NC Coast: Fort Macon to Swansboro

From Cape Lookout and the wild horses of the Shackleford Banks to Crystal Coast of NC offers something for everyone…

The anchor is Morehead City – this coastal metro is an important port and fisherman’s paradise. Founded in the 1850s, Morehead City is home to the world-famous Big Rock Fishing Event. We were able to witness a bit of the Big Rock action in 2021 – including Michael Jordan’s fishing crew in port.

Morehead is conveniently located between Harker’s Island (Cape Lookout ferry), Beaufort, and Atlantic Beach.

While The Sanitary is the popular standby for fresh seafood, I also like Red Fish on Morehead’s waterfront.

Atlantic Beach has long been a popular favorite for North Carolinians seeking surf and sand. We used to stay at South Winds condos growing up, which has great beach access.

There aren’t a ton of hotels in AB, but you can rent condos (upscale to sand in the shoes laid back shack). I recommend The Double Tree waterfront hotel, Hampton Inn or The Atlantis if you want the hotel route.

AB is pretty rustic in many ways – a few restaurants and kitschy stores and surf shops – but at its heart is a place for people who really just want to enjoy beach access. You don’t go to AB for five star entertainment – this is where the beach bums hang out.

And for good reason…the Atlantic Surf is strong enough for wakeboarding, but smooth enough for family swimming. The water is a deep green that shimmers in the sun. The sand is plentiful and idea for pitching your Shibumi (the NC version of the beach umbrella) and reading a good book as the waves crash.

In addition to the beach access – there are several great day trips from Atlantic Beach, including Fort Macon and the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.

Our condo growing up was right by Fort Macon and we enjoyed running around the historic fort and exploring the history as a family. I still enjoy digging into the history of Fort Macon from the Civl War and beyond.

The NC Coast has played an important role in many wars from The Civil War to World War II. German U-Boats were just off the coast of NC and attacked often just off the coast. The enemy was a lot closer than Europe and Thank God for those who protected NC and the US during WWII.

Fort Macon State Park is the second most visited park in NC (over 1.3 million visitors each year). The site was used as a fortification spot since the 1700s but Fort Macon was not build until the late 1830s onwards. It was part of the Civil War Battle of Fort Macon in 1862.

Fun fact: Fort Macon is made up of 2,379,546 bricks – more than any other US Fort

Fort Macon State Park includes beachfront and soundside access, as well as nature trails, surf fishing and guided ranger talks. There is a bathhouse and protected swim area ideal for a day at the beach (public access!)

To learn more about Fort Macon click here.

NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores:

One of several coastal aquariums – the Pine Knolls Shores location gives visitors a window into the marine life of NC with interactive exhibits, amazing rangers and outdoor trails. I definitely recommend stopping at the aquarium – it is worth the trip (especially on a rainy day)

Pine Knoll Shores is one of the many communities that line the Bogue Banks Barrier Island (from Atlantic Beach to Emerald Isle). Pine Knoll Shores has more dining options and is a bit more refined than AB – but still very laid back for beach lovers. This is a great spot to rent a condo.

Emerald Isle spans several miles and features restaurants, activities and lots of lodging.

I personally recommend driving the distance from AB to Emerald Isle one day just to enjoy the scenery and explore the entire island.

There are several ways to reach the Crystal Coast and Bogue Banks…From Raleigh we usually go to Goldsboro-Kinston-New Bern and onto Morehead, however….

You can also take a detour and enter the coast via Jacksonville and Swansboro.

Swansboro hands down is one of my favorite small towns in NC. It has charm and centuries old character that reminds you of Beaufort and even Charleston.

Swansboro is on the cusp of the on the Atlantic, facing The White Oak River as it merges to the sea. Swansboro’s history is rooted in it’s ‘port access’ and ability to connect to other inland waterways.

The community, though small, is eclectic, quaintand full of hospitality. Strolling down the waterfront you’ll encounter fun shops, historic homes, hole in the wall gems, great restaurants and even a Muscovy Duck or two.

*note on my last trip to Swansboro I encounted the Muscovy Duck and literally hit the brakes because I’d never seen such an odd but interesting duck in my life.*

Muscovy duck example: Photo by Joice Rivas on

Must stops for me in Swansboro:

  • Front Street Grocery – lots of yummy Made in NC goodies
  • Bake, Bottle and Brew: combines three of my faves -wine, coffee and chocolate with great views of the waterfront!
  • Boro Restaurant – waterfront dining with exceptional variety, fresh seafood and affordable prices.
  • Honestly everything in Swansboro is pretty awesome…here is a full list of stores/info

If you are wanting to camp or picnick at the beach…Hammocks Beach State Park isn’t far from Emerald Isle and Swansboro – an excellent spot for public beach access!

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