Everyone has their own personal favorite spots, whether it's a private strip of beach or a local ice cream shop, but no matter where your personal favorite stretch of North Carolina shoreline lies, there are a few awesome stops that every kid, (and grown-up too) should see on their vacation. For the seasoned Carolina Coast adventurer, there are also a few weird, wacky and unique stops that are just off the beaten path of a typical beach vacation.
Imagine being able to tell your friends back home that you climbed the tallest lighthouse in the world. Well, on the Outer Banks, you can make the trek to the very top of the black and white candy cane striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse any day during the summer season. Bring a camera because the bird's eye views of the island are out of this world. If you're in the mood for exploring one of the biggest sand dunes on the East Coast, head north to Jockey's Ridge State Park in Nags Head. This giant sand pile towers above the beach and lets you discover first hand why the Wright Brothers chose this part of the world to try test their flying experience. If you're into birds, bugs, and all critters big and small, a walk through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge just north of Rodanthe is a must, especially in the cool fall and spring months. Be sure to bring plenty of bug spray and binoculars with you as you explore over 300 species of birds and other animals.
On warm summer afternoons, head down to the marina docks in Hatteras Village at about 4:00 and be prepared for quite a show. Every afternoon, the charter boats arrive from a long day of fishing in the Gulf Stream, and hoist their catch onto the docks to be weighed. You'll see some of the largest fish in the ocean, from marlins to blue fish, stripers to sharks, right there on the docks.
Want to try something a little crazy? Then check out the Hermit Crab Races at Scotch Bonnet Marina and Gifts in Frisco. You can pick out a hermit crab (and of course a matching hermit crab hat), and watch them scatter towards the finish line every Friday afternoon. You can bring your own crab or rent one from the store, and soft drinks and prizes are provided for all participants.
On Ocracoke Island, where pirates once patrolled off the tiny island's beaches, you can get a taste of history by learning about the most famous pirate of all, Blackbeard! At Teach's Hole Pirate Shop and Blackbeard Exhibit, the old pirates of Ocracoke still rule with displays, original art, and thousands of pirate items for sale.
True adventures can be found on the Crystal Coast with a small ferry to the deserted island beaches that lay just off the coast. Take a passenger boat to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, or take a private vehicle ferry to neighboring Portsmouth Island to explore abandoned and historical Portsmouth Village, and indulge in some of the best shelling in North Carolina. For a really wild day, search for the Wild Banker Ponies that roam the beaches. Descendents of shipwrecked Spanish mustang, these wild horses can be spotted up and down the shore. In Atlantic Beach, you can catch up on your Civil War history by visiting Fort Macon State Park, where you can see explore a real Civil War Fort and maybe even catch a reenactment battle. For something a little different, head inland to New Bern, the home of Pepsi-Cola, and celebrate soft drinks with a tour of the Birthplace of Pepsi Store, filled with all things soda.
In the New Hanover area, the Children's Museum is a must-stop, as is the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher, where you can be eye to eye with the hammerhead sharks and sting rays. Another must-see is the USS North Carolina, a battleship docked in Wilmington that's visible from the downtown area and can be toured and discovered. In the warm spring and summer evenings, you can even catch a movie right on the ship, and under the stars, as the USS North Carolina hosts Friday evening movies on a giant screen.
For something different, there's nothing like a Southern celebration, and none can top the annual Azalea Festival in Wilmington the Spring. During the Azalea Festival, visitors enjoy parades, food, fun and nightly fireworks as the downtown area comes to life in a flurry of activity.
Along the Brunswick Beaches, surf and fun combine perfectly at the Ocean Isle Beach Fishing Pier and Arcade. Try your hand at Ski Ball, or simply explore the pier and look out onto miles and miles of crystal clear blue water. For an easy summer stroll, explore the historic town of Southport and take a self-guided tour of old fashioned homes with white picket fences and blossoming gardens. In the mood for a little shell hunting? The Brunswick Beaches area is a perfect spot to search for sand dollars. These fragile white gems can be found all along the beaches, though the best place to find them in early in the morning with a long oceanside walk. Having trouble? Bring a bucket and shovel and try digging gently in the intertidal waters.
If you are looking for something a little wild and crazy, nothing beats the Children's Crab Derby in Southport. All kids under 16 are welcome to join in the fun. Just bring your own small submergible basket or crab line and bait in early September and hope the tide is at its best for good crabbing! (But don't worry, a local commercial crabber usually stocks the area so you're sure to catch a crab.)
No matter where your adventures lead you, from sand to ocean, lighthouses to wild horses, and ice cream to crab racing events, the Coast of Carolina is simply miles and miles of kid paradise. Ready for fun? Then grab your parents, your sand pail and plenty of sunscreen, and be on your way to the best beach vacation North Carolina has to offer.