible.

As you hear of different Beaufort characters on the tour, you’ll enjoy going to the cemetery to find their graves.

This was one of our favorite things to do in Beaufort, and something our kids will never forget. I still feel the embedding of their fingernails on my arm.

Visit the Old Burying Ground (hoots and all)

Old Burying Ground, Beafort, North Carolina
Historic Old Burying Ground

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Old Burying Ground in downtown Beaufort is a cemetery not to miss!

The burial ground was established in 1724 and is bordered on four corners by churches from different denominations.

Wandering around the moss-draped live oak trees, you’ll find 200 graves from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. You may even get lucky and hear (and see) an owl hooting high in the trees.

A cemetary

It was a perfect experience for this fascinating, spooky, and stunning graveyard. It’s one of my favorites I’ve seen.

The northwest corner is the oldest part of the cemetery. While it may look empty, an archeological survey shows many graves in the area, thought to be victims of the Indian Wars.

Most graves are facing east for those departed to face the sun when they arose on Judgment Morn.

The Uniguide Tours app has a free audio tour of the Old Burying Ground. The Beaufort Historic Site also offers guided tours.

View Pirate Artifacts at the NC Maritime Museum

a girl standing in front of a museum display
Learning about Blackbeard the Pirate

The free NC Maritime Museum on Front Street in Beaufort tells the story of this region’s connection with the sea.

It is one of three state Maritime Museums, with the others in Hatteras and Southport, all with the purpose of preserving, collecting, and interpreting coastal life and history. 

Exhibits feature the state’s rich seafood industry, life-saving stations and lighthouses, and sailboats and motorboats. Book lovers will enjoy the old feeling library room – filled with all your maritime history and stories.

a woman reading a book in a library
Library room

Most unique about the museum is the display of artifacts excavated and preserved from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s pirate ship that was run aground just outside Beaufort Inlet.

NC Maritime Museum, Beafort, NC
Queen Anne’s Revenge

This is a great place to spend 30 – 60 minutes on a cold or rainy day, or any day if you love history! 

When we asked the girls what their favorite experience on the Crystal Coast was, Savannah said the NC Maritime Museum. She loved the scavenger hunt, which helped her look more closely at the exhibits and so engage better with the experience.

See Shipwrecks at the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
NC Aquarium

Having grown up in Australia by the ocean and seen a lot of ocean life in the ocean, we find aquariums are typically generic so don’t often include them on our itinerary, but we found the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores to be a unique and worthy Crystal Coast attraction.

The Aquariums’ mission is to inspire appreciation and conservation of our aquatic environments which we are fully on board with and they do this well through their interactive exhibits that include a stingray touch tank.

It’s part of the North Carolina Aquarium Society which supports a number of important efforts, including sea turtle rescue and recovery, and the study of shark habitats off the N.C. coast.

I loved its focus on the marine ecosystems of the area, most especially, its shipwrecking history. Known as the Graveyard of the east.

What really brought it to life was the huge aquariums filled with not only turtles and sharks but by gigantic shipwrecks they swam around.

The Living Shipwreck exhibit features a life-sized replica of a German U-352 submarine and Blackbeard’s’ favorite ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge with a 60-foot viewing window.

Learn at the Bonehenge Whale Center

a man holding up a whale bone
Shoulder blade of a whale

What a treat it was for us to have a sneak preview of the Bonehenge Whale Center in Beaufort, NC.

As the name alludes, whales are the focus, more specifically cetaceans, which also includes porpoises, and dolphins. Keith is a passionate advocate for these giant, playful creatures of the sea and the conservation of our precious ocean life.

Inside you’ll find rearticulated whale skeletons, beautiful artwork often based on actual whales encountered, and lots of scientific information.

We were able to hold teeth and shoulder blades, saw the beginning building of a humpback whale skeleton, learn about the recent discovery of a new whale species and how North Carolina is a hugely diverse whale region with over thirty species having been recorded in its waters, and wear a whale jaw skeleton and experience how a whale hears (very cool)!

Most impactful was seeing the skeleton of a young dolphin who was slowly killed by a fishing line entangled in its jaw. The skull shows how the bones of this baby dolphin grew around the fishing line. Keith had the foresight to request the fishing line be kept telling the story and help us understand the damage a simple fishing line can do. It was heartbreaking!

whale bones
What fishing line can do!

The center has worked to establish a Monofilament Recycling and Recovery Program to help anglers responsibly manage their discarded fishing line. Volunteers have placed 48 recycling receptacles on beaches, piers, docks, boat ramps, marinas and at the best fishing supply retailers on the North Carolina coast. 

They have so far collected 3,600 miles of discarded fishing line and saved many animals as a result!

close up of whale bones

The Bonehenge Whale Center is more of a workshop than a museum. Limited planned visits of masked and vaccinated people 12 years and older can be arranged by email or phone:  [email protected] or call 252-528-8607.

