For those in search of the quintessential beach destination with more than just lounging on the sand, look no further than North Carolina's Crystal Coast. Situated along the state's Southern Outer Banks, the region encompasses several communities -- including Cape Lookout, Morehead City, Emerald Isle, Pine Knoll Shores, Beaufort, and Atlantic Beach -- that stake claim to fantastic eats, natural wonders, and small town charm. Plus, there are a number of non-beach activities that visitors can enjoy for under $30. Here are five of our favorites.
1. Stroll downtown Beaufort.
The town of Beaufort touts a downtown area that's perfect for an afternoon or night out. Head to Front Street, a thoroughfare that's so idyllic it looks like it was plucked straight from a movie set, and browse the various shops like Scuttlebutt Nautical Books & Bounty and Island Proper Boutique. Or, duck into The General Store for 32 flavors of hand-dipped ice cream -- best enjoyed during a walk along the boardwalk overlooking the harbor across the street; time it right and you can catch the sunset, too. For other sights in the neighborhood, map out your own tour of the nearby historic homes, complete with traditional blue porch ceilings.
2. Take a Waterbug Tour.
When you've had your fill of sightseeing on foot, set out for more exploration via a boat ride with Waterbug Tours ($18). Departing up to eight times per day from Front Street, the 45- to 60-minute tour sails along Beaufort, Taylor's Creek, and the Rachel Carson Reserve. Along the way, keep an eye out for the 30 wild horses at the reserve, dolphins, and dreamy waterfront homes. The company also offers a sunset cruise ($22) that embarks 60 minutes prior to the golden hour.
3. Make it an aquarium day.
Take a deep dive into marine life with a trip to North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores (from $10.95). Home to 4,000-plus creatures -- like seahorses, river otters, sea turtles, stingrays, and plenty of other local underwater inhabitants -- the aquarium has 50 exhibits, including the state's largest: the massive, 300,000-gallon Living Shipwreck, filled with sharks and hundreds of fish. Before your visit, be sure to check out the aquarium's calendar of free programs, which includes interacting with live divers, feeding demonstrations, and watching otter enrichment sessions. For something more in-depth, take the At a Glance Behind the Scenes Tour ($12) for a peek at the Living Shipwreck from overhead, food prep stations, and animal holding areas.
4. Spend the day at Cape Lookout National Seashore.
From architecture aficionados to animal lovers, Cape Lookout National Seashore (free to visit) will appease all sorts of interests. At Cape Lookout, browse the Keeper's Quarters Museum, go birdwatching, or take in views of the 163-foot-tall lighthouse. And if you're feeling ambitious, pay the $8 fee to climb its 207 steps. Another big draw of the park is Shackleford Banks' herd of wild horses, who are believed to have descended from Spanish horses from 400 years ago. You can take a free ranger-led tour or visit on your own, but it's best to bring binoculars or a zoom lens and not get too close to the animals. Getting to the lighthouse area and Shackleford Banks requires taking a ferry from the Harkers Island Visitor Center or the Beaufort Visitor Information Center. The National Park Service offers a list of authorized ferry services; during our trip, we took Island Express Ferry Service (from $16 round-trip) and enjoyed the scenic 20-minute ride.
5. Grab some grub.
Up and down the Crystal Coast you'll come across lots of fresh seafood. But there's more to the region's dining scene than that. For a good dose of comfort cuisine, snag a table at Atlantic Beach's Amos Mosquito's, which serves fried pickles ($6.95), homemade potato chips and blue cheese ($8.50), meatloaf with green beans and mashed potatoes, and our favorite, fried pork chops with tasso gravy ($16.95). Stop in on a Thursday, when restaurant offers sushi (from $4) and karaoke. We also love Beaufort Grocery Co. for its hot gorgonzola and spinach dip ($11.99) and crab cakes with provolone and remoulade sauce on a croissant ($13.99). La Perla is hidden away in Morehead City and brings together Latin and Southern flavors for a menu that changes seasonally. Its current menu lists paella ($27), Peruvian chicken wings ($8), and fried Cornish hen ($24).