This not so hidden gem of a coastal city has been racking up accolades in such noteworthy travel publications as Travel and Leisure, Budget Travel, Yachting Magazine and Coastal Living in the past five years.
Could all this be true about Beaufort?
America’s Favorite Town” Travel+Leisure Magazine 2014
USA Today’s Charming Small Towns of the South 2014
In Top 20 of “America’s Quirkiest Towns” Travel+Leisure 2014
#2 of “America’s Most Romantic Towns” Travel+Leisure 2014
“America’s 10 Most Beautiful Hidden Gems” Budget Travel 2013
“Coolest Small Town in America” Budget Travel Magazine 2012
Cape Lookout Lighthouse – the “Diamond Lady”
With all the praise given Beaufort, I was excited to see for myself what this little town on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast had to offer visitors. Thanks to a post NATJA conference FAM tour, I was able to experience a whirlwind weekend that included spending two glorious nights in a luxury beachfront home on Emerald Isle, dining on local seafood at two of the area’s most popular restaurants, taking a ferry to Cape Lookout National Seashore, seeing wild horses (albeit from afar) grazing on Shackleford Banks, climbing to the top of historic Cape Lookout Lighthouse, dodging oyster beds while kayaking along the Intracoastal Waterway, learning about the important work of saving sea turtles during a behind-the-scenes tour at the North Carolina Aquarium, and being beguiled by tales of pirates and shipwrecks. Whew!
Beaufort was our lunch stop on our one full day on the Crystal Coast, but it was enough for me to be enchanted and want to return for a deeper experience. Dave Cartier, co-owner of Hungry Town Guided Tours, led our group along the boardwalk to the Black Sheep – newly opened, we were among the first to dine on their excellent brick oven pizzas and fresh, locally sourced salads during their soft opening.
From their website, the restaurant’s inspiration: “A “black sheep” is usually thought of as the misfit, the oddball or eccentric – every family has at least one. Black sheep forge their own path. They march to their own drum. And it goes without saying, they tend to hang out in Beaufort. Entrepreneur-turned restaurant owner, Geoph Adams is bringing something out of the norm in food to Beaufort. He has set out to create a dining experience based on fresh, local ingredients, hand-crafted food, and gracious service.” The decor also includes bold wall art featuring portraits of Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo, two iconic artists known for their eccentricity.
I have compiled a weekend (two-day) itinerary that includes the many wonderful sights and activities that our group enjoyed, but spread out over two days rather than 1-1/2 days (we had planes to catch).
This map should help orient you to the unique geography of the area.
Morning: Cape Lookout Lighthouse, go shelling, swimming, learn about the flora and fauna unique to these islands. Take the Island Express Ferry at Harkers Island Visitors Center to Harkers Island – departures every half hour beginning at 8:00 a.m. and ending at 4:00 p.m. This is the only ferry authorized by the National Park Service to drop off at Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Shackleford Banks. The boat is well maintained and the ride to Harkers Island takes approximately 2o minutes. Rates: $16 Adults/Campers (includes backpack & small carry-on) $5 additional carry-on $9 Children (11 and under) $7 Pets). Make your reservations for the Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks ferry service at the ticket booth, by contacting the Island Express Ferry reservation office or online.
The ferry’s first stop was Shackleford Banks, where you may disembark to try and view the horses at closer range, however, strict rules apply as the wild horses are protected by law. Watching them with binoculars from afar is recommended. The park ranger on board is an encyclopedia of information and you should take advantage of their vast knowledge by asking questions. We certainly did. One of the most interesting things Ranger Duggan told us, and she did so gently, dispelled the legend that the horses originated from the European shipwrecks during the 16th century. Yes, the horses are of European descent, but horses traveling on ships were either shackled or held stationary in nets or hammocks to keep them safe from each other and rough seas. Sadly, if a ship went down, they went with it.
Through our camera zoom lenses we saw several horses grazing from afar and, due to our tight schedule, continued on the ferry to Cape Lookout.
Camping on Cape Lookout National Seashore is permitted. See the National Parks website for details.
Climb the 207 steps to the top of the lighthouse. Due to knee issues, I was hesitant, but there are several landing areas with a window offering a cooling breeze and sweeping views where you can catch your breath, or the ranger on duty may hold you there while other visitors are coming down. We were blessed with a bright, sunny day to take in the 360 degree view from the top platform.
Catch the ferry back to Harkers Island Visitors Center and drive to Beaufort for lunch.
At the center of the Boardwalk, maritime flags spell out Beaufort.
Afternoon: Visit the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. Learn about the infamous pirate Blackbeard and his ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge, which was discovered in waters near Beaufort Inlet in 1996, or drop in to see the special exhibit on North Carolina’s rich surfing past and its incredible historical journey to becoming a cultural and economic staple of the coastal community.
Take one of the interesting historical or culinary guided bicycle or walking tours with Hungry Town Guided Tours. Personally, I’m going back for the North Carolina Shrimp Tour where guests visit three restaurants, taste a variety of fresh shrimp dishes and go home with a half pound bag of local shrimp (one pound per couple) packed for travel from Fishtowne Seafood in Beaufort. The shrimp come wrapped in authentic fish net from the original Net House in Beaufort – known locally as the Seine House, the nets were made in Beaufort and are an important part of Beaufort’s maritime history. Visit Hungry Town’s website more information and details on all the tours.
End your day with a terrific dinner of local seafood at family-friendly Amos Mosquito’s in Atlantic Beach. It’s always funny to learn the inspiration behind a restaurant’s name, and Amos Mosquito’s is one of the quirkiest I’ve seen. Owner Sandy Howard shared the story with us – it’s based on a knock, knock joke, of all things! “Knock, knock – Who’s there? – Amos – Amos who? – A mosquito.” And the funky mosquito sayings and decor followed.
You can count on smiling, capable servers with cute names – we loved Daisy Mae and Cupcake, great views out to the shore, and a menu chock full of American seafood specialties with a Southern flair.
First off, it’s time to hit the water because that is why you’re visiting the stunning Crystal Coast! You’ll kayak, SUP or surf with rentals and a professional guide from HotWax Surf Shop (several locations in the area). Later, a trip to the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knolls Shores to see thousands of aquatic animals, explore shipwrecks without getting wet, take a behind the scenes tour to learn about the important work of saving sea turtles, and become beguiled by tales of pirates and shipwrecks like I did. Jump to Day 2 of your Crystal Coast itinerary.
Kayaking in Bogue Sound.
Planning a vacation? Pin this collage to your Pinterest boards.
Disclosure: My two days spent exploring North Carolina’s Crystal Coast were hosted by Bluewater Vacation Rentals and The Crystal Coast Tourism Authority – thank you for making my first trip to North Carolina so memorable. As always, all opinions expressed are my own.