We were so impressed by the work being done here that we donated to this cause. We like to support local nonprofits and businesses who support environmental, and humanitarian causes in the destinations we visit.

Enjoy a winter event

a crowd of people walking around a market
Annual Beaufort Holiday Market

Check CrystalCoast.org for current events in the region as there are plenty of holiday and winter celebrations. Beaufort looked even prettier at night with those historic homes dressed up in holiday lights. 

We visited when the annual Beaufort Holiday market was on. Local vendors, farmers, and artisans set up stalls to sell their wares on the grounds of the historic courthouse surrounded by stunning and majestic old live oak trees.

I fell in love with those trees. I also loved this library in a trailer, and the owl and snake in an educational booth about wildlife rescue.

I love visiting local markets when I travel as it gives me an insight into community and culture. It was difficult to move around this market, as the locals kept stopping every two steps to enthusiastically greet another friend they bumped into!

Places to Eat on the Crystal Coast

We made sure to enjoy the amenities of our wonderful condo by eating one breakfast and meal there.

We discovered some great restaurants during our three-night stay. Be sure to research ahead of your visit, as some restaurants have different hours in the quieter winter months, especially on a Monday night.

  • Ruddy Duck Tavern, Morehead City: Gourmet burgers, pizzas, and seafood on the water at Morehead city. Expect local and organic ingredients, high quality food at a great price. They have a lot of gluten free options. I loved my blackened shrimp burger.

  • Queen Anne’s Revenge, Beaufort: delicious pizzas (gluten free) on the water with water views
  • Idle Hour Biergarten, Atlantic Beach: Beachside restaurant with a beer garden, live music, plenty of local brews, and a small food menu. Try the Mahi Mahi tacos
  • The Trading Post, Emerald Isle: Great breakfast spot with traditional summer favorites. Their Shrimp n Grits is a crowd pleaser.
Shrimp & Grits at The Trading Post, Emeral Isle, North Carolina
Shrimp & Grits
  • 34° North Restaurant, Beaufort Hotel: is a fancy waterfront restaurant with locally inspired East Carolina cuisine. It’s in the Beaufort Inn. While we didn’t eat there, we did enjoy a cocktail in their cozy lounge.
  • Mezcalito Grill, Beaufort: Our favorite restaurant on the Crystal Coast. Vibrant on the inside, the Tex Mex, Latin infused dishes danced with equal amounts of flavors and the mezcal margaritas that looked like a piece of art. Alambre ACP was delicious and Craig raved about his King Burrito for days.

Where to Stay on the Crystal Coast?

a hotel on the beach next to the ocean
Grande Villas, Indian Beach

We LOVED our condo on Indian Beach, a beautiful beach and one of the best beaches near Raleigh. Most spectacular was the sweeping ocean front views from Grande Villas, which made sunrise viewing so easy – especially during the winter, where you may want to stay wrapped in a blanket on the balcony rather than walk a few steps down to the shore.

We had pods of dolphins swimming by every morning and the water was so still and calm.

Our 2-bedroom condo was also very modern and spacious, with a full and well stocked kitchen, large TVs in each room, streaming access, lots of storage and of course, easy beach access!

An aerial view of a hotel on the beach
Grande Villas, Indian Beach

We stayed in one evening to cook up a steak with a bottle of wine to savor in the apartment with the sounds of the ocean.

It’s a great base for exploring the Crystal Coast, as it’s in the middle of Bogue Banks – about a 30-minute drive to Beaufort.

Tips for Winter in The Crystal Coast

A person sitting on a sandy beach

As crowds are fewer, you’ll spend less time in lines and waiting for tables. However, you still may need to reserve certain things in advance as the Crystal Coast, in particular Beaufort which is popular year-round. We could not get onto the Hungry Towns Walking Tour of historical Beaufort as it was completely booked.

Make sure you check opening hours and tour times during the winter season. As it’s slower, operating days and hours may be different.

Be flexible with your schedule as best you can to allow for weather and last-minute changes. You have more of a chance to move things around during the winter when it is less busy.

A girl sitting on a beach with a lighthouse in the background

Our ferry to Cape Lookout on Saturday was canceled on Friday afternoon due to impending inclement weather. We were able to quickly move it to the next ferry out, which was a warm, sunny day. We could then move our aquarium tickets to the following (Saturday), the rainy day.

Winter is a great time to rent a condo, or home by the beach! You’ll have a lot more availability and cheaper prices! 

Book in advance for your Crystal Coast vacation rentals, especially over the Christmas break and holiday weekends. Oh, and of course, you want a hot tub in the winter! See more vacation rentals here.

Click the map below to discover more Crystal Coast hotels and vacation rentals.

We look forward to exploring more of this region in different seasons. If you have any questions about a trip to the Crystal Coast NC, leave a comment below.

NC Bucket List
45 Unique things to do in NC + 4 destinations not to miss + insider travel tips. 
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