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Barrier islands stretch the length of North Carolina's coastline and are home to sandy beaches, estuaries, historic sites, and enclosed lagoons. Linked by bridges and ferries, the thin curving line of sand bar islands shelters the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean.
Known as the Outer Banks, they've become popular tourist destinations in North Carolina and include the islands of Bodie, Roanoke, Hatteras, and Ocracoke. Located in the Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores, it contains wildlife refuges, stretches of undeveloped beaches, tall dunes, and salt marshes that are home to a variety of birds.
Among the historic sites of interest is Roanoke Island, where the continent's earliest settlers, known as the Lost Colony, vanished inexplicably shortly after their landing in 1587; and the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk, which commemorates the world's first powered flight in 1903.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches for 70 miles (113km) down the Outer Banks and has a wealth of history relating to shipwrecks and lighthouses. Once known as the 'Graveyard of the Atlantic', wrecks of over 600 ships lie in the treacherous waters along the coast.
Boasting some of the best fishing and surfing spots on the East Coast, the park's beaches provide opportunities for many water activities. Cape Hatteras towns offer shops, restaurants, and accommodation, while Cape Lookout is a beach wilderness unconnected to the mainland, remaining pristine and undeveloped.
The beach resort of Wilmington sits at the southern end of the North Carolina Coast in the Cape Fear Coastal area. Although the largest seaport on the coast, it is an attractive and friendly town with an appealing historic district around its waterfront, as well as cobbled streets, cafes, and restaurants.
Restored through a massive revitalisation effort, Wilmington is a quaint, charming, and genuine Southern town. Grand antebellum mansions sit back from shady, tree-lined lanes leading towards the Cape Fear River and historic downtown district.
Brick streets overflow with sweet shops, fashion boutiques, jewellers, and craft stores. Locals lounge alongside tourists at sidewalk cafes, resting up before taking a stroll on the system of boardwalks and promenades along the Cape Fear River.
Here, dining is an art. Genuine barbecues contain pit-cooked pork, with sides of collard greens and hush puppies. Those who are more discerning might indulge in exquisitely presented low country cuisine in beautifully restored buildings.
In recent years, this small but picturesque area has earned a major reputation in the film and television industry. It is the headquarters of EUE Screen Gems Studios and the filming for major films and television shows, like Dawson's Creek.
The Atlantic coastline is worth the drive across town. Across a short bridge spanning the Intracoastal Waterway lies the beautiful barrier island of Wrightsville Beach, a breathtakingly lovely hideaway of pastel beach houses raised on high pilings and weathered fishing piers.
A handful of upmarket shops, beach-gear outfitters, and restaurants are the only distractions from the warm waves dotted with surfers, the boats skimming along the intracoastal and endless stretches of sandy beach bordered by dunes and sea oats.
Wrightsville's reputation as a quiet, classy, family destination is carefully guarded. Farther down the peninsula toward the tip of Cape Fear, there are other pretty beaches, like Kure and Carolina, though none with quite the same charm as Wrightsville.
However, along the ocean and the myriad inlets and waterways of the Wilmington area, visitors will discover pockets of the quintessential coastal South. Oyster gatherers wade through marshland mud and shrimp trawlers cruise against the sunset.
Beautiful Bald Head Island lies off the tip of the Cape Fear peninsula, a serene retreat to a simpler way of life. Stunningly constructed homes that complement the natural surroundings are scattered along the tiny island's beaches, tidal creeks, and maritime forest. Many are available as holiday rentals. Year after year, families board the ferry at Southport for a week or two of relaxation. The ferry is the only way to reach the island, however. Bald Head is also a lovely day trip. There are no cars on the island, so visitors are free to meander along the roads on bicycles or golf carts. Other than the tiny, picturesque harbour, the country club and the Old Baldy Lighthouse, the main attractions are the sun, the sand, and the quiet.
Famous as the site of the Wright Brothers' first flight in 1903, Kitty Hawk is a sleepy village on the North Carolina coast that offers visitors the chance to enjoy outdoor activities such as kayaking, boating, golf, fishing, surfing, and more. The town itself has a few shops and restaurants, and family entertainment like cinemas and mini golf. The most popular attraction in Kitty Hawk is the Wright Brothers National Memorial and Visitor Centre, where travellers can learn all about the brothers and their experiments in flight. Another popular attraction is the Kitty Hawk Woods, a maritime forest home to a variety of flora and fauna. The village is a popular destination for relaxing beach holidays and boasts some interesting cultural diversions.
A tiny town in the Crystal Coast region of North Carolina, Atlantic Beach is a popular beach resort offering water activities like surfing, fishing, sailing, and kayaking. There are also land-based activities like hiking along Hoop Pole Creek Nature Trail and in Fort Macon State Park, or playing beach volleyball. The North Carolina Aquarium offers great family activities, and the Atlantic Station Shopping Center has cinemas and an arcade lined with shops and restaurants. The town of Atlantic Beach has a number of good restaurants, shops, and bars, many geared toward the influx of tourists each summer. Atlantic Beach is a great base from where to explore the Crystal Coast and other small towns like Emerald Isle, Beaufort, Harker's Island, and Morehead City, all within easy distance.
Although home to all sorts of wonderful attractions, the coastline of North Carolina is loved mostly fort its protected wilderness, ensuring that vast swathes of the coast remain pristine and untouched. It has always lured nature lovers seeking peace and relaxation.
Apart from the protected enclaves of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Cape Lookout National Seashore, coastal state parks in North Carolina include Jockey's Ridge, Fort Macon, Hammocks Beach, Carolina Beach, and Fort Fisher.
The coastline is honeycombed with islands, lagoons and estuaries, creating a natural playground for water sports and activities like birdwatching, hiking, or simply lounging on the shores. Popular islands along the coast include Bodie Island, Hetteras Island, Ocracoke Island, and Roanoke Island.
The main urban travel hubs of the region are Wilmington, a charming laidback city with many historic buildings, and New Bern, a small city located at the confluence of the rivers Trent and Neuse. However, most visitors choose to spend time in the small villages and resorts of North Carolina.
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